Training For Your First Triathlon – Basic Steps
My very first triathlon was the result of a wager with a friend over a few drinks.
He had often talked about racing and during the year you would see his physical appearance change dramatically as the racing season kicked in..
I was far from fit, smoked heavily and was fond of a few beers.
I couldn’t really swim, didn’t own a bike and was a disaster when it came to running.
The most I had run in a long time was after one of my kids when they got a bit carried away on their bike.
For me, triathlon racing was the best thing I ever did and I reckon it saved my life.
So where did I start?
First thing I did was gave up smoking – easier said than done – but I got there with the help of nicotine patches and determination.
Within about a week or so I already felt better and this gave me the lift I needed to move on to planning out how I was actually going to compete in my first race.
Setting Goals – Gotta start somewhere
12 weeks out from race day
Nothing helps you focus more than a deadline so I set a goal of a local sprint triathlon. Because I couldn’t really swim this one suited me because it was in a river and was all downstream.
I bought a cheap racing bike on one of the adverts sites and invested in a pair of cycling shoes – I have massive feet so got a great deal on a pair of Specialized bike shoes that I still have today that were being sold off.
In fairness, I did a bit of research on the gear required for a triathlon so sort of knew what I needed. I bought my first wetsuit, tri suit and goggles off Amazon. Money was tight and I didn’t want to invest too much at the beginning in case I didn’t stick with it.
I have taken up new hobbies in the past and done nothing except waste money.
This time was different because my health and the chance to spend happy years with my kids depended on it.
Where to start?
For me, swimming was always going to be my biggest challenge so I set about re-learning how to swim.
This started off very slowly twice a week in the local pool. It was breaststroke all the way as I couldn’t ever get the hand of breathing during the front crawl.
The local pool is small and I had calculated that I needed to complete 37.5 lengths to match the 750m swim in the Sprint triathlon race.
Believe me when I say this was challenging for me but the more I practised the better I got and eventually swam the full distance without stopping.
I didn’t care about time or technique – for me, it was just about getting to the final lap and not drowning.
When I started out I was hitting about 20 stone in weight but the swimming really helped me shed some of this weight.
It also helped me loosen up my joints and exercise muscles that hadn’t been used for quite some time.
What gear do you need for swimming?
First up you are going to need a wetsuit. Most race rules dictate that you must wear a wetsuit due to water temperatures. We have reviewed entry-level wetsuits here if you want to find something cheap enough to start off with
The only other equipment you need is a set of goggles. My first pair were the Aquasphere Kayenne goggles.
I bought these because they give you that bit extra viewing and are very comfortable. They also stay in place without sucking the eyes out of your head.
Most races give you a swimming hat but pack one just in case.
If you have an old pair of flip-flops or cheap runners throw them in the bag too. You may have to walk from transition to the starting point for the swim so look after your feet on the way.
Anything else is a nice to have.
On your bike – Triathlon Cycling
The next task at hand was to get some practice out on the bike. I bought my original bike from an Adverts site and just picked the one that looked cool. It was a Specialized Allez and was perfect for my first few races.
Bike prices can be anything from a few hundred dollars into the tens of thousands of dollars so choose wisely. Anything will do for your first race and I still see people competing on mountain bikes so don’t panic and splash out your cash on a new bike unless you have to.
I rushed off to the shops and picked up a pair of new bike shoes and was so excited to get out there and start practising. Unfortunately, though I forgot to check the pedals on the bike and ended up with the wrong cleats.
Once I picked up new cleats I was good to go.
Note: Make sure you stretch a bit before you start cycling after not doing so for a long time 🙂
I headed off on my first ride and set a goal of 20k
This was the same as the Sprint distance so though if I can do this straight off the bat I’m good to go on race day.
The ride itself was great although I did have to get off the bike every time I hit a hill. This shows how unfit I was back then.
The challenge came two days after the bike ride. I was as stiff as an iron bar and had to walk sideways up and down the stairs in my house because all my leg muscles had seized up. It wasn’t funny at the time but my family did have a good laugh at my expense.
Over the 12 week period, I reckon I got out maybe twice a week on the bike and just kept it simple. I didn’t worry about speed or anything fancy – at the time it was just about distance and control.
