Monday, September 21, 2009

Multi-Sport Excellence

Can you be good at everything? Okay, you know the answer to that one, I’m sure. Well then, how many things, like sports, do you think you can be good at, concurrently? I don’t just mean passable at; I mean really, really good at. Like reaching your full potential. Like winning almost every race you go to in multiple sports. Like going to the World Championship in multiple sports. That kind of good.

Does that sound like a dumb question? I hope not because I have lots of people ask me, and they are very smart folks. They simply want to participate in two (or more) sports and do as well as they possibly can in both (or all) – not just finish.

There have been few pro athletes who have tried anything like this. The only one who comes to mind right now is Michael Jordan who retired from basketball to give baseball a try. It didn’t work out for him. But even he didn’t try to play both sports at the same time, even though both involve a ball.

This is what many age group athletes want to do – race in two sports. Not just participate. That is easy to do. Anyone can sign up for races in different sports and have twice as much fun on any given weekend. What I’m talking about is racing competitively and winning at a high level. This is not nearly as common, although a few do manage to pull it off. But very few.

Former pro triathlete Cameron Widoff comes to mind. For several years he was the most successful American at Ironman Hawaii when it comes to consistent top 10 finishes – and he also raced his bike competitvely. Someone else who managed to pull it off for a while was Lance Armstrong who in the late 1980s and early1990s was primarily a triathlete but dabbled in bike racing - and became pretty good at the second sport. And so eventually he gave up triathlon (word is that he’s considering triathlon again for the future). In fact, the athletes who ask me most about doubling up are triathletes who also want to be road cyclists. After all, they always point out to me, both involve cycling.

I really do hate to rain on peoples’ parades, but when they ask me I feel a need to be honest. Sign up and have fun but don’t expect to be the best you can possibly be at two different sports. And the sports of triathlon and road bike racing really are different despite having a bike involved in each of them. Bike racing success depends on anaerobic fitness. It always comes down to three-minute or shorter episodes. Triathlon is a fully aerobic sport. There is no anaerobic in triathlon. It never comes down to a three-minute episode. And the people who are serious about bike racing – your intended competition – ride a lot of miles every week. A lot. They don’t run and swim or do anything else that takes energy and time away from bike training. And, no, there is so little crossover of fitness from one sport to the next that it’s a non-issue. Your running and swimming will not make you better when on a long climb you have to put out 350 watts or get dropped. And that’s what competitive bike racing is all about.

Let me tell you about an athlete I coached for many years. We’ll call him “Ralph.” Ralph liked to be competitive in both sports. At the end of each season we’d have this conversation about next year. I’d ask him if he wanted to stay with two sports or focus on one. And I always assured him he would be much more competitive if he did focus. Ralph was already quite accomplished in both sports with a spot on Team USA for the World Triathlon Championship and top 5 finishes in his state road cycling championship for his age group. He always said that he enjoyed both and wanted to continue training and racing in two. Then in the early spring a few seasons back he came up lame with a running injury that just wouldn’t go away no matter what we did or how much he rested it by not running. So I suggested that he just race his bike to let the injury heal. No more running for a while. He reluctantly agreed. Know what happened? His Functional Threshold Power (an indicator of bike fitness) increased by more than 15% in a six weeks. That’s unheard of for someone who had been riding for decades. The reason why is because all of his training energy and time now went into only one sport. He was no longer a Jack-of-all-trades. He was a specialist. At the end of that season he decided to stick with bike racing and forego triathlon. That was two years ago and he is still going strong as a bike racer.

Ralph isn’t the only one. A few years ago I was also forced to give up running after 50 years. A knee just wouldn’t take it any more. So I became a bike racer also. I had the same experience as Ralph. Even though I had been riding a bike competitively for 25 years I became a much stronger cyclist. Now at age 65 I ride with young guys whose wheels I couldn’t hold just a few years ago. Do I miss running? Sure. It was the love of my life for a half century. But I also love riding a bike stronger than I ever have, and in the seventh decade of my life.

Now I know someone is going to jump to the conclusion that I am a snob who doesn’t think people should participate in sport just to have fun regardless of how many sports that may involve. Please note that this is not what I’m saying. I have absolutely no problem with athletes doing as many sports as their hearts desire. The more the merrier. I used to do that myself. I’m only saying that if you want to excel at sport you can’t spread yourself thin. You only have so much energy and so much time. The higher your goals, the more you must focus on a single sport.

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At September 21, 2009 8:34 PM , Blogger Jay Parkhill said...

Eric Heiden, of course, was a 1980 Olympic gold member speed skater and then a 7-Eleven team member who rode the TdF.

Bo Jackson played pro football and baseball in the same calendar year for about 2 seasons in the early 1990s.

Around the same time Ray Brown competed in triathlon and winter triathlon, though one suspects the pool of "pro" winter triathletes was quite small.

Shaun Palmer was a world-class snowboarder, then (very briefly) a world cup-level downhill MTB racer.

