Triathlon Distances and Names
Triathlon Training Plans
Triathlon for Weight Loss
Tracking Calories Burned in Triathlon Training
Triathlon Race Nutrition
Weightlifting and its role in Triathlon Training
The Triathlete Forums: A gold mine
Equipment needed for Triathlon
Buying a Bike for Triathlon
Basics of Bike Gears
Other Triathlon Gear
Training by Perceived Exertion
Training by Heart Rate
Training by Power (bike)
Open Water Swimming
Bike Training - Special Gear
Other Popular Running Topics
So you’re new to Beginner Triathlete, triathlons in general, or even just working out? Welcome to the community.
I’m a random scrub finishing my second year of participating in triathlons. I’ve been around the BT forums for a few months now. I’m plenty new enough to remember how it feels to be overwhelmed by the information involved, and how answers from more experienced folks can make you feel more ignorant than you started. I’ve also been around just long enough to start seeing a lot of the same questions asked over and over.
This document is my attempt to put some brief, introductory-level information together in a way that would have helped me get started. It’s a mix of training advice, common forum topics, and some basic introductory discussion of gear.
It won’t cover everything you find relevant. It will include things you don’t think are relevant. If you’re already in training it will almost certainly include things with which you disagree. But with all those caveats, hopefully this will help a BT newcomer here or there.
Sprint distances often vary, particularly the swim. One variant is a ‘pool sprint,’ where the swim takes place in a pool and is often in the 250-500 yard/meter range.
The terms Ironman and Half Ironman, and the numbers 70.3 and 140.6 in a circle are trademarks of the World Triathlon Corporation (“WTC”). If your race is run by WTC it will include those names and symbols and cost more; if it is run by another organization it will likely be called ‘half distance’ or ‘full distance’ or other terms along those lines.
The BT website is a great resource for new triathletes. Some of my favorite features are introduced below. Each of these topics has a big button on the BT homepage to connect you:
Don’t just stop with those, though. There are a lot of resources and you might find some other ones that are great for you.
Most triathlon training programs assume you can do six or more workouts a week of 30+ minutes each. If you haven’t worked out in years or are otherwise too out of shape for this, it may be a good idea to start with a “couch to…” program. To find one, do a BT article search to find a “couch to 5k” or “couch to sprint” plan and start there.
If you can already handle 30+ minute workouts most days, then pick a race that you want to build toward, ideally one 16 or more weeks in the future. If it’s your first triathlon event you should probably choose a Sprint distance race.
Don’t be in too much of a hurry to ramp up your training. You don’t have to do a half-iron distance race this year if it’s your first year of training. Do sprints this year, maybe an Olympic, and see how that goes – you have plenty of time to build up to longer-distance races. That said, follow your dreams – I’m just trying to emphasize that you don’t have to do everything all at once. The key is to establish good habits and build fitness for the long term without getting hurt.
Now start looking through training plans appropriate for the race distance you selected. Many books are available with plans, and BT has a number of free plans to choose from along with an active community happy to discuss them with you. Here are a few important things to keep in mind when choosing your plan:
Those are just suggestions to help guide your plan choice. Once you pick a plan, stick to it as well as you can! But when you can’t, don’t beat yourself up. It’s more important to rest up from being sick or let that injury heal thoroughly than to bat 1.000 in training sessions.
More information at: Choosing a Triathlon Training Plan
Many folks start training as part of an attempt to lose weight. When you start training your appetite will likely increase. If you don’t pay attention to your diet, the effect of physical training will easily be dwarfed by taking in more food.
The ideal circumstance would be to log every bit of training, everything you eat, and start some work to determine your base calorie burn rate, determine your target weight change rates, etc.
For instance, I know that I burn 2500 calories / day baseline, at least relative to how I track such things. If I want to lose a pound every two weeks, then I shoot for 2250 net calories per day. (How do I figure this? A pound is 3500 calories; one pound per two weeks is 3500 calories / 14 days = 250 calorie deficit per day. 2500-250 = 2250.)
So if that’s my goal, on a day where I’m going to burn 750 calories with exercise I’ll target 3000 calories in. If I wanted to lose a pound per week I’ll shoot for a net intake of 2000 calories per day.
Some folks track this information with online services, and there are several options. Others build their own spreadsheets.
Most folks don’t want to do all that. If you’re looking for a more guideline-based approach this might help in moderation:
This is neither perfect nor comprehensive, but if you follow these rules you’d have a pretty good start.
