How to Get Started Training for Your Very First Triathlon, According to a Triathlete

Photo: Getty Images/ FangXiaNuo
So you are thinking about challenging yourself physically and mentally and doing a triathlon. There's a lot of training and strategy that goes into training for a triathlon, and we're breaking it all down for you so that you can be as successful as possible throughout your training and on race day.

What is a triathlon?

A triathlon is a single-day three-part event that consists of swimming, biking, and running. When people think of the triathlon, they automatically think of the Ironman, but there are a variety of distances that range in difficulty. The most popular distances are the indoor triathlon, the sprint triathlon, the Olympic triathlon, the half ironman, and the full ironman. As a beginner, it's recommended to start out with the sprint triathlon which consists of one half-mile swim, a 12.4-mile bike ride, and a 3.1-mile run.

How to train for the triathlon

Once you've determined the type of triathlon you want to compete in, you're ready to get started training. First, you need to make sure you know how to swim. If you already know how to swim, you are way ahead of the curve, but I would suggest getting a refresher in terms of swim proficiency because swimming in the pool is vastly different from swimming in open water. If you don’t know how to swim, now’s the time to learn. You can seek out swim instruction at your local gym or recreation center, or you can find a swim instructor through U.S. Masters Swimming.

Next, you'll need to get a bike (you can use a hybrid or mountain bike) in order to train for the biking portion of the triathlon. Pro tip: You do not need a fancy bike to do a triathlon, and if you're not ready to make the investment, you can rent a bike for training and race day. If you already have a bike, make sure that it is tuned up and safe to ride. Don’t forget to purchase a helmet because your safety is important and it's required for competition. If you don't know how to wride a bike, you can go to your local bike shop and inquire about lessons and beginner rides. You can also seek instruction from an experienced triathlon coach.

Finally, you're going to have to spend time training for the running portion of the race. Don’t like to run? There is no rule that says that you have to run the run. You can walk or do a combination of running and walking if you prefer.

If you're wondering about getting a coach, it's not necessary for your first go-round of an indoor, sprint, or Olympic triathlon. But if you're looking for someone to keep you accountable and you need structure, especially when you are going into the longer distances, you should consider getting a coach which can be found through the USA Triathlon website.

If you would like to train with others who are racing the same event that you are, you can find a local triathlon club in your area. Not only will you get training assistance during group workouts, you may also get discounts on gear that you need for being a part of a club, in addition to gaining new friends.

A sample training program for the sprint triathlon

Now that you've got the logistics hashed out, it's time to start training. Here's a sample one-week training program for the sprint triathlon.

Monday: 30-minute swim

Tuesday: 45-minute bike and a 15-minute run

Wednesday: Rest

Thursday: 60-minute swim

Friday: 40-minute bike

Saturday: 30-minute run

Sunday: Pilates

To progress this training plan, you would typically increase your training time for each day by 10 percent for two more weeks, and then scale back on the fourth week to recover. Additionally, on the second week, you can progress your training by adding in a 45-minute full-body strength workout on Wednesday and progressing to a brick workout (where you do two disciplines such as swim-to-bike or bike-to-run) on Saturday. This is just an example of how you can train. For an individualized training program, it's recommended you work with a coach.

How to prepare for race day

You know your race. You know the date. You have a plan in action. So, what happens during race week? Let’s back up just a little bit. Assuming that your race is in your area, you will want to practice on the course if possible. If you are able to get some open water swim practice, that will help you get acclimated to what the swim will feel like on race day. It will also help you work on sighting and treading water.

Additionally, you will want to practice transitions from the swim to the bike (taking off your wetsuit) and the bike to the run (taking off your helmet). Whatever gear you decide to wear, you will want to practice in it to make sure that you are comfortable on race day.

You'll also want to have your nutrition plan down pat. It's advised to know what the nutrition will be like on the course, or you can prepare your own supply. Remember, nothing new on race day!

As race day approaches, the most important thing to do is to go to the course talk at the race expo. This will give you all of the information that you need to know including any changes to the course, the rules, the time you need to set up your transition area, any special considerations, and more. This is also your chance to ask the race director any questions you may have.

Don't forget to pick up your race packet and read everything. In the packet, you'll find out important information such as the rules, when transitions open up, where you can park, and what time your wave (group) goes into the water.

The night before your race, set out all of your gear and your warmup clothes. Set your alarm (or multiple alarms) to make sure you get up in enough time to dress, eat breakfast, and get ready to go.

On race day, remember to have fun! Run through how you envision race day will go from start to finish. If you aren't as strong in the swim, seed yourself in the back of the group, but most importantly, swim your swim. Once you finish the swim, it’s time to focus on the bike. After the bike, all you have left to do is finish the run. Once you cross the finish line, congratulate yourself. You did it! Enjoy the post-race celebrations and don't forget to recover.

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