An Introductory Guide To Your First Triathlon

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I remember my very first triathlon race like it was yesterday, the Capitol City Triathlon in Windsor Locks, CT. I saw some things that day that really stunned me. The incredible assortment of fancy high-tech bikes and equipment in the transition area, the mass swim with arms flailing and legs kicking everywhere, and the intense competition that was evident out on the course, even at this small local sprint distance race. As I think back on how intimidated and inexperienced I was at that first race, it seems rather comical. Still, it illustrates the complexity that beginners face in melding three sports into one race. First timers, like I was that day, often think they know how to swim, ride a bike, and run, but putting them together in a race is often a different story. In the following paragraphs, I'll provide a few strategic tips that will hopefully help you enjoy your first experience, so you will be eager to come back for more.

Equipment Tips

Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere or have heard from others, you don't need to invest a small fortune on equipment to do a triathlon. In fact, the only true necessity is a bike helmet, which USA Triathlon, the sports national governing body, won't let you on the racecourse without. You don't even need a road bike, as many beginners use their mountain bikes, then buy a road or triathlon bike later if they like the sport. Most of you probably already own the garden-variety athletic clothing and gear you would need for that first race: goggles, swimsuit, and a cap (the race management provides these) for the swim, a bike, helmet, and running shoes for the bike and run. Anything else you may add, such as a swimming wetsuit (particularly helpful if the water temp is 70 or below or the swim leg is a mile or more), dedicated shorts and shirts for running and cycling, and sunglasses, serve only to add to your comfort level, but are not an absolute necessity. Bottom line: for your first race and even your first season of racing, forget the $300 full length wetsuits, $2500 aero-tubed tri-bikes and $700 aero wheels, or $100 heart rate monitors. All the equipment you need to experience and get a feel for the sport is likely lying in your garage or buried deep in your closet!

Simple training tips to get you started

As we all know, proper training is essential to productive and injury free racing, whether you are trying to beat your own PR or trying to finish your first race. Though I can't go into the detail that is necessary when discussing each individuals personal training needs, there are some fundamental tips I can offer which apply to every athlete, novice to experienced.

Set some goals. These need to be challenging, yet achievable. Goals that are too hard or too easy will hurt your motivation. Write your goals down and read them often.

Have a plan in place. Whether you are your own coach or you seek the advice of a professional, have a written plan that details where you are and how you intend to get to where you want to go. Goals without a plan are simply wishes. Above all, when you have your plan in place, be flexible with it, but believe in it whole-heartedly. Personally, I believe that it is well worth investing in the services of a qualified coach. This can shorten the learning curve tremendously, dramatically increasing the effectiveness of your training.

Don't underestimate how important it is to balance your hard work with proper rest. It's during your resting periods when adaptation takes place and your fitness level rises. Listen to your body!

Be certain to consume the sports drink of your choice for workouts lasting longer than an hour. Short changing yourself in this area will jeopardize the training adaptations that need to take place.

Concentrate primarily on developing your skills in each sport, particularly during the off season or early in your training program. Skill development should always precede higher intensity training, and it should remain an integral part of your program indefinitely. Allow increased fitness to come from practicing good technique, rather than trying to improve your fitness while struggling with poor technique. Whatever activity or sport you choose to do, you will only be as good as your skill level allows.

Assess your strengths and weaknesses and develop a plan to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

For swimming, get some individualized stroke instruction if you need to improve your skill! This can't be emphasized enough. You can't develop your skill by thrashing and struggling through a group workout or by swimming alone. You need the feedback of a good coach. Contact me for more details.

For cycling, work primarily on your pedaling efficiency and technique by concentrating on spinning in the small chain ring at 100-110 rpm's. Resist the temptation to push bigger gears!

Believe it or not, proper running technique is critical if you are to run your best! Most runners don't believe this! Believe it. See some of my running tips on that section of the site, and always feel free to contact me for more details.

Concentrate on building an aerobic base. You can do this by keeping most of your workouts in the low intensity range (approximately 60-70% of maximum heart rate). You have to build a good foundation of fitness and skill before you can put on the finishing touches!

Incorporate some strength training into your program, utilizing a periodized 12-16 week progression. Two to three days a week is optimal, depending on the time you have available. I'll cover some basics about more specific, functional strength in a future issue.

Coach Al Lyman, CSCS, is certified with USA Triathlon, the Triathlon Academy, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and is the founder of Pursuit Fitness ( In addition to coaching athletes of all levels in the U.S. and abroad, he is also a 8-time Ironman Triathlon Finisher (3-time Hawaii Finisher) with a 10:29 PR, and holds a 2:39 PR at the Boston Marathon.

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