Despite popular belief, triathlons are not only for the elite athletes. A simple internet search will prove this assumption wrong, resulting in lists upon lists of sprint triathlons, olympic triathlons, female only triathlons, youth triathlons, themed triathlons, and more.

There is a race out there for everyone, unfortunately, the mere thought of a triathlon is enough to frighten some people. Don’t let fear and assumptions limit you, instead, use them as motivation to progress in the fitness field and in your overall life. There are few things that measure up to the feeling of crossing the finish line of a triathlon. Why shouldn’t you experience it at least once?!

How Do Triathlons Work?

Triathlons are multisport events consisting of three legs; swimming, biking, and running. The order of events is always the same with swimming first, followed by biking, and finishing with the run leg. If this doesn’t sound appealing to you, there are other races that closely resemble triathlons, such as duathlons, which replace the swim with another biking leg, aquathons, which are swimming and running only, and aquabikes, which, as the name clearly states, is swimming and biking.

There are many variations to triathlons, and no two triathlons are equal. Some swim legs take place in open water areas such as lakes and rivers, and others use traditional, indoor and outdoor lap pools. The biking leg can take place on mountain trails or road paths, with mountain bikes, road bikes, and hybrid bikes. The distances vary depending on the host and the location. Most family friendly races are short distances, and the more competitive races are longer distances. Ironman and Half Ironman triathlons are sanctioned events and typically require a qualifying time, so the chance that you will sign up for something beyond your abilities is very slim.

Indoor triathlons are great beginner races, though they are not as popular, and typically only occur in the winter and spring. Which is also great for out of season racing opportunities.

Indoor races usually allocate a certain amount of time for each leg. For example, 10 minute swim, 20 minute bike, 15 minute run. Volunteers keep track of your distance for each leg, and the winners are those who went the farthest distances in the same amount of time.

Indoor races also differ slightly because of the transitions between legs. All triathlons have a transition between the swim and the bike, and again between the bike and the run. Normally, athletes try to get in and out of their transition area as fast as possible. Indoor triathlons, however, use timed transitions, such as 5 minutes or 10 minutes, because the athletes are moving from the pool, to stationary bikes, to treadmills.

How to Find the Right Race.

There are many websites with nationwide and statewide triathlon schedules and information to help aid you in your search for the perfect race. Don’t forget to check locally as well. Running specialty stores, juice bars, and other related businesses usually post fliers and seasonal schedules of local events around town. Many cities have their own triathlon groups and annual races which are aimed specifically at beginner and intermediate athletes.

A few important facts to keep in mind when searching for a race are; swimming abilities, the type of bike you will be using, and the running course. If you are not a strong swimmer, or have never swam in an open water setting, be sure to find a race that allows you enough time to improve your swimming abilities and train in open water, or stick to a race that uses a pool instead. Determine the bike you will be using, or borrowing, for the race before you being searching. This will eliminate a lot of races that might be bike specific or trail specific. Many people’s strongest point will be the running, whether it is a sprint triathlon with a 2 mile course, or an Olympic triathlon with a 6 mile course, it is important to know your running abilities. Keeping in mind you will be preluding it with a swim and miles of biking.

How to Train For Your First Tri.

The steps to training for your first triathlon are no different than the steps you would take when starting anything new. Determine what your goals are and what you want to gain from the experience. Commit to achieving the goals you have set for yourself, knowing the process will be difficult at times.

Training for a triathlon is more demanding and time consuming than training for other athletic events, due in large part to the different facilities and equipment needed to train for each leg. Most gyms do have pools, bikes, and tracks, however, if you are planning to compete in an outdoor triathlon, a lot of training should be done outside of the gym to get a feel for what to expect on race day.

The first step is getting the gear. If you don’t plan on becoming a full-fledged triathlete, then stick to the basics. Gear for any sport can be expensive, and multiplying that by three can become outrageous. So, don’t feel obligated to purchase new running shoes and a brand new bike if you already own these things and they are in working condition.

Everyone requires a little different gear, but the basics include; one piece swim suit or wet suit, goggles, swim cap, bicycle, tennis shoes that can be worn biking and running, athletic clothing that is comfortable and fits well without rubbing.

If you do not own a bike, call around town to find local bike rentals. Major chains such as REI and Sports Authority rent mountain and road bikes at many of their locations. If you choose this option, but sure to have the bike fitted for your height while you are at the bike shop.

