So you wanna do a triathlon? Part 2 – Getting started

A few weeks ago I wrote about five things I wish I knew before I started triathlon. Here’s a second post on triathlon – getting started.

The first thing I wished I knew was how expensive triathlon can be (tip 1). However, you don’t need all the top gear.

It’s more important to get started biking (regardless whether it’s on a mountain bike, a borrowed road bike, or a svelte tri bike) and swimming than wishing for higher end equipment.

You could run your first tri with only five key items: swimsuit and goggles, a bike and helmet, and running shoes.

Here are three tips to help you get started…

Build a base
Kelly and I bought introductory road bikes the summer before our races before we really knew we were headed towards triathlon. The first couple rides were scary, even with cage pedals, because I just wasn’t comfortable on a road bike and riding on the highway. Over time I got more comfortable and we started going longer.TdA22013

I was a lifeguard and swimming instructor in high school and university so knew how to swim, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it or even practiced unless my recertification was coming due. And although Kelly knew how to swim, he couldn’t go for longer than 50m without stopping. Within six months he could do an iron-distance swim (3.8km or 2.4 miles).

It was important for both of us to build a base in the other activities and get comfortable doing them to see if it’s something we actually would like to do enough to practice on a regular basis (and whether it would be worth investing more money into).97704-594-026f

Start training for all three sports
Once you’ve built a base, start training for the swim, bike and run. A lot of great feedback in the last post mentioned practicing your least favourite or weakest sport. It’s easy to do the one you love the most, but you don’t really need to work on that activity!

Training for all three sports is great to start getting comfortable (tip 2). When I made the transition to clipless pedals and cycling shoes, I felt like a beginner all over again. I fell into the ditch of the highway once, clipped in, which didn’t help (and hurt both my back and my ego)! But the more I did it, the more comfortable I became.

Training for all three also helps you to figure out balance between the sports with strength training and life (tip 4).

This might be the point where you’d consider joining a masters swim team, checking out a local cycling club, or hiring a coach. You can also find tons of information online! Kelly and I winged it all, but I always say I’ll hire a coach for the next triathlon I run.

Continue to learn about it
There’s a lot to learn in triathlon from new terminology to logistics. Here is a random list of things to consider:

  • Bike set up – if you have the right bike size and fit, it should help prevent biking injuries down the road.
  • Rest – important in all sports, but when you are balancing three, rest becomes even more important. Be sure to listen to your body and skip a workout or scale it back if necessary.
  • Nutrition – ensure you are adequately fueling both in training and at other times to provide your body the energy it requires.
  • Brick – a triathlon training term when you stack two or more disciplines during the same workout with no or very little rest between. (i.e. bike then run). They help to prepare your body for the next demand. Start small and increase with comfort.
A run/swim/run brick

A run/swim/run brick

  • Transitions (T1 and T2) – Transition areas are where you go after one sport to prepare for the next, swim to bike (T1) and bike to run (T2). They can be intimidating the first time you participate since they’re kind of foreign. They can also vary from having wetsuit strippers, to long runs between the swim and bike, to having everything for T1 and T2 at the same station or in a completely different location.

These are just a few more things to consider in the larger triathlon cog. If you want to try, go for it and learn as you go: build a base, train for three sports and ask questions, read about it, and get professional help (coach, clubs, etc) if you choose.

Next up…how to choose your first race!

Non-triathletes: Which sport is easiest and which one is the toughest?

Triathletes: what else would you add? How long did you train in three disciplines before signing up for a race?


38 responses to “So you wanna do a triathlon? Part 2 – Getting started

  1. I would definitely do a longer base in the sports than you think you need. I was a high school competitive swimmer and a runner when I started training and I figured it couldn’t be that hard to ride the bike. I was correct in that I could do all 3 and finish, but I wasn’t as comfortable as I could have been with being clipped in or with open water swimming (I had never swam in open water until my tri…oops). Next time, I want to spend more time just incorporating swimming and biking into my regular routine before I do dedicated tri training, I want those portions to not feel like the “other things” I have to do before I can run.

