Financial GoalsPersonal Finance

What Training For A Triathlon Taught Me About Personal Finance and Investing

This guy has trained hard (that’s not me!)

I completed my first Triathlon in 2014 and started training for my second late last year. The sensation of movement is something I greatly enjoy and the combination of sports in the Triathlon (swim, cycle, run) plus the challenge of completing the event makes it very appealing to me.

Athletically, I’m average (and possibly below average on the bike) but once again regular training has become part of the fabric of my life. Whilst some recreational triathletes will train 20hrs+ a week, I have to get by with about 5-6hrs a week more due to competing demands from my Ph.D./Masters and teaching commitments than lack of drive (usually 2hrs in each sport, swimming, cycling and running is the most I can manage). As I’m tapering my training over the next couple weeks I’ve spent some time reflecting on the past 4 months of training, and, in particular, the similarities between triathlon training and investing and personal finance. For what it’s worth, certain physical activities seem to be a real hit among investors (walking, swimming and cycling especially) which I think is related to the fact such activities can help us digest and analyse an investment thesis.

So here is a summary (perhaps incomplete) of common elements to both.

1. Take a long term view

There is no way I could complete a Triathlon without training. Four months is about the minimum I need to get prepared. Like investing for financial independence, you have to keep the end-point in mind; in the Tri, it’s usually a set time for each leg of the race. Re. wealthing, it’s important to know explicitly in advance what you want to accomplish (a certain dollar value in dividend payments each year? A certain size investment portfolio? Eliminate debts?). Without being clear on the final outcome, it’s impossible to plan for the future; as motivation wanes, particularly on those days when you feel like splurging on yet another take-out meal or impulse purchase your goal can slip further away, like an unattended cart atop a hill it moves off gradually at first, but its speed picks up the further down the slope it gets, until it can no longer be caught.

2. Despite the long-term view, it’s the small steps you take on a consistent basis that makes the most difference

A point quite related to the latter half of the above, if I let my diet go e.g. too many beers or Red Rock Deli chips, or I skip too many training sessions, I’ll end up very under-prepared for race day. There are a lot of steps (literally) repeated over and over that prepare you for the big day.

The same holds true of investing and becoming financially independent. Ongoing education, skill development and, of course, regular deposits into an investment or savings account, or against outstanding debts make a huge difference to your long-term wealth potential. I often feel some tiredness mid-week and sometimes start talking myself out of training, particularly when the weather is perturbing. Even though it’s tempting to skip one or two sessions here or there, it’s important not to, lest at some point an unfavorable outcome becomes inevitable and no amount of ‘catch-up’ sessions can change my course. It’s times like these I remind myself of my end goal and the importance of each session; that by getting out and training regularly I’m making the possibility of success – or at the very least enjoying the race more than I would if I’m unfit – much more likely.

3. Identify your weak points and work on them

In Triathlons, cycling is my weakest sport. I have to work really hard to keep my legs peddling at a decent pace. In training, I need to work most on cycling; nevertheless, the moment the opportunity arises to run or swim instead I’ll jump at it (weather too wet, sunlight too dim, pedestrians too many!). In my wealthing journey, my weakest points are i) not yet enough knowledge to invest 100% on my own and ii) too much cash spent on impulse purchases (usually eating out or oddly enough, triathlon related equipment) and iii) limited income due to post-graduate study. I need to work on these as a priority [point ‘ii)’ first!] and yet am tempted to make excuses to justify my unwillingness to act decisively. I know if I can be disciplined with unnecessary expenses, finish my post-grad degrees and self-educate on investing, then within a year or two, I’ll have established a very solid foundation for my financial future.

4. Tracking your behaviours is an important part of the process

Directly related to remedying my weak points, I’ve found tracking my training critical to improving my performance and maintaining motivation. I log training sessions online and capture various performance metrics. If I don’t cycle at least 2x per week I’ll be undertrained (for a novice) come race day. At the start of my training season, I knew I could shave at least 10minutes off my cycling leg and at about 4mins off my run whilst already being a reasonable swimmer I might save 2mins in the ocean. This allowed me to target improving my running and cycling for the largest improvements come race day. Watching my average pace quicken or times on training routes decrease is exceptionally motivating, as is watching my in-session heart rate trend lower over the months as it gets more efficient at providing my muscles with fuel.

Financially, because I make most of my purchases electronically, I have a record of over 95% of my expenses and my entire income. This allows me to identify my weak points which in turn allows me to move forward efficiently, directing efforts at those areas which will deliver the biggest return.

5. You can’t go all out, all the time

Regular recovery periods help prevent over-training and exhaustion. Every 3-4 weeks I’ll take an extra day or two off (maybe just continue some yoga or gentle stretching) to ensure my muscles get adequate rest and time to repair. Likewise, there are times when my investment education takes a back seat (usually so I can work or progress in my studies) and there are times when wealth-related savings goals are cut back (to accommodate debt repayment or, dare I say it, to save for an experience or discretionary purchase).