Some folks get pretty complex trying to estimate how many calories they burn. You probably shouldn’t use built-in calorie estimators in Garmin watches or things like that, and almost certainly shouldn’t use calorie estimators in gym cardio equipment. Other folks might yell at me for this, but if you’re trying to track calories burned I’d suggest using this as a starting estimate until you come up with something you like better:
This is pretty important at half-iron and iron distance levels. For those events you should do the bulk of your training working on a nutrition plan for your race. I.e., if you’re going to target one gel and half a bottle per hour on the bike, then that’s how you should be doing your long training rides.
For sprints, however, you’re probably over thinking it. Just don’t do anything stupid the day before and eat something that’s going to make you sick. Don’t worry about carb-loading or gels. Eat a sensible meal the night before and a light breakfast the morning of. Many experienced triathletes will do a sprint dry, grabbing a cup of water during the run if necessary. Put a bottle of water or Gatorade on your bike if you want to feel a bit safer but you probably won’t need it.
The generally accepted view on weightlifting on BT is that it is optional for triathletes. The consensus seems to be that it’s a fine thing to do if you just enjoy it for other benefits, but that it is not the most efficient way to improve your swim, bike, or run times if triathlon race performance is your goal. That said, many triathletes enjoy weightlifting and there’s a dedicated strength training forum on BT to talk about it.
These are a great place to ask your questions, help others out, and generally learn more about the sport. This is one of the friendlier online communities I’ve had the pleasure to come across.
With that said, there are certain types of conversations that seem to cause the forums to start smoking:
Someone will start this topic and you’ll eventually get the following exchange:
Someone will ask for advice then get advice they didn’t want.
Someone will say something a bit loosely, and then defend it to the death.
(You may also be interested in reading BT's three-part series on triathlon equipment, which details the absolute essentials versus the niceties.)
First of all, feel free to show up for your first triathlon(s) in a mountain bike, old road bike, hybrid, whatever you have or can borrow. In a sprint triathlon this is pretty common. Once you’ve done some events, met some folks, etc., ask around to get a good feel for which bicycle shops in your area are well thought of. The key is selecting a bike whose basic geometry fits you, and then getting it fit to you by a professional.
Here’s how this would work in an ideal world: You get a ‘generic fit’ from a professional fitter where some completely unbiased guy measures you and recommends a few brands and models of bicycles based on your build, flexibility, and other factors. You then test them all and choose the one that feels best within your price range. Then you get a professional fitting where they make all your angles and lengths match the bike perfectly. The fitting should probably be free if you buy from a shop.
In practice there may be a few compromises vs. this approach. You have a few decisions to make:
Chainring: These are the big rings beside your pedals. The number represents the # of teeth. More teeth = more ‘work’ per turn of the pedals = faster per turn of the pedals. There are three main types you’ll be concerned about:
Cassette: This is the Christmas tree sticking out the side of the rear wheel. The number represents the # of teeth. More teeth = less ‘work’ per turn of the chainring = slower per turn of the pedals.
Translating into Speed: The formula is easy. Pedaling at a cadence (pedal rotations/minute) of 90, it’s (rounded off) “7.23 x (# Front Teeth) / (# Back Teeth).”
See also: VIDEO: Beginner Triathlon Biking - Basic Shifting, Gearing and Pedals
When it comes time to buy you’ll also want to think about how much to spend. Very, very generally, here are some indicative price points to think about for new road bicycles to help set your expectations.
The ‘quality’ column is just an indicative number to convey my impression. Again, this is a way-oversimplified chart that’s leaving out a lot of stuff, but my goal here is to give someone new a rough idea of what to expect. There’s a sweet spot between $1000 and $2000 where you can get a bike with a good frame, quality components that will be good enough to ride for years. Anything below that, with tiagra/sora components, and there’s a good chance you’ll be looking to upgrade in a year or two
Many training plans will use some guideline to indicate how vigorous the workout should be. For instance, the fast portion of a tempo run should be at a higher effort level than a long weekend run. For people new to endurance training, the more common problem is training too hard. These methods can be a good way of making sure you don’t overstrain and increase your chance of injury.
Below is a brief introduction to some of the most common ways of guiding and quantifying those effort levels.
The least technical common measure of training intensity is Rate of Perceived Exertion, or RPE. It is most commonly expressed as a 10-point scale to measure effort level.
