Letting Go of Performance Goals and Exploring Life Beyond Triathlon

In the previous part of this conversation with our Director of Marketing Sara Hendershot, triathlon superstar Sarah True debriefed her frustrating Kona 2019 experience, shared an update on her health, and revealed why taking an extended break is the best thing for her career and body. Now let’s hear from Sarah what challenges lie ahead on the IRONMAN circuit, and how she’s looking at her post-competitive life in a new way. 

What are your goals for 2020 and beyond? 

My coach and I decided that we shouldn’t even start discussing that until next week. I’m planning to do an IRONMAN sometime in the spring, but other than that, I won’t know until I see how my body responds to more training. We also need to find out what any further testing tells us. I’m not trying to force anything right now, but rather be respectful of my body and not put pressure on myself to set rigid performance targets. 

Goals can be motivating, but they’re also an artifice that can be constraining. One of the beauties of sport is that it’s so cut and dried. But the temptation is to start attaching too much value to this or that number. It’s easy to forget that the rest of life isn’t like this. Nobody’s grading me on how good my omelet is today! I’ve had to learn to become comfortable with myself and my process, know that I’m doing all the right things, and be OK with the fact that there are a lot of unknowns.

How does this progression in your thinking shape what’s next when you stop competing at the highest level? 

Like many athletes, I tend to be very goal oriented, so it’s taken time to be at peace when that pressure is removed. It can get to the point where you’re just jumping from one race or one time to the next and your career becomes all about checking boxes. The future grounds us, but if you’re only ever looking ahead to what’s next, you don’t ever really appreciate what’s happening now. This season has taught me to be in the present more and enjoy the moment. That doesn’t just apply to sports, but other things too. 

Professional athletes should probably use their downtime to try new things and get comfortable living a life that isn’t always going to be so highly structured around training, recovering, and competing. Otherwise it will come to a point where you’re no longer at your peak and you’ve suddenly got all this time on your hands. I think that can be very disorienting if you’re not prepared for it, versus exploring stuff that gets you excited in other ways and provides new challenges. I need to figure out what I’m passionate about beyond triathlon, and that’s an ongoing discovery process. 

In terms of my post-racing career, I want to be healthy enough to continue biking, swimming, running, and doing all the other active things that aren’t tied to racing. I might want to coach, so that’s something I’m exploring a little bit more. The other night I was on the deck for the Dartmouth Tri Club’s swim practice. The sports psychologist I work with is big into anticipating and managing life transitions, so that’s pushing me to think about it and stop being uncomfortable with the unknown. It’d be much easier to pretend that retirement is never going to happen, but that wouldn’t set me up very well moving forward. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I’m determined to try and be here – where I’m at – today.

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How have you been filling your off time? 

I’ve moved from highly structured training into what my coach calls “fit for fun” time. It’s been nice to go out into the woods on my bike and play, without thinking about numbers. Yesterday I woke up late and thought, “I want to go mountain biking today,” so I did. Today I decided to not do much of anything. It’s nice having the freedom to do what I want to do, instead of what I have to do. In the month or so since Kona, I’ve been able to reconnect to parts of myself that aren’t tied to running, swimming, or cycling. I’ve got a few talks scheduled, which I really enjoy. And I’ve been reading a lot, almost to the point of needing to take a break from it. 

What have you been reading? 

It’s kind of embarrassing because technically it’s young adult fiction, but I’m really enjoying Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Anyone that liked the Harry Potter books will love Pullman’s writing. When I’m in full-on training mode, I read more books on physiology and non-fiction topics. Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind was the most interesting one I’ve come across in a while. But this is the time of year where I just want a fun read, so I’ll pick up any book that looks good.

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Earlier you mentioned that your approach to nutrition is pretty dialed in. What do you like to cook? 

This weekend I made some sourdough English muffins, which was a multiday process. I’m a big Instant Pot person because Ben [True, her husband, fellow Momentous ambassador, and US Olympian] and I love soups and stews. Typically if a recipe says it feeds four to six people, we’ll have very little leftovers, if any, because we burn so many calories in a typical training day. But at this time of year, it requires some adjustment as my energy demands are so much less. I need to think, “Do I really need to be eating now?”

You recently posted about how hormonal cycles affect female athlete performance. What have you learned about this? 

It’s not talked about much and when it does come up, it’s vastly oversimplified and people are only talking about when women are having their period. But what the research shows is that there are hormone fluctuations throughout the entire menstrual cycle. These impact how you digest carbs, protein, and fat, how you respond to strength and endurance work, and more. In the future, I can see the possibility of pricking my finger every morning, measuring my hormone levels, and sending this information to my coach so he can tailor my training and nutrition for the day. That’s probably a long way off, but it’s exciting to see all the new findings on the subject and read books like Stacy Sims’s ROAR, which shows how underserved women’s training has been by science for so long.
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