Vanilla Ice became a pro jetskier after his rap career ended . . .

That's all I got.

At September 21, 2009 8:44 PM , Blogger The Mail said...

Here here Joe! Honestly, while it would be quite the achievement to excel at more than one sport, I believe most would be happier enjoying more than one sport. The enjoyment can probably be eliminated if one were at the highest level for a couple of sports. Where is the enjoyment in being that elite and probably having no time for life? I know I would choose enjoyment anytime. And that is not to say I don't like winning because of course I do. My competitive nature demands I enjoy the sport I play. Great blog always!

At September 21, 2009 11:42 PM , Blogger Aaron said...

Bo Jackson comes to mind.

At September 22, 2009 5:16 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Recently I to gave up triathlon due to an injury and next year will race bikes. Always wanted to give it a shot. Thanks, wasnt sure I would improve on the bike after riding for 10 years, but reading this I feel so much better.

At September 22, 2009 5:17 AM , Blogger Andrew said...

What about doing two completly different sports? Cycling and triathlons are both fairly similar, save for the Differences you noted above.

I am currently a junior in high school, and in the past I had played both football and raced for cycling. This season, I decided to drop football and concentrate full time on cycling, putting more emphasis on training, and doing more races. I decided on cycling because I was beter at it and enjoyed it more, but I still miss football every day.

What are your thoughts on combining two sports that are completely different? I think I am staying with cycling and not going back to football, but your opinion on this I think would be very interesting.

At September 22, 2009 5:35 AM , Blogger Gary said...

Joe, great post. Now, taking it one step further, do you think one should pick a specialty WITHIN cycling and focus solely on that? For example, if you're primarily doing TTs, focus on that vs. the different power requirements for a Crit or RR?

At September 22, 2009 6:19 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Andrew--I think it's quite wise at a young age to participate in multiple sports. When my son was 13he only wanted to train on his bike. I made a deal with him that I would pay for his costs in the sport if he would participate in at least one other sport each until until he was 16. So he tried track, football, swimming and basketball. At age 16 he decided cycling was still his passion so he cut out all other sports. And I supported that decision. At 18 he went to Europe to race. In a couple of years he was racing for a French pro team. He is now 39 and still races as a Cat 1 in Colorado.

At September 22, 2009 6:23 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Gary--Good question. This comes down to ability and interest. I know of many who focus on the TT or hill climbs or crits. In the same vein as the post, if you focus you'll have a much greater chance of achieving high performance. But then others enjoy the variety cycling offers.

At September 22, 2009 7:29 AM , Anonymous Jared Detroit said...

Very interesting read. I've often had the same thoughts of just triathlon as we don't get to focus on one sport. You're point about triathlon's being aerobic training/racing and bike racing being anaerobic training/racing is a good point, however. I guess in triathlon, we're doing the same aerobic training in all 3 sports.

At September 22, 2009 9:06 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have a question about the paleo diet but can't find e-mail???

At September 23, 2009 8:16 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Anon--My email is Be sure to watch your inbox for an email from my spam filter asking you to confirm your email to me. Otherwise I won't get it.

At September 24, 2009 6:05 AM , Blogger Jason said...

to your point Joe, read todays new york times' george vescey column about Kristin Armstrong. it wasnt until she quit triathlon and focused solely on cycling that she found success:

At September 24, 2009 2:03 PM , Blogger Mark said...

Dion Sanders for while was pulling double duty for the Atlanta Falcon and Braves.

according to the sites, he led the league in triples and batted 300+ in the playoff.

In Football he lead the league in int returns, ints, and was considered by many the best cover man at the time.

BTW I'd love to see Lance back at the triathlon thing in the future.

At October 2, 2009 6:43 AM , Blogger C-BOMB said...

Cycling and nordic skiing seem to combine very well. Carl Swenson? Top 5 at Nordic worlds and pro mtb. Tad Elliot? U-23 National Champ on the mtn bike and nordic skis...goes to Worlds for both every year. Hell, even Zack Simons former Birkie winner international competitor decided to forego ski training all summer to race bikes. cat 5 to cat 1 in a few months culminating in the Tour of Utah. There are many others...I think that is the ultimate double, and can highly successful.

At October 4, 2009 6:45 PM , Blogger Trihardist said...

Boy did I learn this one in a big way this year.

The question that keeps coming up for me is how bad do you want it? I just read an article by Dan Empfield on reaching your full running potential at a 10k. One of the main points he made was that you must devote yourself to running--that means running at least 5-6 days a week, sometimes twice a day. For a triathlete, that surely means practically giving up training for improvement in cycling and swimming.

The question for me, then, is whether or not it's worth it to take a significant block of training--maybe even a whole season--to focus on maxing out running or cycling speed. I think it goes back to what we as athletes are willing to sacrifice, and that might be a season of competitive racing in triathlon to make gains in a single sport that we couldn't make while trying to compete as multi-sport athletes.

Thanks for the insight; for me, it couldn't come at a better time.


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