People get into triathlon for many different reasons such as health, curiosity, and/or novelty. The common question is, “How do I prepare for my first triathlon?”
Instead of training for one discipline like swimming, cycling, or running, you now have to think about how you can fit all three into your available time. How, and how much you train changes with how long your goal triathlon race is. You may also have questions about equipment… For a newbie to triathlon the thought of all this can be quite overwhelming!
Here are five easy steps you can take to get ready for your first triathlon.
Step 1: Target your first race.
There are many triathlon distances to choose from. There are popular distances, like the Sprint distance (750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike, 5-kilometer run) and Olympic distance (1.5-kilometer swim, 40-kilometer bike, 10-kilometer run) and even shorter ones catering specifically to newcomers to the sport.
The longest single-day triathlon distance is ironman distance: approximately a 4-kilometer swim, 180-kilometer bike, and 42-kilometer run. Most people train and race for years before attempting an ironman. The good news is, to become a triathlete you just have to race a swim-bike-run event regardless of how short or long it is. You don’t even have to own your own bike, if you can borrow one!
Australian Ironman Hall of Famer Belinda Granger says: “Back in my day you started short and worked your way up to the IM distance, but I know plenty of people who have started with IM. Now personally I would not start with an ironman. I liked working my way up the distances… it was like sprint distance… tick, Olympic Distance… tick, Half IM… tick.”
So first you have to pick a race that you can prepare for in the time between now and when the race is happening. If you already have basic swimming and bike-riding skills, you can be ready for a sprint-distance triathlon in as little as 8 weeks under proper supervision. Longer events will of course take longer to prepare for.
It’s worth it to choose a triathlon that’s local and close to home; that way you can also train in the same area that you will race in and be really comfortable and confident in what you need to do on race day.
Step 2: Know your strengths and weaknesses.
There are three disciplines, and it is a generally-recognized truth in triathlon that you will be strong in one of them and weak in one of them. So, today, ask yourself: can you swim? Can you ride a bike? Can you run? Can you do these three and complete the race within the cut-off times? (Yes, most triathlons have cut-off times for the swim and bike legs and an overall cut-off.)
Be honest with yourself. If you really want to prepare right, get someone who is more experienced to look at your form on the swim, bike, and run. You can also get a more specific kind of guidance from a coach, who can also advise you about the way you should train to get ready.
Step 3: Get a training plan.
You need to allocate time in the week to training for the swim, the bike, and the run. How much time you have for training depends on how much time you have left over after work and family time. How much time you give each discipline also depends on which of them is your strength and weakness. A beginner’s training plan for triathlon will cover all these concerns alongside the good advice you can get from a coach.
You’ve also got to find a way to enjoy training in each of the disciplines. Whether it’s the feeling of the wind blowing past your body as you coast downhill on a bike, or visualizing yourself as a mermaid or a fish as you swim… This is definitely a time-intensive sport and you don’t want to spend your limited hours doing something you don’t enjoy! Training with friends is a good way to stick to your plan and stay motivated.
Step 4: Practice so you’re less nervous on race day.
If your race has an open-water swim leg and all of your training so far has been done in a pool, it’s worth the effort to head out to the sea or a lake. You won’t have the security blanket of being able to see a floor beneath you and a wall ahead of you. A practice swim will help calm your nerves and will help you wrap your head around being in open water.
You should also practice the mass start in a swim to become accustomed to the feeling of being in a washing machine. Get a group of your friends together for a simulation; you can also do a short bike ride and run after so there’s less of a shock for what will happen on race day.
Triathlon newbies always ask what they should wear at a race. If you want to keep it simple and not buy a lot of stuff, men can wear swim jammers on the swim and then slip on a singlet with their race number pinned to it for the bike and run. Women can wear swimsuits and then put on a singlet and pair of shorts.
Step 5: Relax and enjoy the process.
Don’t let the thought of doing your first triathlon scare you out of doing it. Four-time triathlon world champion and T*** executive chairman Chris McCormack advises first-timers to take their time during the race. “They tend to talk themselves out of enjoying the day because it can be quite daunting swimming, biking, running. A lot of people are scared of the water. Some people haven’t been on a bike since they were teenagers, other people don’t like to run… Take your time to have a look around and enjoy the atmosphere. This sport is pretty cool.”
He concludes: “There’s not been a single person I have met in 25 years of racing triathlon that has not come off their first event and said, ‘That was the best thing I have ever done.’ It is, I can assure you.”
You will learn so much about yourself and what you did well and could probably do better at your next race. That’s what makes the journey of triathlon so addictive: each race’s successes and setbacks gives you a new direction to go.
So, when are you doing your first triathlon? And if you’ve already done one, what was the experience like?
An earlier version of this article can be found here.