“What they say could’ve happened was that I had a deformity on the top of my femur. And so whether or not the deformity was like a result of training a lot, or I was born with the deformity and then training a lot kind of like made it, like become worse and worse over time, it’s really hard to say. But ultimately, they said that it really wasn’t like a surgery that was life or death. It was like you can either not get the surgery and basically never compete again, or you can get the surgery and hopefully, you should be able to compete again.”
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JESSE: Today on the Smart Athlete podcast, I have a special guest who is still racing as a professional triathlete, while somehow simultaneously he’s a PhD candidate at UC Boulder in fluid dynamics– I should say fluid mechanics, actually. Welcome to the podcast today, Mike Meehan.
MIKE: Hey, thanks for having me.
JESSE: Did I get your last name, right? Is it a hard…?
JESSE: Okay, I was like, I didn’t think it was a hard h but I went for it.
MIKE: It goes either way.
JESSE: So, we were talking a little bit before we got started. I asked you if you’re still racing as a pro and you said, technically. So, what’s that all about?
MIKE: Yeah, so I mean, the definition of professional triathlete, it just varies so much from person to person. Like, technically, I consider myself a professional from the fact that I literally just– I can race against the best people; I can race money, I can enter ITU races, that kind of thing. But to say that I am a professional triathlete from the standpoint that I’d make a living off of it is entirely false. So, yeah.
JESSE: That seems to be something that comes up a lot. I think Chris Douglas, who referred me to talk to you, I think he mentioned that in the sense that, if I’m remembering correctly, I think he said something like I didn’t ever think I would be like a professional and I think professionals should make a living from it. And that seems to be a pretty common theme. If you’re going to be a pro you should make a living from it, or something along those lines. I don’t necessarily agree, but it does seem to come up somewhat often, that interesting distinction.
MIKE: Yeah, no, it’s definitely hard to say exactly that distinction. I mean, just because there really is not a fine line, like you need to make such and such amount of money from a sponsor to be considered a professional. It’s kind of– Yeah, there’s no guidelines for that.
JESSE: I kind of think about it in terms of like, anybody who has a – license is a professional to me just because– I mean, what we’re dealing with as a sport and for triathlon is like, you’re not dealing with basketball, you don’t have the audience to justify the salaries for all the athletes like you would for basketball or other major sports. So, it’s like you have the physical ability to compete at that level, it’s just you can be a professional caller but you’re probably not going to make a living from it. But you’re still a professional because you compete at that– So, that’s my band, I guess.
MIKE: Yeah. Yeah, it all depends on how you feel I feel like.
JESSE: Do you have any idea, like, what percentage of the pro field you think, makes their living just doing that? They’re not doubling anything else? They’re not painting houses on the side, they’re just just racing?
MIKE: It’s really hard to say and I say that mostly because I think I know a lot of people that race professionally, and that is the only thing that they do to make money. But really, they might have like a financial income coming from somewhere else, but they’re still not working, per say. So, it that really makes it like a fine line as to well, yeah, you are competing professionally as a full-time triathlete, but you’re not profiting, you’re not making money. And yes, for whatever reasons that may be, it’s hard to say exactly. Of like, maybe the people that I feel like are making enough money so that they can live off just being a professional triathlete, maybe 15% of the people that would be in a pro field, maybe. Yeah.
JESSE: I don’t want to forget, you said people are getting money from elsewhere, I want to come back to that. But are you familiar with like Cody Beals’ blog on, you know, he has lists like his race winnings and his expenses. And like, he’s one of the few pros that is like, gives all that transparency about that. Are you familiar with that?
MIKE: I’m not. For some reason, it vaguely sounds familiar but I’m not entirely familiar with.
JESSE: He’s 70.3 and I think he’s going to fall whereas it seems like you do more ITU draft legal. So, you’re both pros, but you’re in two separate sports almost. So, I didn’t know whether you would run into that. So, I do it go back to you said, money from elsewhere. So, I guess this may be a little bit of gossip but is it like, trust fund money? Is that like, I made an invention and I have money coming in from that? Do you have any idea what that actually is for people?
