Sarah True on a Life of Endurance
Triathlete Sarah True has spent over a decade on world podiums. She was the top American in triathlon at the 2012 London Olympics with a fourth place finish. In 2018, she made the leap to Ironman distance and instantly made a mark, finishing 2nd at Ironman European Championships in Frankfurt and 4th in her Kona debut at the Ironman World Championship.
Like most professional athletes, Sarah True’s journey hasn’t been all champagne and podiums. She is among pros like Michael Phelps and Lindsey Vonn who are starting to lead the way talking openly about the mental health challenges, depression and post-race blues that affect so many people in sports and society.
2019 was a year of perseverance and grit, with back-to-back nightmare scenarios at Ironman Cairns and Ironman European Championships, where 100+ degree heat led to blacking-out in Cairns and being pulled off the course with a several minute lead with less than 1km to go in Frankfurt. We spoke at her home in New Hampshire in August shortly before she pulled off a last minute Kona spot at Ironman Mont-Tremblant.
Sarah True is much more than the All-American athlete. She is thoughtful, deeply articulate, and understands her mind and body with the nuance of a professor. Her sense of humor, big smile, and dog, Buddy, made this a special conversation. It has been edited for brevity.
Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify.
Childhood, Competition & Cooperstown, New York
David Swain: So what’d you have for breakfast this morning?
Sarah True: I had toast with peanut butter and strawberries and coffee. I was kind of in a rush. Normally I’m more of an oatmeal or overnight oats person.
I’m a fan of oatmeal too. But now that we’ve talked breakfast, let’s start with your childhood and your intro into sports. Where did you come from?
I’m an upstate New Yorker, originally. We moved to Cooperstown, New York when I was four, and that’s where I spent my formative years. It’s actually a village; there are about 2,000 people living there. And the place really comes to life in the summer, especially with all the baseball tourists. But mostly, growing up, it was a great place to be outside without my parents watching over me—you know, a pretty quintessential small town.
What sports did 10-year-old Sarah True play?
I tried everything, basically. I think if I’d had a hockey rink nearby, I would’ve been a hockey player. We played pond hockey quite a bit, and I loved it. I swam, I ran, I played soccer. I played baseball, of course—Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame.
I really tried everything, and I definitely gravitated toward sports because I liked the idea of focusing on something and getting better. One of my frustrations with soccer was that you could spend a lot of time on the bench, and it wasn’t up to you. I liked the idea of just being free and in control of my own performance.
So were you a natural athlete growing up?
I think I was a pretty good athlete. I was always active. I’m the youngest of three, both of my siblings were pretty active, and I wanted to beat them. The reason I joined swimming was because I was not allowed to. My sister had joined swimming, so of course I was just clamoring to join the swim team, and she had a size advantage over me for many years. But then I realized that if I outworked her, I could beat her.
I think it’s important, you know, to have that role model because definitely we’re hardworking—and I think that was something I took away from watching my siblings play sports.
Were you competitive as a kid?
Yeah, super-competitive—but I had a lot of interests, and I wanted to see them through. I tried theater, I tried dance, I tried all these different things, and I realized that if I wanted to get good at sports, I couldn’t do everything. Narrowing things down was one of the harder decisions I had to make.
Did you specialize in a specific sport in high school?
I swam and I ran. By the time you reach high school, you really do have to pare it down a bit. I also did some bike riding in high school, but really I think it was my junior year when I did my first triathlon—and basically, I felt like that was going to be my sport.
So from that point on, I added a couple more triathlons every year. Then, by the time I graduated from college, I pretty much had the choice of either going to the real world or seeing this triathlon thing through. And here I am today, still doing it.
What about college? Were you mostly a swimmer?
I went to Middlebury College, and one of the advantages is that you can’t start practice until November 1. For somebody who was really active like me, that was definitely a draw. But also, I think that probably limited my performance as a swimmer.
The upside, though, was that I could go hiking and backpacking, and run the rest of the year and ride bikes and just continue to do what I’ve always done. I wanted to be active without pigeonholing myself too much.
Progression as a Triathlete
What’s kept you motivated over the years?