  2. I would add that if you’re comfortable with swimming and cycling, but not yet running, sign up for an aquabike. If you’re better at cycling and running, sign up for a duathlon. This will allow you to start experience racing and get a feel for transitions. I would also recommend spending more time in your weakness(es)…I definitely spend a bit more time on my weakness (cycling) and I have found it to help me get stronger, more comfortable and faster overall 🙂

    I participated in the three distances for about 1 year before I signed up for my first race (I’m not sure “training” is the right word for what I did). I definitely had to build comfort in all three sports before I signed up for a race 😉

  3. Great tips! It’s such a fun sport. I would add that there’s value in practicing transitions b/c you will hate yourself later if you lose all kinds of time there! Especially important with a wetsuit. And on the topic of wetsuits–I wouldn’t bother for sprints, unless it is extremely cold water. The time saved in not having to remove it is worth it for a short swim.

  4. While I’ve never been serious about biking on the roads, I think that would be the easiest for me despite some fear of cars and clipping into the pedals. Running is my go to and has been for a while now, but it’s not really “easy.” That’s partially why I love it, it keeps me pushed! Swimming I’m decent at, I can definitely hold my own, I’m just not a pool fan. HA!

  5. I wrote a post about how to keep triathlons on the cheap. Really, I’d recommend that people start with a sprint with borrowed/cheap equipment. If you decide to take triathlons more seriously after the sprint, then you can start buying quality equipment. In my case, I’ll never really care about biking, so I’m perfectly happy with my <$200 hybrid! 🙂

  6. Good tips! Another is to look for a really short race as your first one to test it out and to get familiar with transitions. My first tri was an all-female super sprint, so I felt 100% comfortable with the distance of each sport and was less nervous to sign up!

  7. Great tips!! I think starting out with a sprint race. Just to get your feel for doing each sport back to back with transitions. Often they have a beginner wave (the last wave) to help the nerves of the beginners not having to start with the seasoned triathletes. See you if you even like the sport before you put lots of money and time into it!!
    I think that I was only training for about 3 or 4 months before my first tri! (and that was learning to swim “laps”) I started out with Team In Training which was great because I am not sure that I would have been able to figure things out on my own! 🙂

  8. I’m a newbie, so I love these tips! I’m working out with some pretty intense athletes so its hard to remember that I’m a beginner and don’t need to be finishing right along side them.

  9. Great tips! Thanks! Open water swimming scares me, especially because I have seen the quality of water in Denver parks (where many tris start) or have felt how cold the water is in natural lakes in the mountains. And I would not ever want to be in a place where I feel like people are pushing into me in the water!

  10. I’m enjoying this series even though a triathlon is not on my list of things to try!! I think I might like a duathlon (maybe) so this information would be helpful then!

  11. For me, the swim would definitely be the hardest. I think I’d be lucky to swim 50m. It has been a really long time since I swam with a purpose and not just playing with B in the pool! I have gone back and forth on wanting to try this, but I’m almost positive at this point that I will do a sprint tri in the future just to see how it goes. 🙂

  12. You’ll know for me running is the easiest. Then, I’d say swimming, and finally cycling. Just not keen on cycling at all, and my husband loves it.

    Good information if I ever want to try a tri!

  13. Great post Abby! As a triathlete, I would say it’s best to ease into the LONG distance triathlons. I spent my first two seasons of triathlons, just doing sprints. I then worked my way up to Olympic and then eventually to half Ironmans. I feel like at this point, six years into my training and racing that I am ready to make the move towards my Ironman. I would also add that getting a professional bike fit is SUPER important. Also, don’t worry about buying all of the expensive stuff right away, wait and see if you like the sport first! Nutrition is also very important. I would say one of the most valuable things I’ve done is get a Sports Nutrition consultation. It has really changed my nutrition for the better and I am a stronger triathlete thanks to fueling on the right foods at the right times.

