There are a number of reasons to get into triathlon—better physical fitness, love of competition, pushing yourself to reach a new goal, meeting new friends, and more. And people enter the sport at many different points in their lives. I have friends who stopped athletics after high school then took up triathlon in their mid 20s, 30s, 40s, and older. I also have friends who focused on other sports, like field hockey or ice hockey, before switching to triathlon, and still others who were competitive swimmers, runners, or cyclists who wanted to try something different. Some have never been active at all before giving it a shot.
Whatever your reason for getting into triathlon, and whatever life-stage you’re in, completing a triathlon is a great achievement. Congratulations! You’ve found an incredibly welcoming sport that you can participate in for years to come.
Simply put triathlon is easy: swim, bike, run—that’s it. But when we dig a bit deeper, there are a few important factors and tips that will help in your journey to becoming a triathlete and enjoying it. Here’s my advice for picking a distance and getting started.
Race distances vary from sprint distance up to long distance triathlon. It is best to start out with a locally held sprint distance race. From there you can work up to longer distances, or you can focus on and really master the shorter events—triathlon is a choose-your-own-adventure challenge! Here’s a breakdown:
- Sprint Distance Triathlon: up to ½ mile swim | up to 12 mile bike | up to 3.1 mile run
- Olympic Distance Triathlon: 1 mile swim | 25 mile bike | 6.2 mile run
- 70.3 Distance Triathlon: 1.2 mile swim | 56 mile bike | 13.1 mile run
- 140.6 Distance Triathlon (a.k.a. Ironman Distance): 2.4 mile swim | 112 mile bike | 26.2 mile run
The swim is the first leg of a triathlon, and with it comes a lot of the stress of triathlon. All races will start with groups of people on the start line, so you have to be comfortable in open water. The best things you can do to prepare for the swim:
- Join a swim group, such as your local YMCA or a Masters Swim Team, and attend regular workouts. Working on your stroke will make you more efficient and you will use less energy on the swim. It’s also a great way to meet like-minded people and stay motivated!
- Practice swimming in open water. Most triathletes do their swim workouts in the pool, and forget to spend time practicing in open water, but it is super-important to do! Getting used to open water before the event will take a lot of stress out of race day.
- Find a good-fitting set of goggles and a wetsuit. Try on a bunch before making any purchases, and before race day make sure your equipment fits well. Always bring an extra pair of goggles in your race bag— you never know when a pair will break and you don’t want to be standing on the start line without them.
Riding a bike is the easiest discipline for athletes to pick up. It’s also low impact on your body and a great way to stay in shape on it’s own. Start out with short rides and build up to longer distances and regular rides of 45 minutes to an hour.
The bike you choose to ride is important, too. Most serious triathletes will buy a Time Trail (TT) bike, which is lighter and much faster than a standard road bike, but it also puts you in a less comfortable position. It’s best to start out by buying a road bike, similar to those raced in the Tour de France. They are more comfortable and much easier to control. You can always upgrade to a TT bike later.
- Get a bike fit!! I cannot stress this enough—this should be the first thing you do before you start to pick up your training. It doesn’t matter what type or brand of bike you’re on, it needs to fit you properly. Getting a proper bike fit will save time and can prevent knee injuries and lower back pain.
- Keep your bike clean. I see a lot of people who ride their bikes and then leave them in the garage with all the collected dust and debris. Cleaning your bike is very important, because it can help you ride faster. You do not have to become a mechanic, but you should know how to clean your chain. Accumulated dirt and muck make it tougher to pedal and slow you down!
- Always wear a helmet. There is no reason not to wear a helmet—all it can do is save your life.
- Get a heart rate monitor. Knowing how hard you’re working can help you gauge how well your training plan is working for you. Not every workout should be a ride in the park, and not every one needs to be an all our huff-fest either, a heart rate monitor will keep in the right zone.
If you’re not already a runner, running can take a while to get used to, as it is much higher impact than swimming or cycling. Start out slow and take your time—there’s no need to sprint your first run. There is also no shame in taking walk breaks. I know many professional runners who take scheduled, 1-minute walk breaks during their longer runs.
- Get a good pair of shoes. Find shoes that fit you properly, and be sure to take your time trying them and walking around in them (indoors in case you need to return them). A good pair of shoes will help to reduce injuries and make running much more enjoyable.
- Stick to dirt trails or asphalt. Because it’s 10 times harder than asphalt, running on concrete is hard on your joints and muscles.
- Practice going fast. A lot of athletes are afraid of going hard on training runs, but doing so will improve your finish time on race day. Try finishing every a run session by doing some strides; strides are sprints from 50 to 75 meters where you focus on going faster and keeping a high cadence.
One of the most interesting (and challenging!) things about triathlon is that once the clock starts it does not stop until you finish the entire event—swim, bike, and run. Which means every second you spend switching from the swim to the bike course, and from the bike to your run counts. Some people take their time during transitions, while others will speed through as fast as possible. Practicing biking after swimming, and running after biking is helpful to new athletes, because it feels different doing one activity right after another, compared to doing each sport feeling fresh. Also, don’t forget to practice getting on and off your bike. It may seem easy, but if you haven’t practiced it’s a common spot to get flustered on race day.
Because training plans need to be tailored to your specific fitness level, schedule, and goals, it would be impossible for me to create a one-size-fits-all plan. But a piece of advice I can give here is to approach triathlon training at a pace that works for YOU. It might also be a good idea for you to consider coaching or group training.
Finding a coach or a group to train with can make the entire process more enjoyable. There are many local triathlon clubs, as well as online communities, plans, and coaches—you just need to find one that suits your ability and time commitment. Train with a group will keep motivated, too—especially on days when you really don’t feel like getting out of bed.
Overall triathlon is about spending time outside, enjoying competition, and pushing yourself to be healthier and fitter. Enjoy the journey!