I love the sport. There are definitely times it can be more of a love-hate relationship, but I think that’s more of a love-hate relationship with myself as an athlete. My appreciation for the sport hasn’t changed.
I think that triathlon—by nature of being three sports—has really appealed to my not having to decide on one sport. There’s something freeing about a sport like triathlon, where you can dabble in three high-level sports without feeling the burnout that I would have felt if I’d been a single-sport athlete.
Talk about your progression in triathlon over the years.
When I grew up, there was NBC coverage of the Hawaii Ironman. I was seven or eight years old, and I was a swimmer at the time. I liked to run, and we didn’t see that many women on TV for sports. This is one of the few sports that we would see televised, and there was something that just resonated with me. It wasn’t necessarily that event, but the fact that I saw women doing sports I liked on TV. Part of me—well, it really appealed to me, so I put it on the mental back-burner as something I could do someday. And then, once I was a triathlete, I didn’t have tons of interest in doing Ironman. I was doing short-course racing at that point, and I wanted to go to the Olympics.
I was very driven in trying to get an Olympic medal. I was fourth—pretty close, but not quite there. And you know, Ironman was just something that I told sponsors I might do because in the U.S., we pay very little attention to short-course racing, but we pay a lot of attention to Ironman racing. So that was appealing to sponsors. And I didn’t say no, I wasn’t going to do it, because I honestly didn’t know at the time.
That said, it’s very different physiologically, and it requires a different investment of energy. A lot of my time and energy went toward short-course racing, or just traveling and living out of my suitcase for so many months out of the year.
How many races a year did you complete? How many short-course vs. Ironman?
I would race over 10 short-course a year, but I was gone over half the year. With Ironman, you really only get two shots at a full-length race per year. So you don’t race a lot. You can do some half-Ironman races as training, but not a lot of racing overall. It was a lot of time, you know, by myself. It was a lot of staying motivated, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, so I didn’t want to make the move because I felt I had to.
In an endurance sport, we have the ability to move up in distance as we get older, and physiologically we start to shift and lose some of our speed. It’s a pretty natural progression. You’ll see in running, 5k or 10k runners moving up to the marathons once they’re in their 30s.
You know, in triathlon, you’ll see short-course racers moving up to half-Ironman distance and then to Ironman distance. I only wanted to make that jump if I felt like I could be fully committed—not because I was just ticking a box and keeping sponsors happy. So it wasn’t until a couple years ago that I basically had an epiphany where, while before I didn’t feel some strong impulse to do an Ironman, I realized I wanted to do one personally. I wasn’t sure I could do it, though.
I didn’t know if I could put in up to 30 hours of training by myself. I didn’t know whether I was strong enough, or tough enough. So I think that desire to prove something to myself was 100% a driving motivator. And then, once I realized I was pretty good at it, it became more of a professional goal. Basically, my relationship with the sport has changed as I’ve changed as a person.
So you’ve been doing Ironman distance for two years now. I heard you were in Australia a couple months ago, with cool conditions until the day before the race.
My race in Frankfurt was actually my backup race, because initially I’d gone to Cairns, which is in tropical Queensland. I went over early to try to acclimate. It was rainy, overcast for the lead-up, and race day was really hot and humid. That one was legitimately scary. I actually blacked out; my blood pressure just plummeted, for whatever reason. I’m happy about the medical response I got, and I did some heat training between that and Frankfurt to be prepared. We looked into better ways to cool down and just nail the nutrition. It was good in hindsight to realize I should have taken the heat prep more seriously.
We had assumed the temperatures leading in would be similar to what they were on race day. They weren’t, though, and sometimes you just need that extra insurance of doing heat prep beyond the predicted conditions.
So what are the adjustments you make for racing in the heat that might be relevant to the everyday athlete?
It’s all extremely complex, and I can only speak to my own experience. A lot of what we’ve learned is about predicting pacing that’s appropriate, and using heart rate as an indicator of stress for the run.
