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Boxing Superstar Laila Ali Shares Her Triathlon Secrets

Ali proudly sports her medal after conquering a triathlon! (Photo courtesy of Matt Peyton/Invision for XX/AP Images)

Written by Lisa Turner, editorial intern

Blessed with beauty, brains and athletic ability, undefeated boxer Laila Ali is a woman who knows how to stay fit and inspire others. She makes the most of her gifts by giving back to others - this summer, she’s taking part in Stars Earn Stripes, a reality show series that helps raise money for military charities. She also heads up the Women’s Sports Foundation, which helps girls and women from all backgrounds get involved in sports. With her undefeated boxing record behind her since 2007, Ali was ready to face her next challenge, so she teamed up with Aquaphor to participate in the Aquaphor NYC Triathlon (in between a busy filming schedule!) and finished in 3:06! After all of the swimming, biking and running, Ali sat down with FITNESS to share her training secrets and what surprised her most about the race.

Why did you decide to do the triathlon? Aquaphor asked me to be an ambassador for the brand and participate in the race, and I’m always looking for a challenge so I had to say yes!

How did you fit training into your schedule? I’m always looking for new ways to stay fit, but it’s harder and harder with two kids and a busy schedule. With boxing, I had to stay fit because it was my job, but now I have to make the choice to take the time to do it. Usually, exercise is the first thing to go when life gets in the way, but with the triathlon, it became a priority again, as boxing used to be. And I’m doing it publicly, too, so I couldn’t just go out there and do it any old kind of way.  As an athlete, I pushed through the pain, kept going, and always had that inner coach telling me to keep working hard.

What surprised you most about training? I learned a lot more about myself. Before, I was kind of ignorant about triathlons and wondered why anyone would do them. But then I realized, “Wow, this is fun.” Just biking in my neighborhood, finding new roads that I never knew were there, or riding past a new restaurant I’d never seen before. It feels good to just get out there on the bike, relax and get away from the cell phone.

Did you swim beforehand? No. I knew how to swim but I wasn’t a swimmer. I didn’t realize how much of a swimmer I wasn’t until I had to go do laps. I knew how not to drown, that’s what I knew about swimming! I had to learn all the techniques. It was encouraging to see how my endurance increased day to day, and it happened quickly.

Ali's all smiles crossing the finish line. (Photo courtesy of Matt Peyton/Invision for XX/AP Images)

How did your body change? When I first started training, I was doing great and consistently eating five to six meals a day. I was so pumped because I thought, “I’m finally going to get these last 10 pounds of baby weight off!” But when I started filming Stars Earn Stripes, I lost track for a bit and wasn’t eating as regularly - only one big meal a day. That really made a difference in my training, so I had to get back on track. But the entire time I noticed my back and waist tapering in, muscles coming back and I became more lean.

Were you nervous about swimming in the Hudson River? Going into it, I was just nervous about all of the other people swimming. I don’t care how much you plan and learn the technique, unexpected things happen. Am I going to get kicked? Am I going to start veering off to the left? You never know; you just have to go out there and do it. But it wasn’t bad once I saw everyone jumping into the water. My fear wasn’t about getting into the water, but tackling the mile itself. It just looked like a long way. Once I got in the water and reminded myself to stay calm and focus on how I’d been training, it was fine.

What was your favorite part of the race? The swim because it was just such a new thing for me to be doing. I remember swimming and I saw my friends walking alongside the water. I thought they were cheering me on, but they were actually telling me stay to the right! I swam over a lot of dirty stuff and had to push a lot of things out of my way. I was happy when it was over!

How did you feel once it was over? It was kind of how I feel after fights - there’s nothing to complain about. Before the fight, there’s all this anticipation, and being undefeated, I’m just happy when it’s done. The training is always harder than the actual contest because it’s day after day, and you have life and the kids, so to actually get out there and do it was an amazing feeling.

Do you ever miss boxing? Sometimes, but I’m not trying to go back to it. I’m more into fitness, wellness and inspiring others. I’m currently the president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and we’re always trying to empower and inspire girls and women. So with the triathlon, I’m walking the walk and talking the talk by taking on this new challenge.

More from FITNESS: 8 Weeks to your First Mini-Triathlon