Training for a triathlon doesn't take a lot of brain power. I'll admit, learning to swim competitively is a big undertaking. Other than that, though, showing up consistently and putting in the time is mostly all that is required. If you do that, you'll arrive at the starting line with the ability to finish your first triathlon successfully.It's going from standing on the beach to triumphantly crossing the finish line (a lot) later that takes some planning, thinking and attitude.Here's a quick guide to making your first finish a joyous feat (and not a sadistic grind).
If you miss a few training sessions here and there, you needn't take yourself out of the race. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition. But if your race begins with a half-mile open water swim and you've only ever managed 50 yards without stopping, please ask the race staff about transferring your entry to a later event.If you have put in most of the time and distance prescribed for swimming, biking and running, put aside your doubts, hold your head high, and know you belong at the start line with all of the others.If you need a training plan, check our recommended plans here, or create a custom plan that meets your needs and fitness level.
The most important thing you can do to avoid disaster is swim in open water beforehand. It's annoying. It's difficult to find open water where it's legal to swim. You will have to drive to it. You will have to find someone to go with you so you don't swim alone. I know.Do it anyway.Almost every first-time triathlete who has had a negative experience in their first race has suffered from anxiety, panic or extreme discomfort once they set off into a deep body of murky water with dozens of athletes thrashing around them. Don't let this be you. Even if you are a confident swimmer--heck, even if you swam competitively as a kid--make sure you have some open water swimming under your belt. It's a whole different animal. Your body and brain have very good reasons for raising the panic flag when you strike out into the waves, unable to see where you are going.
It doesn't seem that difficult to jog out of the water and put on the gear you need for your bike portion of the race. And it doesn't seem that hard to stop your bike in front of the dismount line, head into transition, and change into your shoes.Once you are sweaty, exhausted and overheated, you might be surprised.No matter how ridiculous you look to your neighbors or the people at the community pool, run through the transitions three times before your race. Set up a towel with your bike and run clothes and your bike. Make sure you actually get wet in the pool and get some water in your ears so you feel a little dizzy, and then run to your bike, add or remove clothing and wetsuits as necessary, ride your bike around the block or the parking lot, and come back and switch to the run.Likely you will identify one or two things you hadn't thought of, or you'll understand how hard it is to put socks on wet, sandy feet.If you've watched an Ironman event on video or live, you might think you'll have a changing tent. But most short, local races do NOT have a changing area. You'll need to wear appropriate clothing so you can switch between the sports out in the open, right next to your transition area neighbor.
Beginners frequently have managed to complete the swim distance in training, the bike distance in training, and the run distance in training. But doing it all together after a night of fitful sleep and an early morning is a different animal.It's not possible to know how hard to push yourself until you've raced a triathlon once. But here are some tips, born of experience:Holding back a little on the bike won't cost you that much time, compared to the effects of going out too fast on the bike and having to walk the run. The difference between 16mph and 17mph on the bike won't have a huge impact on your finish time in a sprint or Olympic triathlon. But the difference between running a 9:30/min/mile or walking a 15/min/mile will have a dramatic effect on your time. I recommend starting the bike portion and then, after you have a few minutes to settle in and get your bearings, dial it back just a little so your heart rate is a little lower than when you started. Going out too hard on the swim isn't usually too terrible. As long as you have mastered the art of breathing while swimming, it's hard to ruin a race by swimming too hard. However, it's easy to ruin a race by panicking in the water, stopping to hang onto a lifeguard's kayak, then telling yourself you are a miserable failure and dropping out. See "practice in open water" above.
Your race will likely take place on different terrain than your training, possibly with less shade and at a different time of day than you usually train. Because you are completing all of the events back-to-back, you're going to be out on the race course under the beating sun.The trick to finishing the run is often managing hydration and body temperature. If your core temp is too high, your body will start shutting down the very systems you need to complete your race: the ability to digest water, the ability to digest food, the ability for your muscles to fire, and the ability for your brain to think clearly.On the run, pour cold water on the back of your neck, on your head, and over your heart. These areas quickly transmit the cooler temperatures to the rest of your blood stream. Splashing water on your face can often alert you to just how incredibly hot you are out there. If there is limited shade, try running the sunny parts and taking your walk breaks in the shade. This will minimize the time you are in the sun, and will allow you to get more benefit from your walk breaks. I find my stomach can handle a drink of sports drink or water better after I've walked for a minute in the shade. Then I'm ready to start chugging forward again at a running pace.
Don't be alarmed if a lot of people are passing you. The fun thing about triathlons is you are on the same race course with elites, veterans and even professionals. This is your first race. Likely there are plenty of people behind you, but you can't see them because they are behind you. Just keep moving forward at your own pace. If you have a goal time in mind and you see it come and go, it's going to take a lot of fortitude and positive self-talk to get yourself over the finish line. Keep in mind that your friends and family probably have no idea how long a triathlon is supposed to take, and will only be proud of you for finishing. They likely don't remember what goal time you told them anyway.
Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.