Beginners Guide to Getting Into Triathlon
Are you interested in training for a triathlon, an event during which you swim, bike, and run? It's easier than you think (we're serious). Even if you've never run or biked and haven't gone swimming since you were a kid, you can prepare for a triathlon in as little as 12 weeks.
Getting into Triathlon
For plenty of people, both athletes and non-athletes, triathlon can seem pretty intimidating. After all, it combines three separate, very different sports into one long event. Even the most physically fit people might feel a bit nervous signing up for their first event.
But feeling nervous isn't enough to stop the nearly half of a million people who sign up for triathlons each year. In fact, according to Runner's World, interest in triathlon has increased by 30 percent over the last five years.
There must be a reason why so many people are jumping feet first into triathlon. Take a look at who's doing it, what's involved, and the benefits of the sport.
Who Does Triathlon?
When you picture a tri-athlete, what comes to mind? For many people, it's an image of an impossibly fit man or woman, with something like 0 percent body fat. Maybe all this person does all day long is train, train, train.
But triathletes are more complicated than that stereotype would lead you to believe. Although most are pretty fit, or at least, a lot more fit than the average person, not every triathlete lives and breathes swimming/running/cycling.
People have all sorts of different reasons for deciding to give triathlon a try. In some cases, a person is a runner who feels he or she has hit a plateau when it comes to the sport. Many are looking for an additional challenge or are hoping to improve their bodies in ways that running on its own just can't.
It's important to note that not all would-be triathletes are runners or even athletes. Yes, it's possible to get into triathlon even if the most exercise you've done in the past was lifting the remote to turn the TV on and off.
All of this is to say that there's no one set "type" of triathlete. As long as you're healthy and have the all-clear from your doctor, you too can transform into a person who does triathlon.
What Does Triathlon Involve?
A triathlon is made up of three separate sports ("tri" means three):
Although every triathlon contains a mix of those three activities, they can vary regarding distance. Four different categories of triathlon exist, and within those categories are groups of races, each of which has its own culture.
Benefits of Triathlon on Health
People decide to get into triathlons for a range of reasons, but often, the physical and health benefits of the event are at the top of the list.
As with most forms of exercise, training for a triathlon will have an overall positive effect on your health. As Men's Health notes, exercise can help to lower your blood pressure, reduce your diabetes risk, reduce your risk for heart disease and certain types of cancer, and reduce your risk for osteoporosis.
Since the event involves training for three separate sports, each of which works different areas of your body, you have a lower risk for injury when training for a triathlon than you do when preparing for a single sport, such as running or swimming on their own. That's because you're putting less strain on particular areas.
Triathlons can also help to make you smarter. As Team USA noted, one study involving rats suggested that aerobic exercise can help to increase the flow of blood to the brain and the production of brain cells, which can help you think better. Triathlon training might also protect you from diseases such as Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.
Social Benefits of Triathlon
Training for and participating in triathlon doesn't just improve your body physically. The sport also offers a variety of social benefits. For example, training for the competition will help to boost your confidence. You're taking on a challenge, perhaps attempting something people told you wouldn't be able to do.
That boost of confidence can transfer to other areas of your life, such as on the job or in your romantic and platonic relationships.
Another social benefit of triathlon is that regular exercise can help you manage your stress levels and feel more at ease. Few things are quite like swimming for a mile then hopping on a bike. If you can handle the rigors of that, dealing with a cranky co-worker or making a presentation to your boss can seem like small stuff.
There's also the social aspect of triathlon to consider. If you've been wondering how to meet new people or make new friends, training for an event, then participating in it, can help you do that. You might find a local triathlete club in your city or area to join, where you can meet people who share similar goals.
Training for a triathlon can also help you serve as a role model to those around you. If you have kids, they might look up to you and hope for the day when they can swim/cycle/run beside you. At work, you might inspire your colleagues to take up exercise or get up off of the couch, especially if you went from couch potato to triathlete.
The Challenge of Triathlon
For some people, the challenge of a triathlon is all the benefit they need to get started and to keep going. For many, the idea of completing a triathlon and getting to tell the world that they are a triathlete (and eventually for some, an Ironman!) is a benefit unto itself.