MIKE: Well, I think that there’s kind of two aspects that you can hit it from. There’s like one where sometimes, especially more so at the long course distance, maybe. I’m not as familiar so I shouldn’t say like, I know this, for sure. But sometimes people come into it at an older age and so sometimes people worked a job, say, for a long time and then came into Iron Man a little bit later on. And so they are taking maybe their savings account that they made money a while ago, and now they’ve quit that daytime job to pursue triathlon, but they’re not making like another money from the triathlon to say, be like living off of just triathlon. They’re still living off like that savings.
JESSE: Right. So, it’s a net negative still?
MIKE: Exactly, exactly. So, I think that kind of like is the crux of it. Whenever I say that there’s money elsewhere, but there’s competing just full time [??? 7:22] if that makes sense.
JESSE: Okay. So, I kind of think of like, I was not good enough to be a professional but we’re of a similar age, I believe. I kind of think of people like us that have been– you successfully moving to the pro field, like, pretty much right out of college, like not having that history of work. So, that’s why I was like, well, where’s the money coming from? Because you really haven’t had, you know, if you graduate college and you begin racing and you don’t have a– for most people a work history to bank off of.
MIKE: Right. Yeah. No, definitely, like coming out of college and trying to make it on your own and try it like, especially paying off college debt. And I mean, that can be tough. So, yeah, for sure.
JESSE: So, I mean, like a typical season as a pro, how much are you travelling, what’s a typical season run like? What’s your schedule look like?
MIKE: So, I would say it’s been a while since I’ve had a full year of just kind of focusing on racing. I had two hip surgeries and so I hadn’t really raised the past two years. But as far as the race season goes, I mean, generally speaking, it starts in March-ish depending on whether or not when you feel like you’re ready to start racing. And then September, October, usually, things start to die down. And typically, there are sometimes blocks where you have some racing blocks where you’re racing, maybe three times in three weekends. Other times throughout the year, five or six weeks of just downtime from racing and you’re focusing on training. But yeah, I mean, it very much depends on the type of racing that you want to do, and which races you want to do, really. So, yes.
JESSE: I mean, were you still racing heavily as you’re working on your PhD?
MIKE: Not as much anymore. I mean, I still train a good bit by most people’s standards, but not as much as I was whenever I was an undergrad. So, I think that’s just kind of the life balance choice that you have to make because I mean, the triathlon isn’t like my primary focus, necessarily. So, sometimes that has to get pushed off to the side. And especially coming back from the injuries, I am limited into how much training volume I can do or want to push my body to. And so that kind of seems like a natural outcome of everything.
JESSE: I saw on your blog and you mentioned the hip surgeries you had, I think you mentioned it being non-race related. So, I mean, how do you get to the point where you need hip surgery, if it’s not training related?
MIKE: Yeah, it’s really hard to say because they don’t have like a time history of my hips over the past three to four years. What they say could have happened was that I had a deformity on the top of my femur. And so whether or not the deformity was like, a result of training a lot, or I was born with the deformity and then training a lot kind of like made it become worse and worse over time, it’s really hard to say. But ultimately, they said that it really wasn’t like a surgery that was life or death. It was like, you can either not get the surgery and basically never compete again, or you can get the surgery and hopefully, you should be able to compete again, if that makes sense.
JESSE: Yeah. So, you had, the bone was deformed or?
MIKE: Yeah, yeah. It was a – deformity and basically, the femur just wasn’t entirely round sitting in the socket. And so it was bang up against my pelvis, or I’m not entirely familiar with anatomy.
JESSE: That’s fine. Was it like an issue where you could feel like a clicking or what– did you even feel anything besides like a pain?
MIKE: So it was mostly a pain with impact. So, any time I did an impact type of movement, particularly running, that was whenever I felt it the most. I didn’t really feel it all that much swimming or even riding necessarily. But if you push off the wall weird whenever I swam really hard, and in a different kind of motion I could feel it. So, yeah.