I mean, I haven’t had any problems in the swim or the bike. It all comes down to how I respond in the run. So that’s the first thing. That’s something I learned from Kona last year because with hot, humid conditions, I got a little excited on the run and paid for it later. But we had these data points we could look to and see where we could have done things better. That was really important. The first lesson was looking at pacing and stress, and the load to your body so you can moderate and ensure even pacing.
Another lesson from last year, racing in the Kona heat and then having some heat distress later on, was if you do go beyond the pace that’s appropriate for you, you need to take in more calories beyond your nutrition plan. If I had really been tuned into my body while I was racing, I’d have known that I was getting signals that I needed more food—yet I stuck to my nutrition plan without accounting for the increased caloric need. I found all that really useful to learn.
Now, what’s interesting about Frankfurt and my heat response is that on paper we did everything right. So I moderated my pace. I was looking at my heart rate. I really was on top of my fluids and salts and nutrition, all across the board.
But there were definitely things I could have done better. I could have done more fluids. Every stop I was doing sponges, I was doing ice, I was putting ice in my hands and down my sports bra and under my hat—and I could have done more of that. I could have done more heat prep because it became clear to me that the limitation of living in New Hampshire is that we don’t get a lot of heat. We were doing indoor heat training sessions, and while you can still get a response with those sessions, that response is not going to be as good as training outdoors in 100-degree temperatures.
Ultimately, there are things we could have done differently. What was scary to us was that my brain interpreted that I was in distress, and there was nothing based on our understanding of my nutrition or cooling or pacing that would have signaled that.
Talk about the progression of listening to those signals—not in terms of one specific race, but in terms of listening to your body and mind over the course of your career.
I think the biggest thing that I have learned is how to separate ego and be more accepting of what’s actually happening in the moment. Early in my career, I would ignore the signals that I was getting and try to override them out of pure stubbornness in this belief that I had to approach things a certain way and prove something. That gets you in situations where you’re over-training, where you have bad workouts, where you get sick. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned that I was making decisions not based on what was right for me at the moment, but based on ego. I just had that desire to prove something, and I was a bit too tired to execute it right. So either I modified it, or I moved it to another day, or I went into this period of denial where I thought I wasn’t getting sick.
Now I recognize when all the symptoms are there. Like, I am getting a cold. Let’s back off the training. I wish I had understood this stuff when I was in my early 20s, because that would’ve made me a totally different athlete. But it is what it is, and I think you’re never too old. Especially as our bodies change when we get older, and we get a little bit more fragile—I’m just grateful. I’ve learned it now because I think these are lessons I’m going to be employing for the rest of my life.
Recovery & Coffee
Are there new things you incorporate on the longevity side of maintaining fitness and improving in your sport and preventing injuries? Have you been pretty steady on that?
I think the biggest thing I’ve done over the past few years is that I’ve gotten more serious about doing gym work—about doing plyometrics and heavier weights. I don’t love it, but it makes you more robust and more athletic. You lose some of that high-end power and speed as you get older, and doing explosive work helps keep that in check. So I think that’s been really helpful.
When I say your ability to do intensity decreases as you get older, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means you might need longer to recover. You might need to go into it with reduced expectations about the outcome. It’s been all about shifting the model and really respecting recovery. I think that’s the number-one thing.
Can you break down how you think about recovery? What is the signal of the soreness vs. fatigue vs. mindset?
What’s helpful for me is that I have a coach, and I have my training program at the beginning of the week so I can see what the critical sessions are. We’ll have a handful of harder sessions, and I know that to execute those properly, I’ll need a certain level of energy. I’ll also need to be rested enough going in to actually do them properly. So it’s helpful for me to almost work backwards.
I think one of the hardest things for amateur athletes is realizing that their training plan is going to vary a lot. It’s recognizing the training stress, but also the life stress and how that’s going to affect your training. It’s important to be flexible.
It’s interesting how that seems to apply to performance in life outside of sports. Stress can come from anywhere and impact your ability to perform in whatever environment you’re in. But now, what about the nutrition and sleep side—not just recovery, but also performance and how your views have evolved over the years?
I’ve gotten a lot better with sports-specific nutrition. I definitely under-fueled for most of my career—really until I started switching to Ironman. Now I pretty much religiously have whey protein after a hard or long session. I’ll just try to get in some carbohydrates, some protein, within a pretty narrow window after a session. And I think that makes a big difference.
