Swimming is 90% skill. Find a good coach.

Triathletes swimming, Tony Coaching

Swimming is 90% skill. If you are a weak swimmer then your number one expense for race preparation should be paying for swimming lessons from a good coach. So many triathletes are willing to spend thousands on faster bikes and nothing on good swim coaching.

You have a choice when it comes to swimming. You can get out of the water tired and drained or you can get out fresh and ready to ride. The difference is in your swim technique. Good technique allows you to slide through the water with less effort. A swimmer with bad technique overcomes this deficit by expending much more energy and usually swimming slower.

For your first race, you just want to make sure you can swim the distance. If you get out tired, you will take it easier on the bike until you can go  faster. But if you are able, get some personalized swim lessons from a good coach.

You may hear people talk about joining a Masters swimming team. This is fine if that’s all you have, but Masters swimming is all about go go go and there is little patience for slow unskilled swimmers. If there is a Masters swim near you, find out who the coach is and see if you can book a few personal swim lessons. You need a coach who is looking at your swim and suggesting drills and technique changes often. A go go go coach that is barking out swim orders to twenty swimmers will get you stronger but wont help at all with your swimming.

When I joined my first triathlon club, one of our first swims was to figure out how fast each athlete was so we could be assigned lanes based on our speed. Well, I have a big problem when I am put side by side with other athletes and told to race. Even worse is when we will then be placed in lanes according to our speed. My problem is that I go all out. I may be dead at the end of it, but oh well. So we did this little test and I was placed over with the fast athletes with a coach that just barked orders and never looked at anyone’s swim.

I swam with the fast swimmers for a while and noticed that the slower athletes were actually getting more coaching on the other side of the pool. So I snuck over with the slower swimmers. I did that because I wanted to learn how to swim well. I knew I could go fast for a short time. But I also knew that speed wouldn’t last over a long swim.

My point in telling you all this is that you need to advocate for your own training. You need to find the coach who will help you with your swimming technique and not the coach who will tell you to go go go. Get your technique down first, then you can go fast for a long distance.

The best place I have found for learning how to work on your swim technique is Swim Smooth (http://www.swimsmooth.com). They have animations showing you the proper technique, apps, and articles every week on good technique. I could go on and on but it would never be as good as what you will find at Swim Smooth. Go there, sign up for their newsletter and  you will get valuable lessons sent to you every week.

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.

The Journey

shadowclifs-sunrise

Triathlon is about the journey. Both in training and the race. For me, thoughts of victory need to be far from my mind. When I entertain thoughts of winning or comparing myself to others, I am setting myself up for disappointment. I do it all the time though…

My triathlons are about the experience of doing all three sports. I approach each triathlon like I would a backpacking trip. I am going on an adventure! The trip will be long but I will enjoy every minute of it. I make a point of smiling at the spectators, thanking the course workers, and cheering on my fellow athletes. I’m the one at the end of the race encouraging those athletes walking up that last hill to finish strong! I’ve also been one of those walking athletes and needed that same help from others. Finishing with a smile is always my goal. Most of the time it is a smile of relief that it’s finally over but also of a goal achieved. Triathlon requires so much training. It is important to set a goal, like finishing a long practice, finishing a race, or just getting past all those voices in your head keeping you on the couch, and then celebrate that goal achieved.

Racing is special, but the true journey is the training. The majority of your time will be spent in training, so why not treat that as an adventure also? When I see a road stretching out before me like the road in the picture on this page I feel so lucky to be able to ride that road. So lucky to be on a bike zooming around the corners and getting to the top to look at the view. I feel the same thing when I am swimming. I love open water swimming because I love swimming like a fish, looking across a long lake, and then getting to the other side. I don’t really like swimming in pools. I feel ok sometimes when I’m running. Not often. But even when the running is hard and I am tired, I think of how thankful I am to be moving, to be exercising, to be alive.

On race day I begin my day eating good food and getting excited for what I am lucky enough to be doing. All my packing is done (I hope) and I am just putting everything in my car to get to the race. My routine is that I stop at a coffee shop and get a large coffee and a pastry for the drive there. I love showing up really early and getting my bike and gear in transition and set up where I want. I am then able to relax, watch the morning unfold, and watch the other athletes hustle and bustle.

The swim is a time for me to relax and enjoy being in the water.  Don’t get me wrong, I want to go fast. I want to do my best. I look at my finishing times as much or more than the next triathlete. But adding stress to your race will not make you faster. Relaxing and staying within your ability, in my opinion, will result in a better time on the clock as well as a more enjoyable time. So I relax. I get into my swim stroke and remember my technique. The swim is the most nervous time for most first year triathletes. You imagine getting pulled under by others. You’ve heard stories that scare the hell out of you. They’re probably all true, but you should not start your race in the front. Starting just ten seconds behind the front of the pack will put you in clean water and keep you out of the washing machine.

The bike ride, for me, is a time to go fast! I love going fast on the bike. I am not that fast compared to most riders who have been doing it for years but I love covering ground fast. I really love the downhills where my love for speed overcomes my fear of falling.  I also try to enjoy the scenery, but concentration on the task at hand comes first on the bike. Most of the deaths in triathlon come during the swim, but most of the injuries happen on the bike. You  have to keep your wits about you and stay within your abilities on a bike. And unless you’ve been riding a long time, expect to be passed all race long and just get over it. You are going your speed. It’s your race.

The run, for me, is always a necessary evil. I love running when I feel fast and like I can run forever. But those times are few and far between in training and have never happened in a race. Maybe as I run more and build up my strength running will be more fun. The run, however, is when I can really enjoy the scenery, the crowd, and my fellow triathletes. By this time, the speedy ones are long gone and the slower ones are behind. You usually settle into a group of people going about your pace. I run slow and controlled. I pick up the pace when I feel good and I walk when I have to. Most triathlons have an aid station about every mile on the run. I usually plan to walk through the aid stations so I can get all the water and nutrition I need in with no hurry. When I get through, I’ll start with a light jog and see where I go from there.

The finish is a time for celebration. You’ve done it! I have to admit that I usually get caught up in racing those around me along with the fact that I can see the finish line, that I usually sprint that last bit across the line. But you shouldn’t. High five your family and friends that are there. Celebrate with the other athletes who are finishing along with you. The finish is what you worked for, a goal achieved. Take your medal and enjoy being a participant in such an awesome sport.

You could not finish. We put so much into the finish in triathlon that the possibility of not finishing is a cause of so much stress and worry to the first year triathlete. Your friends and family are all there and not finishing can feel like a huge failure. I was so worried about getting a flat in my first race that I had two tubes, three CO2 cartridges, and a bottle of that green-gu stop leak. I ended up not needing any of it but I needed the peace of mind. I just had to finish.

Things can go wrong. You could have a mechanical breakdown. You could get sick during the swim. You could pull a muscle during the run. There is only one thing you need to know and understand when this happens. Everyone around you in the race as well as your family and friends are there for you in that moment. Everyone is on your side, thinking about you in the most positive light. Everyone has your back.

You toed up to the starting line. You were in the race. There is no disgrace to anyone who enters the ring, starts the race, and puts forward the effort they are able to put forward on that day.

Put that stress and worry about not finishing behind you and enjoy the journey. Things will occur, bad things may happen, but you can get through each one. And if something keeps you from finishing, so be it. Hold your head up high and race another day.

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.