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Complete Your First Triathlon.

Updated on August 8, 2014


Your First Triathlon.

Most people can accomplish much more than they realize, but many people have in-grained limits and old habits fixed upon themselves. I'm here to shatter these limits and tell you that you can do this.

If you say "triathlon" to most lay people they picture the ESPN video of professional triathletes ocean swimming and biking in the 95 degree sun at Ironman Hawaii; this is not the triathlon you will be doing as a beginner. Don't worry, it's not the triathlon that the professionals started with either. And that is OK.

If you are reasonably healthy at all, you can accomplish a triathlon and I'm going to walk you through the process of getting you to the finish line.

Triathlons come in all sizes. If you've never done one before then find a short distance triathlon in your area, also known as a "Sprint" triathlon. The Sprint distances are typically about a 300 yard pool swim, 11 mile bike, and a 3.1 mile run. If this sounds daunting, don't worry you can gradually to build up to it.

I want to stress that you are not going to race your first triathlon. You are going to complete it. There is a big difference. If you're the competitive type, which I full well understand, I'm going to warn you to check your pride from the beginning. Your first triathlon is going to be a learning process. Complete your first triathlon. Race subsequent ones.


When I mention triathlon to most people the first thing they say is, "I'd like to do one, but I can't swim that far." Well, the good news is that all we have to do is swim 300 yards in a pool. That means you get breaks at each end of the pool. It is 12 lengths of a 25 yard pool. First off, you'll need somewhere to practice swimming.

Since swimming is typically the roughest part for most people. I recommend starting there. Prove to yourself that you can complete 300 yards. No, not all at once. If this is a long distance for you or you haven't swam in a while, let's get in the water and get a feel for it.

Go to your local pool and get started. Start off by testing yourself. Swim 25 yards. How do you feel? How much rest do you need before you can complete another 50 yards? The key to swimming is to do sets. I was a swimmer in college and we always did various sets. Most commonly we did 10 sets of 100 yards on a specified time. Depending on your ability you're going to work up to 10 sets of 50 yard swims on 1 minute 30 seconds (or faster).

What that means is you'll start when the clock is at 0 and you'll swim 50 yards and stop. If that 50 yards takes you 1 minute then you'll get 30 seconds rest before you do set number 2 and repeat until you can accomplish 10 of these.

If that is too easy then reduce your time. If that's too hard then increase the time. It doesn't matter. The goal is to complete 10 sets of 50 yard swims. Get a baseline and then improve it later on.

As you get more advanced you can do 10 sets of 100s and so on. Here is your beginner swimming workout to get started.

100 yards warmup. Take your time and swim 4 lengths of 25 yard swims easy. Feel free to rest at each turn. It's just a warmup.

100 yards kick. Get a kick board and kick 4 lengths of 25 yards easy.

4 sets of 50 yards on 2 minutes each.

100 yards kick cool down.

100 yards swim cool down.

When you feel you can get in a solo swim workout and complete double the amount, or more, of the specified triathlon swim distance you will be doing. You will be ready for that portion of the race.


Here comes the fun part. I imagine that most beginners may not have even ridden a bike for many years. That is about to change because when you decide to complete a triathlon you become a cyclist.

Don't fret if you don't have the latest greatest bicycle. I recommend first timers use a common road bike. If you only have a mountain bike that will work too. They are bigger and heavier and I'd rather have a road bike, but don't worry. If it's safe and it works then you'll be fine. I have done triathlons using all three types: road, mountain, triathlon.

As for triathlon bikes, if you're a beginner then forget them. They are specially designed for speed and they tend to be very expensive. They also put you in an "aggressive" posture on the bike and I don't recommend them for a first time triathlon. Remember, we're here to complete the first triathlon. You can upgrade your triathlon toys later on.

Assuming you haven't biked in a while, have your bike checked out for safety and reliability. Most notably the tires and inner tubes need to be fresh and filled to specifications.The brakes also need to be reliable and the chain well oiled.

Once you've established that you have a safe bike to ride make sure you have a bike helmet. Triathlon managers won't allow you to ride a bike without a helmet. It's a must - just like having air in the tires.

