A Beginner’s Guide to Triathlons (explained in plain English!)

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One of the coolest things I’ve done to exercise my body as an adult is participate in a sprint triathlon. Admittedly, the idea seemed extremely overwhelming and a bit scary at first, but after a little bit of research and practice, I felt confident in running not only my first triathlon, but many more in the following years. I’m happy to share all the things I’ve learned over the past 12 years in plain language to help others just starting out on their tri journey.

What is a triathlon?

You probably already know that a triathlon is a race with 3 separate legs (hence the “tri”): a swim, a bike and a run. Most triathlons go in that order as well, although “reverse” triathlons also exist which begin with a run, then a bike and end with a swim. I recommend beginning with the traditional order (swim, bike, run) for your first race.

How does it work?

The basic gist of a triathlon is, obviously, to get through each leg as quickly as possible, without losing too much time during your transitions. After each leg of the race, you’ll run back to the transition area to prep yourself for the next portion.

For example, after the swim, you’ll lose your swim cap and goggles and then throw on some bike shorts, socks, shoes, bike helmet and grab your bike. After the bike portion, you’ll leave your bike and helmet in the transition area and head to the run (possibly changing shoes if you have clip-in pedals and use bike shoes).

What do I need to know as a beginner triathlete?

The two most popular types of triathlons are a sprint (or beginner triathlon) and an olympic distance. If you’re already used to swimming, biking and running longer distances, you could consider an olympic tri, but usually a first-time triathlete will start with a sprint race. Most sprint triathlons involve a 400m swim (16 laps in a 25m pool), 12mi bike, and a 3mi run, or something very similar.

That can seem daunting but I promise it’s possible, even if your current fitness level is subpar. It just takes one workout at a time, gradually increasing your endurance and speed. Be aware that cross-triaining, including weight lifting, is an essential aspect of any triathlon training plan. Anything that makes you stronger will also make you faster!

It’s important to realize that everyone has one sport that they love or are strongest in, and another one (or two) that they dislike. This is totally normal. I’m a runner as well as a strong swimmer so the bike portion is always my worst nemesis.

Be sure to train extra hard in your weak sport because chances are, you’re naturally fastest in the things that you enjoy doing. Be aware that training for a triathlon takes a significant amount of time. I personally try to allot approximately 60-90 minutes a day, 5-6 days a week to train, although you’ll need significantly more for races longer than a sprint.

The first step before beginning any training program, is ensuring you can start with some basic distances: swim 100 yards (preferably freestyle), run 1-2 miles, and bike 6ish miles without stopping. If you’re nowhere near this yet, you’ll just need to start with shorter distances and then pick up an official training plan when you get a little closer to those goals.

Lastly, be sure that you find a workout plan that includes at least a couple of workouts with 2 sports combined, preferably in the order you’ll race them. For example, do a few bike rides followed by a run so you can get accustomed the the heavy feeling in your legs when transitioning between those two. Consequently. these are called “brick workouts” because your legs feel like bricks!

If you’re worried about doing your first triathlon alone, check your local area for a triathlon club. They are a fun way to get to know other triathletes, find a race or training buddy and even learn new skills. Triathlon clubs near me are often offering free or at-cost training in all triathlon disciplines. You might also look into hiring a triathlon coach, if you’d like to get serious about the sport.

The Swim

Many beginner triathletes are the most nervous about the swim portion because swimming seems to be the least popular workout among non-athletes. But there’s no reason to be scared of it! The first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you know how to swim freestyle and that you have good form. I ended up going to a pool with a friend who brought a competitive swimmer she knew to watch our strokes and give us a couple of pointers. This is where a triathlon club or training buddy would come in really handy.

A few notes to keep in mind:

• Train yourself to breathe on every third stroke, alternating sides. If you don’t have a lot of swim training, this will take some practice to get used to.

• Practice barely lifting your mouth out of the water to breathe; try to keep one half of your goggles underwater.

• Steadily and slowly exhale throughout your stroke before coming up for more air; don’t hold your breath.

• If your triathlon involves open water swimming, make sure you swim in a lake or ocean before the race! Pool swimming is great for practice, but it’s definitely not the same.

This is a fantastic video that talks you through even more technique for the perfect freestyle.

The Bike

The best way to get ready for the bike portion of a triathlon is, unsurprisingly, to go for lots and lots of bike rides. Be sure to research the terrain of your race’s bike path so that you can adequately prepare. For example, don’t only train on flat courses if there will be lots of hills in the race. And while it’s OK to initially practice on a mountain bike or hybrid, you will definitely want a road bike for race day. This was something that I neglected for my first one or two races and it was so disheartening to have overweight old men fly by me in the bike leg just because they had good bikes!

If you think you’ll do more than one triathlon, you might consider looking into buying your own road bike. You can get a decent entry level road bike for under $500. If not, or you’re just not ready to commit yet, you’d be better off borrowing one from a friend or even renting one. Just be sure to do plenty of practice runs with the borrowed/rented bike before the race. You don’t want anything new on race day.

And if you’re new to riding a road bike, be aware that there’s a significant learning curve when it comes to balance! Those tires are really thin and it’s very easy to fall, if anything goes awry (ask me how I know). Until you get very comfortable on a road bike, watch out for gravel or rocks, wet or icy pavement, grooves in the road or railroad tracks.

