Your First Triathlon

If you are sitting on the couch right now wanting desperately to change your life, this book is for you.

The first thing you must do is forget everything you have heard about triathlon. It doesn’t require super-human strength or the will to push through excruciating pain. Yes, to race an ironman distance race, you need a lot of training, dedication, and perseverance; but that should not be your goal for your first triathlon. Your goal for your first race is to get your lazy butt off the couch and turn your life around.

You and I will set a goal, for this change in your life, of completing a triathlon. Whether you finish your triathlon or not will not define success or failure. Read that sentence again, it’s important. Success is getting off the couch. Success is going out for that run. Success is when you get a flat tire out in the middle of nowhere and you change the tube and get going again. Success is being outside exercising and pushing yourself. You will put un-needed stress on yourself if you focus on finishing the race. Triathlon is a journey that starts with a swim, then a bike ride, and ends with a run. The finish is the end, but every swim stroke, breath, pedal turn, stride, and drink is more important than the finish. Do them all well and the finish will happen.

For you, the focus of training and racing should be having fun. That’s it. Each workout should be difficult, but never painful. You should end each workout happy and looking forward to the next one, not in pain for three days losing fitness because you went too hard. You need to gradually build your strength and stamina and that means starting easy and only doing more when your body is ready for more.

Triathlon is a celebration of life. It is not torture. You are alive! Celebrate each day by moving your body, laughing, swimming, riding, and enjoying the outdoors. This is the true win. You will not win your first race, but this true win will be yours.

For your first triathlon you should not care about your time or how you place. Why put that added stress on yourself? The race should be a celebration of everything you have accomplished. You should invite everyone you know to come watch you and be a part of your accomplishment. Triathlon can be a lonely sport during the workouts but having friends and family at the race makes it all worth it. Nobody coming to watch you cares one bit about your finishing time. They want you to finish because they care about you and wish you the best. That will not change if you do not finish.

It’s now time to find a race around twelve weeks from now that is close to your home. Your first race should be a sprint distance race. A sprint is a perfect first race because each of the distances is something you will do as a normal daily workout in the last months of your training.

Check out TriFind.com. At TriFind you can search for triathlons in your state just by clicking on their map.

You can then pick the year and the month that you want to find a race for.  You’re looking for a sprint distance race, something with about three miles of running. Don’t be fooled by the name. Sprint does not mean you have to sprint the whole race. Sprint means it is a shorter distance race.

Training

Me and some friends pretending like we are working out and not just goofing off for the camera

Before you do anything, check with your doctor to make sure you don’t have any health conditions that will be made worse by exercise. I can’t believe there are many health conditions that cannot be improved by exercise but I have to tell you that just in case. Be sure you explain that you are NOT doing an ironman distance race. Not yet anyway. 🙂 You are training for a sprint, which is a 500-700m swim, 16 mile bike ride, and then a 3 mile run/walk. Your goals with this are to get into better shape and finish your race with a smile.

You need to be able to run. Don’t worry; if you can’t run very far, you’re reading the right book. This workout will slowly build your running up until you can run about 3-4 miles, walking when you need to. Your goal is to finish with a smile, so we will plan the walks so you can run with a smile, walk, and finish looking fresh, slapping high-fives, and smiling brightly.

You need to be able to ride a bike and carry nutrition along on your rides. You don’t need an expensive bike or an aero helmet. Use what you have for your first race.

You also need to find a local pool and be able to swim in it. You should be able to freestyle swim the width of the pool without stopping.

That said, you are not going to be racing the Kona Ironman. You are going to be racing a sprint distance race. There is no need to do a strenuous workout. You are getting fit enough to participate and finish your race, that’s it. You will push hard for short intervals of time, but you will then slow down and rest, bringing your heart rate down as well as normalizing your breathing. During the race, you will keep your effort steady but never push as hard as you do in training.

