So you are making (or considering making) the leap into the great sport of triathlon. Bravo! Whether you or have intentions of becoming a lifer in the sport or just want to see what the hype is about, you are probably feeling a little overwhelmed about where to start. Even if you have experience in one or two of the sports, adding one or two more can be really intimidating; no need to fret, everyone has to start out a beginner. And while it might seem like the learning curve is steep, I will challenge you to reframe this as an opportunity to make some massive improvements in a short period of time.
I am extending the warmest of welcomes to the world of triathlon. You will not regret this decision, and I can guarantee feelings of pride and great accomplishment when you cross that finish line in your first race.
Let’s get started!
This perhaps can be one of the biggest barriers to the sport for many, because it can feel like you need to invest in a lot of gear just to get started. To be honest, there is a great deal more equipment required in triathlon as compared to other endurance sports, but you do not have to go out and buy all of the latest and greatest triathlon gear and technology. In fact, did my first season of triathlon on a two-size too big, second-hand road bike. I borrowed some other equipment, as I navigated these new and unfamiliar waters (no pun intended), and while I was figuring out what I needed to be comfortable and confident in training and racing. Your wants and needs will evolve as you progress through the sport, but at bare minimum you just need a swim suit and goggles, a bike and helmet, and running shoes.
I endorse the minimalist approach and try to purchase only what I absolutely need, both out of financial necessity and for the sake of keeping things simple and sane.
Before you get started you should sit down and think about some goals that you have for yourself. Not all of your goals should be centered on completing a race or finishing a certain place in a competition, as you should also set goals that are more process goals, in addition to outcome goals. Plan out some goal races, set some goals, and figure out what you will need to do to accomplish them. I always encourage athletes to write down their goals and take a look at them every now and then, they do not have to hang on your mirror for you to stare at each time you brush your teeth.
Find a Trusted Source of Information
No doubt you will have a ton of questions about everything from training and racing to equipment and nutrition, and everything in between. The internet obviously contains a wealth of information, but not all of what you come across while browsing the web will be good and useful; there is a lot of bad advice out there, so precede with caution and use your best judgment when consulting a website. For beginners, I advise using the most caution when visiting forums, where people tend to post their opinions and experiences. There are helpful articles on many sites, such as triathlete.com and active.com. Liv also has tips for beginner triathletes and advice on how to tackle your first triathlon, as well as a triathlon dictionary to explain all of those terms you will start to hear as your enter the world of triathlon.
My most trusted sources of information are my coach, my friends who have competed in triathlons for many years, as well a few books, such as “The Well Built Triathlete” by Matt Dixon.
If there is a local master’s swim team, I highly recommend joining so that you have a group of people to swim with. Most teams have swimmers of all levels and abilities, as well as a coach on deck to write workouts and help you with your strokes. Swimming with other people is a great way to help you push yourself a little bit harder and make your time in the pool a lot more fun than if you were swimming solo.
If you are a true beginner, or never really learned how to swim freestyle (the stroke you will swim in a triathlon), it would be best to find a swim instructor to work with one-on-one until you master perfect swim form. Without proper technique, you will only be able to get so fast in the water no matter how much you swim.
Swimming in open water can be infinitely more intimidating than swimming in the clear chlorinated water of a swimming pool. If you can find a place to do some open water swimming before your first race, go and take a few practice swims. The more time you spend swimming in open water, the more comfortable you will be in those conditions, and you want to do everything you can to reduce anxiety pre-race.
First things first, if you are getting a new bike, borrowing a bike, or even using your own bike, it is a good idea to get a fit to make sure the bike is set up to optimize comfort and performance, as well as minimize the likelihood of injury.
Getting out on the roads can be a bit scary at first, especially if you are also new to clip-in pedals. Spend some time practicing in your driveway or neighborhood before heading out onto busier roads. Connecting with a local shop that has group rides for beginner cycles can be a great way to ease your nerves and boost your confidence when you hit the road on two wheels!
Another way to get started is on a bike trainer, which is a training tool that essentially turns your bike into a stationary bike. Many gyms and bike shops offer bike trainer group-classes, which is a great way to train and connect with other triathletes.
This is probably the simplest and most straightforward leg of the triathlon. All you really need is a pair of running shoes and you are ready to head out the door for a run. No other equipment is needed. Though it is simple in terms of requiring the least amount of gear, the thought of having to run a distance after swimming and biking can be dizzying. No need to fear, with adequate training and preparation, you will be flying off of the bike!
Part of your training for the run portion of the triathlon will consist of doing what is called a “brick,” or running right after you get off of the bike. Though this is a key part of training, you do not want you run off of the bike to be longer than 15-20 minutes, nor do you want to have a brick workout as part of your weekly training plan. Yes, you should be running on tired legs, but not for great distances or too often, because of the risk of injury. Also, the neuromuscular benefits from a brick can be gained in just a short distance of running, so there is no need to cover a lot of ground on tired running legs.
Yes, I am including transitions under sport-specific tips, because you will need to spend some time practicing transitions so you can nail T1 (swim to bike) and T2 (bike to run).
If you are looking for some transition tips, you can watch this video.
The amount of training you will need to do will depend on the distance of the race you are doing. If you are gearing-up for a shorter sprint-distance race you will be fine with 4-5 training sessions a week, with at least one session in each discipline. Longer races will require more frequent and longer training sessions, with up to 20 hours a week of training across all three sports if you are training for an Iron-distance race. This can seem overwhelming, but the key is to create a schedule and stick to it; consistency is key to being successful in training.
This is where having a coach to map out your training is useful. You can also follow a training plan from a triathlon book or from an online source.
Woot woot! It is go time! This is the easy part as compared to all the time you have spent training and preparing for the race. While race-day is filled with emotions and anxiety, there are things you can do in your preparation to calm your nerves. First of all, focus on what you can control. You cannot control the weather, so if it is blazing hot or cold and windy and rainy, there is nothing you can do to change it, so try not to complain or stress about it. Everyone else will be dealing with the same conditions.
Things to do before the race:
- Preview the course, especially the bike leg so that you know the turns and road conditions
- Know where you are going before race day. If you can drive to the location and figure out parking and the lay of the land ahead of time. This will help remove some of the stress on race morning.
- Make a list, pack your transition bag, and lay out the clothes you are going to put on the night before. Bring only what you need so you do not have too much stuff in transition.
- Have a schedule, and know what time you are going to wake-up, eat breakfast, leave for the race, set-up transition, warm-up ect. Budget in some time buffers, as it is better to have extra time than not enough.
- Know the rules! The athlete guide for the race, as well as the USA Triathlon website will have a list of rules. I highly encourage you to go to the pre-race athlete meeting as the race rules will be discussed there as well!
Come race day, be confident in yourself and all you have done to get to the starting line, and always remember to have fun!