I got it in my head that you don’t need to take that much food while you’re training, but you can’t train for Ironman that way. So I’ve learned to take an appropriate number of calories with me to train my body to absorb them. This also sets you up better for your next session if you’re fueling along the way.
Outside of race sports-specific nutrition, not a lot has changed. My husband and I have always eaten whole foods; we like to cook for ourselves, eat locally when possible, and focus on high-quality ingredients without really having a restrictive diet. It’s very balanced. I think there are far too many athletes who deprive themselves, which ends up having a psychological effect. We don’t need to add stress to our lives.
Aside from eating locally-sourced, fresh foods, are there any like self-imposed restrictions to your diet?
Other than personal preference, none. Ben, my husband, doesn’t do very well with dairy, so we don’t eat tons of dairy. We don’t deprive ourselves of food because it’s less nutritious, though.
What about the morning of a race? What’s your breakfast of choice?
Rice and eggs. It’s an easily-digestible meal, a little fat and a little protein. It helps with that feeling of being satiated for a longer period of time. Then coffee, because it’s delicious and wonderful magic.
So what about coffee outside of training? How are you and your husband involved in that world?
We’re really into coffee—particularly specialty coffee. Ben has been roasting for a little while, and at some point we’re going to start a coffee roastery. So for months, we have been going back and forth about naming our future coffee company, and we haven’t come up with anything yet.
Last year, though, we started a coffee roasting company with another couple. We’re no longer part of that, but it was really great to learn and realize it’s something we do want when we’re ready to put more time and energy into it.
What have you learned about coffee?
Ben’s the real coffee nerd. I’m very good at drinking coffee, and I like the other aspects of the business, but I’m not going to be the one geeking out over the different roast profiles.
Business, Career & Women in Sports
On the business side of racing, talk about making a career as a professional athlete in the endurance world. How has everything evolved over the years? What parts have been pleasantly surprising, and what parts have been disappointing?
So, I’ll just speak to triathlon. Most of my income comes from racing—from prize money and from sponsorship. When I was doing short-course racing, I would also get subsidies from the USA Triathlon through the USA Olympic Committee, and they would pay for travel and health insurance.
Once you leave that world, you no longer have health insurance or travel help. What’s great about triathlon is that we have multiple categories, and we don’t have restrictions on the number of sponsors. So we joke that we’re kind of like the NASCAR of sports.
Compare that to distance running—Ben can have one title sponsor, meaning he’s sponsored by one company. He can then have additional sponsors, but they cannot have their logos on his uniform. That really limits your ability to get revenue from multiple streams. And generally, the contracts are bigger from that one title sponsor.
However, if you think outside the box and say Apple wanted to sponsor an athlete, well—they couldn’t sponsor a runner because the title sponsor would have to be a recognized shoe manufacturer. Apple wouldn’t be able to get uniform rights.
From my end, I like to partner with companies whose products I genuinely like. I have turned down money from companies because of this.
Have you had long-term relationships with your sponsors?
Some of them. The market is always changing, and you’ll get marketing teams in and they’ll want to shift to triathlons. It’s an interesting sport for companies, and they’re always trying to figure out their approach.
Who are your sponsors right now?
I’ve got the NASCAR of sponsorships. I’m running with HOKA ONE ONE; Wahoo Fitness; Momentous is a protein company Ben and I work with; Zwift; my hydration needs are met by Nuun, and our eggs are from Pete and Gerry’s. I’m also part of the New York Athletic Club. I prefer to think of these brands as partners, honestly, because it’s a give-and-take relationship. It’s not just a logo.
One of the recommendations I give to young athletes trying to navigate the whole sponsorship side of things is to start off with what they legitimately like and believe in, and then try to develop long-term relationships with those companies.
Looking back at yourself coming up, are there things you’d change? You’ve been active on topics related to mental health and depression.
