Beginners Guide to Triathlons
So you’re thinking about doing a triathlon. Maybe you’ve signed up for one. Or maybe someone has dangled the idea in front of you, but you have no idea how to being? This beginners guide to triathlon will step you through everything you need to know about your first race.
What is a triathlon?
Sounds like a silly question, but what exactly is a triathlon? Well, is a combination of three sports rolled into one event; a swim, a bike and a run. When thinking about triathlon, its best to think about it as three parts of the the one event, given the close connection between each. Multidiscipline sports have been around for a very long time, but triathlon really picked up popularity in the past 10 years. Brands like Ironman have invested heavily in the sport.
From a distance perspective, the swim is the shortest, followed by the run and with the bike being the longest. The change over from one leg to another is called transition and is considered an integral part of the event. No sitting and resting for 10 minutes between the swim and the bike. We’ve got some great tips on transition.
What’s the best distance to do as a beginner triathlete?
If you’re not thrown in the deep end by a friend, choosing a race distance can be a little daunting. So, what is the best distance to do as a beginner?
Probably the easiest place to start is to look at which races NOT to do. Ironman and (probably) half Ironman distance races are not a great place to start for a first race. They are physically very demanding and unless you’re already very fit, you’re more than likely to do yourself an injury than complete the race. Also, triathlon is technical and practicing these skills in smaller races means you get more practice, without the time.
At the other end of the scale are Enticer and SuperSprint triathlon distances. Each of these have a swim of about 300m to 400m, a bike of around 8km to 10km and a run of around 2km to 3km. Enticer races in particular are designed specifically for newer triathletes. You should be able to, with a bit of training, get these distances done in an hour or less.
Oh and one more thing. Don’t think that shorter distances are necessarily any “easier” or less “hard” than the longer Ironman distance races. Cause they’re shorter, it usually means you’ll end up going faster over the distance. If you get to the finish line and you’re not worn out, you could have gone quicker!
In order to complete a triathlon, there is a good chance you’ll need to train. At its most basic, training prepares and strengthens your body for the physical exertion you’re going to go through. All training puts your muscles under stress and then releases that stress. Its this process of stress and recovery that makes you stronger and hence fitter.
It also prepares you mentally.
Training for a triathlon can be hugely confusing at the beginning. So, where should you start?
The first step is understanding that there are 5 basic elements of training.
The first three of these are fairly self evident. If you want to swim and swim faster, you should probably practice swimming. Same with running and cycling. But why strength training?
If you go back even 10 years ago, many endurance coaches and athletes considered strength training a waste of time. What’s the point of listing weights if you’re running or swimming?
What’s training recovery?
Muscles only get stronger when they have a chance to recover. If they are constantly being stressed and never given a chance to rest, then eventually they will break (ouch).
Training with a defined program is also important. These programs give you a day by day guide to preparing for the big event. As a beginner, there are lots of free, downloadable programs available.
You can spend a fortune on triathlon equipment. I’ve seen bikes worth more than my car! But it doesn’t have to be expensive and beyond a bike and helmet, the gear needed for a triathlon isn’t too hard to obtain either. In fact, once you’t got a pair of running short, a top and goggles for swimming you’re most of the way there.
A good starting point is our helpful gear to help your first triathlon.
Once you start on the triathlon journey, you will read a lot about nutrition. And it can get awfully complex. As a first time racer, there are only a few basics you need to be aware of.
Stay off the booze. At least until after the race. Nothing destroys training motivation and recovery like feeling a little bit dusty after a few beers or glasses of red. At best a drink does nothing to improve your performance and at worst it really hinders it.
Eat good food. It really is the old mantra of garbage in, garbage (performance in this case) out. Whole foods, fresh fruit and vegetables, low fat meat. Cut out the junk food. I know you know all this, cause its the same message we’ve been hearing for years. No need to go overboard with a special training diet. Just eat health, home cooked meals.
