So you wanna do a triathlon? Choosing your first race

We live in a world where we always want more. Some people want bigger houses, better vehicles, and a quicker climb up the corporate ladder.

What does that mean for an athlete? We want to be faster, we want to go further, and we want to push harder.

You hear about people who start running and their first race is a marathon. Professional women in Kona (Ironman World Championships) are getting closer in time to men than ever before.

For me in triathlon? My husband and I signed up for a half Ironman and then full Ironman a few months later. No try a tri, sprint or Olympic distance for us. Did it work out? Yes; however we’d been endurance runners for years.

My advice? Sign up for a race you think you will be successful in. If you really want to embrace and love multisport, set yourself up for a positive experience.

  • Get your family on board. Their support is crucial if you want to make it work.

    My then nine-month-old niece aptly watching Kelly and I in Arizona for our first Ironman!

    My then nine-month-old niece focussed while watching Kelly and me in Arizona for our first Ironman!

  • Consider training time mixed with family/work/life commitments. Don’t sign up for an iron distance if you have a summer full of weddings, or a crazy schedule. Race a shorter distance and go longer when you have more time.
  • Think about your history: race distance, training, injury, etc. If you’ve predominately raced 5 or 10km races, it’s probably best to start in sprint or Olympic distance race.
  • Talk to a coach or friends who tri. They’ve experienced multisport training and can offer advice to ensure your success.
  • Determine your strengths and figure out what you’d be best suited towards. If you are scared stiff of swimming, perhaps you could start with a duathlon and take swimming lessons to get more comfortable.

Road triathlon
There are a few set triathlon distances and then various other races have their own swim/bike/run distances (like Escape from Alcatraz).

Sprint: swim 750m / bike 20km / run 5km
Olympic: swim 1500m / bike 40km / run 10km
Half iron/long course: swim 1.2 miles (1.9km) / bike 56 miles (90 km) / run 13.1 miles (21.1km)
Iron distance: swim 2.4 miles (3.8km) / bike 112 miles (180km) / run 26.2 miles (42.2km)


Other options
There are plenty of multisport options to choose from in addition to road triathlons:

  • If you prefer trails to road, choose an XTERRA off-road triathlon.
  • If you don’t want to swim, sign up for a duathlon that consists of run bike run.
  • Don’t want to run or injured? Race an aquabike, which is a swim then bike race.
  • An aquathlon is typically run swim run, so you don’t have to bike if that’s a hurdle.

Go watch a triathlon and I’m sure you’ll be amazed and inspired by some of the people you see crossing that finish line.

What was your first race distance (running or tri)?

Read part 1 (five things I wish I knew before I started triathlon) and part 2 (getting started) of the tri series, and let me know if you have any other questions! I’m no expert, but I love helping people reach new finish lines!

18 responses to “So you wanna do a triathlon? Choosing your first race

  1. I’m kind of like you- my first race ever was a marathon! I’m hoping that after the half ironman I will want to do a full one…but I’m just not so sure yet 🙂

  2. You two just amaze me!! I love that photo of your niece, SO cute.

  3. I love the photo of you jumping at the finish of IM. So fun!! I can’t believe this October will be my 10 year “anniversary” of my first 5K…that was my first race ever. I thought I was going to die while out on the course and was extremely ecstatic to cross that finish line. I love trips down memory lane 😉

  4. My first running race distance was a half marathon. It’s still my favorite race distance! My first (and only) tri was a sprint with an extra short swim (.25 mile). I’m not sure I’ll ever go farther than a sprint! Too scary!

  5. First run distance was a half marathon, first tri distance was Olympic but almost a half-iron, it got cancelled because of terrible flooding and I did an Olympic a few weeks later 🙂

  6. I’m doing my first sprint tri in July! I’ve signed up for a second one in August. I’d love to do a Half Iron, or may be a full, but I think that will be a couple years down the road.

  7. Again, a really nice and informative post. I didn’t know about all the options at multisport except from the triathlon and the duathlon. I considered a duathlon this Spring but the schedule didn’t work. I thought it would be a nice taste of what can be a triathlon.

