Swimming, biking and running. Some might consider each of these sports ambitious on their own, but the thought of tying the three together into one race can be exhilarating and daunting at the same time. Whether you’re coming off the couch or you already have a background in one of the three sports, the education and preparation for your first triathlon race is similar.
Once you decide you want to try a triathlon, the task of training for the race can seem even more intimidating. The internet has a limitless amount of information, but the scary truth is that not everything on the internet is backed by valid research. No doubt you will find conflicting information. If you are easily overwhelmed or don’t have the time, you might want to consider hiring a coach to send you down the right path, but with some thought, planning and motivation, you can help yourself to the finish line.
So, what do I do now?
Get cleared by your doctor: If you’ve been away from physical activity for an extended period of time or have had an injury in the last year, a visit to your physician for a physical is a must. Once you’ve been given the “all clear”, the work begins.
Picking a race: The Delaware Valley has a variety of triathlons, with at least one to choose from nearly every weekend between May and September. For their first race, most people choose a ‘Sprint’ which is the shortest. It is typically composed of a ¼ mile swim, a 10-15 mile bike and a 5K (3.1 mile) run. No two races are the same, even if they are the same distance. Within 90 minutes of Philadelphia you could race both the Poconos or at the Jersey Shore, allowing for lake, bay, or ocean swims, and both flat and hilly bike/run courses. This makes our area ideal for triathletes because you’ll never get bored.
For your first race choose one whose terrain best mimics where you will be training e.g., don’t sign up for a hilly race in the Poconos if you live in South Jersey and can only train on flat roads. You can find this information under course description on the race website. A great source of information is your local triathlon club. Most clubs have their own message board, which will have detailed race reports from past races. This is where you can learn not only about the course, but other important details about the race from the number of port-a-pots to what is served as post-race chow.
Here are some basics to consider when choosing your first race:
Swim: Do I want to swim in a pond, a river or the ocean? This is a big decision and all personal preference. If you grew up jumping in the waves at the shore, you may actually be more comfortable in a salt water swim. If you are new to swimming, you may be more comfortable in a lake or river swim. For example, the Schuylkill River is one of the cleaner fresh water venues in the Delaware Valley and you get the benefit of swimming downstream. Also, check into the water temperature, you might want a wetsuit for colder swims.
Bike/Run: As stated above, choose a course that is most like the terrain where you live and train. Most races in South Jersey will be pancake-flat, whereas most PA courses will have hills. Usually, race websites will have a map of the course route. It is worthwhile to not only go drive a course, but take your bike and ride the course if possible (some courses aren’t safe to ride unless they are closed to traffic for a race.)
Next, plan your training. Allow yourself a minimum of 12-16 weeks to train. Then, look at your calendar and ask yourself (be honest) how much time you can realistically commit to training (per day and per week). If you’re already juggling work, kids, etc., finding training time can be challenging. For those who already go to the gym, you can simply divert that time to more triathlon specific training. However, others might need to be more creative. For example, if you have access to showers at work, the lunch hour can be the perfect time to squeeze in a run. For the majority, early mornings and after work are your biggest blocks of open time.
To ensure you use your time wisely, you need to plan what sport you will tackle that day, how long you will spend, and what exactly will you be doing with that precious hour of training you are squeezing in before work. To avoid an injury, start slowly and keep the effort conversational, i.e., your breathing is not so labored that you cannot talk. Progressively work your way into more days with more time spent each day and, eventually, faster efforts. You do not need to train all three sports on the same day, every day. If you are pretty good (or pretty bad) at everything, you can divide your training sessions equally. If not, spend a little more time beefing up your weakest event. If you feel you need help with the basic skills of a sport (swimming technique, bike handling, etc) seek out the knowledge of a triathlon coach, swimming instructor, or very experienced friend early in your training so you don’t spend time practicing improper technique.
In terms of gear, the largest consideration is the bike. Don’t feel like you need to spend a bundle just to participate. Especially for your first race, borrowing a friend’s road bike (make sure you adjust the handle bars and seat height so the bike “fits” you) or using your old hybrid are acceptable. If you can afford more, consider a new “fit” for your current road bike. When considering the purchase a new bike, find a local bike shop that takes the time to understand your needs, your budget, and make a decision based upon how well the bike fits you. You will be faster on a less expensive bike that fits properly versus a top of the line bike that leaves you with a sore back. Many local retailers work with new riders and triathletes.
Finally, consider practicing a few other things before race day to ensure a smoother, less stressful event:
1. Open water swimming is a challenge in terms of visibility and staying on course. You will also need to deal with a mass start, where you and 100 of your closest friends are all starting about the same time.
2. Transitioning from swim to bike (T1) and bike to run (T2) poses its own challenges. Practice putting on your bike clothing while wet and at the very least, follow a bike ride with a run so the jelly feeling in your legs will not be so shocking.
3. Knowledge of basic bike maintenance is essential during training and racing. Should your chain pop off or you get a flat, you will be responsible for the repairs that will get you going again.
4. Fuel. In the likely event that this race will take you over an hour to finish, you should be prepared to eat and drink to fuel your muscles. Practice your nutrition during training and bring what you will need on race day because they might not offer your favorite brand of gel at the race.
While this may seem like a lot, having the confidence of being well prepared can help ease any anxiety you might have on race day. Also helpful is joining your local triathlon club. It’s a great way to make friends, find training partners, find someone to ask advice from in the weeks leading up to the race, and have friendly faces greeting you on the morning of the race leaving you feeling more relaxed which equals more fun on race day. Some clubs even offer a ‘Tri 101’ program for beginners which steps you through the learning and training process. Gaining knowledge from others is invaluable when starting out in triathlon.
Maya Hunnewell has been a competitive triathlete for the past decade, completing four Ironman races and frequently placing in her age group at local races. Maya is a USA Triathlon certified coach, Team TRIumph member, and is a coach for ETA Coach LLC.