What Triathlon Training has Taught me about Financial Freedom

This month I’ll be completing my 6th triathlon. Now, you might be thinking, “Wait, isn’t this is a personal finance blog about financial independence? What does triathlon training have to do with gaining financial freedom?”

Well, I’m glad you asked.

The journey of training to complete a triathlon and the journey of achieving financial independence have a lot more in common that you might think.

This post will detail the common themes I have discovered that have helped me achieve results personally and financially that make me feel confident and happy.

The Approach

An early habit you develop with triathlon training is understanding that it requires a holistic approach. Training (which I’ll get to next) is one step amongst many that come before the race. There are many other components that go into training besides the physical sweat and tears.

Much of the effort to fuel your body comes from knowing your body. What I mean by this is understanding how much rest and recovery you need after a workout, or knowing what foods will help and which foods will hurt you on race day.

This holistic approach applies for personal finance as well.

I’ll be the first to say that life is not about money, however, it does have a way of creeping into our lives. Our finances can be a source of turmoil and stress; that might be the reason you want to get things squared away.

Pursuing financial independence has also brought my girlfriend and I closer together  because we share our common values. We talk about the places we want to see or the things we want to do in the next few years. Talking about an adventure is great, but when we start to make choices bring ourselves one step closer to making our dreams a reality, then we get to enjoy a piece of that future experience NOW.

The Training

You can’t just wake up on race day and have the race of your life, breaking all your previous records. You need to prepare.

More important than the will to win is the will to prepare”, as Munger put it.

That’s one thing I love about the sport. You get back what you put in. I wish I could say the same about every aspect of life.

Each winter, I find myself sliding into a terrible shape. I often eat carelessly and  start to notice the number on the scale creep up. Of course, I only let myself go for the hibernation season (8 months of winter) in Chicago, before I’m back to training.

One thing you learn very quickly is that as you fall off, you quickly can jump back on. What I mean is the physical endurance I built up last year doesn’t disappear overnight. It doesn’t disappear after a month or even a few months. While it might be hard to start up again, once I have the momentum going, the muscle memory kicks in and training becomes much more enjoyable.

Emotionally and intellectually, it is an even easier upward spiral. Despite my lack of breath control, I can rely on past experiences to remind myself of what I’ve achieved in the past.

Similarly, personal finance is not an all or nothing pursuit. We all make mistakes from time to time and make a stupid financial decision. I know I have.

If we keep building on the 1% improvements in our budget, then overtime, we’ll build enough momentum to see ourselves through to the finish line.

Race Day

With a sport that goes for multiple hours, I often approach a zen like state before the big race. There’s nothing more I can do in the moment.

If I’ve prepared well, then I know the nerves will disappear. My problem is that I’m often overly excited at the start of a race and I need to reign in my wish to push it too hard right from the start.

The same happens with personal finance. I often catch myself being overly excited during the end of a quarter when we tally up our new net worth numbers. We’re happy to see the numbers moving fast in a positive direction.

We know our celebration in the moment is the result of months of work, but we still have to maintain the discipline that got us there. While we automate as much as possible (bill pay and automatic withdrawals for investments and student loans), we know many of our day to day decisions add up as well.

The Finish Line

My favorite triathlete has a quote that I connected with on a deep level.

“It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about maximizing and fulfilling potential.”

With all things in life, there isn’t much of a finish line. The joy of the process can be experienced in the moment of the big race AND during the process it took to get there.

Triathlons keep my body physically and mentally sharp. To a certain degree, training out there on my own becomes therapeutic — a sort of mental check in with how I’m feeling. Once I’m exhausted from hours of training, I remove any filters on my own mode of thinking and tend to have clear thoughts on where I want my life to go.

For me, personal finance is an experience of growing in confidence while I expand the level of freedom and choices that are available in my life.

When we think of our future, we imagine places we will see or things we will do. I don’t think many people think of having a specific dollar amount in the bank. Instead, they think about the lifestyle that money will allow them to have.

One Final Thought – Have FUN with it!

If we take things too seriously, then we’re bound to get ourselves hurt.

