Triathlon has a reputation for being a tough sport. It definitely has its challenges, but triathlon has grown into a sport that is open to all abilities with a just a bit of preparation. So, sign up and try your first tri. Don’t know if you’re ready, here are some things to think about.
First thing to think about is distance. Triathlon began as longer distances and over the years shorter distances have been added to make it more appealing to beginners and people who don’t have endless hours to train.
Generally distances are broken up as follows (although, variations in many forms occur).
- Ironman: Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run 26.2 miles
- ½ Ironman: Swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles, run 13.1
- Olympic or International: Swim 1500 meters (.93 miles), bike 40K (24.85 miles), run 10K (6.21 miles).
- Sprint: Swim 500 yds or 750 yds, bike 20K (12.4 miles), run 5K (3.1 miles)
I would recommend that if you’ve never done one, sign up for a sprint distance tri with a pool swim. See what it’s like and build from there. 500 yards is only 10 laps (a lap being down and back in a standard 25 yard pool), a 20K bike is really not very far on a road bike, and many people are familiar with 5K runs because they’ve done one. Also, relays are popular and if you just want a taste of what it’s all about you can sign up for a relay and participate in one or two disciplines. The first tri I was involved with was in this manner. If you want a bigger challenge and are looking towards something like a half, you might consider still doing the longer race, but doing some shorter races as preparation for the main goal.
The next thing to think about is course. Swims can be in a pool, the ocean, a lake, a river, or really any body of water. If you’re new to swimming, choose a race that occurs in a pool or small lake or river. Dealing with waves and chop takes practice and can also cause panic. The last thing you want to do in your first race is to be hanging on a safety kayak the entire swim. Also consider water temp. If the water is going to be below the high 60’s, then you’ll probably want a wetsuit. A wetsuit also makes swimming easier. So, even if the temp is going to be warm enough to swim without one, it’s worth borrowing or renting a wetsuit. You might want to wait to fully invest in one until later.
For the bike course there are a few things to consider.
- Is the course hilly or flat?
- Does it have technical corners or is it pretty straight?
- What is the road surface like?
The easiest courses are straight and flat, but they can be boring. If you have some level of skill on the bike, opt for a course that is fun for you. Another thing to consider is what type of bike you want to ride. While any bike may suffice, road bikes are designed to go fast and time trial bikes (TT) go even faster. Both take a bit of practice so make sure whatever bike you use, that you get on it a few times before mounting up in the race. Also, consider if you need to learn to change a flat or if you plan on just dropping out if you suffer a puncture.
As far as the run is concerned, there isn’t too much to worry about. You’ll likely be able to slug it out on any course. It is worthwhile to have a plan regarding walk breaks, aid stations, etc.
Training and Preparation
The final thing to really consider is training and preparation.
- Do you have enough time in the day to train?
- Will you train alone or with other people?
- Do you have enough time to prepare for the race (is it a year out or two weeks out)?
- What is your goal?
- Are you doing it just to finish or to go as fast as you think you can?
It doesn’t take a lot of training to simply complete a sprint tri. Not to undermine the accomplishment. The training crosses over somewhat, so if you swim it benefits your running, too, and vice versa. If you have an hour a day, that’s probably enough to get in what you need to finish. There are a ton of variables, but don’t think you need to be a fitness fanatic to do your first tri.
The biggest deterrent to people is the swim. People are under the impression that you must have a swim background or they think all triathlons occur in open water, like a lake or river. If somebody straight up cannot swim (as in they sink and drown), then I would recommend they learn the basics of swimming first. But you don’t have to have been a swimmer per say. Most people early in life learned the basics of freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke. While you may not be able to do any of those strokes gracefully, you can improve on them and whatever level you’re at come race day there will be a lane for you with people at your swim level.
Also, don’t forget about transitions. Many sprint tri’s can be done in a bathing suit. You can also opt for a tri suit which is designed to do all three sports in. Or you can throw cycling gear over your swim wear and run in that. But unless you’re doing an Ironman, there will not be changing rooms. You’ll be changing and transitioning at your bike. Whatever you do, keep it simple. The clock is ticking in triathlon and you don’t want to take all that time you gained by getting fit and flush it down the toilet in transition. You don’t need a bucket full of transition goodies. Bring what you need, run through the routine in your head, and hurry up.
Triathlon is fun, it’s an accomplishment to be proud of, you’ll meet new people, and you’ll get fit in the process. Have the courage to get signed up and find an experienced triathlete to help you along the way. You never know, you might find out you have some real talent.