Beginner Tips for Triathlon Success

author : Team BT
comments : 2

Don't Sweat the Gear. Do Learn to Swim.

It’s that time year when New Year’s resolutions are made, or you have decided to take on a new adventure for 2016.  Whatever the reason, the sport of triathlon booms with excitement and new participants! Inevitably for the “newbies” they find themselves with a slew of questions.  Let’s face it, this sport is actually three sports! That’s a lot to digest for the rookie.

I typically coach one or two rookies to the sport who are wide-eyed, excited yet apprehensive, with questions of how and where to start. To give them perspective, I start with a story of my inauguration into multisport.

My triathlete career began in 2008 when I suffered a stress fracture in my tibia from running.  Frustrated with the thought of sidelining my run training for 8-10 weeks, I asked with my sports medicine doctor “What can I do”? As if he had said this a thousand times, he replied, “Wes, you can swim and/or bike. If it hurts at all on the bike, then just swim.”

Done deal, I had a gym membership before sunset!
I started with a spin class, my first-ever group class. (Saying I was nervous would be an understatement!) The instructor asked if there were any new people to class. Clad in tennis shoes, baggy basketball shorts and athletic t-shirt, it was obvious, I was the lone hand, out of 30 riders, that rose.

As everyone else started their warm up, the instructor set me up on the bike, adjusting the saddle and handle bar height and length.  Parting with some words of encouragement, she mounted her own bike and began the class.  One hour of her barking orders, blaring music and woo-hooing, left me drained, dehydrated and begging for more.

Next on the list: swim. Sure, I swam as a kid, in lakes, on vacation or at the local pool on summer break playing Marco Polo.  It was a rude awakening when I attempted to swim properly for the first time.  My wife had swam competitively so she assured me she could teach me, “No problem,” she had said.  We started with the dead man’s float.  Easy right? I sank! And, I sank again and again.  Alright, onto plan B.  I tried a kick board to help float.  Ahhhhh ... success, well ... that may be an overstatement, but at least I didn’t sink.  Next up, I added a kick ... this should be easy, I thought.  I did, after all, have strong legs from running.  The following 15 minutes consisted of me actually propelling myself backwards as I attempted to kick forwards.  Discouraged and total exhausted, I left the pool knowing this was going to take a long time to get moderately close to being a capable swimmer.

Within a month I was taking three spin classes a week. I had built up the form and endurance to swim 400 meters without stopping to gasp for air at each end of the pool. Then the craziest thought I had in a while came across my mind: I’m going to do a sprint triathlon in June, which was only three months away.

Oh my. I had to buy a bike, get a Speedo, and I needed to learn to swim 750 meters without stopping.

Through diligent work and pure excitement, I completed the training, finished the triathlon and experienced, what would to this day be the biggest, endurance “high” I have ever had I felt like I had just won the battle of a lifetime.  It was Man versus animal in the coliseum of Rome, and I was the victor!

As I look back, I can only think that my ignorance was truly bliss. I had minimal knowledge, training and equipment, and yet I experienced one of the most fulfilling moments of my lifetime. People always say I must have felt even better becoming an Ironman for the first time. I always reply the same: “Not even close.”  Going into a sport as complex as triathlon for the first time was a huge step outside my comfort zone.  Achieving that first inaugural goal can never be replicated and I am thankful for that.

As I mentioned above, I typically coach one or two new triathletes every season and these are the key points I discuss with them:

  1. Don’t sweat the details. You’re a beginner, so embrace it!  Having fun and being a little loosy-goosey is fine.  This is literally all about being fun … and I mean 100 percent about being fun.  Enjoy the newfound camaraderie, the process, the learning curve and huge leaps and bounds of improvement. Heck, it’s your hobby, not your job, so enjoy it.
  2. You don’t need the most equipment and the most expensive. Any bike, even a hybrid or mountain bike, which I still see on the course, will do for your first sprint triathlon. You also don’t need an aero helmet, a super duper 5 millimeter wet suit, a Garmin 920 watch or the latest gadget.
  3. You do need to get that old bike maintained and looked over by a pro for safety. If you are digging up that bike from the corner of the garage covered in dust and cobwebs, take it to a professional to tune it up and check it over. Tune ups usually range from $60 to $120.  This is a must-do before any ride you take. This is not just for performance but it’s also necessary for safety.
  4. You DO need a good pair of running shoes. These should be fitted at a reputable running store. Properly fitted shoes will prevent injuries and add comfort to your runs. Don’t be sticker shocked, though. For sprint triathlon training volume, a pair will last quite a while.
  5. Always wear a helmet every time you mount your bike. I don’t care how short of a ride or how safe your neighbor is, wear a helmet.  When it is pavement versus head, pavement always wins. Your helmet should be CPSC approved.  Pricing on helmets does not mean better protection.  You are simply purchasing a helmet that is lighter, more ventilated and possible more aerodynamic.
  6. If swimming is your weakness, like most of us, sign up for swim lessons from a reputable coach. This will save you tens of thousands of strokes that get you nowhere, and it will speed up your learning curve tenfold. Most importantly, it will also aid in injury prevention. I prefer private one-on-one lessons instead of group because you get specific critique of your stroke instead of generalizations found in group training. This is money well spent.
  7. You do need moderation in volume especially running. You’re excited, I get it. You feel great and empowered, but don’t over train! Too much too soon almost always results in injury, which is a big ole kick in the knees, mentally. Start slow and with low volume. Add 10 percent to your volume each week and on long runs.  (For example: you ran a total of 10 miles last week, and your longest run was 3.5 miles.  The following week would only be 11 miles total and your long run would be just shy of 4 miles.  "But Wes," you might ask, "My loop at the park is 4 miles?" Great, walk the rest for cool down.
  8. Welcome to the club, this will be an amazing experience for you.  Take your time and enjoy every minute of it, and If your first experience is anything like mine, I will be totally jealous.  To re-experience again would be a dream come true….good luck and happy training.
    As I always tell my athletes, Cheers and Rubber Side Down,
    Coach Wes

    Wes is a Certified USA Triathlon and Cycling coach, Certified Bike Fitter, and a CrossFit L1 Trainer.  Based in Columbus Ohio, Coach Wes trains clients from all over the country.  For more information about Wes and his coaching visit

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date: January 30, 2016

Team BT