How to Train for my First Triathlon

Congratulations, you’re thinking about training for a triathlon!

Your first triathlon is incredibly intimidating, you will have lots of questions and feel humbled by a lot, but I am here to help. I am so proud of you for even reading this article because you are one in a very few who will ever complete a triathlon. For your first triathlon, you don’t need the fanciest gear, be the fastest or understand all the intricacies of the bike, but you do need grit. Let me help you get through this wild journey of your first triathlon, and who knows, you may just love this thing!

*Always consult your doctor before starting a new fitness routine. Check out your local Certified Triathlon Coach for a more personalized plan, which I highly recommend it if you are training for an Ironman*

I trained and completed my first triathlon at age 22. I had very little money, no bike, and had not swam laps in a pool since I was in middle school. I was 1 of 3 in my age group and clearly underrepresented as a woman. I borrowed a hybrid bike from a family member and asked a local lifeguard to help me with my technique. To say I was intimidated is an understatement.

The average triathlete is 43 years old with the majority being men. Only .01% of people complete a Triathlon in their lifetime. The ones that do, well I found, they waited until a midlife crisis to finally pursue their big dream of finishing a triathlon. What if we actually pursued the dream once we have it! If you’re here, then you have the dream. Let’s make it a reality.

She trained for a triathlon &thenShe proved them wrong, she showed them what a woman is made of, she … [insert your victory].

Let’s get a few things out of the way: 

  1. You don’t have to be an “athlete” to train for a triathlon
  2. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on the best gear
  3. With a little prioritization, you will find you DO have the time to train for a triathlon
  4. With a little training, the swim is actually the easiest and quickest part of the race
  5. Once you finish any triathlon at any pace, you have rights to call yourself a “triathlete”

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay


Advice for your First Triathlon


What is a Triathlon Distance?

There are generally 4 different triathlon types, a Sprint distance, Olympic distance and Ironman distances. Each triathlon is composed of a swim (always 1st), bike (always 2nd) and a run (always last). Below are the average distances of any triathlon race. Note that these distances are averages and may vary slightly depending on your race. Check your race website for exact distances.

EventSprintOlympicHalf IronmanIronman
Swim0.3 – 0.5 mile0.93 mile1.2 mile2.4 mile
Bike13 mile25 mile56 mile112 mile
Run3.1 mile6.2 mile13.1 mile26.2 mile

Which Triathlon distance should I do first?

You should always build up. Start with a Sprint and see how you like it. Once you have a few Sprint triathlons under your belt, move onto an Olympic. At this point you may want to spend more money on better gear and work on improving your speed and transition times before moving to an Ironman. 

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

Tip: When completing your first Sprint triathlon you may notice some of your competitors with crazy expensive gear that are unbelievably fast, they are likely training for an Ironman and using the course as a training day, don’t worry about them and don’t let them intimidate you. I am so proud you are stepping outside your comfort zone!


How do I find a good Triathlon race?

Location: Think logistics, will you have to spend the night? Do you have to fly? How will you get your bike there? What will the weather be like? I did a race in October once and my goodness was it freezing during the swim.

Time: Give yourself time to train. Too far out and you may get demotivated, but too soon and you won’t have time to train. I say between 3-6 months out is a good general rule for training, but choose your training plan first.

Websites: Check out TriFind.com or just google some local triathlons.

What to look for: The race should be sanctioned by USA Triathlon (USAT). There should be a course map with rest stations marked on their website. Make sure to read the details about swag, if you want a medal make sure it says all participants get finisher medals. Trust me, you will want the medal. Race day is the celebration of your hard training and the medal is a symbol of how much hard work and sacrifice you put in!


What gear do I need to race in a Triathlon?

  • Triathlon membership card (USAT) – for a certified course, you will be required to buy a USAT card, just buy the day pass for about $15 during check out of your race.

Check out my related post for a more detailed list: My First Triathlon Essentials

Swim  


Essentials:

  • Swimsuit – Dicks or Sports Authority. Ladies, I suggest a one piece to assure everything stays in place throughout your event
  • Goggles – you many want to look for prescription or fog resistant
  • Towel – during transitions you will need to quickly dry off
  • Swim Cap – most races will give you one that you have to use for the race (for both men and women)
  • Access to a Pool/Swimming area – check your local fitness facilities to see if anyone has a lap swimming pool. It will be worth buying a membership during your training

Optional:

  • Ear Plugs – this may move to the essentials if you’re like me and are prone to swimmers ear. A nose plug may be another item to look into 
  • Kick Board – a great training tool to work on those leg kicks
  • Leg Buoy – during training, put this between your legs to let them float and let your arms do the work. It will isolate those arms and lats and you can focus on your stroke

See more swim essentials in My First Triathlon Essentials

Bike

Essentials:

  • A Hybrid or Road Bike – cost can range from $100-$10,000+
    • Check out this article: 5 Great Entry Level Road Bikes
    • For novice riders, try finding a used bike on Craigslist or borrow from a friend
    • Look into renting a road bike from your local cyclery
    • Avoid using a cheaper bike from Target – it’s possible, but it’s going to be a real hard race without the mechanics of a well made road bike
    • Do not use a mountain bike (fat tires) – these bikes are made with different functionality and it will make you slower than average and probably really frustrated
  • Helmet – it’s required in every road race and could save your life
  • Water bottle – your bike should have a cage to hold a water bottle, if not, make sure you add it

Optional:

  • Padded bike shorts – this is purely for comfort, but you may also find they cause chaffing, so try a few out
  • Cycling jersey – they have convenient back pockets, but other than that, its just to look the part. Make sure you have some kind of wick away shirt
  • Bike rack – if you can’t squeeze your bike into the back seat of your car, you may want to invest in a decent bike rack. Make sure to get one that works for your car
  • Shoe cage – a shoe cage is a great option in lieu of clip-ons (advanced). It ensures you are using both the push AND pull mechanics of your leg when you pedal
  • Bike repair kit and seat pack – most races will have a mechanic at the race (make sure to check), however it’s always a good idea to have a couple tools in your bike. I actually have 2 bike pouches, one under my seat for repair and one on my handle bars for my extra Gu gels, sunglasses, phone, etc.
  • Sunglasses – make sure you bring a pair that fits under your helmet and preferably with Croackies

See more bike options in My First Triathlon Essentials

Note: Headphones of any kind are NOT permitted on the bike. You will be sharing the road with other cyclists and possibly cars, so it is imperative you can hear your surroundings. If you like to listen to music, I put my phone on speaker in the back of my cycle shirt during long rides, be respectful to other riders though.

Run


Essential:

  • Running shoes – your feet will be bearing a lot of impact through the course of your training, a good pair of running shoes is an important investment. You can get fitted at a local fleet feet or Dicks to see what type of shoe is best for you. I love Brooks, Asics and New Balance brands.
  • Water Bottle

Optional:

  • Hydration belt or backpack
  • Ball cap – triathlons by nature are during the summer, which means the sun is HOT, throw a ball cap on during the run to keep you cool. Ladies, get one with a pony tail hole.
  • Sun glasses/sunscreen
  • Headphones – check that you are permitted to wear them during the race and always have one earphone off to be able to hear your surroundings.

Nutrition Essentials:

  • Gu Gels/Energy gels
  • Water
  • Gatorade/electrolyte replenishment

Tip: Check out a local cyclery or mom/pop bike shop near you to purchase some of these items. They are super helpful, will help you get involved in the community and allows you to give back to your local economy.


What is a Transition Station?

Think of your transition station as your home base. You will store all your items at your transition station and you will end up back at your station between each leg of the race (swim to bike and bike to run). You will want to move as quick as possible into your next event, so having a well put together transition station will be essential. 

Here is an example photo of my transition station.

After the swim:
You will quickly dry off with your towel and take off swim cap/goggles. Put on any additional clothing like cycle shorts and a t-shirt (with race bib pre-attached) or Fitbit, put on cycle shoes/socks, put on helmet/sunglasses, quick sunscreen and run out with your bike.

Tip: You will be a little wet on your bike, so consider chafing cream

After the bike:
Put the bike back on the rack, take off cycle shoes/helmet, put on ball cap, grab your running pack (water, Gu), put on running shoes and any changes of clothes.

Tip: Depending on your race distance you will likely need to eat a energy gel while you run out, you should be eating a nutrition source every 45 minutes.


Triathlon Training Plan

I may share some of my training plans in a future post, but I will keep it high level for the purposes of this post. You should be training at least 4 to 5 times a week, with your workouts during the work days focused on speed and form. Your weekend workout should be a long distance with all three components of the race. The hardest part of the race is the bike to run, so practice this transition because your legs will feel like jelly the first couple times you get off the bike to run. Find a Certified Triathlon Coach in your area for more help in personalizing your plan.

Example: 
Mondays – Swim for 45 minutes
Tuesdays
– Bike for 45 minutes (maybe try your local cycle class)
Wednesdays – Bike AND Run for 45 minutes
Thursday – Swim for 45 minutes
Saturday – Swim, Bike and Run – distance based


Triathlon Race Day Tips

  • Arrive early – you will have your race number written on your arms/legs with permanent marker and will need to listen to instructions
  • Set up your transition station and eat a snack
  • Add air to your tires
  • Pre attach your race bib to your bike/run top or belt
  • Get in the water, swim around and get used to the temperature, if able
  • Do not wear any new clothes or try new food/drink, this should be exactly as how you have been training. If you have never eaten a Gu gel in training, do NOT start today or you may find yourself puking on the side of the road
  • Drive/walk through the course before hand if possible so you are prepared for strange turns or big hills
  • Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing/wearing. I have been surrounded with athletes wearing wetsuits and $10,000 bikes feeling like I didn’t belong with my Nike one piece and hybrid bike. Turns out I whooped em. Remember: Good gear doesn’t always mean good training, and good training wins every time
  • Save the race event Emergency Assistance phone number in your phone. I got stuck on the side of the road for 45 minutes during a race with a flat tire, trust me on this one
  • Apply sunscreen and have a small one at your transition station, triathlons are during the summer and can last hours in the hot sun 

Good gear doesn’t always mean good training, and good training wins every time.


Other Triathlon Tips

  • Join a run group, cycle group or triathlon group. Ask your local fleet feet or local cycle shop. You can always start a group too
  • Master the French Braid – For my ladies with long hair, I have found the French braid to be the perfect hair style to throw under the swim cap, helmet and ball cap for each leg of the race. You’re welcome.
  • Avoid cycling alone on the road. Cycling can be dangerous from sharing the road with cars to running over a nail. If possible, ride with a buddy, or tell a friend where you will be before a long ride. You may even want to find a few shorter park routes that have no cars and pedestrian visibility
  • Take a bike repair class – use REI or find a YouTube video
  • Take some local indoor cycle classes on rainy days. During my first race, I almost trained entirely indoors (I don’t recommend that, but it is possible!)
  • Practice the mechanics of your bike and know how and when to drop into a lower gear when going uphill
  • Chamonix butter, welcome to the world of chafing

About the Author

I have completed multiple Sprint triathlons and Olympic distances and have trained for a Half Ironman (COVID cancelled the event). I placed first in my age group in my second Sprint triathlon. I have a degree in Exercise Science and was a certified personal trainer for about 8 years out of college. 

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