Triathlons for beginners 101: The why and the how

Photos by (respectively): Michael Foley,USFK, and Marco.

Triathlon is one of those sports (OK, three sports) that has the ability to define you as an athlete and as a person. It makes you push yourself into a new perception of what you can accomplish. Triathletes come in all shapes, sizes and abilities. The thing is, no matter what your ability, you’re out there with people who will share many of the same loves and fears of the sport as you do. Although it may definitely feel like it, you’re not a lone athlete on a race course. You’re part of a community of people joining together to challenge themselves. That’s why we train. That’s why we register for races. The challenge and the experience is what we want.

That challenge begins most often with a Sprint Triathlon: 750meter swim, 20km bike, and 5km run. Not so tough, right? Let’s get started.

It is perfectly OK to be competitive, however, be competitive with yourself before you’re competitive with other people. If you’re a beginner your thoughts should be about your personal challenge to be a triathlete and using what you’ve learned in training, not what someone else’s split times are.

I can’t emphasize this enough, training is the most important part of any race. Unless you’re just a supernaturally gifted athlete, you are what you train for. There are three things you can do to get started with training. First: come up with a structured and consistent training plan leading up to a race that encompasses all three disciplines. Second: figure out what your ability level is in each area of the race. Third: pick a race and sign up for it.

You know that feeling you got when you registered is? It’s motivation. Time to get to it.

When you start off with your new training plan, you’re going to want to find your weak point. Never swam before? Hit the pool, and plan on going there a lot. Get comfortable with the water, make the pool your friend. Most beginning triathletes either have a strong cycling or running background but thrash about the water, wasting precious energy that can be used later.

This can’t be emphasized enough: train smart and within your ability. There are so many resources at your disposal on the internet alone that will help you train safely and with purpose (Pro Tip: Ask your Dailymile friends, we’re good like that.). Last thing you want to do is injure yourself. Remember, this is supposed to be fun!

What follows next are just some quick tips to make your first triathlon experience as enjoyable and stress-free as possible. After all, we want you to come back for more.

Initial fears at the start
Pre-race jitters for a triathlon are perfectly natural. You could be sleeping, but instead you are about to jump into a lake or the ocean at six in the morning, and the other five hundred people at the starting line feel the same way that you do. The second the gun goes off and you start swimming, all those apprehensions go away and shift to something else: not inhaling water and not getting kicked in the head. Could be worse, right?

As you’ve probably figured out by now, triathlon requires a considerable amount of gear. I’m not going to list it all here (it’s on the internet somewhere, I think) but I’m sure you already have some idea. Goggles, helmet, bike, etc. Point is, there’s a lot to keep track of. This only gets harder mid-race when the last thing on your mind is where you placed your helmet or shoes after you’ve been swimming in a lake or the ocean for fifteen minutes.

Transitions are different for everyone, so practice your setup. Know where everything is. Trust me, the less you have to think during transition, the better. As you get used to racing in triathlon, you’ll realize that a well organized and thought-out transition area will save you a lot of grief and some precious seconds in your overall race time.

Get a race belt: this nifty little thing is basically an elastic band that clips around your waist and has your race number attached to it. Much easier than pinning a race number to your shirt. It will save you time, especially if you will be wearing a different shirt to run in after the bike portion. Plus, safety pins will do nothing but put holes in that fancy new race shirt/jersey you just got. Who wants that?

Transition 1 (T1), or “cloudy head syndrome”
There are a lot of things that are happening during the swim: you’re using a lot of your upper body and core muscles, you may have gotten a lungful of water at some point, or you just may not be completely used to being in the water for that long. Once you get out of the water, your body is trying to shift its focus on propelling you with your legs and not your arms as you run to transition. This will leave you disoriented to a degree as blood flows from your upper body to lower body. All the more important to know where all of your gear is and how to get it on quickly, hop on the bike, and get moving again. The feeling will fade in a few minutes.

Be the Wind
Now that you’re out of T1 accident free and you’ve got all the water out of your sinuses, you’re on to the bike! Find a groove and get a solid rhythm going with your pedal strokes and this stage will fly by before you know it. Remember: keep a sustainable energy level. What most beginners don’t realize is that triathlon is about energy management. Drink some Gatorade, eat a gel pack, but keep your energy up because the hardest part of the race will be upon you before you…oh, there it is!

Transition 2 (T2), or “how I learned to stop worrying and love my elastic laces”
T2 is relatively straightforward. Get off your bike, run it to the bike rack and get all your bike gear off (But keep that race belt on!).

Whether it takes two minutes or ten seconds to get your running shoes on is all dependent on one thing: your laces. I recommend getting a pair of elastic laces. The last thing your fingers want to do after they’ve been gripping handlebars for forty minutes is manipulate tiny pieces of string. Elastic laces (Yankz are my favorite) remove this from the equation by allowing you to slide your feet into your shoes and bypass the whole lace tying process.

An important thing to remember at T2 is that there are other people that have to transition as well. Try to keep all your gear close together as a courtesy. It can be as organized or as chaotic as you want, but other racers should not be fishing your gear out of their transition area.

You’re almost done!
Now that you’ve got your running shoes on and have exited transition again, you’re only 3.1 short miles away from the finish line! The first mile or so you run off of the bike will be very clunky (or at least feel that way). Why, you ask? You’re now using a different muscle group in your legs to propel yourself. If you’ve hydrated and eaten a little on the bike, you should still have plenty of energy to get through the run without much issue. You’ll be tired, but the satisfaction of crossing the finish line is so close! Just stay relaxed and run your race.

When you’ve finished, feel free to eat all the bagels, smoothie samples, and bananas that you can get your mitts on. Don’t forget to talk to another racer and ask them how their experience was. Odds are it’ll be different from yours but you’ll both share in the fact that you crossed the finish line and feel all the more accomplished for it.

With any luck, you’ll have caught the tri-racing bug. So…when’s the next race?

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