What triathlons taught me about building a career

Let’s gooooo!

I’ve been quiet on here for a while because my entire summer was spent heads down (literally) in preparing for the 3 triathlons I had lined up. First one was in June, the “Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon”, which starts off with a lovely swim through the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay, then takes you over and around several hills on the bike, followed by even more hills on the 8..5 mile run at the end. Second one was on the east coast in the NYC area, third one in Chicago where I got to bike through the “Batman tunnels” where they filmed The Dark Knight. It was an epic summer and I have now completed 6 triathlons. Next year, I have 4 more lined up so you could say that this has become a very serious hobby for me.

As I trained and competed in all these races, I noticed that a lot of age-groupers like myself were type-A competitive individuals who were mostly quite successful in other pursuits in their lives. What is it, I wondered, that causes driven and motivated professionals to partake in such masochism? Is it just the thirst for competition? Is it a desire to validate themselves as more well-rounded than just their careers? Or is it simply a desire to stay fit?

As it turned out, triathlons have a lot in common with how careers are built and those commonalities might explain why people that do well at work tend to be attracted to endurance racing.

Pacing yourself

This was the first parallel I saw between my career and a triathlon. Both are activities in which you are more likely succeed with consistent long-term effort rather than a short, quick sprint. In fact, short sprints might be counterproductive and lead to burn out well before you can achieve even a fraction of your goal. At work, I have been through periods of intense activity where I worked 14 hour days, 7 day weeks. Specifically, when I was working on Facebook Live, the product ended up growing very quickly and we stretched to keep up with its growth. Those were some very intense weeks and I definitely grew a lot just by going through that experience. However, it contributed to a very severe burn out that I had to deal with afterwards. I lost all will to work, and it took 3 months and a team change for me to feel excited about work again. Racing is no different – you can sprint, but you will burn out very soon. Anyone you passed on the sprint will likely pass you once you’ve run out of fuel. Lesson number 1: pace yourself.

Progressive overloading

Progressive overloading is a term I had never heard until I started training for my races seriously. It’s a concept that essentially says that if you want to get stronger/faster, then your workouts need to get progressively harder over time. It sounds very obvious, but in practice it’s less so. Randomized workouts that have no overarching strategy will not help you get far. You will plateau and stop improving as soon as your body adapts to the current difficulty. However, if you move forward with a solid strategy for slowly increasing the difficulty, then your body will be constantly challenged and forced to improve. The same principle applies at work – if you want to grow in your career, you must continue to challenge yourself. By not doing that, you risk a suffocating feeling of ennui that will almost certainly lead you to hate your job. Find challenges that help you grow, and don’t be afraid to take them on.

Recovery is key

In a typical training plan for a triathlon, there are a few hard workouts separated in time by lots of recovery workouts. A recovery workout is essentially something like a long, very easy bike ride that will keep your body moving, but also allow it the time to recover and prepare for the next hard workout. This is the time when muscles repair themselves and really grow from the harder workout that preceded this recovery workout. If you don’t recover enough, you will almost certainly get injured. It’s the same principle at work – balance work time with play time. Too much work with little play will eventually lead to mental injury. You might make more money in the short term (even that’s not guaranteed), but you won’t be in a good place to really enjoy it. Balance work with play, find a hobby. Maybe do triathlons ;).

Looking at the finish line up ahead…

Dealing with discomfort

The last 30-40 minutes of a race are usually the hardest. You’re tired, everything hurts, cramps are starting to appear in the legs, perhaps you are even questioning why you do this to yourself. Despite all this, you know that the finish line is not far away and that you must get to it. Typically I deal with it by not thinking of all the miles of running left but instead thinking of it like “I just need to run till that turn up ahead”. Once I get past that turn then “I just need to run to that next bend over there” and so on. There are two key lessons here that I adopted into my professional life. First is that it’s important to break apart a big problem into smaller ones. You have a hard project ahead of you (10k of running on legs that are already fried from biking), so you break that apart into smaller chunks and deal with them one at a time. The second lesson is persevering through discomfort. Yes, it is painful right now, but a little perseverance will get you to your goal.

Plan better to perform better

Carb loading, hydrating before and during the race, eating energy gels at strategic times, organizing all gear to allow for the fastest possible transition, creating a multi-month training plan to improve race fitness — all these are important to being able to hit the goal time. I’m in the middle of planning for training for next year and it’s a project in itself! I will still do it because all this planning will make my season more productive and I’ll be more likely to hit my goal times. It’s the same thing at work – planning for the next 6 months, having a solid sense of all the projects involved, the end goals for this effort. The similarities are obvious.

Next year’s going to be fun – I’m planning to plan my holidays around races. One of them will be in the French Alps where I’ll be biking up the Alpe d’Huez. I’d better start training for that!

Made it!

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