Do you have personal finance analogies from the hobbies you enjoy? Are there activities you do to keep the big picture in mind while focusing on the here and now?


Master Distiller

26 comments… add one
  • Martin - Get FIRE'd asap Aug 8, 2016, 6:46 am

    Completely get the analogy, Matt. Financial training is very much like physical training. You’re not going to be good at it from day 1. It can take months if not years to become ‘fit’, and you need to work on it to continue your financial and your physical fitness over the long term.

    Not only that, but the goals are often long term as well when comparing retirement with a marathon or triathlon. Have I hit the nail on the head?

    • Distilled Dollar Aug 8, 2016, 6:54 am

      Sounds like you’re ready for some tri training! 🙂

      Yep, 100% agree – I’ll add that the nice part about either aspect is we can see such incredible gains right at the start – within the first few weeks of creating a budget or tweaking expenses to the first few times in the water or on the road.

      To make something incredible happen, it takes patience over the long haul.

  • The Green Swan Aug 8, 2016, 6:47 am

    I like the last quote about maximizing potential! It is a good one to live on.

    Best of luck on your race. But who am I kidding, this is your 6th triathlon already…you’re a pro!

  • I think a triathlon analogy is great (even better than a marathon analogy!) I did one triathlon and I think I was in the best shape of my life from that from the DIVERSITY of training. As a swimmer and then a marathon runner – all I focused on was one sport. When you put the three sports together, you work so much more of your body. And when you diversify your assets – you protect yourself and grow wealth that supports changes in different parts of the economy.

    • Distilled Dollar Aug 10, 2016, 6:37 am

      You bring up such a great point. The diversity of training makes it great for the overall body and it makes it much more – dare I say the word – FUN for the mind.

      With so many areas to improve upon, I constantly see gains that motivate me and inspire me. If I was working exclusively on one type of activity, I think I would see a plateau and become discouraged. Instead, I might hit the plateau with running and I’ll shift my focus to swimming or my nutrition.

  • Jon @ Be Net Worthy Aug 8, 2016, 8:02 am

    I love the analogy! I think that anything that requires dedicated effort over an extended period of time with focus and both short and long-term goals is very similar to personal finance.

    I recently started TaeKwonDo training with my son and similar to triathlon training, there are many similarities to the mastery of personal finance. You start slow, build skill and confidence over time. You stumble, have setbacks and get back up. If you are consistent and persistent, then over time you will achieve your goals. At least as long as my knees hold out!

    • Distilled Dollar Aug 10, 2016, 6:39 am

      That sounds like a great hobby to have, especially since your son is involved!

  • FinanceSuperhero Aug 8, 2016, 8:39 am

    I love the comparison and the variety of angles from which you approached it, Matt. If I could offer a thought, related to the winning/losing quote above, it would be this: Personal finance and triathlons/marathons are a powerful form of self-competition. Unless one is an elite athlete, the odds of winning even his age group are slim. Similarly, the chances that an average investor will become a powerhouse billionaire are low. Yet, in the midst of the struggle to grow, self-discipline is learned.

    I have to give you a lot of credit for tackling triathlons. I enjoy marathons, but my swimming/biking chops are not up to par. When people ask me why I don’t do triathlons, I often retort, “Do you want me to drown?” It’s not really that bad, but I think I would be bringing up the rear in the swimming segment.

    • Distilled Dollar Aug 10, 2016, 6:42 am

      Haha! As a relatively poor swimmer, I can say, lagging behind the pack early on is not completely terrible! I do enjoy passing up many of those same people during the bike and run. 🙂

      I agree on your first point. Despite the win or the loss, we can constantly improve our self-discipline.

  • Financial Samurai Aug 8, 2016, 12:04 pm

    Oh man, you train for triathlons?! Respect there. I can’t run more than 3 miles before I start dying. It’s always been this way for me though…. or maybe it is an excuse. I was hospitalized multiple times as a kid before for intense asthma.

    BUT, I can play tennis 2.5 hours non stop no problemo. The joy of the game makes me forget about the pain.