Sitting on your couch
Casual stroll around the neighborhood
Putting forth effort but able to carry on conversation, could sustain for long period
Noticeable effort, can still speak but sentences require some effort, could sustain for an hour
Working hard, talking only possible in gasps, could sustain for 30 minutes
Full effort, breath gasping in and out, could sustain for 1-2 minutes
For beginners, most workouts should probably be in the 4-6 RPE range, especially running. Biking you probably want to spend at least some time in the 6-8 range. Only move up in the 8-10 range once you’ve been working out awhile and (ideally) have a plan that calls for it.
This is a seemingly innocuous topic about which many people feel strongly. In principal, you establish a range of heart beat rate zones and attempt to target specific zones for certain workouts to guide your effort level.
Easy effort, rarely used except for recovery days
Sustainable effort level, many triathletes do the bulk of their training in this zone
This is a ‘tweener’ zone and beginners are often instructed to avoid spending much time at this level
High effort level, many triathletes use this for ‘threshold’ workouts to increase sustainable speed
Sprint, sustainable for only short periods of time, this level usually for intervals and short races
The controversial aspect of HRT is the method by which you assign heart rate ranges to those zones. Two variables are involved – some ‘high’ heart rate level, and a series of %s applied to that level. May variations exist, including Karvonen, Zoladz, Maffetone, and others – use Google if you want more detail on those.
The most commonly discussed methods of determining the ‘high’ heart rate level on BT are discussed below.
You can establish training zones based on your maximum heart rate.
This is based on the results of a lactic threshold test. It takes approximately 50 minutes to do for each sport, usually running and cycling. Assuming you have a heart rate monitor with lap functionality, here’s the test:
From there you repeat the test every month or two to recalibrate your training zones. This allows your improving fitness to be reflected in your training intensity. Though you will only want to do this test when you have been training for consistently for months.
It seems nearly unanimous on BT that if you are going to use HRT, you should use the lactic threshold method. If you’re a beginner, too out of shape to do the lactic threshold test, or just aren’t going to do it, then some people think that the observed max HR method works just fine. The age-based max HR is sketchier just because individuals can vary so widely from the population norm.
Frankly, if you’re a beginner, any method that convinces you to keep your effort level down is probably beneficial. Just be careful not to disclose on BT that you’re using a max-HR method because they will heap scorn on you. In their defense, they’re just trying to help.
Once you’ve established your method and the key heart rate, here are common percentile ranges and a rounded-off example:
Ex: Max HR 185
Ex: Threshold 170
Note that the lactic threshold will be lower than your maximum heart rate, so the %s used will be correspondingly higher.
See more: Lactate Threshold Heart-Rate Zone Testing Protocol
This applies to bicycling. When you get more involved in the sport you’ll start hearing a lot about Power Meters and/or Computrainers. These are more advanced ways of monitoring your power output, etc. By all reports these are fantastic training devices. You probably don’t need to worry about these until you have a few races or a season of training under your belt.
More information at: VIDEO: Training With A Power Meter
First of all, don’t panic. While some BTers were former swimmers, many of us have no swimming background whatsoever. Don’t freak out if you can barely swim a length without stopping. (A length is one trip down the pool, a lap is down and back. In a 25 yard pool, a length is 25 yards and a lap is 50 yards.)
Many runners and cyclists want to approach swim training the way they approached running and biking at first, just hopping in the pool and trying to go farther and farther, trusting their body to learn how to improve itself. This is not the best way to approach swimming. Don’t grind out meaningless laps with terrible form. Get lessons. Watch Youtube videos, there are plenty out there.
If you have a specific event length in mind, then absolutely you’ll want a few practices where you swim that length straight through. Otherwise, however, you’ll be better off getting lessons, then spending more of your practice time doing drills and shorter 100- or 200-yard intervals with 5-20 second rest periods that allow you to maintain good form and pace.
If you absolutely must swim before you have lessons and are desperate for tips, here are a few things to keep in mind early on:
A lot of starters have a tough time keeping track of laps (a lap is two lengths of the pool, i.e., down and back to where you started).
Here’s what works for me: I suggest counting lengths and breaking your workout into thirds – so if I’m doing 900 yards (18 laps / 36 lengths) I’ll count to twelve three times. Counting lengths helps you keep count because you know whether your number should be odd (going away) or even (coming back). So if you can’t remember if you’re on8 or 9, just think about which way you’re going to settle the issue.
