For most triathletes out there their journey to Ironman distance racing is an evolutionary proceeding which starts with the sprint triathlon. There are exceptions, and most likely quite a few that simply kick-off their triathlon age-grouper care with an Ironman distance race. However, these individuals are usually in the minority. The evolution of your typical triathlete goes something like this.
Stage 1: Sprint Triathlete:
I wanted to get into shape so I decided to enter a sprint triathlon to lose some weight and help motivate me to train, and to be more healthy. These individuals are usually in need of some exercise and benefit a great deal from their training, coaching, and time spent on the bike, at the pool, and on the trails / road running. They usually feel very vulnerable and much like a fish out of water for several triathlons but they soon become adept at the transitions, pacing strategies, and the whole triathlon culture within a couple years of racing.
Stage 2: Olympic / 70.3 or Half-Ironman Triathlete:
If a little is okay then a bit more is better. Or so the belief goes. This may hold true, especially for the Olympic distance racers, depending on one's goals. Now that is the operative word, "goals". The triathlete's goals tend to change from wanting to be healthy and in decent shape to wanting to see where one stands when compared to age mates. This may not always be the case, as there are quite a few ultra-competitive sprint triathletes. However, the tension in the triathlon / endurance community is "longer is better" when it comes to training and racing.
At this point you will begin to see individuals spending more and more money on coaching, race wheels, bikes, wetsuits and so on. Now the goal has definitely changed from simply being healthy to being competitive in one's age group. The initial goal of being healthy has suddenly taken a secondary position to placing in one's age group. As a result, weight training is more often than not neglected for more time on the bike / in the pool / on the road etc .. NSAIDS are beginning to be used more often in order to speed recovery for overuse injury.
Training regiments become more demanding. Diet becomes more focused on weight loss rather than healthy nutrition. As a result, the triathlete begins to start trading health for speed. Fitness increases in one's specific sport but overall health Declarations due to over training, poor diet, muscle loss, excess fatigue, less time for family / loved ones, and so on. Of course this is a continuum and may or may not occur depending on one's physical attributes, age, life situation (kids) and so on. However, for your typical 30-40 something age grouper, this is usually the case.
Stage 3: Ironman Triathlete:
The Ironman triathlete has completed the distance and may have done so a number of times. This is usually 3-5 years along the evolutionary process of becoming an Ironman. Yet again, there are those that simply go out and complete an Ironman in their first year. I stress the word complete though. I doubt they are racing the Ironman as much as they are trying to survive it. Completing the Ironman is the optimum word here. They just want to get through it even if that means walking most of the run course. For those that are competitive age groupers, they have now invested a huge amount of time and sacrifice into this event. The goals have now completely shifted over to placing and health has clearly taken a back seat to speed.
If weight training is not regularly scheduled osteoporosis becomes a real issue for those men and women in their 30-40s who are also losing a significant amount of muscle mass due to aging but also due to weight loss and lack of weight bearing exercise. Over use injury and use of NSAIDS is common place along with a very regimented and un-spontaneous lifestyle since life now revolves around training rather than training around life. Burn-out is high now. There are those who are able to compulsively complete Ironman race upon Ironman race year after year. However, I am speaking in general terms and conditions. For most, the feeling is firmly becoming one of "Been there done that."
This is most unfortunate, as the athlete has accomplished a great deal in terms of proving to themselves and others that they can "go the distance". However, their initial goal of health has been lost along the way. These athletes often find themselves with chronic injury, poor bone health, loss of muscle mass, strained relationships at home and work, and possible negative side effects due to excessive NSAID usage. Most do not even know the condition of their body but they do know that they feel burned out and need a break.
Stage 4: Triathlon Refugee:
This is the point where one reaches a fork in the road. There are two directions one will choose at this point and both can substantially effect that person's future health. One direction traveled is to take a break and return to Ironman distance racing. Most of these athletes are pure endurance machines. They are made for endurance sports and have the psychological make-up and the support system that tolerates their lifestyle. Cheers to you if you are one of these individuals.
Then we have the Triathlon Refugee. This is the individual who has taken things as far as they possibly can. They have taxed their health, personal life, and own abilities to the limit and have decided enough is enough and quit all together. They disengage from Ironman distance triathlon but also throw the baby out with the bath water and disengage from their initial goal of being healthy. This has been lost in the process of becoming a competitive age grouper at the Ironman distance. They are a refugee so to speak. Feeling that they can not return to the shorter sprint triathlons and not having the desire any longer to compete at the Ironman distances.
I feel it is these athletes that need saving most of all. I feel that they run the risk of being isolated and shut-out from the sport in many ways and that is most unfortunate. There has to be a place for them to go to. There has to be a goal that is as honorable as the Ironman but without the pain and sacrifice. The answer lies in those individuals realizing that they have lost their initial goal of what got them into triathlon in the first place. To be healthy, look good, and feel good. If you can check your ego at the door, sit back and realize what it was that got you motivated to change your health in the first place you will have made one major step towards finding that drive to stay healthy and in shape once again.
It does not mean you need to go back and do an Ironman distance race. You have the right to be proud of your accomplishment. However, you also have the right to train and be healthy without the pressures of competitiveness. There is absolutely nothing wrong with training for a triathlon but never racing in one. Think about the distance that fit your needs the most and the one you feel most comfortable with in terms of training, time commitments, and health. Be sure to strength train 2-3 times a week even if it happens to make you slower. You will be healthier and happier in the long run for it.
If you wanted to take things a step further, simply chose those three sports you love the most and train in those areas. For me that would be sprinting 100 meters, biking long distances, and weight training. For others it may mean, downhill skiing, swimming, and soccer or mountain biking. Create your own set of sports that motivate you the most and train for those. Not everyone is made to swim / bike / run for extended distances. However, everyone can be more healthy and motivated by challenging themselves within their own abilities.