Signing Up for Your First Triathlon
Signing up for your first triathlon isn't as hard as it might seem. You don't have to start training before you sign up. In fact, it's often better to sign up for an event, then start training. That way, you have a definitive goal in mind and can map out and plan a training schedule based on when the event is and how much work you have to do.
Usually, it's a good idea to sign up for an event that's about three months away. That's far enough in the future that you have time to prepare. But it's not so far in advance that you feel comfortable with procrastinating or putting off training.
Types of Triathlons
As we mentioned above, not all triathlons are the same. Some are considerably shorter than others while others are massive events, designed to test people's endurance.
As you might guess, sprint triathlons are the shortest. They also tend to be the most popular category of triathlon. Within the category, there's some variety when it comes to the length of each segment. For example, the swimming portion can be anywhere from 500 meters to 750 meters, while the cycling portion is usually between 20 and 22 kilometers and the running part is 5 kilometers, according to Dummies. A sub-section of the sprint category is the "super sprint," which has slightly shorter distances.
Usually, a sprint triathlon is the event recommended to beginners, whether a person is an athlete experienced in another event or a complete couch potato.
Super sprints, sometimes called "Try a Tri" are often limited to absolute beginners, that is people who have never done a triathlon before. Try a Tri events often have 400 meters of swimming, 10 kilometers of cycling and 2.5 kilometers of running. The events can be a great way to "dip your toes" in and see if participating in three separate sports at once is something you enjoy doing.
Olympic triathlons are slightly longer than sprints. This is the category used for Olympic competition and the Triathlon World Championship. The event features 1.5 kilometers of swimming, 40 kilometers of cycling, and 10 kilometers of running.
Half-Iron Triathlons, sometimes just called half-triathlons, aren't for the faint of heart or beginners. Often considered to be qualifying races for the granddaddy of triathlon, the Ironman, these races have 1.9 kilometers of swimming, 90 kilometers of cycling, and 21 kilometers of running.
The phrase "half iron" is a little confusing when you think about it. Since the event is easily more than twice as long as the Olympic triathlon and considerably longer than a sprint triathlon, calling it a "half triathlon" seems to downplay just what is involved in participating in and training for a half-iron triathlon.
All this is to say that half-irons aren't kids’ stuff. Even if you've been participating in Olympic distance events for years, it might take some time before you're ready for a half-iron event.
The biggest and perhaps most challenging form of triathlon, Ironman has 3.8 kilometers of swimming, 180 kilometers of cycling, and 42 kilometers of running. It essentially tacks on more than a hundred miles of biking and few miles of swimming to a standard marathon (26.2 miles). The entire event takes place over 140 miles.
A branded race, Ironman was born in Hawaii in 1978. The first iteration of the event combined three separate Hawaiian races -- the Honolulu Marathon, the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, and the Around-O’ahu Bike Race into one massive event. Just 15 people participated in that first ever Ironman. Nowadays, thousands of people are likely to sign up for and participate in a race, demonstrating just how popular even the most grueling and challenging of exercise has become.
While it all began on Hawaii in the 1970s, today, there are Ironman races around the world, held throughout the year. Ironman participants who qualify are invited to the Ironman World Championship held in Hawaii each year.
What You NEED to Start Triathlon
Triathlon isn't an entirely gear-free event. You will have to lay out some cash when you begin training for the equipment needed to participate in each of the three events.
That said, you don't have to break the bank or invest in the best of the best when it comes to gear, especially if you're not 100 percent sure that triathlon is for you. Start out with budget options, then work your way up to pricier equipment, if you decide that it's the right option for you.
We hope you weren't planning on swimming a mile or so wearing ordinary clothes. That would be pretty uncomfortable and would weigh you down.
At the very least, you're going to need a swimsuit for the swim portion of the triathlon. Some suits are going to work better than others when it comes to aerodynamics and just plain old comfort.
For example, a bikini is a terrible idea for women. You can wear a two-piece if you want, just make sure it has a full coverage, supportive top and snug and secure bottoms. A one-piece might be even better unless you usually have trouble getting the right fit on the top and bottom.
To eliminate the risk of having your straps fall during the race, Active recommends that women choose a swimsuit with a racer or "T" back.
For guys, swim briefs, aka Speedos, are usually the best swimwear option. Trunks will weigh you down.