Other folks use different methods. For instance you could put coins at one end of the pool and slide over appropriate change after each lap. There are also (believe it or not!) certain products for sale that do this for you. Or you could use any waterproof watch with ‘lap’ functionality and just hit the lap button each lap – just make sure it’s meant for this and doesn’t have a lap button that will trigger everytime your hand enters the water. Use the search function on BT and you’ll find plenty of conversations about this topic and what various folk do to help.
Finally, once you start to settle into consistent lap times it becomes obvious. Your pool probably has a big analog clock on the wall. If your lap times are around 1:40 per 100 yards, you can count on the second hand reliably moving about 10 seconds ‘backward’ per lap.
Your first time swimming in open water you may freak out. Many do. Try to get some open water lake/ocean/etc. practice before your first triathlon with an open water swim, but never do that by yourself. When you do practice open water swims practice ‘sighting.’ Sighting means you look up every 6-12 strokes to make sure you’re still going in the right direction. If open water swims scare you greatly, consider starting off with a pool sprint or two where the swim is much shorter and done in a pool. In ‘pool sprints,’ swimmers usually volunteer their expected speed then begin one at a time rather than en-masse and swim a certain number of laps in the pool.
The best way to get faster on the bicycle is to spend time in the saddle (you’ll sometimes see the acronym “TITS”). When biking it’s easy just to cruise around aimlessly feeling good about yourself, so make sure you’re pushing yourself when you’re out there. Biking is low impact, so you may be less likely to injure yourself with high effort level workouts biking than you would if you were running.
One great way to push yourself on the bike is to ride with groups. Most cities have several established riding groups with weekly rides at certain times. Your local bike shops can probably tell you how to find out more. Usually this will involve reaching out to the ride leader.
As a beginner, make sure that you can maintain whatever pace the ride leader says the particular ride targets. If you don’t have a road bike, ask about it – do not just assume you can show up with anything other than a road bike. Also ask the ride leader to help you out if he observes any etiquette breaches. It will take you a few rides (or years!) to get up to speed on all the various social niceties involved with group riding, so let me leader know you want to learn.
Finally, if you come upon another cyclist or group while you’re out for a ride, never join them or tuck in to draft without asking. And if you’re on a tri bike, you probably shouldn’t ask.
Getting a trainer might help, especially if you’re in an area with spotty weather. Trainers can be boring, or at least monotonous, so try to put your bike trainer in front of a TV if that helps. Some folks like to get Spinervals or other bike DVDs to make the time go faster or feel like they’re cycling with a group.
Not only do trainers allow you to train whenever you want, they also keep you honest in terms of keeping up your energy level – there are no stoplights, hills to cruise down, etc. People swear by the Kurt Kinetic Fluid and Cycle Ops Fluid trainers. If you get a trainer, you can’t go wrong one of those. I don’t really know why they’re better, but many folks seem to think so.
There’s another option called “rollers” that serve a similar purpose. Your bike literally just sits on rollers, forcing you to keep balance, so you can develop some handling/balance skills on them.
When you get more involved in the sport you’ll start hearing a lot about Power Meters. These are more advanced ways of monitoring your power output, etc., but don’t worry about those quite yet.
Computrainers are like a combination trainer, computer, and ride simulator. They are expensive and are often used as part of off-season classes where several folks get together for virtual group rides and/or races. Many folks that have done a Computrainer program swear by them. You can download actual video/topography from Ironman courses and do an Ironman course in your living room.
Some basic tips for beginning cyclists include:
A lot of people get hurt ramping up their running mileage or intensity too quickly. They decide to start running sprints in their second week of training, or go an extra three miles on their long run because it just feels so good. These kinds of decisions can often lead to injury. As a result much of the advice around run training is based around injury avoidance.
Many folks recommend doing no speed work whatsoever until you have been doing significant mileage (often 20-30 or more miles per week) for some period of time (3-6 months or even a year). The consensus for beginners is to keep most or all of your training at a nice steady pace with a comfortable effort level.
It might be hard to make yourself slow down, but if you have to run at a 12:00 / mile pace to be comfortable then do it. If you need to walk half the time (or more!) in order to keep your breath, then walk.
This is part of why heart rate monitors can be a real game changer for beginners. They give you an objective measure to help reduce overtraining to help avoid injury.
Many aspiring triathletes are Type A folks who want to see improvement fast. Once you have a few weeks of training in you may feel like you can really ramp up your speed and distance. This probably isn’t the best approach.
