Project Management

3 Project Management Lessons From a 70.3 Ironman

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By Conrado Morlan

I’ve been running for eight-plus years—ever since my son suggested I do a half marathon in San Antonio, Texas, USA. So when a friend suggested I try a triathlon, I was ready for it. At that point, three years ago, I had 10 full marathons and 15 half marathons under my belt.

The triathlon includes three disciplines in a single event: swimming, cycling and running. It was the athletic challenge I needed, similar to the professional challenge I encountered when I moved across industries to keep leading and managing projects.

To get ready for the triathlon, I had to go back to the pool and start swimming after a long time away. I borrowed a road bike from a friend to start the formal training. We worked out on our own on weekdays and as a team on weekends.

That first experience transformed me into a triathlete enthusiast, which led me eventually to the Ironman 70.3. The "70.3" refers to the total distance in miles covered in the race, consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run.

The short distance triathlons helped prepare me for the Ironman 70.3. And as I’ve come to realize, learnings I’ve made along the way also apply to project management. These are my three main findings:

1. Expertise and Experimentation

Mastering all three disciplines in a triathlon can be difficult. My background is in running, but I was new to swimming and cycling. My coach gave good tips and workouts that helped me manage my bicycle on hills, navigate sharp turns and use all of my leg muscles to have a better stroke.

For swimming, I followed my instinct and experimented with the breaststroke. I soon felt confident in the pool and gradually in open waters. My experiment worked out, as I finished my swim in the Ironman 70.3 about 20 minutes ahead of the cut-off time.

As a project management practitioner, you may have mastered an industry-standard methodology and need to catch up with the new trends. In the triathlon, you may not transfer skills from swimming to cycling or running, but in project management, you can.

Communication, time management, and people management are required regardless of the methodology or best practice that will be used in the project. This gives you room to experiment. At project checkpoints, you can inspect, adapt and make the required changes to improve your project and be successful.

2. Transition Is Key

The transition is where the triathlete moves from one discipline to another, changing equipment. The area should be prepared in advance, with the gear set up in a way that helps the athlete have a smooth and fast transition. The time spent there may define the winner of the competition.

I would compare the transition area with the risk registry. The more prepared the project manager is, the less impact there will be to the project. The “gear” in your risk register will include the most impacting risk(s), the risk owner and the actions required to mitigate the risk if it arises. It’s a working registry, so the project manager should keep adding risks during the project as required.

3. Anybody Can Help You

A triathlon is not a team event, but that does not restrict the triathlete from getting support from others. Before the competition, the athlete may have followed a training plan supported by a coach, they might have been mentored by fellow triathletes and, last but not least, they likely benefited from family support.

It’s common for some triathletes to have a race sherpa on the competition day. The athlete and sherpa will discuss beforehand what tasks each will take on during the race. In short, a race sherpa will lend a hand whenever necessary and cheer for the athlete during the competition.


As a project manager, you have your project team, stakeholders and sponsor(s), but that does not restrict you from getting help from people outside the project. You may have an internal or external mentor, somebody in your organization who can be influential and help you address issues. I used to have a list of people in the organization I contacted in advance. I let them know about the project and asked them if I could ask for support if needed. That simple action helped me on several occasions when I faced a challenge.

If you are an athlete and a project manager, what lessons have you learned from practicing your favorite sport? Please share your thoughts below.

Posted by Conrado Morlan on: August 29, 2019 11:32 AM | Permalink

Comments (26)

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I am far from an athlete but I am working to change that. I am 3 months post Heart Attack. I am also a project coordinator and acting project manager on many projects. The heart attack I suffered was the big one, the one they call the widow maker. Since then I have been working diligently to improve my cardiovascular health and strength. The biggest lesson I've learned during my reconditioning is that you have to be able to adapt and overcome.

PM's are often very married to a particular process or methodology but for some projects, no matter what you do, it won't work. I refuse to allow a project to fail or be less than excellent simply because I am compulsory about my methods. Adapt and overcome. Be self reliant but able to take criticism and direction when its offered as a means to grow.

I like your comparisons. It's a reminder that our professional life is not all that different from our personal lives in terms of how we manage. We do what we do because we enjoy it.

Great article. I liked how you compared triathlon with project management discipline. I also did some triathlon competitions, one half iron-man. I also started with running.
The only comparison I didn't agree much was the one with the transition. I see risks more related to training, decide what you will wear and nutrition. But yes, if you don't prepare your transition well, you could be in trouble!
I think there is a lot in terms of planning so that you have an efficient training. It has to be the right amount, not less and not too much. You need to plan alternating the days when you swim, bike or/and run.
Definitely lots of plan and risk management !

Very interesting, thanks for sharing

Absolutely a tie-in from sports and skills used in project management. My past is with endurance MTB racing. Thanks for sharing your story.

Great article and comparisons I can relate to. I am a half marathoner/marathoner and transitioning into triathalons. Lessons learned never giving up!!!!

Interesting, thank you! And congrats on your triathalon achievements.

Thank you for your comment and I wish you a quick recovery.
Adaptation in life and project management is very important. Experience may stick you to known methods that may not produce the expected results so it will be time to experiment with new methods, tools or techniques.

Thank you for your comment.
Yes, a lot of planning is involved in triathlon training. Here is where coaches and mentors can help the athlete to balance the training and rest.
I guess transition could have many analogies in project management, I selected the risk register. In the transition area in a triathlon, you need to act quickly to be ready for the next discipline. In projects, the project manager and/or team may need to change course in the project due to an unforeseen market condition, company's reorganization or an external factor. Perhaps, an article can be written about similarities of the transition area and a project.
Congrats on your achievements in sports.

Thank you for your comment. I am glad you like it.

Thank you for your comment.

Thank you for your comment. Welcome to the triathlon club!

Thank you for reading the article.

Interesting article and very inspiring.
Thank you !!


Thank you for reading the article. I am glad you liked.

Thank you Maya. I am glad you enjoyed the post.

Great analogy, nevertheless I know that in triathlon even the best atlet do not masters the three disciplines with the same performance, are always at least one where is not so strong. I think like this sport is so hard the mental preparation is essencial to resist in the difficult parts and recover where he is the master. In life is the same who is project manager should not be afraid to seek help when he not masters the area or should gather a team with experts in areas that the PM lack domain.In last resort we never should commit to a project that we are not prepared to manage. For those who aspire to be project managers (somehow like the transition) some times the lack of opportunities and the supposed lack of experience is the road block, we must believe in ours self's , be persistent and be patient.

There are definitely a lot of comparisons between running and managing projects. One that comes to mind is that no two races or two projects are exactly alike. Even if the race course or the projects are the same distance or the same product, there will be differences and conditions change. The good thing is that with appropriate training and focus you will build confidence, performance and hopefully wisdom with each experience

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