How to train for your First Triathlon.

Important notes in preparation for your first triathlon including training tips and hints from a former professional.

You're committed. You've signed up and there is no backing out. You're first triathlon. I mean it probably cost you a few bucks (I would say most registration fees average around $50 a race, and wait, I'm paying YOU to go through this much pain? Something is backwards.

However you got tricked into the position you find yourself in, you better get ready. All I can promise you is that if you train, it might hurt a little less than if you didn't and training might make it a bit more enjoyable than doing nothing. Lets see if we can get you prepared. Once you finish, you'll want to sign up again. But let's get you through the first one. 

So swim, bike, run. Most likely you picked a sprint. The shorter of the many options available so the swim is probably between 400 meters to 800 meters and either in a pool, pond or lake. You probably aren't a great swimmer, or maybe you are but have never swam with hundreds of other swimmers that don't understand "personal space". Flailing arms and kicking feet. The good thing is that all you need to do is follow the bubbles.

Preparing for the swim is actually quite easy. What do you have to do? First, get comfortable in the water. Join a gym with a pool or visit the local YMCA and get in. Anxiety is what can ruin a rookie's first triathlon experience. Getting in the water and swimming with others, whether it's just a couple laps of circle swimming or joining a masters group, is the best preparation you can do. Of the two I would suggest finding a master's group. Yeah you might not be fast and you might think it's embarrassing but I promise you there are others starting exactly where you are. During "practice" the lanes are usually split and organized slower to faster. Those in your lane are probably of a similar experience level and nobody can see you swim anyway because their heads are under water. So I suggest a masters group. It makes you swim, coaches will help you with your technique (very important) and it gives you some structure to the hardest of the three sports to learn. If you can't find a group or you just don't have the time, I would suggest that when swimming by yourself build your way up to the race distance so that you can comfortably swim that distance without stopping. And no hanging on the walls. There aren't any in the lake so don't get used to them. The cool thing about this entire experience is that you can take as long as you want. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to stop and reassess your surroundings, it's ok - float on your back, do the breaststroke, doggy paddle, it doesn't matter. Getting from point A to point B is what's important. So for the swim. Practice, practice, practice. Time in the water is the only way to ensure that you will be more comfortable come race day. It's the first section of the race, it's early in the morning, you're already nervous, but all you have to do is take a deep breath and say to yourself, I can take my time, I can get from here to there.

Ok, you're out of the water and running back to the transition area. This is where you set up your bike, placed your shoes, race number and all the other stuff the local triathlon store talked you into buying. The area usually opens a few hours before the event so that you can prepare your space the way you like it. I usually lay a towel out next to my bike with everything I know I am going to use. My helmet, my sunglasses, my shoes, my socks (if you use them), my GU, Hammer Gel or Power Bar ( I usually have a few out - you'll be back through again) and my racebelt with race number (one thing you should buy from the tri store). Again, you have all the time in the world, but being organized can help you stay calm and help you make sure you don't forget something important.

Depending on the water temperature, you might be using a wetsuit. The race details usually state whether the average water temperature falls within the guidelines. Check the event photos from the prior year. It's a good indication of whether a wetsuit will be needed. That local shop I've talked about, probably rents suits. Check with them about the temperatures and what you will need. They might let you try one out and they can teach you the best and quickest ways to get it off after the swim so you can get on your bike shoes and helmet and you can get out on to the open road.

That's right. You've done this before. Just ride your bike. At the sprint distance the bike section usually falls within twelve (12) to eighteen (18) miles long. For most of you that means within forty-five minutes (45) to over an hour and a half (1.5 hours). Take into account the type of bike you are riding and it could be longer. I don't recommend going out and buying a new bike just for this race unless you know you will be riding a bunch or you're just made of money. A new road bike can range anywhere from $700 to over $5000+. It isn't necessary. An old mountain bike or a borrowed bike from a friend will do the trick. Just make sure it works correctly. Perhaps a quick $50 tune-up from the local bike shop will get out the kinks.

So on the bike this is what you need to do...or not do. Have you ever heard of the word "bonk"? This happens when your body is in search of energy and it has none. You hit a "wall" and you can't seem to push past the pain. The best way to make sure this doesn't happen is to eat. Eat breakfast the morning of the event, use those gels you brought to the transition area and use an electrolyte mix with your water. There are tons of options. I opt for the ones that aren't too full of sugar. That "wall" can make the bike feel like eternity and make the run feel like torture. Making sure you are fueled up is step one. Step two: find a comfortable gear. You just got out of the water and ran to transition and now you want your legs to automatically know what to do when you jump on your bike? Right. Find a middle gear and spin. Nothing to fast, you don't want to be hopping around on your seat but something you can pedal around 90 to 100 rpm's. (revolutions per minute - how many times your foot goes in a circle in 60 seconds) This is a pretty good way to know if you are in the sweet spot. Everyone is different, but that range is pretty standard for most. As your body recovers from the swim and your heart rate is through the roof, the spinning will bring it back down and once you feel it's manageable, you can pick up the pace. Like I said, you are going to be on the bike for around an hour. Pace yourself, you have to run after this. Getting in two to three good rides a week should work for this distance unless you know the course has some bigger climbs. If so, perhaps try to ride similar terrain leading up to the event. Efforts can very when involving climbs and rolling hills but try and maintain a riding average around 17 miles per hour or a perceived effort of 7 out of 10. Building endurance is the most important to so try and ride controlled and consistently for extended periods of time. Learn to rehydrate while riding and try not to stop.

My favorite part, the run. I kid. I hate to run but without it, it wouldn't be a tri-athlon right? Whatever. For a sprint, we are probably looking at some version of a 5k, or 3.1 mile run. When you finished the bike portion you came back to your transition area, racked your bike back up and changed your shoes. Don't forget your race number. Grab that and if you got the race belt, it's an easy click and you are off. Grab a hat and that other gel if you have them.

Just like the bike. Relax and get into a comfortable rhythm. Your legs will probably feel a bit heavy from the bike. The higher cadence helps with the transition from bike to run. Pushing a big gear on the bike engages more of the muscles in your legs and those same muscle help stabilize your gait while running. If you drain your legs of their strength, your body has to compensate in other areas draining reserve power and making your legs work harder than they have to trying to maintain your running form. Conserve and be conservative in the beginning. For most of us running is the most familiar of the sports. A pair of shoes and out the front door you go. Three good runs a week and you should be good. I would recommend a longer run on the weekend with two moderate runs during the week where your intensity is a little higher. Maybe 70-90% of your 5k race pace. On the long run stick around 60-75% but try to double the distance that you do during the week.

These are the basics. Obviously depending on your comfort level in each sport you might vary the workouts and your preparation. Maybe down the road we can answer some specifics. The main things to take away are this:

1. Get comfortable - Do each of the three sports as much as you can to become familiar with the sport. Swimming and cycling. Repetition.

2. Quality over quantity - Don't think you have to do all three sports everyday. You know the race date, it's not every Thursday. You'll burn yourself out.

3. Ask questions and learn technique - The best way to get faster is to become more efficient.

4. Find a training group or partner - Motivation is key. Twenty other peeps at the pool, a cycling and running group will push you.

5. Have fun - It's not worth it if it's not fun. Work training into your life. Don't revolve your life around training. You'll miss out on everything else.

I hope this helps and I hope you enjoy your first triathlon. For me, the first one was just the beginning. Over 100 events later and I still try and get at least one in every summer. It is a great way to stay fit and there is a good chance you'll meet some really great people along the way. And who isn't into feeling great and making new friends? Good luck Hector! You're going to crush it!

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Val Mills
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Posted on Apr 22, 2010