In some cases, a swimsuit might not be the best bet for the swim portion of the race. If the temperature of the water is going to be on the cold side, you might appreciate the warmth of a wetsuit, which covers more of your body and is often made of a thicker material than your typical swimsuit.
According to Triathlete, a wetsuit can also help keep you afloat during the swimming portion of the race.
Just keep in mind that there is often a bit of a learning curve when it comes to wearing a wetsuit. Since you're encasing much of your body in neoprene, it can feel a bit weird at first. Rest assured that any weirdness tends to fade away once you get in the water.
Also, if you're going to wear a wetsuit, you might want to invest in some wetsuit lubricant, to prevent or reduce chafing. The neck movements you make during swimming often cause rubbing between your skin and the edge of the wetsuit. Lubricant helps to lower the friction.
Goggles are another must-have when it comes to the swim portion of the triathlon. You'll want a pair to keep the water out of your eyes as you go so that you can see the buoys during the race (and so that you don't swim into other participants).
If you're competing indoors, a pair of clear goggles will be fine. If your race is outside, you might want to invest in two pairs -- one clear and one that has lenses like those found in sunglasses. You may need your sunglasses goggles if race day turns out to be particularly bright and sunny.
Test your goggles out before you buy them. They should fit snugly, but not be too tight. Some swimmers prefer goggles that are more like a mask (and that cover the nose) while others opt for a pair that only cover the eyes.
You'll also want to have a towel for the end of the swim portion so that you can wipe away any excess water drops and any sand or grit from your feet before you gear up for the cycling part of the race.
The number one piece of equipment you'll need for the cycling portion of the event is a bicycle. Don't worry, though. You don't have to shell out thousands of dollars for a shiny touring or road bike. As long as you something that has two wheels, a set of pedals and handlebars, you should be good to go.
OK, maybe not quite good to go. Some bikes might not be quite up to snuff or able to give you the speed you want for the race. A cruiser or Boardwalk bike might be a bit slow and chunky but will do in a pinch. A mountain bike is fine, and a road bike is even better.
You might want to make a few adjustments to whatever bike you have before the event. Bring it into the shop for a tune-up, at the very least. If your bike has thick, chunky tires, swapping those out for smoother, thinner tires will give you more speed.
Another must-have for the cycling portion of a triathlon is a helmet. Most events won't even let you participate without a helmet. That said, you don't need a high end, aerodynamic model. As long as it fits, is less than five-years-old, and hasn't been in a crash, you should be in the clear.
It's also a good idea to have at least one water bottle filled up and attached to your bike so that you can hydrate as you race.
When it comes to what to wear for the cycling portion of the race, it comes down to an issue of personal preference. Some people invest in what are called tri suits. You can wear a tri suit throughout the entire event, from the swimming portion to the cycling portion to the running part. That way, you aren't stuck trying to cram your legs into bike shorts and then into running shorts.
Tri suits have a thin pad in the shorts to give you some cushion and comfort on the bike. The pad is thinner than a typical chamois, so it won't get saturated and bogged down during the swim part of the event, according to Active.
Another option is to pull on a traditional pair of bike shorts after the swim portion of the race and a tight-fitting cycling top or sports bra. Some people stick with whatever they were wearing during the swim part, minus the tight wetsuit. Some races do require guys to wear a top during the ride, others don't, so it's a good idea to double check the rules.
As far as shoes go, you can wear your running sneakers during the ride portion, or you can get fancy and invest in cycling shoes that clip onto your pedals. Then you'll also have to invest in clip pedals, although some cyclists find that clipless pedals and shoes save them time.
You might also want to stash some gear under the saddle or somewhere on your bike. Having a few patches and tire changing gear, plus a bike pump will mean that you're ready in case you get stuck with a flat.
Your running shoes are going to be the most important piece of gear you need for the running portion of the triathlon. Your shoes don't have to be super fancy and expensive, but they do need to fit. Even better, they'll be designed for your particular running style and foot strike.
Some people recommend having two pairs of running shoes on race day, one pair to wear while you're warming up and the other to wear during the event itself. Whether you bring one or two pairs is a matter of preference.
A few pieces of gear are optional but will significantly improve your comfort. For example, some people choose to skip socks, since it takes a few extra seconds to pull them on. But those socks can mean the difference between blistered, bleeding feet and feet that are all right.
