There are a variety of reasons people enter into the athletic arena, and these reasons can change over time. When you were young, you enjoyed playing with your friends because it was fun and better than doing homework. As you grew into your teens, you started to appreciate the competitive aspect of your sport. And as time continues onward into adulthood, you realized that there are many health benefits to maintaining an active lifestyle.
Or perhaps you were not particularly active as a youngster, and only now are realizing the thrill that comes along with competition.
Or maybe you just like having goals.
Whatever your reason, this is the time of year to reflect not just on what race you're planning to do next year, but why you are doing it.
Over the past ten years, I have worked with a couple hundred people either on an ongoing basis or for various one-time lessons. I have seen middle aged athletes with a indomitable fire for winning, and younger athletes who participate solely for the camaraderie they experience. There are three central dynamics that drive folks, particularly endurance athletes:
This is self evident, since all endurance sports culminate with endurance races. However, some folks are more competitive than others. The desire to excel and do well in relation to other athletes is one way to approach competition. The desire to make personal improvements and set season or lifetime PRs is another way to approach competition. One is external and one is internal. They are both fine motivators.
You probably know at least one athlete who is not happy unless they win, and even then is not happy because something wasn't executed perfectly. This would be a 100% competitive person. They can be fun to train with but steer clear on race day. They are not your buddy on race day.
You probably know someone else who is somewhat indifferent to how they do in relation to the field, but are very hard on themselves if they did not meet their personal goals. This is an internally motivated competitor. They compete with themselves rather than others.
You know someone else who does not really care how well they do in comparison to themselves or to others. This is a non-competitive person motivated by a different dynamic.
During your lifetime you may be any of these. It depends where you are in your athletic life and what your reason for training is.
Camaraderie / Fun / Experience:
Another athlete just enjoys movement, sunshine, friendship, travel, and shared experience. They don't care about winning, or setting PRs, or how fast you are. They are in it to hang out with their spouse/loved one/friends, to see cool new places and to ride their bike over that mountain. They may not push themselves very hard, but they are more than happy to go on a ride or run with you. Or they may push themselves hard because if feels good to go fast. Winning is not the main motivator - the experience of going fast is.
In general, these are the athletes who can maintain a sunny disposition rain or shine. PR? Great! Bad race? No problem.
Health / Fitness:
If you haven't read the paper lately, 60% or so of the United States adult population is obese. Obesity causes a variety of health problems as well as makes moving around more difficult. One of the easiest ways to correct this for most people is to get out and move around.
Some athletes tend to start endurance sports primarily out of health concerns. Some may become more competitive while others continue on due to the friendships they create.
Some never really enjoy the sports but stick with it because they know it is good for them. Hopefully they learn to have some fun with their friends.
Aerobic exercise and strength training combine to help you become more fit and look and feel better. This is a great motivator for many people.
If you are not clear on why you are training and racing, take a quick assessment of your reasons for doing what you do. There is no right or wrong answer - there is just an answer for you. If you were in it for health but now want to move on to being more competitive, great. If you used to be competitive but now stick with it for health and friendship, way to go. If you train & race primarily to be able to eat pizza without feeling too guilty, I hear you.
Know thyself and let your actions reflect who you are, what you do, and why you do it.
Marty Gaal, CSCS, is a USA Triathlon coach who lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Marty has been coaching endurance athletes since 2002. You can read more about OSB coaching services at www.osbmultisport.com.
One Step Beyond is the producer of the Powerstroke®: Speed through force and form freestyle technique DVD, intended to help new to intermediate triathlon swimmers become faster and more powerful in the water.