The biggest thing is that I wish I’d started off with more of a growth mindset. For too long, I just believed you’re either good at something or you’re not. I could have allowed myself to see everything as a work in progress, but that was hard for me. I spent a lot of time not being nice to myself—just holding myself to unrealistic standards. That can become really toxic, so I think one of the biggest things was to see myself as a work in progress instead of just deeply flawed. I would’ve had a much healthier career in terms of how I saw myself as an athlete.
Coming off of whether it’s a good race or a bad race, and you’ve either hit your training goal or not—how do you move forward from the outcome?
Well, after both the Olympic cycles, I was clinically depressed. I realized that so much of it was just having to shift my identity.
If you’ve been single-mindedly focused, you often lose sight of who you are outside of being an athlete. Anytime you focus deeply on something, and so much of your life is wrapped around that one thing, that can be really challenging. And that doesn’t only apply to sports. If you’ve built up a company for years and you sell it, you’re going to be excited and then there’s going to be a massive letdown because who are you then? That company has been your identity; it’s been such a huge part of you.
For kids who have been athletic from an early age, what do you think helps to keep the balance? How do you keep the fun in it, but also the competition and performance?
We want kids to specialize early, but they often burn out—and in the long run, that doesn’t make them better players or better athletes. You have to separate the kids who have a deep intrinsic motivation. It’s definitely on a case-by-case basis, though. I know very few professional athletes who specialized early on with one sport and are still doing that sport today, and personally, I’m not a fan of early specialization.
I think you need to try lots of things out to figure out what you genuinely love. Plus, doing more sports will make you a better athlete in whatever sport you eventually choose. You know, I was never going to be a great soccer player, but I think that having years of lateral movements was helpful. I think a lot of what I was doing as a kid definitely helped with my motor patterns and overall athleticism, and that paid off.
What about girls and women coming up today? What improvements have been made?
I love that there are so many role models for female athletes now. You look at the U.S. women’s soccer team, and the amount of diversity you see—you just wouldn’t have seen that 20 years ago. You wouldn’t have seen these women speaking out on issues off the fields, either.
How we see female athletes has changed so much in that before, we wanted them to fit into a pretty and perfect package, and now we realize that just like everybody else, there’s a range.
Personally, I love seeing the changes in women’s sports. In the past we weren’t sure how to match up the feminine ideal and the athletic ideal, but I think we realized we can just throw all that out the window. And I love it.
What about other female athletes who inspire you?
I love seeing what the younger athletes are doing and how they are using their platforms. What Megan Rapinoe’s doing is awesome. But then, I also look at younger athletes like Kate Courtney. You’re talking about somebody who is smart, feminine, and strong—she’s the full package.
I think from the outside, you can look at what we’re doing as really self-indulgent. And a lot of the time, being an athlete is kind of self-indulgent, but there’s also this higher reason for doing it.
What do you do outside of your athletic life that brings fuel into it?
Outside of sports, I try not to spend much time thinking about the athletic world.
Unfortunately, I’ve spent way too much time over the past couple of years obsessing about politics. I also love fiction, though. My sister’s a fiction writer. She’s an author, and she always gives me great new books to read.
What’s her name?
Lauren Groff. My siblings and I have all been successful in different realms, and I think very little of that has to do with innate ability. I think it’s mostly hard work. And I mean, there’s an aspect we don’t talk much about, which is privilege. We had great educations. We all graduated from college without debt. We had parents who supported us, and we had good health. If we had grown up with a different background, I don’t think we’d have achieved the way we did.
When you look ahead over the next couple of years, as a pro athlete and beyond, what’s driving you?
Right now I’m at a place in my career where I find what I do fulfilling—being part of my community, that is. There will be a point where I move on, but I’ll still want to be professionally and personally fulfilled. It’s just going to be in a different community.
Do you have any other advice for those of us wanting to reach our potential as athletes?
Stay healthy, and chip away at it over time. Be patient. Don’t get injured. Do some hard work, but be smart about it.
Listen to the full interview on The Common Threads podcast at: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify.
Update: since our interview, Sarah competed at Kona and had a heartbreaking experience with a mechanical issue on the bike and heat issues that landed her in the hospital. Her love for the sport and perseverance come through in this video by @anseldickey.