    I’m like you where I let myself go in the winter, and do my best to get back in shape. This past winter, I finally got screwed. Gained 6-7 pounds, and haven’t been able to get it off.

    Watching Olympic athletes is motivating to get back in shape!


    • Distilled Dollar Aug 10, 2016, 6:46 am

      The winter hibernation is a critical step for surviving the Chicago winters. Although, truth be told, I tell myself every year that I will be more diligent on my training during the winter and opt for an extra layer of clothes. Let’s see if it holds true this year!

  • Brad, Financial Coach Aug 9, 2016, 7:23 am

    Great post Matt. We teach our daughter that the things she has learned and puts into practice today (she is a NCAA D1 student athlete) can apply to a lot of life after college. Those same principles of consistency, slow and steady build-ups over time, and pushing toward big goals are key things in life that can really help anyone/everyone.

    • Distilled Dollar Aug 10, 2016, 5:59 pm

      Wow – big props for being a D1 athlete. In my time at the big4, I was fortunate enough to work with a few former athletes and it was great to see them in action. Many of those lessons from a sport become useful over the long haul.

  • Preston @TheDrunkMillionaire Aug 9, 2016, 9:11 am

    Awesome post Matt! The discipline you learn while training definitely correlates with managing personal finance. My personal finance/hobby correlation would be woodworking. I first spend time fulling planning out a build with dimensions, required tools/materials (budget), then build the item (money decisions), until its finished and I can enjoy using it (investing money, achieving FI, etc.).

    • Distilled Dollar Aug 11, 2016, 7:48 pm

      Thanks Preston! Was woodworking something you’ve always been into? Sounds like a great and useful hobby to have, so just curious.

  • Ricard Torres @ Escaping to Freedom Aug 9, 2016, 11:17 am

    Great analogy there! I always like to compare bodybuilding / strength training to saving and reaching financial independence. Just like your investments can compound, so can strength; as you gain strength your muscles grow. This helps you to lift heavier weights which, in turn, will build even more muscle, which will allow you to lift heavier, and so on…

    They’re also similar in that they both take years and years of dedication (with the occasional but inevitable fall off the bandwagon!), so you won’t get very far without a view of the bigger picture, several years down the line. I feel that bodybuilding has a bad reputation with a lot of people, but it’s basically the same as saving and investing – mostly 🙂

    Good luck in the triathlon!

  • Chris @ Sleepy Capital Aug 10, 2016, 12:49 am

    Nice post, Matt. I loved the analogy. Props to you for being a triathlete. Maybe someday I’ll do something as ambitious, I was a sprinter in high school and college. Can’t do long distance for the life of me. Anyway, while a sprint is gone in a flash, much of my training I can relate to the world of personal finance and investing. The continuos pursuit of improvement in running transfers to the pursuit of learning. Being patient and diligent in training transfers those skills to investing. If not anything else, my strong work ethic is what I try to focus on and apply to all I do.

    Best of luck in your race!

    • Distilled Dollar Aug 11, 2016, 8:29 pm

      I wish I was better at the shorter distance sprints! Sounds amazing – college level too!

  • TheMoneyMine Aug 10, 2016, 8:45 pm

    I was thinking that I could totally relate, it was the same thing for me when I trained for a half-marathon. But a triathlon, it’s more difficult for me to imagine 😉
    Completely agree with you on the steps and I think eventually, it’s proving ourselves that we can do it.
    “It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about maximizing and fulfilling potential.”
    Amazing quote!

  • Dividends Down Under Aug 17, 2016, 5:42 pm

    Nice post Matt, really enjoyed reading through it – really good timing with the olympics too. Another good analogy with sports and finance is that you’re running your own race – you will always win (by crossing the finishing line of FIRE) as long as you’re making steps towards it.


    • Distilled Dollar Aug 18, 2016, 7:26 pm

      Great analogy! I like it a lot.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I have a feeling there will be one more as I’ve been in the triathlete headspace so much these past few months. Another week and two days until my race! 🙂 …now I just gotta figure out what my big dinner that night will be… 🙂

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