• Colleen T. Hinrichsen

Swim, Bike, Run: Breaking Away as a Collegiate Triathlete

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

Swim, Bike, Run: Breaking Away as a Collegiate Triathlete

Five-time national age group triathlon/duathlon champion Justin Lippert knows just what it takes to become the best in your sport, (or three). Running for the cross-country and track teams at Clemson University (SC) as an undergrad, Lippert caught the triathlon “bug” from a fellow student athlete who had quit the team to become a triathlete. Once Lippert had a taste of the triathlon life, there was no going back. Track and cross country were things of the past. After completing a 3-month triathlon summer training program in the Northeast, Lippert was on his way toward his ultimate goal- becoming the best triathlete he could be.

Functioning as a student athlete

Take the first step

Being able to manage life as a college student athlete is challenging. Most student athletes focus on one sport. As a triathlete, however, there are three separate sports to consider. According to Lippert, maintaining the student-athlete balance really boils down to one key initial step, decide what you want. “Decide on your goals. What do you care about? What do you want? What is best for your future?” For Lippert, his true passion was not what some view, that academics come first. His approach was the opposite. To meet his goal, Lippert purposefully chose a less demanding major. Similarly, research by Foster and Huml (2017) demonstrated the recent trend of college student athletes choosing an athletic identity over an academic identity. Choosing a less demanding major, Lippert says, was the best approach for him. Choosing this option allowed Lippert to maintain his academic life and still reach his athletic goals. Lippert states that his motivation was to “be the best, to win”. To stay motivated, Lippert states, “as long as that fire is burning, the motivation will be there."


While athletics was Lippert’s primary focus, he offers advice on maintaining academic balance as well. “On the academic side of things, staying on top of and ahead of your work is critical to reducing stress. Being ahead of deadlines significantly reduces academic stress and can have an immediate improvement on mental health. This means doing your work and assignments right when they are assigned, instead of procrastinating until the due date”. Should students focus on academics and career over athletics, Lippert advises, “you will need to focus more time/energy on schoolwork and less on training."

Emotional Support

Another key aspect to success for Lippert included surrounding himself with folks who gave him support. A study by Gabana, et al. (2017) suggested that displaying gratitude and perceiving social support contributes to higher levels of sports satisfaction in United States Division I and II college athletes and may help to lower burnout levels. According to Lippert, “I relied on my coaches and friends. It is important to surround yourself with people who will help you reach your goals, whether that be sports, school, work, or anything else”. Ask yourself, says Lippert, “who is going to support you mentally and emotionally, who can help you train, study, or improve, who is more knowledgeable than you, who can serve as a mentor? You need to surround yourself with these people."

Mental Health

Often ignored in the college-athlete’s world, Lippert has some advice to offer students to maintain mental health and well-being. To support mental health, Lippert states students must understand how the endurance training process works. “You are not going to perform your best every single day”. Meggs et al., (2019) showed that mental toughness contributes to successful performance in triathletes. Further, Healy et al. (2020) demonstrated that well-being is promoted when student athletes have higher intrinsic or autonomous motives and lower extrinsic or controlled motives. According to Lippert, “improvement in triathlon is like the stock market, it is continually going up and down, but the long-term trend is always improving. If you understand this and can see it developing over time, you will see there is no reason to beat yourself up or get frustrated over sub-par workouts or training slumps."

Avoiding Burnout

Avoiding burnout is an important consideration for the college student athlete. Determination, and having an uncompromising attitude predicts mastery in the life of a college student athlete (Micoogullari et al., 2017). When first displaying signs of burnout, early intervention may help prevent college students from dropping out (Sorkkila et al., 2019). In order to avoid burnout, Lippert states, “it is important to keep it fun and enjoy what you do. Triathlon is a sport where you literally push your body to the point of exhaustion in tough workouts. You need to make parts of the training process fun. Things like coffee shop bike rides on easy days, training with friends, or blasting your favorite music so you can look forward to your training."

Keeping it Fun

For current or future students considering life as a triathlete, Lippert offers the following advice: “Remember that triathlon, and the day in, day out training (unless it is your primary source of income) is a hobby. Keep it fun, keep it enjoyable, do not let bad workouts get you down. You are still moving your body, getting those endorphins flowing, and getting ready to crush your next race and enjoy that race day atmosphere and camaraderie.”

After completion of his undergraduate degree, Lippert continued his passion for triathlon as an MBA graduate student attending Queens College (NC) and with his teammates, winning the collegiate triathlon championship in 2018.

About the author

Colleen Hinrichsen is a research assistant for Sports Health Institute, and a general psychology PhD student at Grand Canyon University. She has spent most of her career in healthcare, and for the past decade has worked as the transfusion services supervisor in a central NJ community-based hospital.


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