You might also want to bring along some sunglasses and a hat to keep the sun off of your head and face.
How to Start Training for Triathlon
You've found a triathlon in your hometown. You've signed up, you've got some gear. Now it's time to start training. Training for a triathlon in is many ways all about balance. You can't go too fast, or you'll burn out or risk getting injured. If you go too slowly, you won't be ready for race day.
There's also the issue of how in shape you are when you begin training. If you don't work out currently, you can still complete a triathlon in a few months; you just might have more work to do to get ready compared to someone who's already an avid athlete. For best results, pick a training schedule that aligns with your level.
Training From Scratch – No Athletic Background
Surprisingly, 12 weeks might be all you need to go from athletic zero to sprint triathlon hero (or at least, someone's who's completed a triathlon). According to Active, 12 weeks is enough time to build up your endurance and strengthen your ligaments and tendons, so that you don't get hurt and don't collapse mid-race.
When starting from scratch, it's important not to overdo it. Give yourself two rest days per week and only exercise five days out of the week. On the days you do exercise, you don't have to go wild.
For example, you don't have to schedule five 2-hour workout sessions each week. Ideally, you'll work out for 45 minutes or so several times a week, then dedicate one or two workouts to lengthy (90 to 120 minute) bike rides.
It's also important to train yourself to participate in back-to-back events. That means as you get closer to race day, to find ways to swim then transition to your bike and bike then transition to running.
Going from water to bike and from bike to running is going to feel strange at first. Since you do need time to adjust, practicing those transitions well in advance of race day will help you considerably.
Training as a Moderate Athlete – You Exercise, But Not for Endurance
If you're no stranger to the gym, that doesn't necessarily mean you have a leg up on a person who never exercises. That's because even the fittest of people can struggle when trying to learn something new, as Men's Fitness notes. If you run regularly, but never swim, you're going to need to allow time to learn proper form in the water.
That said, you'll want to take a similar approach to training as someone's never worked out. Work out for anywhere from three to six days per week, allowing at least one day for rest. Vary your workouts and try to focus on those transitions (swimming to bike, bike to running).
Endurance Background – You’ve Already Participated in Marathons
If you already run marathons, swim long distances or participate in long-haul bike races, congrats!
Your triathlon training schedule might be a bit different from that of a fitness newbie or fair-weather exerciser. But that doesn't mean you won't have to train.
You'll want to focus on whichever of the two sports you're not well versed in, while not neglecting your primary event. You'll also want to focus on the transitions between each event, adapting to going from being in the water to being on a bike and from being on a bike to running.
In some cases, you can incorporate training for other events into training for a marathon. For example, Triathlete recommends training for an event that's focused on your sport (such as a marathon), then training for a triathlon that's a few months later. That way, you're fine-tuning your main event while gearing up for all three combined.
Training for Swimming
For newbies and experienced athletes alike, the most challenging portion of the triathlon is often the swimming part. Scientific American notes that deaths during triathlon events are infrequent, but the ones that do happen, occur during the swimming portion.
There are many reasons why swimming can be the most challenging part of the event. You can't pull over for a break in the middle of open water, for example. Another reason for the difficulties is that of the three events, swimming tends to be the sport people are less experienced in.
Unless you're already a pro swimmer, it can be a good idea to focus on developing your swimming form during training. That can mean signing up for swimming lessons or at the very least, hopping in the pool with an experienced swimmer who can give you pointers on improving your form and endurance in the water.
If your event takes place in open water, not a pool, it's a good idea to swim in a similar setting before the day of the race. That will give you a chance to experience the challenges of open water (such as waves) and will give you an opportunity to learn how to cope and adjust.
What to Eat While Training
Training isn't just about getting out there and exercising. You're also likely to find that you need to adjust your diet while you train so that you get the nutrients you need to stay strong and to build endurance.
When it comes to proper nutrition during training, many of the standard dietary recommendations and rules apply. You want to get plenty of carbs, plenty of vegetables and fruits, plenty of protein and healthy fats.
What you don't want to do is use the fact that you're burning more calories than usual an excuse to eat whatever you want. You also want to be sure to eat the right foods on race day.
While fiber and fat are good picks when training, don't start race day with a breakfast full of leafy greens and fatty foods. You'll feel like you have a lump of lead in your stomach as you swim/bike/run and you don't want that.