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Your Complete Guide to Triathlons

Preparing For Triathlon

You might be nervous while preparing for your first triathlon. The event consists of running, cycling, and swimming, which might seem scary and overwhelming at first. However, you shouldn’t be afraid as the event can be completed without trouble if you have prepared well. This guide would help you tackle the three challenges put forth by the event and overcome them without breaking a sweat (figure of speech).

What is Triathlon?

A triathlon is an endurance event that is subdivided into three disciplines. Every year over 3 million participants appear for this event. The first section is swimming, which many people consider the toughest and riskiest section. The difficulty posed by swimming is the reason that it is conducted first as the participants are fresh and mentally focused. The next section of this event is cycling, which is riskier as compared to running, and that’s why it takes the second spot in the order. Lastly, the comparatively safe segment, running. The main point of focus in a triathlon is the distance for each event. Official guidelines mention four distances. These are Sprint, Olympic, Half-Iron, and Iron. The sprint triathlon can have a variety of distances, depending upon the organizers. The second important factor in any triathlon is the location. Running sections and bike races can be conducted on roads or trails. Lastly, the swimming section usually takes place in outdoor water bodies such as lakes, rivers, bays, or even ocean. However, indoor pools can also be used for the swimming event. Here are the actual distances for each section of different kinds of triathlon.

Sprint Triathlon: It has a 750 meters swimming section. 20 km bike race, and 5 km foot race.

Olympic Triathlon: The swimming section is 1.5 km long, and the bike race is 40 km. The foot race is 10 km.

Half-Iron Triathlon: A participant needs to swim 1.2 miles (1.9 km), cycle for 56 miles (90 km), and run for 13.1 miles (21 km).

Ironman Triathlon: The toughest triathlon event consists of a 2.4 (3.8 km) miles swimming race, a bike race over 112 (180 km) miles, and 26.2 miles (42 km) foot race.

History of Triathlon

You can find evidence of events similar to triathlon taking place in France since the 1920s. However, the World Triathlon Corporation conducted its first Ironman triathlon in 1977. It started with a debate at a running club awards banquet in Hawaii. The debate was about which athletic event is the hardest amongst swimming, cycling, and running. The geniuses at that event came up with a perfect solution, that is, to conduct all these events within a single competition. As a result, an all-day race was planned on the island of Oahu. It was made up of 2.4 miles (3.8 km) swimming race based on the distance of the annual Waikiki Roughwater Swim, one of the hardest open-water swims in the world. The swimming race was to be followed by a bike race of 112 miles (180 km), which covered the entire circumference of the island. The last section consisted of 26.2 miles (44 km) race, that is, the equivalent of a full marathon. Thus, the Ironman triathlon was created. Bob Babbitt, an Ironman Hall of Fame inductee and founder of Competitor Magazine, mentions, Gordon Haller became the first man to win the Ironman triathlon. He was a runner. A swimmer won the second Ironman triathlon. Naturally, people were hoping that John Howard, an Olympic cyclist, would win the third Ironman triathlon. Cycling section is the longest section of the event, and an Olympic cyclist would take advantage of that fact. However, that wasn’t the case. Babbitt says, “But when Howard came out of the water an hour behind Dave Scott, a former swimmer, and water polo player, he finished in third despite having an amazing bike ride.” According to him, the result “showed that you couldn’t be just a one-sport specialist. You need to be a triathlete to win the Ironman.”

Preparing Yourself for a Triathlon

One of the first things that you need to do is learn how to swim. If you know how to swim and workout regularly, you can get ready for a triathlon within six weeks without much difficulty. However, if you spend more time in front of a computer screen than on a treadmill, you will need at least a month to get in shape before you start preparing for a triathlon. To get in shape for a triathlon, you need to swim, cycle and run three days a week for the first month. Once you are used to these activities, you can move on to the actual triathlon training. Depending on your general fitness, the pre-training time might vary anywhere between a month and a month and a half. Swimming is the most challenging and dangerous section of any triathlon. So, you need to take some lessons in swimming if you don’t know how to swim or haven’t gone for a swim in a long time. Swimming is extremely difficult, and it should only be attempted if you have high endurance. If you think that your swimming ability is decent, but you don’t want to take any chances, participate in a triathlon that conducts its swimming segment in an indoor swimming pool. It would be better if you participate in a triathlon that has a swimming pool for the swimming section in your first attempt.