    Also, I am quite surprised at the number of people (especially, here, in the USA) who decide to run a marathon even if they are not running for a long time. I guess it is the American way of thinking: try to get what you want and push further and further. It’s not necessarily bad. I am not saying that. But, for me, it is putting you at risk of having a bad race experience. I may be too cautious, but I think you have to know your body to go further and longer before attempting longer or more difficult challenges.

    To answer your question, my first running race was a 5 mile race in Central Park in June 2011. 🙂

  8. Ouuuu! Sprint and Olympic triathlon look like something that I would actually be able to do. Fun fun fun! My first run was a charity 5km run for Breast Cancer, my second race was Super Spartan (13+ km, in my case, 14.3km in mountains). I have a Spartan Sprint in less than 3 weeks, and then Spartan Beast (20+ km) in 6.5 weeks. Excitement is an understatement! Love this post, totally agree with the positive first experience. xoxo Olena

  9. I love that you included the distances for all the tris (I only knew the ironman and half iron ones)!!
    My first race distance – 2 miles in high school at a cross country meet.

  10. My first run distance was a 5k. I think my first “tri” was a canoe+run+bike, with a 6 mile canoe, 5.5 mile run, and 18 mile bike. That was a cool race because you signed up as a two person team and canoed with your teammate, and then added together your run and bike times. It was more of a fun race than a for-time race. My first tri with swimming was a super sprint

  11. Great post!

    I signed up for a half marathon before I had done any running race but did a 5k tune up race during training so I guess that counts as my first!

    And I signed up for my first ironman the night before my first sprint triathlon !

  12. This is great advice! Love the post race jumping photo!!! I want to start with a sprint tri, but maybe I’d be better off doing something longer. Working on it. My first race? Oh geez, I ran track and CC in high school. I ran hundreds of 5k’s. But the first marathon was what set it all off for me.

  13. Great post! I just love that photo of your jumping after your Ironman, so awesome! I think picking a first triathlon is very specific to each person, like you mention here. My first Tri was a spring triathlon and I was happy to start with this entry level distance. I spent my first couple of tri seasons only racing sprints and olympics. I would have most likely jumped into the longer distance events, like half irons, sooner, had I not had knee surgery in 2011 and gotten married in 2012:) I feel at this point, I am more than ready for the Ironman distance and I have done my ‘time’ so to speak. I think I am going to love the Iron distance!

  14. I think “time” actually places the biggest role in these decisions, as you mention. My first race ever was a marathon and I chose that distance because I was going through a hard time and needed to cope – running was my therapy and helped me to work through my thoughts with no distractions. When I decided to do a triathlon, I chose the half-ironman distance because I knew I had the time and flexibility in my schedule to train for it and do it right. No matter where you start, I think there is always going to be curiosity about the next level or step.

  15. Great primer! I agree about really thinking about the time you have available and matching the race to it. I did my IM long before kids. I am tempted to do IM MD next year but…it would require all my heaviest training over summer, when my kids are home. I will only have four more years of my son at home at that stage. Do I want to spend that time on my bike away from him? Probably not! There will come a time when things will be different.

  16. runnerbydefault

    My first race was a half marathon. I have only done 1 5k and hated it. I prefer to run longer since I am a slower runner. Everyone goes too fast during a 5k for me!! I am more of an endurance runner.

  17. Great tips!! My first running race was a Thanksgiving 5K. It was so much fun. It was all about finishing! I moved to a 10k and half pretty quick and I never thought I would do a marathon! Little did I know! I did a sprint tri first and moved up to an IM in my second season! A little crazy but you just have to “want” to do it because there is so much training involved. You can’t think oh doing an IM would be cool! You won’t want to train!! 🙂

  18. You list a lot of great options, and thanks for the easy chart for triathlon event distances! My friend just starting participating in duathlons since she doesn’t want to swim. That might be in my future, too! I ran a few 5-milers years ago and then took a break from racing. In the 90’s when I got back into racing, I jumped right into the marathon!

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