The triathlon is a sport that combines swimming, cycling and running and has the particular feature that these three disciplines are conducted in immediate succession to each other. If triathletes compete for fastest overall completion time, racing each segment sequentially with the time transitioning between the disciplines.
Triathlon has its roots in France and, as I completed the mythical Nice half ironman on Jun 26th 2022 (1.9 k swimming, 90k cycling, half marathon), I started to think how skills developed
While preparing for my triathlon, I realised that the skill set developed from my professional life nourished my approach to training as well as vice versa. The expertise I needed and developed further to complete a triathlon helped me improve my management skills.
In this short article, I want to look at what can be the common ground between managing your professional life in the best way as well as preparing for one of the most intense sport event: a triathlon.
Having a goal, a vision
Clarity of vision is the key to achieving your objectives.
In both work and triathlon, having a vision and a goal are essential to set a direction and to get started . In my work, I push myself to continuously refine my vision and to define objectives both longterm, yearly, as well as shorter ones, month by month. These are critical points to help me define where I dedicate my time, and what to prioritise. Managing its agenda is key. Starting with the end in mind is key.
Regarding triathlon, this starts by having key events of the year in mind, especially the ones where I would like to perform best. Trainings and other competitions should only be planned to support those key objectives. And guess what, for 2022 this was the Nice half ironman!
Planning, planning and planning
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
In triathlon, when training there is a delicate balance to be found between the three sports, and their respective recovery periods. Depending on the goal, we usually try to plan period of three weeks where the focus is put on one of the three sports. Some periods will be swimming dominant, others cycling and others running. Of course, dominant does not mean that you stop the other sports, but simply maintain your current level. When training, it will be necessary to balance the pure endurance sessions and the fractioned session (going to your threshold) which will really make you progress, but which will be very demanding.
The fear is the overtraining which will at best force a longer recovery period and at worst an injury (tendonitis or fatigue fracture)
Is it different in the work environment? We plan by year, mission of a quarter, two or three weeks sprint. The days follow one another and it thus becomes essential to control one’s agenda (and not to undergo it) and to plan for a recovery period. Who has not experienced extreme fatigue or getting close to the burnout line? Managing your investments, the fatigue of travel and jetlags while continuing to learn and stay ahead are common challenges that you will find in your professional life. This requires you to manage throughly your agenda and to secure focus time every day. Time is your most precious resource, and I personally spend a lot of time on planning my agenda. Moreover, my company has also a culture of two weeks rejuvenation period every year, which is an extremely useful time to reflect, step back, learn and re-energize.
Working hard and working smart
“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure”. Colin Powel
In triathlon, it’s all about consistency of work and smartly planned training. Training hard requires resilience, whether it’s going for a run when it is cold, or going swimming when you would like to watch a Netflix tv show. The planning of these training sessions has to be done intelligently and slow down if necessary. However, working hard is not always everything. 30 years ago, triathletes put in significant amount of hours of training up until to point where their body was exhausted. Today, we know very well the mechanisms and bear them in mind when developing the plans, which results in intelligently designed training plans where varied quality sessions (fractioned, threshold,…), which translates into fewer hours of training are integrated. The main ojective being to improve the overall performance of the athletes.
Workwise, It is all about working hard and continuing to work hard. Hard work is always beneficial, you can always get better, learn, innovate, complete or start something new. In my local childhood town, the coat of arms of the city was “Labor Omnia Vincit” and this sentence remains inside me. But working hard by spending a large amount of time to reach a specific goal is not always the most effective and as in triathlon, one becomes exposed to burn outs that could prevent him/her on providing the best results. Working hard needs to be completed with “working smart”, understanding how to best achieve a task, which tool to use, who will make the decisions and how to convince them in order to make sure we complete the right things. Consequently, working hard and working smart are two types of work styles you need to combine in the workplace.
“The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.”– Charles Kettering
Triathlon is a sport with timed transitions: swim-bike transition (T1), bike-run transition (T2). The transition has several aspects. First of all, it forces the body to adapt to a new position, a new way of breathing. Upon leaving the water, it takes a few seconds for you to find your balance when standing up and to prepare yourself to your running session. These transitions also require good preparation as each gesture must be optimized. Once those transitions are complete, there is no other choice but to go all out.
What strikes me about transitions in triathlon is that right before the end of one sport, you need to already mentally be in the next sport. For example, the last few kilometers of cycling are often where you focus on your coming upp transition, thus mentally leading you to already be in the running event. Is it different at work? Whether it’s the last days of a sprint where we start preparing the backlog for the next sprint, the end of a quarterly assignment, a year, or the change between jobs, we never stop managing transitions and are constantly projecting ourselves into the next phase. Managing transitions is key in professional life as well, and it requires a lot of anticipation and preparation to make this transition as short and efficient as possible. What we want to avoid at all costs is disorientation and chaos during these periods, which would lead to questions and losing the focus that is essential to achieve the desired goal.
Managing the trough of the wave — Accept the good and the bad days
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Reinhold Niebuhr
Bad days, bad periods, finding ourselves in delicate or even impossible situations have happened to all of us in the professional life. Bad days are probably the easiest to manage, and whenever this happens to me I tend to isolate myself in order not to communicate bad energy and to reframe as much as I can. Most of the time, those bad days follow a period of overwork…
Bad periods are for me when I find myself facing a series of impediments or when the stars are not aligned. Depending on the length of this period, we are not far from what I call a “delicate situation”. Those are time when one needs to step back and to understand if things changed or not. Do I have power on the situation or is this beyond my control? In the last case, this might be better to let go and whenever possible to perform a self pivot and look for new opportunities. Useless fights are just leading to failure and a huge loss of energy.