Carbo-loading before the race. This topic has been on and off again for years. My thought are don’t do it. Unless you’re used to binging on a bowl of pasta before a big event, it’s only going to end badly. Be consistent and only eat what you’d normally eat.
Snack after training. Its apparently a diet no, no. But you’re not dieting to lose weight, you’re training for your triathlon. You may have noticed that when you go swimming or to the gym that you get the munchies afterwards. When you train, you stress the body. Once you stop training, your body screams out to replace the calories you’ve expended. Make sure you give your body what it needs! It doesn’t have to be complex or expensive, I eat a muesli bar or a banana. But, its important that you do so to reduce body stress.
Gels, bars and funny smelling powders. Go into any sports shop and you’ll see all sorts of energy bars, gels and drinks. If you do decide to use one, make sure you’ve tested it in training. The body can react in unusual ways when competing and you’d hate to be doubled over with stomach craps half way through the run.
What happens on race day?
So, you’re done the training, prepared your gear, eaten the right food. What actually happens on race day (besides doing a triathlon)?
Coming to an event for the first time can be very confusing. There are tents set up everywhere, fences around racks of bikes and people everywhere. Where the heck do you go?
The first thing to do is find the registration tent and register. This usually requires a photo ID of some sort. You will receive a race pack, containing your race number, race stickers for your bike and helmet, a goodies bag filled with some great samples and (the most important part) a cool T-shirt. Get your race stickers stuck in the right places and attached your race number to your race belt (you did remember pins, didn’t you? If not, make sure you get a copy of our gear checklist so you don’t forget next time.)
Second, rack your bike and set up your transition area. Check out our fantastic guide on setting up transition zone. Don’t be intimidated if the person next to your has a bike that looks like a Formula 1 car. Ask them about it – you may be surprised how friendly everyone is. The thing I love most about triathlons is that everyone races together. From pros to first timers. If you’ve got a question, just ask – someone will always be ready to help.
Next, get your bearings and find the start. Do you know how to enter and exit transition? Do you know when you’re starting? Take a little bit of time just to soak in the atmosphere. Yes, you may be getting a little bit nervous right about now and that’s great. Nerves help you focus. Just remember, you’ll be fine. You’ve done the training and you will finish the race.
THEN GO! The start of the race is the most nervous time, especially if the swim start is in the water. Legs and arms fly everywhere and a bit of pushing and shoving occurs. Not intentional, there are just a lot of people in the water at once. If you’re feeling nervous, then swim from the side or back rather than the middle. Same with turning buoys. They can get crowded, so if you’re not prepared for some jostling, then swim wide.
Transition, bike, transition, run. The rest of the race might be a blur. It always is for me. The bike will be over before you know it and then you’re off on the run. This is where things can start to hurt both physically and mentally. The finish line still seems so far away and yet you’ve still got to run the distance. Remember why you did the race in the first place. Think about all the training you’ve done. It’s this moment to dig deep and push on.
Finally, finishing. You did it. Enjoy the run up the finisher shoot. Your family and friends will be cheering you on. Smile for the cameras, you’ll want to look fresh in your finisher photo, even if you feel like curling up in a little ball and whimpering on the side of the road for a while.
Congratulations. You finished! What a great effort. Hopefully this beginners triathlon guide helped you complete your first race. But what’s next?
Firstly, take a few days to recover. Your body has taken a pounding and needs the rest. Especially if you’ve been training hard for the race. It’s also time for some mental recovery. Don’t underestimate the amount of mental stress you’ve put yourself under. Spend time being active, but not formally training. Go for walks, spend time with friends, enjoy your new level of fitness. I sometimes use these opportunities to participate in ocean swim events or fun runs.
Then, look to the future. Which race is next? Do you want to step up in distance or want to improve on your last races time? What did you learn? Here are a few things I learned from my first triathlon.
If you find training a little bit lonely, then why not look to joining a local triathlon club? They are always a friendly bunch who are always looking to help out a beginner.
Finally, remember to hang your finisher medal somewhere with pride. Let everyone know what you’ve achieved. You deserve it.