You see it on triathlon T-shirts, bumper stickers and gear all the time: swim, bike, run—the core disciplines of triathlon—and when you repeat it enough it starts to sound like a mantra. In fact, it's so ingrained that it's easy to forget that a triathlon is actually greater than the sum of its parts, and if three disciplines are all you think about as you prepare for race day you could be hindering your performance.
It's easy to think that professional athletes achieve sub-nine-hour and sub-eight-hour Ironman finishes because they spend all their time training their muscles and cardiovascular systems to put out extreme efforts over long periods. That's true, but how the time is spent matters as much as the number of hours in a training week. An athlete can put out all the effort in the world and still lose a race if their technique, skills and racing strategy aren't as sharp as their fitness.
What professionals really get out of their long hours isn't just lean muscle mass, it's also an acute understanding of how their bodies perform and react to the race effort. They can sense problems developing and manage their physical efforts with much greater fidelity than amateurs because of the amount of time they spend paying attention to their bodies. Similar to how meditation helps marry mind, body and soul, triathletes "become one" with the practice. The mental component of their training can't be understated. And that mental training isn't just about absorbing pain. It's about flowing through the event as fast and as efficiently as possible. A well-practiced professional athlete doesn't think in terms of swimming, and then biking and then running; they look at the triathlon as one singular race.
For example, what do you do between the swim and bike? There are about a half dozen things that have to occur in the transition area: take off your wetsuit, put on your goggles and cap, put on your sunglasses and helmet, un-rack the bike, get on, and start pedaling. We take that for granted. As a result, what is your transition time? Three minutes? Four?
Look at the transition times for professional athletes at any major race. They are literally gone in sixty seconds. They have to be, because their competitors move just as fast. How do they do it? Simple. They practice transitions, over and over and over again.