Thursday, March 21, 2013

So You Want to be a Triathlete? Some Tips for Beginners

So you want to be a triathlete huh? It happens! Just as with other endurance sports such as running, some people just catch the tri bug. I'll be the first to admit there is something oddly arousing about jumping into a lake, river or ocean with hundreds or thousands of others and frantically pulling and kicking your way into position! Who wouldn't catch an adrenaline rush from that?

But let's get serious for a second shall we? If you really want to be a triathlete there are some things you should know before you move forward at 2800 mph into this all-consuming lifestyle. Below is my list of beginner tips (please note that although I'm going into my 4th season (3rd full season) of the triathlon sport, I am still learning myself and may still be considered a rookie to some of the badasses of the sport).

What You Need to Know, Do, Buy and Believe to Succeed in Triathlon:

  • Start Small - Do yourself and everyone else a favor and get your feet wet before jumping into a full iron distance triathlon or even a 70.3. This will not be as straight forward as just competing in one sport like running. You may be able to go from a 5K to a half marathon quickly or right to a marathon in running, but succeeding in a triathlon involves more than just putting one foot in front of the other. Start with a sprint and work your way up as you gain experience.
  • A word about Sprints - Do not assume that sprint triathlon is for sissies either! There are plenty of fast, experienced triathletes that like competing in sprints out there. Do your best to stay out of the way if you're new and fumbling around in the water, transition area or anywhere else on the course. 
  • Prerace planning - Triathlon involves more planning than one sport. Prepare for your race at least a day or two in advance. Make a list of everything you need or think you might need and pack your transition bag with those items. Have your bike ready and checked by a bike mechanic either before or at the race to minimize the chance of bike issues. DO NOT FORGET YOUR HELMET or you cannot race. Also don't forget your googles, shoes, etc. And don't forget water and race fuel. At least have a couple of gels even for the sprint. 
  • Learn the Rules - Triathlon is governed by USAT, which has some specific rules such as bike drafting, no headphones, etc that you need to be familiar with. You can be penalized or disqualified from a race for ignoring the rules.
  • Swimming - You will need to have some level of swimming experience - how much depends on your goal but no matter what the goal please dedicate some time to swim in a pool AS WELL AS OPEN WATER before the race. If this is your first swim since you were in middle school or your first time venturing out in the open water you may panic. 
  • Open Water Starts - May be intimidating even for veterans. The initial pace of any swim is fast and anaerobic for the first 100-400m of any race distance as athletes settle in to their desired paces. If you are new to the sport, it's a good idea to start off towards the back on the left or right side of your wave. Try to site the course at least once every 20-30 seconds so you make sure you are not off course and adding to your time in the water. If you feel a body right by you beware you might be kicked or hit accidentally. It does happen.
  • Transitions - Transitions can be flustering and even slow moving for veterans. The only way to get better at these is to practice and try to learn and improve a little each time. Accept that there is a good chance you'll be slow at transitions as a newbie. If you're good at them then you're ahead of the game there. Try to make sure you know where your rack space is and this will help speed things up. Before the race take the time to setup your transition area with your biking and running gear. Remember to take a drink and eat something either in the TA or after you start your ride or run.
  • The Bike - Do not ride on your old rickety ten speed from 20 years ago or your heavy mountain bike unless of course you do not care how you perform on the bike. While you don't have to rush out and buy an expensive carbon triathlon bike, you may want to at least purchase yourself or borrow someone else's trusty road bike. This will help. I recommend using clip in pedals if you are experienced, if not cages will suffice. Pace yourself on the bike. It is very easy to go out hard and either bonk later in the ride or else blow your legs out for the run. Also utilize the time in the saddle to hydrate and fuel. 
  • Running - The run is more difficult than your average run because it is the last of three events. Your legs will feel tired and maybe a little like wet noodles for the first mile or so. You can practice doing bike and run workouts called "Bricks" to help adapt your running to this sensation. As with the bike, it is easy to go out fast on the run especially if you do not pay attention to your pace. It will feel like you are running slow right off the bike when in fact you might be running faster than your planned pace.
  • Training - Try to allow time in your schedule for training for all three sports. You may be better at some sports than others and that is okay and normal just don't neglect the training. The key to success in triathlon is consistent training. As you gain experience and/or obtain help from a coach or mentor you will learn how to train best for your specific goals and life circumstances.
  • Fun & Group Training - Triathletes are a dedicated group of people that like to have fun. This is a social sport so it is likely you will meet many interesting people. It may help to join a local triathlon club such as Cleveland Triathlon Club if you are from Northeast Ohio. Wherever you are there is likely to be a club you can get involved with.
  • Ongoing advice and info - There are a number of sources for learning about and keeping up with the triathlon scene. For beginners there are websites such as and that can help. Magazines like Triathlete are also good sources of info. If you have a local triathlon shop or running and cycling shops you can also look into the resources they have available too. 
I could keep going but this post would end up being pages and pages long. Hopefully this list will steer you in the right direction. If you have questions or want to add any points to this list feel free to leave a comment. Happy triathlon training! It really is a fun and rewarding lifestyle!

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