One widely quoted rule of thumb is not to increase your weekly mileage by more than 10%. If you’re below 10 miles/week it might be impossible to meet this rule literally. Once you build up to 10 miles/week, however, you might want to start observing this guideline. Yes, that means it will take 10 weeks go to from 10 miles/week to 20 miles/week, but it’s worth taking your time to reduce the chance of injury. Be sure to take occasional lower-volume recovery weeks.
Keep the day-to-day running load manageable. If you can go out for 4-6 easy, short runs or even walk/runs a week to start that is more ideal than trying to do two long runs or trying to ramp up your pace too quickly.
Ideally your weekly long run will be roughly one-third of your weekly mileage. If you’re following a plan with 2-3 runs/week, however, it’s unavoidable that your long run will be a larger percentage of your weekly miles. If you’re on one of those plans, consider adding an additional one or two mile run to a few of your bike or swim workouts through the week.
For instance, if you’re on a plan that calls for 30, 45, and 60 minute runs in a given week, the long run represents 44% of your running time. Adding a pair of easy 20 minute runs to other workouts, however, gives you additional low-stress miles and reduces the long run to 34% of your time.
If you come to the BT forums and ask, “What should I do to run faster,” the first thing folks will do is look at your logs. The answer you’ll almost certainly get is “run more.” Not necessarily longer, or harder, or faster, or do more tempo runs, or intervals, but simply more. More days, more miles.
Keep that in mind when you start getting comfortable and start wondering about whether you should do 400 meter sprints at the local HS track – unless you’ve been running a lot for a long time, the answer is probably “not yet.”
For your “A” race, the race toward which your training plan has been geared, your plan probably calls for you to taper your training the last week. If you’re tapering and start feeling lethargic, generally disappointed, a touch irritable, maybe even mildly sick, don’t worry, that’s normal.
If it’s your first triathlon, try to go to the information session the night before if there is one. Make sure you drink plenty of water the days leading up to the race – although you should be doing that anyway. Don’t do anything crazy with your diet before the race. Have a healthy/normal dinner, light breakfast.
If it’s a sprint, don’t worry about nutrition during the event. Put some Gatorade on your bike if you really want to but gels are almost certainly overkill.
One of the golden rules is: Never try anything new in a race. Sometimes it’s unavoidable…but avoid it if you can.
On race morning, get there early, 90 minutes or more before start. Check in and do packet pickup if you haven’t already. Attach any numbers they give you as instructed to your helmet, bicycle, and/or race belt. Rack your bike on the appropriate rack – look for the area designated to your race number and put your bike there. Observe how others folks rack their bikes. Make sure your tires are inflated properly and do a visual inspection of your bike. If you discover a small problem with your bike, there are probably some bike shop folks around with a tent set up to help folks out.
Put a very small towel beside your bike, ideally a hand towel or normal towel folded into quarters. On that towel put your helmet, bike shoes, socks (if any) and bike glasses in one small pile. Some folks put bike helmet and glasses on the bike. Put your run shoes and run belt in another small pile. Keep this all compact if you don’t want to annoy your neighbors. Look around at how other folks set up their transition areas. Notice that a few people have probably taken up a lot of room or have sloppy transition areas and pat yourself on the back for making an effort to be considerate.
Half an hour before start, get all your swim gear on and get to the swim start area. If it’s an open water swim (OWS) you probably have the chance to hop in and warm up for 15 minutes. It’s a great idea to do so, particularly if you’re still somewhat new to OWS and/or wetsuits, and you can pat yourself on the back for having practiced this while you watch other new folks start to freak out.
If you do start to freak out a bit during an OWS, don’t worry, you’re not the first. I’d practiced OWS, but in my first event I got kicked in the face and wound up grabbing a dock 20 yards from shore, but I still finished. Tread water if you have to and control your breathing. If necessary, wave for a kayak or whatever support they have in the water. You can get a breather, calm down, and continue, they won’t toss you out.
Practice your transitions. A beginner going through the motions can easily lose three minutes vs. the field with slow transitions. Do you have any idea how hard those three minutes would be to make up in the 5k? The weekend before your race, take your gear outside and just do the transitions three times to get a feel for how efficiently you can do it.
I don’t claim to have this down to a science and experienced people probably have a more systematic/efficient approach to these steps, but your transitions will look something like the following:
Good luck! If you have any questions, don't hesitate to visit the forums.