What does it really take to be a PRO

What does it really take to be a professional triathlete

What does it really take to be a professional triathlete?

Let’s say you have been dreaming of becoming a pro athlete since a little kid. And let’s say you reach that goal and become one of the top long-course triathletes. Qualify for Kona and set a national record. How do you feel?

This was kind of my story, but not quite. As a kid, I never imagined becoming a pro athlete in any field (I didn’t know that triathlon even existed back then). But I remember getting goosebumps while watching Michael Phelps’s 400m Relay at the 2008 Rio Olympics and the 100m world record from Usain Bolt when I was still in school. Later I graduated with B.Sc in electrical engineering and practiced in the field for a few years. Around that time I got the idea to qualify for the Ironman world championship – an elite event, that only the best of the amateurs and professional triathletes in the world get to go. And you have to qualify first.

I found a coach and asked him – “Can you get me ready for this?”. He said “I can guide you and we can try, but it is up to you to do the work.” So we got busy. Early morning runs before work, swim sessions after, and long bike rides on the weekend. I was enjoying the pursuit of my newly set goal, all while financing it with the income from my engineering job.

Then the qualifying race came on 15.08.2022 in Frankfurt, Germany. I was prepared, had my family around, and was ready to go. To make a long story really short – I was outside the qualification slots the whole time, except for the last 400m. After more than 9 hours of racing, it all got down to the last 90 seconds. Just like in the movies. The feeling was intoxicating. I was the first person from Bulgaria to ever qualify for Kona. Afterward, it was interviews, newspapers, media, and congratulations from everyone! I was flying sky-high!

Finish of Ironman Franfurt, 15.08.2021

So I thought: “If I am enjoying this so much why not become a pro and get paid to do this?”. Great thought on the macro. But I was missing a lot of the details. The whole thing was financed thanks to my job – entry fees, flights, transportation, AirBnbs, bike, running shoes, coaching, nutrition…everything.

After getting back from Frankfurt I proudly told my boss that I want to quit my job and pursue a career in triathlon and also want to travel and see the world with my girlfriend. Do what I love and the rest will follow. Or so I thought.

Long story short – in 2022 I experienced the life of a pro athlete (although not getting an official pro license) – my sole purpose was to train, eat, and recover. That is it. Surely if there are people living as professional long-course triathletes I can do it too, right? I obviously can get in the top 5% of my age group to get to the world championship, while going to work. So if my time is solely dedicated to training I am going to be the best…

A year later and I know a bit more about the details around being a professional long-course triathlete (although as said I never had a pro license). Without wanting to sound pessimistic I will try and give my honest view about what it really takes to be a professional triathlete and earn a living off of that.

Let’s start with the pros first (pun intended, hehe).

  • Pursuing a passion – I promise you no one gets into pro triathlon thinking “I am going to do this, because this will make me a lot of money.” No one. It is a passion for the sport and constant improvement that will lead us there. Overall very internal reasons.
  • Glory – the examples of Usain Bolts, Michael Phelps, and others surely bring a lot of adrenaline flowing. This can be another reason one gets into professional sports – to be seen. In commercials, on magazine covers, people want to take pictures with you, etc. And the very best athletes in the sport are actually popular. This is more of an external reason.
  • Traveling and racing at cool locations – although not a pro-only feature, racing in beautiful locations and getting money to do it can be quite attractive. Imagine going to a hotel with a view over the ocean/mountain, racking your bike in the pro section, and taking a few selfies with fans on your way to a pro briefing. All this is part of your job description. Wow…
When Gustav asked me to take a picture after the final, I just couldn’t say no.

These and more are all very legitimate reasons to be a professional triathlete. If some (or all) sparks a light you should really consider going for it. But first, please read the cons section. Then decide if the pros outweigh the cons for you personally.

  • Financial – the elephant in the room. This is a very solid reason to consider. Think about this – less than 1% of millionaires in the USA are professional athletes. And that is mostly in the major leagues (basketball, football, hockey, baseball), where viewers’ attention (and money consequently) is disproportionally higher. The audience of viewers who will spend 8-9-10 hours of their time watching (either live or on TV) a single race (even the world cup) is very small. Mostly other athletes or their families. When the audience is small (not very interesting), there is not a lot of money involved. This means that the prize money is not enormous. Okay, what if a millionaire is a bit too high? Living modestly and training hard is all you want. I thought that too.