You do not need to use the same exact bike for training that you use for the race. Whether you use a road bike, a mountain bike, a stationary bike, or switch between all three throughout your training, you are targeting the right muscles. And again, if you are not preparing to be the next Ironman, don’t invest too much into what type or brand of bike you are using.

Once you have the gear, you are ready to begin training for your first triathlon!

The first two weeks of training should be a trial and error phase.

Test your current abilities and limits in the pool, on the bike, and running. Spend the first week becoming familiar with these new sports and the equipment that comes with them by dedicating 20 minutes to each one. Go easy and slow, but make sure not to stop until you have finished 20 minutes. By the second week you should begin to feel more comfortable and less intimidated. Bump up the time to 30 minutes for each exercise and push yourself a little more out of your comfort zone.

After two weeks,

… you should be well aware of the areas that need the most attention and have an idea of the type of training that will fit into your schedule. It is important to make a schedule that coincides with your working life and social life. Finding a healthy balance will eliminate the chance of experiencing burn-out before race day.

Once you have passed the two week mark and familiarized yourself with each sport,

… it is time to create distance-goals and pace-goals. If you know your abilities and limits, you can create your own goals. If you do not feel comfortable creating your own, there are many training resources online for beginner and first time triathletes which outline swimming, biking, and running workouts based on your specific needs. However you decide to generate your goals, be sure to monitor them and increase or decrease when necessary.

If you are competing in an outdoor, or semi-outdoor race,

… you should slowly incorporate outdoor training after 3-4 weeks. Finding appropriate running and biking areas will be effortless. Finding suitable swimming areas might require more time and research.

If your town has a local triathlon group,

… find out when they practice open water and join in once or twice a week. Some larger cities have dedicated open water swimming schedules set up through the parks and recreation department, complete with lifeguards at each buoy. If you do not have any of these resources available, find a body of water with a roped off swim area and swim the perimeter, or recruit a friend with a kayak or canoe to paddle next to you as you swim.

Open water swimming is dangerous for even the most experienced swimmer. There are many factors that will work against you when swimming in large bodies of water, such as wind, currents, tides, water temperature, and even the glare of the sun. It is crucial to practice swimming in open water as many times as you can before race day to get over the initial shock of the process.

Running and biking routes are plentiful and easy to find,

… but don’t forget to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Try to avoid park routes and tracks which are generally paved and flat. Instead, try to incorporate routes with hills and inclines that require more endurance.

Training and Time-Management.

One of the main reasons people do not commit to triathlons, or exercise in general, is lack of time. If you have always considered competing in a triathlon but think your schedule is too full to find time for training, ask yourself what good your current schedule is doing for you. Are you active and healthy? Are there a few things you could move around to accommodate an hour or two of training a day? Do you want to do something to better yourself? There are always reasons to put off difficult tasks, but often times, the most difficult things end up being the most rewarding and memorable.

A common misconception with triathlons is that you have to practice each of the three sports every day. In reality, there is no reason to swim, bike, and run each day. If you are a skilled runner with years of experience, it is essentially a waste of training time to run every day. Running twice a week, and dedicating the rest of the week to swimming and biking, is a better use of time and will allow more training time to improve other areas.

Splitting workouts can also help with time management, for example, swimming in the early morning, and biking in the evening. Or incorporate running or biking on your lunch break, even if it’s only 15 minutes. Any time, no matter how little, dedicated to training is going to be beneficial.

There are no rules and regulations to training. It is based on your schedule and your willingness to commit. The hardest part is the initial commitment and enthusiasm to start. Mental obstacles will continue to occur throughout training, and even on race day, but you have to learn to embrace them as a part of the process.

Race Day

So, you made it through months of training, blood, sweat and tears. All that’s left is the actual race.

Set aside some time the day before the race to organize your gear and run through your transitions. No race or transition ever occurs without at least one hiccup, so don’t try to over-plan. Remember to enjoy yourself and take pride in what you have achieved instead of focusing on avoiding mistakes.

Race day might be overwhelming if it is a popular race with full registration. There might be a crowd of hundreds of fellow athletes amongst hundreds of bicycles hanging in a decorated transition area. Or, you might be one of only a couple dozen other athletes at a smaller race. Either way, the atmosphere will be exciting and adrenaline-charged. Put your training to the test, and compete with confidence knowing how hard you worked to cross that finish line!

Micah Larsen

Micah is a traveling swim coach and personal trainer, depending on the season. She is also currently working on her Master of Science in Athletic Administration and Coaching. Micah loves to live an active lifestyle, whether she is competing in open water swims, running a road race, practicing yoga, or biking with her dogs. The main objective in her career is to... Read More

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