  14. Great info! The swimming is what scares me. I think I’ve mentioned that here before. I need to just buck up and take lessons!!

  15. Awesome advice, Abby! As with any discipline, the more time you spend training in a certain area, the better prepared you’ll be. Cycling was my newest discipline, and I quickly realized that I was only going to get better if I spent more time on the bike. Lots more time!

    Re: gear. Yes, it can be super expensive, so I like the idea of starting with the basics. Don’t go out and buy a really expensive tri bike before you know whether you’re going to stick with the sport. A road bike will do just fine for most races, and sometimes it’s even better than a tri bike on really hilly courses. I did a Half Ironman on a standard road bike with no aero bars. It was a really hilly course, so I’m glad I had the extra gears!

  16. Great information for newbies and those interested in the sport. I signed up for Boise 70.3 for my first and have been training since March, but I probably would have started with an Olympic distance first and then made my way to the longer endurance. The only reason I was confident enough to do it was because I had done a half IM distance duathlon last summer. The swim is by far my weakest (and most terrifying) leg – I’m pretty evenly matched on the bike and run. Transitions are the one thing I haven’t had much practice with and am hoping to do so before next weekend. If all else fails, my first 70.3 will be a great learning experience for future races.

  17. Great tips again! I shared your post with a blogger friend who said she’s looking into doing her first tri. I still want to do one, but haven’t yet. Running and biking should be ok. Swimming I can do, but my breaking sucks. I have forgotten how to breathe by turning my head…I need to stop and tread water for a second, hold my breath and swim, then repeat. Maybe I can get a snorkel?

    • Thanks for sharing!
      You laugh, but snorkels are actually allowed in Ironman swims! Kelly and I always joke that we should wear one down to the start to see what kind of looks we get!
      Kelly had the most problems with his breathing, but it comes!

  18. I think I signed up WAY before I even got in the pool but that was only for a sprint so bit of a different story. Signing up (and paying) were totally the motivation to get me swimming!

  19. Great! I love these posts 🙂
    Also, I have a question: is there a specific season for triathlon races? and when is it? I am asking because I was checking the races around me. I thought it would be like running: races all year round. But it doesn’t seem that way. Does it depend on the region/country or maybe it is just the way it works for this sport?

  20. LOVE THIS! I am sooo sooo happy I came across your blog! Great timing too, because I am training for the Spartan Beast right now. I know, it’s not triathlon, but my training actually includes a lot of biking, which is not really surprising. However, I always skipped on it because I didn’t want to bike on my own. This little inconvenience will be solved shortly. How? I decided to buy my hubby a bike for his birthday. I’m smart, eh?! lol! So yeah, where I am going with it. Since my training will involve lots of running and biking, I can as well add swimming, it’d be great if one day I could complete an Iron Man *right now, it’s somewhat of a dream*. I think the biggest challenge for me would probably be swimming. I was used to be good at it when I was a kid; however, it’s been ages since I swam over 1 km!


    • Sounds like a great race to get in lots of cross-training!
      That was smart to buy your hubby a bike 🙂
      If you were good at swimming, it won’t take you long to pick it up again!

  21. runnerbydefault

    Swimming was the most fun to train for but the hardest part of the tri for me (and I didn’t expect that at all!). Running was definitely the easiest of all 3.

  22. Love this series, Abby! We have similar swimming backgrounds… I was also a lifeguard and taught swimming lessons in high school and college. My favorite job ever! Swimming is definitely my weakest sport, but it’s been the one I’ve focused on the most this winter. Definitely key to focus on your weakest, but also remember not to completely neglect the others 🙂 I jumped right in to tris… spring, Oly and half the first summer and then signed up for Canada after that first year!

  23. Pingback: So you wanna do a triathlon? Choosing your first race | Change of Pace

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