Select a Triathlon Event to Train For

You need to train according to the event you are going to participate in. Use the internet to see if a triathlon is conducted near you. Once you locate an event, visit the website for that event to know the specific details of the event and its various components. As a beginner, avoid any event that has a swimming event that will be conducted in a river or ocean as waves could make swimming challenging. It would also be helpful if you avoid events that have steep mountainous tracks for biking and sandy regions for running.  You also need to take note of the cut-off time. In a triathlon, the cut-off time is the maximum time allotted for a participant to finish the race. However, don’t get discouraged if the cut-off times seem inadequate. These races have sweeper vans to help people who are unable to finish on time. Generally, a sprint triathlon, which a beginner should aim for, lasts for up to three hours. Finishing a triathlon is more important than winning, and three hours is enough to complete a sprint triathlon if you are prepared. The next thing is the date of the triathlon. If you are in shape and only need to follow the six weeks plan to get ready for a triathlon, then you can choose an event that is eight weeks away. On the other hand, if you need to get in shape first, choose a triathlon that is two and a half to three months away. Now, sign up for the race and pay the fee. The sum you spend to register for the event acts as a perfect motivator. Now, you are all set to begin your training.

Prepare for the Event

Once you are in shape, i.e., you can swim, cycle, and run without much difficulty, you are ready to train for the event. Jennifer Rulon, a San Antonio-based coach who also participates in Ironman triathlon, is one of the best guides to prepare you for a triathlon. If you like to stay in shape, then you might be going to a gym for at least three to four days a week. In case you aren’t, then go to a gym for at least a month and focus on cardiovascular exercises to help you build endurance. You need to go to the gym at least four days a week.

Week 1: On Monday, swim for 30 minutes. On Tuesday, you need to ride a bike for 40 to 45 minutes. Wednesday is for running for at least 15 minutes. On Thursday, swim for 30 minutes, and take a day off on Friday to get some rest. On Saturday, you need to ride a bike for 30 minutes, followed by a 5-minute run. Go for a 30 minutes swim on Sunday.

Week 2: On Monday, run for at least 15 minutes. On Tuesday, you need to swim for 40 to 45 minutes. On Wednesday, ride a bike for at least 45 minutes. On Thursday, swim for 30 minutes again. Take a day off on Friday and get some rest. On the second Saturday, you need to ride a bike for 50 minutes, then run for 10 minutes. On Sunday, ride a bike for an hour.

Week 3: On Monday, you need to run for 25 minutes. On Tuesday, you need to swim for 40 to 45 minutes. On Wednesday, ride a bike for at least 45 minutes. On Thursday, swim for 40 minutes, and take a day off on Friday to get some rest. On Saturday, you need to ride a bike for 50 minutes, followed by a 10-minute run. Run for 20 to 25 minutes on Sunday.

Week 4: On Monday, swim for 40 minutes. On Tuesday, you need to ride a bike for 50 to 55 minutes. Run for at least 25 minutes on Wednesday. On Thursday, swim for 30 minutes, and take rest on Friday to help your body get relaxed. On Saturday, you need to ride a bike for 45 minutes, followed by a 5-minute run. Go for a 30 minutes swim on Sunday.

Week 5: On Monday, run for 25 to 30 minutes. On Tuesday, you need to swim for about 30 minutes. On Wednesday, ride a bike for 45 minutes. On Thursday, swim for 30 minutes, and take a day off on Friday to get some rest. On Saturday, you need to ride a bike for 40 minutes, followed by a 5-minute run. Go for a 30 minutes swim on Sunday.

Week 6: Week 6 is the race week, and you need to participate on Sunday. On Monday, run for 15 to 20 minutes. On Tuesday, you need to swim for 30 to 35 minutes. On Wednesday, take a bike ride for at least 55 minutes. On Thursday, swim for 20 minutes. This Friday, ride a bike for 20 minutes, followed by a 10 minutes run. Take ample rest and relax on Saturday. Sunday is the day for you to shine in your very first triathlon.

Ms. Rulon has some advice for people who are starting to train for a triathlon. She says, “As a beginner triathlete starts their training, I suggest doing two swims, two bikes and two runs per week.” You train for six days a week, which isn’t bad by any means. This plan would make you ready for a sprint triathlon in six weeks. The plan is simpler as you don’t need to face the dreaded combined training day that most other triathlon training plans have. We all are human beings, and we are not perfect. So, it is natural for a person to miss a day’s work out due to a number of reasons. However, you cannot skip any part of the routine. As a result, you will need to face days when you have to perform two exercises. However, don’t overexert yourself as an injury will delay your race by months, whereas taking an additional day or week to train more will have a much smaller delay. As this guide is for people who are just beginners, we are not discussing training plans for Olympic triathlon, Half-Iron triathlon, and Ironman triathlon. You can find expert advice and plans from various sources for those events. As a beginner, you shouldn’t burden yourself with anything harder than the sprint triathlon.

