So you want to try a triathlon…
BioTropicLabs resident tri coach Casey here with my four tips to be ready when race day arrives!
Every November the best of the best in the triathlon world come together to battle the elements and each other at the Ironman World Championships. Watching this event on television has inspired thousands of people to try a tri, maybe even you!
Most people don’t start with an Ironman, though, but rather a local sprint triathlon – 750m swim, 12-15 mile bike, 5k run. If you can already swim a little, ride a bike and run without hurting yourself, you can prepare for a sprint tri quickly. These four tips will help you enjoy the experience!
1. Get started with mastering the swim as soon as possible.
For most aspiring triathletes, the swim is the part of the event that requires the most time to prepare for. Swimming is technically challenging, and you’ll need to become comfortable swimming in open water as well. Your goal is to complete the distance of your swim leg without wearing yourself out. This may take 1-3 months if you’re not already a swimmer. Begin your swimming training very focused on developing good technique, and then work on your open water skills. Here are my three swimming-related recommendations:
First, get help. I recommend seeking out an in-person coach who gives useful feedback and suggestions. Group lessons and YouTube videos from reliable sources are helpful. However, you progress much more quickly with one-on-one help.
Typical problems I see in new adult swimmers are poor body position, kicking from the knee/overkicking, and poor ability to “grip” the water and push it back. All three of these issues make swimming very tiring. Once you have a horizontal position in the water and are using your upper body to propel yourself, swimming becomes much easier.
Second, swim frequently. I recommend getting in the water 3-4 days a week at first, even if some of those sessions only last 10-20 minutes. The more frequently you swim with a firm focus on improving your technique, the more progress you will make. Focus on one aspect of your technique at a time, covering a handful of them during a session.
Third, get used to swimming freestyle in open water near other swimmers. As a new triathlete I became very anxious in open water despite swimming competitively in a pool since I was 5. Be sure to practice open water swimming in a safe place where you can stand and rest when needed as you’re getting used to it.
You will also need to master the art of “sighting” (looking forward above the water with as little head lift as possible) so that you can navigate in a straight line. I recommend sighting every 3-10 breaths in open water and during some parts of your pool sessions.
It’s also a good idea to get used to a small amount of physical contact while swimming, first in the pool and then in open water. Practice using a “recovery stroke” such as backstroke or just floating on your back to reset or take a break.
2. Find the right bike for you and your wallet.
The biggest investment most triathletes make, besides race fees, is a bike and all the associated gear. But if you are starting out with a sprint triathlon (typically a 10-15 mile bike leg), you don’t need a fancy bike. I finished my first sprint tri on a commuter-style mountain bike with flat pedals and beefy tires. It wasn’t fast, but I already owned it. (I’ve seen people finish a tri on a BMX bike, although I don’t recommend that!) From there I moved up to a road bike which was faster and allowed me to ride more easily in local cycling groups. As I became faster and raced over longer courses, I purchased a triathlon bike for better aerodynamics.
If you already own a bike that works, get it tuned up at your local bike shop and use it. If you need to buy a bike and your budget is very limited, I recommend a used road bike. First, figure out your bike size so you know what you’re looking for (here’s a good calculator). Places to find used bikes: local bike shops that do consignment, Craigslist, local tri clubs, local bike clubs/teams, Facebook forum in your area. It’s a good idea to ride any bike you’re thinking about buying to make sure it fits you and doesn’t have any serious damage to the frame or components. Consult with your local bike shop for help.
If you are having discomfort, numbness or tingling ANYWHERE while riding, get a bike fit done at your local shop. Adjusting the seat post, handlebar height, and/or cleat position on your shoes can really help. You may also need a better saddle.
Beware – buying bike gear is a deep rabbit hole to go down. There is a LOT you can buy. Thankfully there are only a few things that you really need: a good helmet that fits properly, tire pump, water bottle cages and bottles, a few spare tubes, a flat kit that fits under your seat. I highly recommend training with cycling gloves and cycling shorts. Everything else is optional.
3. Train smart to avoid injury.
You may plan to use a training plan that’s custom designed for you by a coach, purchased on Training Peaks or another platform, done with a training group, or from a book like “Be Iron Fit”. No matter which option you choose, make sure you start from where you actually are. Don’t just jump in where the group or training plan starts.
If you haven’t already been training hard for three sports at the same time, you will need to work up to it. Remember that your total training load shouldn’t take a huge jump either in time or intensity. Start by adding some easy 30 minute sessions in the sport(s) you haven’t been doing. Then work up to weeks that look similar to the first weeks of your plan.
For instance, you may be swimming with a masters group 3 times a week and riding your bike on Saturdays but not running. Especially if you’re prone to injuries when running, start with 1-2 runs or run/walks of 1-2 miles each. Don’t just jump into 10 miles a week of running all at once!
Most coaches recommend that you increase mileage, especially running mileage, by only 10% per week. They also recommend limiting any intense portions of your workouts to only 20% of your total load. When increasing mileage or intensity, you should track your ability to recover carefully. You may need extra sleep, extra calories in general, and a “recovery snack” within 30 minutes of your longer/harder workouts (~200 calories, 4:1 carbs to protein) . You should also alternate longer/harder workout days with easier ones to allow for recovery.
Remember that it’s not the long or hard workouts that make you strong – it‘s the recovery periods that make you strong. All good training plans will incorporate a full rest day or two as well as days with easier sessions between harder days. These rest days allow your body to adapt to the stress of the hard workouts without breaking down. Pay attention to the recommended intensity of every workout and don’t just go hard every day. If you do, you may end up over-trained, sick or injured. You can also use Oxcia or AFA Formula to help you not only perform better in your hard workouts, but also recover faster from them.
4. Nothing new on race day
Before race day comes, practice every single aspect of your nutrition, pre-race prep and performance. And I mean everything. You don’t want to discover that the new tri top you planned to race in chafes you badly only once you’re half-way through your race. That’s something you should discover and fix in training!
Below is a list of things I recommend that you practice before race day so you have fewer surprises. You may think of others if you watch an event on YouTube or in real life:
- Pre-race breakfast content and timing
- What you’re going to wear while racing, down to the exact pair of socks
- How you’re going to hydrate and fuel during the bike and the run (what you will use and how much)
- Setting up your transition area.
- Executing T1 and T2.
- Goggles, latex cap, wetsuit – swim in them all before race day.
- Swimming the distance of your race in open water
- How you will pace yourself during the swim, how frequently you will sight, what you will do if you get tired or get kicked to take a break and then get going again
- How you will exit the water quickly
- Running with your bike (while wearing bike shoes, if you’re using them)
- Mounting/dismounting your bike quickly and safely
- Running right after you’ve cycled (“brick” workout)
- Changing a tire using only what’s in your flat kit
Triathlon is logistically unique, as well as a fun challenge. Welcome to the sport!