JESSE: And I think you said in your post talking about the surgery, the doctor wanted you on the bike right after the surgery?
MIKE: Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty incredible. This surgery that I had done is fairly common now. But if you look back, like 15-20 years, this surgery was almost like a death sentence, to someone’s athletic career. So, this type of thing that is actually advancing it and making it easier and easier for people to get this operation, then still recover from it. And one of the advances that people found was that you want to get that hip moving as quickly as possible after surgery. So, it’s not a case of resting it for longer is better, necessarily. For this particular injury, this particular operation, actually they find that it’s way better to get that hip moving in a safe way, but get it moving and that actually leads to better recovery.
JESSE: So, I’m kind of curious, I’m guessing that they did the surgery arthroscopically, just like two pin holes. So, anybody who doesn’t know, I know a little bit about this because my girlfriend actually just had hip surgery last year after I had surgery. So, arthroscopic surgery is like, two very small incisions and then they go in with little robot arms and do the work so that they don’t actually have to open up the entire leg to get in there. It’s much less invasive. Did you end up having like a passive motion machine that you had to use to move your leg at night? Or was it you were just get to go?
MIKE: No, I mean, I had it in two different places. And I didn’t have a passive machine, necessarily. I think that was just basically what the bike was for. But one surgeon had it a little bit more fixed with like a brace, the other surgeon didn’t have the brace. Yeah, that was, nothing to drastically different between them, though.
JESSE: So, from post surgery back to, I’ll call it a normal workout schedule, but you know you build back in like, how long did it take from surgery day to all right, we’re back into training?
MIKE: Yeah. It’s been an acidotic approach to full training. So, immediately after surgery, yeah, I mean, there’s obviously some downtime, I wasn’t really doing much. But within like, I don’t know, say two months, by two months, I was able to do some decent riding, like the low impact stuff. So, some people riding, some swimming, nothing too hard, but I was starting to get into better and better shape. And then I started running probably maybe three months after, three or four months after the surgery. But it takes a while to just kind of keep on building back into it from there. So, I was able to start running, but it just took a while to get back up. I mean, I’m still not even running more than an hour and my surgery was a year and three months ago. So, yeah. So, now it’s like I’m still like getting closer and getting closer to normal training but it’s still not quite there yet.
JESSE: Within an hour, are you still able to do, say you want to go do tempo or you want to go do like a faster 800 interval or something, can you get up to speed…?
MIKE: Yes, I was a runner so it’s easier for me to get up to speed, but it’s actually it’s not in the moment that it hurts, it’s the post. So, whenever I first started doing like a couple like workouts and I say workouts, meaning like, five by one minute tempo, like nothing drastic, I would hurt for like two or three days. And that’s just the nature of how it needs to heal like a year, like breaking things open and it needs the ratio again, it just takes a lot of time. So, yeah, I could go out and run probably pretty fast, but I think that I would be in quite a bit of pain immediately after, or afterwards in the evening time frame of the next day.
JESSE: Is it just a matter of sit on it, do you I said or is there any kind of, I want to say extra activity you can do to alleviate some of that, or you just sit and suffer?
MIKE: No, actually moving it more and more is better and better. It’s just like the impact is tough on it. And so that’s kind of things that’s hard to get back to full training. It’s like every, say extra 30 minutes of running I want to do that week, it requires like another you know, hour and a half or two hours of like exercises, kind of moving the hip around, keeping the joint loose and making sure everything’s healthy. So, that’s another reason why it’s kind of like harder to get back into training, full training with that limitation.
JESSE: So, it’s effectively like I’ll call it the Fifth Discipline because the fourth discipline’s transition.
JESSE: So, it’s not a triathlon, it’s pentathlon now.
MIKE: Amazing how it keeps on growing.
JESSE: Yeah. So, it’s always something else. So, then you have recovery and then nutrition and it’s just like, how do you keep up with it all?