New triathletes are also usually unaware that you need a way to secure your foot to the bike pedals. There is a significant amount of power lost on the upstroke if your foot is not able to pull up on the pedal and you just rely on momentum to bring it around. This is why professional bikers wear biking shoes and clip them into special bike pedals. Most experienced triathletes do the same with their bikes but I haven’t made that transition yet. I simply wear my running shoes for the bike portion and use pedals with toe cages. These are a set of semi-rigid straps around the pedal that you simply slip your foot in and out of.

That being said, be sure to practice taking your feet in and out of caged or clip-in pedals before you hit the road! When you stop at a red light or for any other reason, it’s easy to momentarily forget that your feet are attached to the pedals and not get them out in time to put your foot down. Then your bike falls over and you get scratched up and feel really silly. Save yourself some pain and embarrassment!

A few other necessities for a great bike leg: a good-fitting helmet (not optional), a squirt water bottle that can hook to your bike, biking gloves (to lessen the strain on your hands) and sunglasses. I also really appreciate a spedometer both during training and on race day. It helps immensely to pace myself and ensure I’m sticking with my goal speed.

The Run

This portion of the race is the most straightforward; if you own a pair of tennis shoes, you can run. A great way to build up your running endurance is to practice running for a few minutes, interspersed with walks to moderate your heart rate and gradually build up from there. Keep track of your pace, if possible, or at least your start time and end time so that you can make sure you’re getting faster each week. Training for a run is another great reason to have a triathlon buddy to help pace you, talk to you and cheer you on.

One of my favorite tips is to load up a playlist with upbeat music to listen to when you start losing steam. I know some people love listening to audiobooks or podcasts during runs but that never works for me. I need a fast beat to keep me moving. However, be aware that many triathlons prohibit headphones of any kind during the race for safety reasons.

Finally, once you’ve found a training plan that seems doable, print it out, hang it on your wall or fridge and make notes on it. I like to cross off workouts when I do them and note if I did more or less than the workout recommended. That way, I can see if I need more time in a specific sport or if I’m continually struggling with one type of workout over another.

What to wear & bring

This was honestly one of my biggest stressors before my first race. Do I need a special swimsuit? What do I wear over it? How about a sports bra? I had so many questions!

Hard-core triathletes wear wetsuits (also known as, unsurprisingly, a “tri suit”) that are specifically designed to keep you warm in open water and comfortable on the bike and during the run. I’m not that hardcore (yet) so I simply wear a swimsuit and bike shorts. A regular one-piece Speedo-type swimsuit is just fine, but I prefer a tankini style so it’s easier to use the bathroom before and after. Several years ago, I bought a tankini top designed specifically for triathlons from Athleta and wear that one all the time. It has enough of a bra built in that I often don’t have to wear anything else. I pair it with swim bottoms for the swim, and then pull on bike shorts afterwards (always a little tricky to do rapidly when you’re wet). A few places to shop for athletic swimwear and high-impact bras: Athleta, Title Nine, Lululemon and REI.

If you’re especially busty, I highly recommend wearing a SheFit sports bra under your swimsuit. While you don’t need much support for the swim and bike, it will ensure you’re all strapped down and ready to go when you get to the run. SheFit is the only bra that can adequately support me when I’m still breastfeeding a baby. I can confidently run, do HIIT and even jumprope with this thing on (even as a 34DDD).

Bike shorts are just basic, spandex shorts with extra padding in the crotch area. This feature, while not strictly necessary, is a nice plus when you’re first adjusting to sitting in that saddle for an hour or more a day. Beware that the padding does soak up water like a sponge so I don’t recommend swimming in them. Just pull them on in the transition area before biking.

I highly recommend buying a lycra fabric swim cap instead of the latex or silicone variety. I probably went through 4 or 5 latex caps before realizing that the fabric kind existed. With lots of use, the latex ones eventually just tear open while my fabric cap has lasted me more years than I can count. And if you’ll have spectators at your race, buy one in a bright color so your friends and family can more easily locate you in the water and cheer you on! Goggles are another essential investment. Buy a good brand (like Speedo) with anti-fog and anti-UV coating. I personally like shaded goggles because I live in Phoenix and it’s always very sunny.

A few other nice things to have:

• Elastic shoelaces instead of regular ones. These can simply be pulled to tighten so you don’t waste time tying laces.

• Sunscreen to put on beforehand and a hat for the run

• Sunglasses for the run and bike

• Protein bar or other snacks, extra water

• A helium balloon! The transition area gets hectic and really chaotic, especially once the race begins. It’s easy to lose your place and waste precious time during transitions trying to find your stuff. A brightly colored helium balloon can be tied to the bike rack near your belongings so you can easily locate your spot.

Finally, be sure to leave your valuables (phone, wallet, etc) in your car and lock it. While we hope that no one would take advantage of racers’ absences to steal things, it’s not worth the risk. Keep only your race essentials in the transition area.

Whew! That’s about everything I know about prepping for race day. Most importantly, relax, have fun and work steadily toward your goal. Then plan a party for after crossing the finish line because running a triathlon is an incredible accomplishment!


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