Depending on your ability, spend some time familiarizing yourself with your bike. Make sure you can handle basic stops and turns. Find a safe place to ride, preferably long stretches of road that are similar to the race you'll be doing. Again you'll need to work up to comfortable complete at least twice the distance (or more) of the race you'll be doing.

If the bike portion of your race is 11 miles then I would work up to being able to handle about 20 miles comfortably. The good news is that the bike is probably the easiest of the 3 disciplines; assuming your ride isn't incredibly hilly. The bike is a good place to coast once you are at speed. You can also rehydrate as you should definitely carry a water bottle or two on the bike.

During your training on the bike I recommend getting used to drinking on your bike. Plain old water will due, but a Gatorade type drink works well too. I find that Gatorade seems very thick and syrupy when I'm riding so I like to water it down some. Experiment in your training rides until you find a good mix you like.

When considering the first races you'll be doing it is very important to understand the bike course. For beginners, the flatter the better. Hills are extremely difficult unless you're in good shape and they can ruin a race if you're not prepared for them.


I have good news for you - you don't have to actually run the entire run portion of your triathlon. You can jog it, walk it and even crawl it if you have to...just get rid of the idea that you have to run the entire thing. Anyone can cover a lot more distance if they jog and walk it instead of trying to run the entire thing.

Assuming you're new to running, find a safe sidewalk or trail. Hopefully it is fairly flat and even better it is a loop. I find a good long loop gives me a feeling of accomplishment and keeps me from stopping in the middle and quitting. If you don't have a loop do an out-and-back. Jog walk to a destination 1/2 mile away and then come back. If that's too short, then extend it to 1 mile, 2 and eventually even more.

Start by walking a mile. If you feel good then jog for a while. Walk a little, jog a little. If you haven't run/walked much then start off small. Shoot for a half a mile the first time out. Just complete it; even if it's a walk that is OK. Everything is an incremental build. Don't try to do it all at once.

If you are unfamiliar with jogging then the key is to just get outside and get moving. The point of all of this is to feel good and have fun. So keep it comfortable with just a slight bit of discomfort mixed in; that's the key to getting better.

I don't recommend running every day at first. Start off every other day and stay consistent. Within a few weeks you'll be cruising 4 to 5 miles well over what you need to complete your first triathlon.

The best part about triathlon is the variety. If you ran yesterday then bike today.

Putting it all together

I talked about the three separate disciplines above separately. If you are an absolute beginner then go out and do these separately at first. Get a feel for them and get to the distance at least double your intended target for your triathlon.

When you are feeling good that you can do them separately then it's time to put it all together. Pick a day where you do 2 disciplines in the same workout. That may mean swimming and running. The next day, biking and running. The next day swimming and biking.

Remember to work on your weaknesses and not your strengths. If you're already a good runner and are terrified of the swim then clearly you need to be in the pool more.

Before Race Day

Before your race you should feel confident that you can complete your race as having prepared for weeks in advance. Walk through the race in your head exactly as if you were doing it. This will give you a list of the equipment you'll need to complete the race also.

Imagine the starting line of the swim. What do you need? A cap, swim goggles and suit. Swim the distance and get ready for the bike. What do you need now? A sturdy bike with good air-ed up tires, bike helmet, a towel, bike shoes, water bottle etc. Now comes the run. This is easy you just need your shoes and a hat.

Race Day

Fear not, you've put in the miles and the effort. Only be afraid if you haven't prepared in advance. If you get tired relax, take a break. If it happens to be in the swim that's ok. I'm assuming you're doing a pool swim triathlon. Just stop on the end and let people pass. If this sounds embarrassing to you don't worry. I've seen people do this dozens of times. They usually pass me later on in the run anyway!

When you get to the bike portion, walk it to the bike-starting-line and relax when getting on the bike. It's easy to let nerves get to you and rush, but remember your there to accomplish not win your first triathlon. Get on safely and maintain a steady relaxed pace. The entire time keep asking yourself, "can I keep this pace for the rest of this distance?" If the answer is no then slow down!

It's the same with the run. Once you start the run feel free to walk a bit if you're feeling maxed out. I've walked my fair share of triathlon run portions and I couldn't care less what people think. In fact, I've seen elite racers walk up steep inclines because the incline was so taxing that it made more sense to walk it.

All in all I know you can do it. Just get out there, work and get it done.


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