What Is Your Triathlon Training Regime About?

This guide offers a triathlon training plan that consists of simple workouts that would help you build up your endurance for swimming, cycling, and running. There are various training plans that also discuss special workouts to prepare you for the race day. However, this is a beginners’ guide, so we skipped those complicated segments.

Runs and Rides to Improve Fitness

These are the most important portion of any training regime. They make you physically fit so that you can cover the distance of each segment of a triathlon. These exercises not only build up your endurance but also mentally prepare you to tackle the event by boosting your confidence.

Brick Workout

A brick workout is made up of two training exercises that are to be performed one after the other. These can be biking, followed by running or swimming, followed by biking. Most participants struggle during the change from cycling to running. So, you will see a lot of them focus on biking to running segments during this workout. Usually, a brick workout consists of varying distances of biking, but the running distance is usually short. The workout is great at preparing not only your body but also your mind to tackle the first couple of miles of a triathlon. Now, you might wonder why this workout is called Brick Workout. The participants describe the feeling that they get when they start to run after cycling as if somebody has put bricks in between their legs, hence the name.

Open Water Swimming

As a beginner, you should opt for events that allow you to swim in a pool. However, the adventurous bunch out there won’t be afraid of a river or a lake. So, they need to be prepared to tackle the water body. First, practice swimming in a pool to get comfortable. Once you are able to swim easily, go to a lake or a calm river to practice swimming without the help of visual markers such as buoys or lane lines. Try practicing in a local lake or pond after ensuring that you are permitted to do so. Also, take a buddy with you who knows how to swim. Never go for a swim alone, especially in open waters.

Organize Your Activities

Getting organized is the key to winning a triathlon. You will be preparing yourself to take part in three different athletics events, one after the other. So, you cannot afford to lose time. To keep you motivated and help you constantly train without any issues, here are some tips.

Get Help: Plan a bike ride or run with your friends. By asking your friends, you would make it harder for you to skip the workout. You cannot afford to disappoint two people at once, can you?

Proper Diet: Proper diet is necessary not only for triathlon but for any event. As a matter of fact, a proper diet is a key to a healthy life. So, don’t skip or skimp your meals. Have some protein and carb-rich snacks to consume after your workout. Most coaches and dieticians would ask you to make a healthy balance between your diet and your exercise. One of the best things that you can have after a strenuous workout is chocolate milk. It tastes delicious and provides the necessary components to help you recover.

Prepare Meals Beforehand: Try to prepare your meals beforehand as you would be too tired to make yourself something to eat after your workout. There are lots of amazing recipes that are easy, nutritious, and can be prepared and stored for later use. Try EnduranceZone.com, a recipe site written by the triathlete and chef Susan Harrell.

Get a Good Conditioner: You need to swim a lot during your training regime. The chlorine from the pool water and the shampoo to get rid of that chlorine are unhealthy for your hair. So, getting a good conditioner for your hair is essential. Ensure that your locks don’t limp. Use the conditioner regularly and shower and shampoo as you are used to.

Don’t Get Too Serious: It is important that you take your training seriously. However, don’t get too involved in it that you stop enjoying yourself. You don’t have to love every part of the training, but hating every part is not a good sign for an upcoming triathlete.

Find Like-Minded People

Triathletes try to socialize as training or running with a buddy helps you to push harder than you do alone. There is a possibility that your friends won’t participate in a triathlon with you. Still, you can ask a few of them to swim, cycle and run with you. In case you don’t manage to convince them, here are some alternatives.

Cycling Group: You can visit a local bicycle store to ask an employee about various cycling groups in the locality. It would be best if you opt for a no-drop policy cycling group. A no-drop policy means that better cyclists won’t leave a beginner behind. At least one cyclist would stay with the newbies and help them reach their homes safely. Be careful while cycling in a group as you can collide with the adjacent cycle and cause a chain reaction.

Take Up a Swimming Program: There are various swimming programs that help adults perfect their style. These programs are called master’s groups, and there is a huge possibility that you will find one at your local swimming pool. A master’s group is not about the ability of the group members, but their age. Almost all the people in the group would be adults.