There are chapters later in the book on everything from swim equipment to water bottle maintenance to bike purchases. Feel free to skip straight to these if you are considering a big purchase or if you just want to be informed about what you need and what you should buy. For now, there are a few things you will need:

Things you will need

  • Running shoes. Get a good pair of name-brand running shoes.
  • Running socks, shorts, shirts, sports bras. You will need at least two of each so you can clean one while wearing the other.
  • Swim shorts, goggles, swim cap, towels, shower soap.
  • A place to swim. A local pool with lap swim hours will be fine, a gym with a pool, or even a lake if you live near one.
  • Water bottles
  • Bike. Start with what you have. If you need to buy one, get road bike that fits your budget. Don’t go crazy thinking you need a triathlon bike. You don’t. Buy from a local bike shop so you have somewhere to take the bike when something goes wrong.
  • A smart phone with Strava and Facebook, or a journal to write in.
  • Sports drinks like Gatorade or others. I like Gatorade, always have.
  • Sports Gels and bars. Clif makes my favorite bars to eat on a long ride and Powerbar makes great tasting gels to help power your workouts and race.

The Training Plan

chart of CPtT training plan
This is a twelve week plan. Each week is explained in detail in the coming sections, but this shows an overview of all the weeks.

Feel free to print the above graphic and put it on your wall as a calendar that you can cross off training days you complete. This is a great way to graphically see the progress you are making as well as know where you are within the entire program.

If your race is sooner than twelve weeks away then I suggest you cut weeks from the end of the first month of training. For example, if your race is ten weeks away, do the first and second week of the first month and then skip the rest of that month and start the second month. This will get you on track for your race. I wouldn’t recommend cutting your training down to anything less than ten weeks though unless you have a base of fitness from regular swimming, biking, or running already.

During any of the weeks, feel free to move the workouts around to fit your schedule. The order throughout the week is not important. However, the first few weeks are designed to work you hard and then rest you a lot. Running is the hardest on your body. Swimming is the easiest, so in a training sense, swimming and rest days are both rest days. Yeah, you’re rolling your eyes right now if you are not a very good swimmer. Don’t worry, there will be actual rest days. Swimming is great exercise because it works your body in a non-damaging way. Biking is kind of in the middle. It’s still easier on the body than running, but there is much bumping of the arms along with strain in the back, neck, and knees that requires recovery before repeating. There is also butt pain that will get better as you ride more. Keep this in mind as you plan out your week.

For any of these workouts, if you have a better start than your average couch potato in either of the three sports then please go further than the prescribed workout. Same if you are struggling with any. Go easier if you have to and don’t feel bad about it. You’ll get there. You will improve.

Don’t Get Caught In The Gear Game

Image of my gear at the MTS TriathlonTriathlon is expensive. You need a wetsuit and a good pair of goggles for the swim. But you also need swim shorts to train in and access to a pool. This means you need a gym membership or you can pay pool fees.

You also need a bike, a helmet, bike shoes, cleats, etc. But for your first sprint race you should ride what you have. If you don’t have a bike, get an inexpensive road bike. You don’t need a carbon fiber bike or aero this or that. Just get a nice comfortable bike with clip-in cleats and bike shoes. If you can’t ride with cleats yet, don’t even try.

I know the picture above is not at all what I am saying here in the text. That picture was taken was taken during my fourth race, not my first.

The run is probably the cheapest part because you just need shoes, shorts and a shirt. But your legs and feet are important, so you don’t want to skimp on your shoes. You want a good pair of shoes from a reputable shoe company.

After all this, even the socks start to feel expensive as you need more than one pair. You will be spending a lot of money on this new obsession of yours. Do yourself a favor and keep your spending to only what you absolutely need.

If you read the websites or triathlon magazines, you will quickly get the message that your equipment will determine how well you do in the race. But let me tell you what few magazines will: how well you do in the race is 98% determined by your training and your attitude and none of that 98% costs a penny. There are no corporations out there making a profit off of your effort, so you wont see any glitzy ad campaigns encouraging you to work out, unless they are telling you to work out with their product and the message is always that your workout will be more productive if you do it with their product. Don’t believe it.

Your equipment could make up the other 2%. If you are going for the win, you can and should spend all the money you can afford to get that extra 2%. In a long race, that could be five to ten minutes! Jumping up five minutes with no more effort is huge for a competitive triathlete. For the rest of us, don’t get caught in that trap. Your benefit will be less that what an elite athlete enjoys, and in your eight hour race who cares about five or even twenty minutes?  In your first sprint race, the difference will be nil. You do want a decent bike, good shoes, and a comfortable wetsuit but you don’t have to spend a lot for any of those and you surely don’t need the latest technology so if you have to buy a bike, get a used one or get last year’s bike on sale.