When I was 11 years old I raced in my first triathlon with my dad. It was a “one and done” experience up until I watched the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii 20 years later. The energy among the athletes, volunteers, and spectators was exciting in a way I could not resist. Shortly after coming home I decided to give the sport another try.
Considering your first triathlon can be daunting. All the lingo and amount of gear are enough to scare anyone away, but thankfully it’s not that complicated. As most people know, triathlons are races that feature three disciplines strung together: swimming, cycling, and running. What some people might not know is there are a few different standard triathlon distances:
- Sprint: 0.5-mile (0.8-kilometer) swim, 15-mile (24-kilometer) bike, and 3-mile (5-kilometer) run.
- Olympic: 0.93 miles (1.5 kilometers) swim, 24.8 mile (40 kilometers) bike, and a 6.2 mile (10 kilometers) run.
- Half-Ironman aka 70.3: 1.2 mile (1.93 kilometers) swim, 56 mile (90 kilometers) bike, and 13.1 mile (21 kilometers) run.
- Ironman aka Full: 2.4-mile (3.9-kilometer) swim, 112-mile (180-kilometer) bike, and a 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometer) marathon run.
The hardest part is facing the doubt and uncertainty and deciding to take on something new. You’re supposed to feel a little nervous, that’s okay. Most people feel more motivated after making a commitment. For your first triathlon, I recommend the sprint distance. This will require minimal gear and minimal training, which is a good way to see if you enjoy the sport without spending a lot of time and money.
After you’ve registered for your race, consider getting a buddy to join your adventure. Even if both of you aren’t sure of what you are doing, you are both in this together. Some of my favorite training was shared with my friend, Steve Major, as we prepared for the unknown – a 24-hour GORUCK Heavy Challenge.
Another way to get involved with others is to join a group to train with. Most cities have triathlon clubs where you can swim, bike, and run with others who have been there and done that. So many of the nuances and details of triathlon are learned from experience and many triathletes are happy to share theirs.
If you’re lucky, you will have a Team RWB Chapter near you. Team RWB members are a mix of active duty military, veterans and civilians that get together to work out and train for races.
2. Gear Up
Open up any triathlon magazine and you will see a laundry list of gear you “need.” I’ll admit I have been seduced by those pages, but you won’t have to shell out the big bucks for your first tri. Forget all the fancy aerobars, bento boxes, and oversize watches. The expensive gear might make sense later down the road if you plan on competing and/or doing the longer distance triathlons like the half-iron or iron-distance. All you need are the following things:
-Bike & Helmet
Any bike. A sprint triathlon bike course is 12 miles, so you can ride a hybrid or even a mountain bike to get it done. Consider borrowing or renting a bike if you don’t already own one. I’ve even rented a bike for the weekend when racing in San Diego, because bringing my own was impractical. Just make sure it fits right and has a tune up. The helmet is mandatory gear and you’ll get disqualified without one on. Listen to this Brit talk about the right size bike for you:
Any pair will do. You don’t need special bike shoes, just use your running shoes for the bike and run. Again, be sure they fit well. For my second triathlon, a sprint, I used an old pair of running shoes that had been sitting in my closet for five years. After a couple easy runs, you will probably notice if your shoes fit well or not.
-Swim Cap and Goggles
Swim caps keep hair out of your face and reduce drag. Most races will provide athletes with a swim cap, but don’t depend on it. You’ll want a good fitting pair of goggles, which you can purchase at any sporting goods store .Here’s a quick video explaining how to make sure you get a good fit:
Depending on where you are swimming, consider a swimming wetsuit. You will stay warmer and more buoyant with a wetsuit. This buoyancy will allow you to swim much faster since your energy will be spent propelling you forward and not trying to keep your legs afloat. Rent one from places like Sports Basement and practice once or twice before your race. Again, this is an optional piece of gear and not required for a sprint distance.
3. Train Up
Now that you have selected your first triathlon, found some training partners, and assembled your gear, it’s time to start training. Many beginners will be tempted to charge into their first workouts at full speed. This is a mistake! Let your body ease into training. Too much, too soon often leads to injury. Many training plans can be found online and will serve as a good template, but listen to your own body instead of forcing it into a schedule. Here are a few suggestions on how to train for your first triathlon:
Take a swim lesson
Swimming requires the most technique out of the three disciplines of triathlon. A lesson or two can improve your swim exponentially, which is no exaggeration. After taking lessons from my US Masters swim coach, Kerry O’Brien, I realized that much of my energy had been spent struggling, but not actually propelling me forward. Learning a few key points like keeping my spine straight, relaxing, and pushing all the way through my stroke made it much easier to move in the water. I’ve also learned a few things swimming in open water which made a big difference.
Build up Gradually & Consistently
Triathlons are endurance events, which primarily use your aerobic system. To develop a good aerobic base, starting slow and building incrementally is key. Many people are tempted to treat each workout like it’s a race, which easily leads to sickness and injury because the body is not fully recovering from each workout. Simple training plans can help beginners get into the rhythm of training. Remember, these are templates, not strict rules. You will be a little sore or tired at first, but be sure to listen if your body is saying “not today.” I ignored those warnings a few times and ended up getting sick and missing a week of training because of it. One of the warning signs for me is a feeling of very low energy that doesn’t dissipate even after a warm up. Sometimes less is more.
Dynamic Stretching and Mobility
Forget the pre-workout static stretches and opt instead for dynamic stretches that will warm the body up. Dynamic stretching involves movement, which oxygenates the blood and lubricates the joints. Mobility refers to the body’s ability to have full range of motion in order to perform efficiently. Here are a couple clips demonstrating both:
Before a workout:
After a workout
Recovery is the most overlooked aspect of triathlon training. The body needs time in between each workout to repair the muscles in order for you to progress. Aim to get 8 hours of sleep, ideally starting before 11:00pm in order for your body to get the optimum level of repair. Other recovery strategies include using a foam roller (IT bands, quads, glutes, and calf muscles), as well as massage and meditation.
Your first triathlon should be an enjoyable event. There is no need to worry about fast transition times or the perfect gear setup. Many of your racing strategies will come from experience and you’ll definitely have something go wrong, so don’t fret it. As a final piece of advice, allow yourself to enjoy the race itself, not just the finish. The positive energy amongst athletes and volunteers on race day is contagious, and just like me, you’ll be hooked after your first.