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Tri mentality: Retire in style

Mary Beth Ellis announced her retirement from triathlon this year.
Mary Beth Ellis announced her retirement from triathlon this year.

— By Dr. Chris Willer

It’s the end of the triathlon season and the calendar year which also means the end of competing for some. Retiring can be hard and sometimes you just have to do it. With a good number of high profile professional triathletes retiring from competitive sport recently such as long course star Mary Beth Ellis or three-time Olympian Emma Moffat from Australia, you’re not alone if you, too, have decided to retire from multisport competition. Here are a few considerations if you are contemplating retirement to make a more effective transition from the race finish line to your next life goal outside of the transition zone of our sport.

Planning takes practice

Planning certainly takes the sting out of leaving a sport that many dedicate a great deal of time toward and find tremendous personal satisfaction in. With certainty, all athletes retire. Many aren’t adequately prepared when they do. Talk to mentors who have already retired or transitioned from active sport participation to important coaching or advocacy roles. The other aspect of planning that helps is having a new hobby, passion, or community to be involved in. Plan proactively for new challenges.

Watch out for identity wash

Be aware of something I like to refer to as identify wash, when your core persona is at risk of washing away when you transition from one identity (for example as an active triathlete) to a new one. It’s inevitable that you may feel that you lose the outward layer or identification as a triathlete as you move away from the sport. There may be a sense of loss and changed social identity. It may help you and your family to discuss the core identity features about you (compassionate, driven, kind) in order to reinforce when you stop triathlon you don’t lose who you are.

‘Retire’ early and ‘retire’ often

Most successful triathlete careers are not static. There is a lot of change in focus in the sport exhibited at the elite level. Javier Gomez while a short course superstar also is a 70.3 world champion, Xterra world champion, and often races non-drafting Olympic distance races to change things up. Current reigning Ironman world champion Jan Frodeno is another example of this. He retired from ITU racing after reaching the pinnacle of the sport in his Beijing Olympic 2008 gold medal to reinvent himself as a dominant long course athlete currently holding the fastest full distance time at last year’s Roth race. Hard working Canadian phenom Lionel Sanders who recently smashed the Ironman-branded world record time at Ironman Arizona stated he’s focusing on half the distance next year! Changing your sporting focus is in itself a form of ‘retiring’ that may prolong your career.

Test driving a partial retirement from sport, for example taking a year off long course races can also give you an experimental testing ground to see if there are other benefits than performance – financial saving, more time to sleep, improved arthritis.  Consider swim-bike or swim-run events to stay in the game.

Retire before you expire

While there are no guarantees, most of the available medical research points to a positive association with improved quality and longevity of life for people who are active through sport. There is a small amount of emerging research that cautions endurance athletes to be aware that long-term endurance sport participation may lead to a small number of athletes being at elevated risk of heart problems. Intense exercise can also be an increased risk for sudden cardiac death often associated with an existing heart condition. All this is to say, if you push too hard for too long you may want to also think of the great many other pursuits you could enjoy when you retire from triathlon.

Dr. Chris Willer is a sports psychiatrist and was an avid triathlete for 12 years.