If you spend much time around the shop during the cooler months Austinites affectionately call winter, you'll probably see a tall, tan guy with a big smile standing around talking triathlon with pretty much anyone. Accept no imitation - this is none other than two-time Ironman Champion, Michael Lovato. With all his enthusiasm and cheerfulness, you'd think he was a newbie to the sport, rather than a veteran who's been successfully competing since before most of us knew the term "multisport." Therefore, we think Michael is the perfect person to talk to about avoiding burnout and keeping triathlon fresh and fun for years to come.
J&A: How long have you been a triathlete? Did you begin as a pro or an amateur?
ML: I have been a triathlete since 1992. I began racing as an amateur, and not a very fast one, I might add. My first race was the intramural sprint tri at UT. I didn't realize it was possible to get lapped that many times on a 15-mile bike ride. Nor did I realize how hard it would be to run 3 long miles afterwards. Clearly I was hooked on the sport as soon as I reached the finish line.
J&A: What first attracted you to the sport? Was it friends, a job, the sport itself or a combination?
ML: My first draw to the sport was the challenge of it all. I remember thinking I was going to kick some serious butt in my first race, but then I struggled all the way to the finish - loving every bit of it. I was inspired by the bad a** guys - and gals - that smoked me, while wearing nothing but their bathing suits. (I was modestly clad in soccer shorts and a muscle tee.) Further confirmation that I had found my calling was the gathering of beer-sipping, Speedo-clad athletes I encountered at the finish line. The sport represented everything I loved about athletics: challenge, competition, good fun, good folks, oh, and beer. Over the course of the next few years, I met people who have become the best friends I have to this day. I suppose you could say it was a combination, however, the job aspect was never really part of the initial attraction.
J&A: Many people (including us) love triathlon because it's a mix of three great events and find it more difficult to become bored with one. Do you find this to be the case or can a swim/run/bike schedule become, well, routine after a while? If so, what do you in your training to keep it interesting and new?
ML: Most every triathlete appreciates the ability to cross train, or to mix things up. This is definitely the case for me, too. While the schedule can certainly become routine, it very rarely becomes boring. The beauty of our sport is that if you don't feel like partaking of one discipline on one particular day, you just don't have to do so. One of the most effective ways I know to keep things interesting is to remain flexible. Not holding to a rigid plan can be the best thing. Swapping around the days to accommodate training with a friend can make all the difference.
J&A: When you've had a long training day, do you have any hobbies that put a little distance between you and your career/sport?
ML: On off days I hone my skills as an archer. I shoot targets from a small treehouse in my backyard. Normally I wear a Robin Hood costume, you know, to get in the mood. I can sit in the trees for hours just plucking away at my bow. That or I grab a good book and read. Or I go to the movies with my wife.
J&A: If a race or training method isn't working out, what are steps you take - both mentally and physically - to get yourself back on a positive track?
ML: I try to remember that there really are no secrets to triathlon training. The best coaching plans, and therefore the best training methods, are a simple combination of swim, bike, run and rest. Without overcomplicating things, I try to remember this when I am reaching too far in training. As for racing, the key for me is remembering it's an enjoyable process. I love to compete; I love to push myself; and I love to measure up against others. As long as I go out there with those goals in mind, and I don't think too much about paying the mortgage, things tend to work out well.
J&A: Your wife, Amanda Lovato, is also a talented triathlete. What advice can you couples or good friends to keep their training together positive, fresh and non-competitive?
Amanda and I have been together for over ten years now. We met when we were both age group triathletes so, as athletes, we have developed together; and together we have progressed to the pro level. With that history, we have always been each other's most committed supporters. It's hard to get competitive with the one who wants more than anything for you to succeed. But with regard to other couples or friends, I think they key is to know one another's needs. If the tendency is to want to beat the sh*t out of your spouse or amigo, perhaps that is not the best training partner for you to chose. My advice is to keep the marriage or friendship alive and healthy, and sometimes that means training with someone who wants you to do well, not the person who wants to flog you.
J&A: Do you incorporate training methods from other sports into you training routine (other than swimming, running, biking)? If so, what sports do you draw from?
ML: We have taken to paddle boarding: stand up, to be precise. The sport is relaxing and fun, and it's a great compliment to triathlon. When doing SUP (Stand Up Paddle Boarding), the core is engaged, and the development of proprioceptive muscles in your legs is incredible. Balance and strength - as well as flexibility - are heightened. When lying prone on the board, the paddling can really strengthen the swim-specific muscles, and boost stroke mechanics. We use our Surftech boards any chance we get!
J&A: How has your perception of triathlon change from when you first began? If it has changed, how so? Do you like or dislike different things?
ML: Whoa! This question could take way too long to answer thoroughly. I guess I had better be concise. Triathlon has grown to be a much more inclusive and welcoming sport than when I first started. It was always a welcoming sport to those that chose to pursue it, but not many people chose to pursue it. It was still considered a bit extreme, and the average person did not see himself as cut out for the challenge. Nowadays the Ironman has become what the marathon was of the eighties and nineties. It's tough, but possible. To me the greatest byproduct of that change is that people really feel they can do anything - can overcome any obstacle - once they have done an Ironman (or any length triathlon). It's pretty empowering to those that allow it to be. On a less philosophical level, the sport has changed a bit for the worse in that its entrance into the mainstream seems to be coinciding with the "wussification" of triathletes. We all used to "ooh and ah" when an extremely challenging course profile was announced. Now triathletes tend to search for the "flat and fast" descriptors. Triathlon is not supposed to be easy - thus the sense of accomplishment it delivers - yet somehow we hear more and more complaints about choppy water, hot air, wind, hills, and even bumpy roads. This ain't golf, folks; let's toughen up a bit.
J&A: What makes every day for you a little different in your sport? How do you keep what you do interesting fresh?
ML: Every day is as different as we allow it to be. Do we have our "Groundhog Day" moments? Sure. However, we chose to pursue this career, and we do so knowing we are in control of our own schedules. I think the main difference for me from a job perspective is that I see different "coworkers" and "offices" every day. Just because I turn up for 7:00AM swim practice, doesn't mean that Joe Cubicle from Accounting is there, so I face a bit less tendency for burnout. Plus, even the worst day riding a bike through a hailstorm in the mountains tends to trump a sore back earned from too much keyboard time. To keep things fresh I try to do different things. Run a different loop, swim with different folks, and start at different times of day. It's amazing what subtle changes can do for your perspective.
J&A: You work with Ironman, correct? Does working with triathlon, as opposed to racing, the sport give a new perspective? Do you suggest athletes do something similar (ie: volunteer or work to plan a race)? Do you feel it helps you as an athlete?
I have done some work for Ironman for about four years now. Jumping to the other side of the fencing and barricades definitely gave me a different perspective, but it really only made me appreciate a bit more the time I spend on the race course. I see how hard the event directors and their crews work, and that is an invaluable bit of insight. I definitely feel that athletes will get a nice boost to their appreciation of our sport by volunteering at an event. The first time I handed out a bottle to a cyclist at an aid station was the first time I truly knew why those volunteers scream and cheer when I - as a racer - grab aid from them. It really can be thrilling to give back. Do it. (And do it at the Austin Tri, September 6th; contact Jack and Adam's for details...)