When it comes to triathlons, bad days can be for example a day where you did not manage to run at the speed you wanted, where your body did not respond, where fatigue kicked in, or simply a time when everything seemed harder. Again, you often have to stop and agree to interrupt your training and focus on recovery. What comes to my mind for the bad periods is my first half ironman, where I started the half marathon with cramps that even prevented me from walking. This was my key objective of the year, I could not give up: I remember grabbing a fence, waiting, kicking my legs and taking a deep breath. Slowly, I managed to walk, then to get back to running slowly. As I was told, it’s all in the head, and resilience is a super important quality to have in such times.
To mention the triathlon, a bad period was the summer of 2020 with a long Covid that lasted 12 months, and more recently this spring with two bike accidents that forced me to stop my preparation for the half ironman in Nice. In short, these bad periods of triathlon follow events for which we have absolutely no control over, and no other choice than to have the patience to wait and recover, and the gratitude that it was not more serious. It’s about taking a step back, putting things into perspective, accepting and transforming these bad events into opportunities….
Using the technology — Data and analytics are helpful to provide insights
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” Sherlock Holmes,
“A Study in Scarlett” (Arthur Conan Doyle).
Data and analytics are everywhere. In sport, Strava ( an app tracking physical exercise and connecting other users to one another) is definitively the place to be, not only as a social network, but also to monitor one’s progress. Speed, heart rate, Power (Watts), time per segment, VO2max, effectiveness of a session, there is a tone of Key Performance Indicators (KPI). When I started training for triathlon thirty years ago, we did not have all of this. So, it is not essential and it is sometimes good to train on instinct and using one’s experience. However, these new ways data and analytics tools revealed themselves to be super useful when tracking improvements and when making rationale decision (as an example, taking one or two days recovery or including a fractioned session in your week plan to improve rhythm). They are really an enabler to your journey and for sure coupled with the social network a great factor of motivation.
We find the same mechanisms at work. Whether it’s the burndown charts of an agile team, the net promoter score of users, or the respect of service levels, we have a ton of indicators that allow us to know where we are, to compare our performance, to validate that our action plans generate progress, and sometimes to change the course of our plan.
Using smartly those tools and insights can really make the difference…
Meeting Objectives, celebrating and having fun in the journey
Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome. Arthur Ashe
Fulfilling a goal is often very palpable in triathlon, for me it was all about crossing the finish line and becoming a #finisher in Nice. For others, it could be to achieve a specific time or ranking. If the joy of achieving such a goal is immense, it sometimes takes time to realize that “it is done”, like a dream we vaguely remember. As in life “at the beginning I wanted to cross the line… and finally I was not in a hurry for it to end”. The celebration and the party with family and friends are as intense as the effort itself. If the day of the competition is by definition hard, the pleasure is found throughout the year, in the multiple trainings. Pleasure of the eyes, the roads and points of view of the French Riviera are breathtaking, pleasure of the effort shared with friends, pleasure of swimming in the sea, in the lake or in superb swimming pools, pleasure of progressing and beating one’s personal record, or of good fun with friends.
In the professional life, most of the time, there is no finish line or mountain peak to reach. Traditionally, we have a hard time celebrating successes, and it’s up to leaders to find the right moments to celebrate with employees “on the job”, rather than waiting to reach a final destination. While we may be able to congratulate each other on reaching big milestones, we are less likely to celebrate the small, weekly victories that build cohesion and team spirit.
Indeed, success at work is not about getting from A to B, it’s about mastering a way of working that fosters creativity, growth, learning, and personal investment, allowing you not only to consistently progress, but to actually want it.
Compared to the difficulty of finding good times to celebrate success, it is much easier to have fun at work, you just have to make room for it. There is not a meeting where you cannot leave room for humour and a little bit of fun. Not only does this strengthen bonds, and even more so in a virtual world, but it also makes it easier to weather the storm with a team that stays together.
Feeling supported, the crew around us
None of us can succeed without a lot of help along the way. For triathlon, it started with @stephanlecaplain who coached me in 2019 to get back into the sport from scratch. It was a difficult but necessary passage where you have to take the steps one by one, and he helped me like a coach would guide you in a new chapter of your professional life. The help also comes from my family, my close friends, the triathlon club I belong to “St Paul -La Colle Triathlon” with its coaches and my sport partners, my osteopath and many others. It is not different in professional life where the coach, the manager, the colleagues, the teams are all important people who help you reach the common goal established for the teams as well as to improve yourself continuously.
Among all of the people who helped me in my professional and sport’s life, my wife would come first: she always has the right words and advice, she makes my life so much easier, and her words of encouragement are crucial. Add to that the patience and energy it takes to have a husband who is very involved in work and triathlon. Without her, I would never be able to combine these two activities, she truly deserves all of my eternal gratitude.
And so what?
I hope that I convinced you that if you interview a triathlete, he/she would have already developed a number of skills that will be more than useful in the professional life: perseverance, organisational skills, resilience to name a few. Moreover, from my personal experience, working toward a non-professional goal offers me a great balance and helps me to manage stress.
Whether in your career or when training for sports, dare to dream big! The limits are meant to be pushed and challenged. I will personally continue on that path with my next challenge being the full iron man. In my professional life, I get my motivation from pushing the use of data in order to improve patient lives. So what about you, where is your next challenge?
Credits: Thank you Arun, Mathieu, Alex, Thomas and Solene for your support in writing this article