I did, however, invest in a set of triathlon tt bars, some bar end shifters and brake levers to help me get more aero – it still feels cool saying that ‘get more aero’ but it does make a difference to your race times.
Everything else on the bike remained stock.
When you think of how much money and time you can invest in a TT bike I was very happy with my cheap Allez at the time and still use it for practice runs today.
What gear do you need for Cycling?
Apart from your bike the only things you really need for the bike section of a tri race is a helmet and possibly some shoes (depending on your pedals)
Helmets are mandatory and must be worn in transition as well as the race. A quick tip here is to put your helmet on as soon as you remove your wetsuit. It’s very easy to forget things in transition but you risk being disqualified if you don’t wear a helmet so get clipped in early.
As mentioned earlier I invested in a decent pair of bike shoes early on but you can pick up a pair for well under 100 bucks so shop around for the best deals. We have a review here of bike shoes for triathlon if you want to check it out.
Start your engines – Triathlon Running
I mentioned at the start of this post that I was a rubbish runner – still not brilliant but I get by.
When I started training for my first race I walked a bit, jugged a bit and walked a bit more. Think of it as a couch to 5k training exercise and that would have been me.
I was very unfit and while the swimming and cycling definitely helped I was still a very bad runner.
I live near a 1k track so started practising twice a week to build myself up.
I slowly got fitter and could run farther without having to stop and nearly pass out…
After about 6 weeks I could manage to complete the 5k in a single run – not fast by any stretch of the imagination but I could do it.
What gear do you need for triathlon running?
Realistically all you need is a pair of runners and a tri suit.
One thing I would definitely invest in for your runners is a pair of lock laces or stretch laces so you don’t have to worry about knots holding you up in transition.
Read our stretch laces review here
A tri suit is very handy but not something you might invest in for your first race.
You wear all your clothes for the bike and run under your wetsuit so think about getting a suit before your first race.
It saves you time and with the built-in padding on the bike shorts, it saves your rear from getting saddles sore on the bike…
On a sunny day, you might need a pair of tri sunglasses and a hat to keep the sun and heat off your head.
Remember it may not be too hot or bright when you pack the gear up for a race but conditions can change quickly so be prepared.
Once it got a bit closer to race day I decided to try and train all three disciplines on the one day and see how I got on. While it wasn’t ideal running from the swimming pool into the gym to hop on an exercise bike I said I’d give it a try.
I can’t really explain the feeling of accomplishment when I finished the treadmill run but it was a bit overwhelming, to be honest.
Apart from the fact that I had completed all three distances in the one go I felt ready for the race and compared to where I started from it was massive for me personally.
This was probably a turning point for me as I now knew I had it in me to compete on the day.
Race day preparation
The final learning experience for me was the night before race day and on the day itself.
I had everything packed up in my triathlon bag and ready to go.
I must have unpacked it 100 times and double checked it to make sure I had everything. I strongly recommend writing out a quick checklist so you can tick things off as they go into the bag.
If you are organised at this stage then things go a lot smoother on race day.
When it came to race day I hadn’t a clue what to do.
I knew I had to be in transition at a set time but that was it.
I was on my own for the first race so just looked around me to see what others were doing and followed along if it felt right.
I brought all my gear transition area, racked my bike and then laid out a small towel beside the front wheel of my bike.
On this towel went my runners and a drink.
With the bike on the rack, I stuck my helmet onto the tt bars and popped my sunglasses inside.
My wetsuit, along with my goggles and hat were ready to go.
When I registered for the race I received a race number and a colour-coded swimming hat for my specific wave. I didn’t have a race belt at the time so just used a few safety pins to fix the race number to my tri suit.
I suppose, to sum up, my experiences from my first foray into triathlon I would have to say that initially, it was a scary feeling that was eventually replaced by a massive feeling of accomplishment.
I was unfit, overweight, smoked like a chimney and was definitely heading for a stroke. I am well over 40 now and still remember the day I crossed the finish line at my first race.
I still complete today, have invested a bit more in upgrading my equipment but race for fun and don’t try to compete with the more experienced folks out there.
Every race for me is another milestone and this year I am working towards Olympic distance races and maybe someday I’ll tackle a half ironman – but not today…