Whilst some people live frugally year in and year out or relentlessly pursue savings or investment goals, I am happy to let some ebb and flow in my pace occur, provided the overall momentum is in the right direction and to a satisfactory degree. I’m aware this will slow me down some (both in the Triathlon and in my journey to financial freedom) but I think internal peace it brings is worth the exchange.

6. Avoid comparing yourself to others

Unlike many sports, Triathlons lend themselves well to competition only against oneself, and your race times from the year prior, rather than against your peers. This freedom is one of the things I love about race day. Largely, I’ll keep my own pace or attach myself to a competitor racing at a slightly greater pace and we’ll work together, pushing each other on throughout the race (I must admit to getting the lions share of benefits as they’re lifting me to a greater level than what I’m used to).

In my next Triathlon, I have an overall race time I’d like to set, but I’m not too concerned where this places me or how I’ll be doing compared to others. Perhaps because I’m a novice, this is somewhat easier for me than for seasoned veterans aiming for a race position. I’ll enjoy the race just as much if I place 27th or 67th. Of course, it’s hard not to compare our wealth to others, made harder by the fact that whenever we get a raise, move to a new suburb or buy a new car, our reference group suddenly changes and we find ourselves striving just as hard as ever to keep up with the Jones’s. If you’re able to detach from the competition, and stick to your overall plan then I think that’s an ideal position for a novice Triathlete and perhaps for most investors.

7. Who you train with is important.

While I don’t compare myself against my training buddy, one of the things that’s great about training with him (aside from the company and banter) is that he’s better than me in my weakest leg, cycling (I’m a better swimmer than he is, and we’re about equally matched runners). This means we push each other to improve in our weaker areas, in the water he has to keep up with me whilst on the road cycling, I’m always working hard to keep the training pace he sets. This isn’t the same as wanting to beat him and come race day, it won’t matter where I place relative to him – if you’re betting between the two of us on race day, put your money on him! (post script: I pipped him by 7 seconds!).

Similarly, every so often I’ll ride with my brother and another friend, both of whom are much better cyclists than me. This pushes me to dig deep and progress to another level. Still there is no desire in me to compete with them. In investing, this might mean finding a mentor, reading books or good quality blogs, or discussing with (rational, cautious and patient) likeminded individuals your investing thesis, especially if they have a good track record. Further, only compare yourself against your own high water-mark.

8. Others won’t always understand why you do what you do

Fortunately, most of my friends are not phased by my training (after all, it’s only about 6hrs a week – hardly a part time job!) and my partner is very supportive of it. There are occasions though where family or friends ask me to stay out late, go drinking or eat a ton of unhealthy foods with them. They can even be a little upset when I decline. This is OK with me, I know the training, recovery and good nutrition are important to my overall health and to my enjoying race day and indeed my life generally. Of course, if my friends demanded I change my lifestyle for them I’d find new friends! Financially, there can be a lot of external influences on individuals around my age, like pressures to spend money on material possessions, experiences and restaurant quality meals on a regular basis (media and peers mainly).

People may not understand why you forgo the latest trends, live within your means and view Burberry accessories, restaurant meals and overseas travel as luxuries to be enjoyed only on occasion. If they’re true friends though, they’ll support you in it, regardless of your differing lifestyles. As an aside, in the long run, remaining out of debt and accumulating wealth are likely to make overseas travel, Burberry accessories and restaurant quality meals a slightly more frequent feature in your lifestyle and certainly more affordable, if that’s your thing (just don’t blame me if your suddenly find yourself no longer wealthy after binging on such things!).

9. It’s about the journey, not the destination

Running, cycling and swimming are activities I’d love completing even if I wasn’t training for a Triathlon. Sure, the forthcoming race day is an exciting motivator, but I’m not training for this day alone. I enjoy so much running outdoors with the crisp salt air of the sea filling my lungs, the meditative-like nature of swimming and the challenge of cycling. Of course, it’s cliché, but it’s incredibly important to view the journey of wealth accumulation as just a small yet significant aspect of the overall journey of your life. That’s why I still enjoy occasional restaurant meals and am saving for over-seas travel later this year (a wardrobe featuring Burberry is unlikely, sorry to disappoint!).

If researching companies and saving aren’t something you enjoy then outsourcing the work to others is a fine choice too (perhaps automating savings with your bank and investing in a mix of index and low-cost managed funds with a good 10-year track record). Luckily, studying financial statements and learning to invest are things I enjoy just as thoroughly as Triathlons!

Have something to say? Comments are always welcome!

4 thoughts on “What Training For A Triathlon Taught Me About Personal Finance and Investing

  1. Great comparisons here. Retirement is like a marathon. Baby steps and portfolio improvement along the way. People don’t wake up one day and have the strength to run a marathon. It takes time, training, desire, and consistency. Just like a retirement plan.

    1. Very true! There are some stats somewhere on disciplined regular investing vs. (attempting to) invest more heavily in bull markets and (attempting) to exit during bear markets. I think it was Peter Lynch who said most of his investors under-performed his fund over the long run due this fact. Glad you enjoyed the article and delighted you paid a visit 🙂

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