    Think about this – 15th place at the World Championship in Kona takes home $3000. For 2022 this was Matthew Hanson with a time of 8:04:55 (52:40 🏊‍♂️/4:22:18 🚲/2:45:34 🏃‍♂️)!!! Consider flights, accommodation, nutrition, etc., and what Matthew really takes home is a fraction of that. Yes, some athletes may have sponsorship deals, hotels/flights paid for, and other sources of income like deals, free gear, and nutrition. For example: Jan Frodeno has a hotel LA Comuna, Cameron Brown is also a coach, Paula Findlay, Lionel Sanders make money on YouTube (est. $600/mo; est. $800/mo respectivelly), Kristian Blummenfelt and Gustav Iden are founders of  SantaraTech

    I personally know a lot of people that will gladly switch their current jobs for getting paid to train and race long distances without losing on lifestyle. It’s a kind of tricky situation, especially in the beginning – in order to compete against the best and earn prize money and the sponsor’s attention you need the best nutrition, facilities, coaching, etc. that there is, but you may not have the money to afford those in the first place and consequently, your performance will be most probably subpar to theirs. Even if you decide to significantly reduce your lifestyle and only train-eat-sleep, you still need money for equipment, entry fees, transportation, coaching, nutrition, and supplements.

  • Time – is logically the second variable. Let’s say you have some money on the side (like I did when I quit my job) and go full-time pro. To train like a madman all the time is quite honestly contra-productive. There is some correlation between time spent training and performance – most of the pros spend around 1000-1300h per year training (avg. 23h/week) and the best spend 1200-1500h per year (avg. 26h/year). That is 5-8h/week swim, 12-20h bike, 6-8h run, 1-2h strength/mobility To be honest, it is easier to be in the top 5% of the Age Groupers than to be in the top 20% of the professionals. You simply find a way to train more time and you will pass people by brute force alone. At the top of the pros however (where the $ is), this will not work, because everyone is training in equal amounts.
  • Age, health and longevity – even if you manage to stay injury free throughout your entire career (something that is rare), you could race until around 40ies before the younger guys start to take over. The oldest professional is the New Zealander Cameron Brown, making at the age of 50 his final pro year in 2023. As a reference – the average age of the top four in Kona dropped by more than 10 years between 2022 and 2019. The current Ironman Champion Gustav Iden is 26 years old with more than 12 years of experience. Meaning if you are closer to 30 and just starting, the chances for a well-paid pro career are rather small.

By the way, after the pro career is over and all that beating of the body is done, there is a chance that you need to start paying back what you have taken – with extra treatment for the joints, muscles, and heart.
Talking of injuries – this is a dangerous profession too. Any big issue with the body can screw your season. This probably means a certain time off racing, no prize money, no viewers’ attention, and lost interest from sponsors.

  • Traveling and logistics – to be at your best you need a decent swimming facility, a bike (preferably with a turbo trainer), a good road network, and a track for running. Let’s say you decide to go on a week-long vacation (not a race), but you are in the middle of the build period for an important race. If you are an age grouper and decide to do you, you can probably get away with it with little side-effect. But if you are a pro every day counts. A week off of training in the middle of the season is something you want to avoid. Meaning you either send your family on a solo vacation or have a single month or so at the end of the season for family time. And not having to think about where to go for a run or what the opening hours of the pool are, but just about the training saves a lot of mental energy, that you can use towards training.
  • Family – this is also tricky. You either get lucky and find a super supportive partner or you want to be on your own. Yes, there are super successful athletes who at the same time have stable relationships, spend quality time with their families, and so on. But on the other side, why do you think Gustav and Kristian do not have girlfriends and live monk-like lives? In a recent interview with Rich Roll, they shared their daily schedule:
    • wake up around 7:30 AM
    • swim for 90 minutes
    • have  lunch
    • have a 60-90min power nap
    • eat again
    • bike ride 2-3h
    • run
    • dinner
    • talk to a coach about next-day training
    • sleep
      That is it! Sleep-eat-train-repeat. Packing family time and family obligations on top, but still wanting to fight these guys… it is going to be an even harder battle. What I mean is not to say no to a family. But rather, that as a pro you are racing triathletes, who are in their mid-20s, live a monk-like life with a sole focus on training and performance, and have already 10+ years of race experience, access to the newest gadgets, and trainers with years of experience. And as stated earlier 15th place is the last one that earns you prize money.

This post states my subjective opinion and I wrote is because I wish I had read it 2 years ago. There are surely people who weigh the pros & cons and decide to give it a try anyway. If you do aspire to go there – more power to you! The world needs people who challenge themselves in the physical spectrum and set new records.

Motivational talks are great! But we live in a real world and being realistically optimistic is my best choice.

Every corpse on Everest was once a highly motivated person.