Become a Member of a Running or Tri-Group: You can find a running club in your city easily with the help of a Google search. Alternatively, you could ask for help from a local store that specializes in running equipment to get you enrolled in a running group. Most running groups are friendly and take in beginners without much fuss. You will also find people who would stay behind to help you reach your destination safely or provide you with a map for the same.

Gearing Up for a Triathlon

You are participating in three events at once, so you need to prepare accordingly. The gear for a triathlon will not be cheap. So, be ready to loosen your purse.

Must-Have Swimming Gears for Triathlon

The first section of a triathlon is swimming. So, let us take a look at what kind of gear you need for swimming.

Bathing Suit: Functionality over fashionability is the mantra in triathlon. Women should opt for one-piece bathing suits that offer ample support and breathability to allow them to run from the shore to the cycling area easily. Men can choose speedos, tights, and even baggy shorts (they create a lot of drag). Some events allow participants to use a wetsuit. You can opt for that as well, but practice in the wetsuit before using it in the race.

Goggles: Different people have different facial structures. So, you need to try a few pairs of goggles to find the one that fits you perfectly. Always put on the goggles when your face is dry as the seal won’t form on wet skin.

Swimmer’s Cap: If your hair is short, then you don’t need a swim cap. On the other hand, if your hair is long, you need to put on a swimming cap to prevent hair from floating in the pool. A swimming cap also keeps your hair in place, which would otherwise create drag. You get a race packet on the race day that contains a cap. These caps are of different colors and denote the level of the participant. Don’t swap these caps as a lifeguard would focus on amateurs more than on pros.

Must-Have Biking Gears for Triathlon

The next segment is a bike race. This race requires the most expensive gear in the event. Let’s check what you need.

A Bike: You guessed it! The most important expensive equipment in a triathlon is a bike. There are lots of amazing bikes built with state-of-the-art materials such as carbon fiber. However, as a beginner, you shouldn’t spend enough money to buy a carbon bicycle. As a first-timer, you shouldn’t spend a single penny on a bike. Take a mountain bike or commuter bike on rent or borrow from a friend.

Shoes: You need a good sturdy pair of shoes for use on a bike. At first, try simple running shoes for the biking section. Once you are on your way to becoming a pro, opt for cycling shoes that get attached to the pedals. These cycling shoes help you connect with the bike more efficiently and allow you to put maximum effort into pedaling. You need to be careful with the cycling shoes as it is common for you to fall over while changing from bike mode to running mode.

Helmet: This is the most important piece of gear for the cycling event, and is only second to the bike itself. A helmet that has gone through a crash is no longer useful. So, you cannot borrow or rent a helmet. You need to go to a bike shop and buy a helmet that fits properly and offers adequate protection.

Biking Shorts: They are not essential, but they help a lot as these shorts have padding to keep your backside comfortable during long races. However, as a beginner, you will only be riding a few kilometers, so you don’t need them.

Sunglasses and Lights: It is necessary to protect your eyes as a single piece of gravel striking your eyes could end your race. So, always wear a pair of sunglasses or protective clear glasses while cycling. Bikes need to have at least a red light at the back to make it easier to spot them in darkness.

Flat Fixing Kit: It is possible to get a flat as you cycle. Most cyclists carry a tire fixing kit that contains spare tubes, CO2 cartridges to fill the tire and other equipment to help change the tire quickly.

Must-Have Running Gears for a Triathlon

The last part of a triathlon is the foot race. It is the simplest part, even though you are tired, and requires the least complicated gear.

Running Shoes: You don’t need the best of the best shoes with lots of fancy features. Opt for a pair of shoes that fit you perfectly, and that allows you to run without causing any discomfort. A pair of shoes that are not comfortable could hurt your feet pretty bad. So, get a pair of shoes that offer proper padding and shock absorption and are made of breathable material.

Halt or Visor: There is a possibility that you will be running under the hot sun in a Sprint triathlon. So, having a visor or halt comes in handy as it protects you from the sun. Always practice with the visor that you will use in the race before participating in the race.

Transition Between Races in a Triathlon and Necessary Gears

A Couple of Towels: You might not get enough time to dry yourself after the swimming, but some towels would come in handy to dry your feet and face before moving on to the next stage.

Sunscreen: Once you are out of the water, apply sunscreen quickly to protect yourself from the harsh sun. In case the running section also takes place during the noon, re-apply sunscreen before running as well.

Water and Sports Drink: You are going to be performing at the peak of your abilities for up to three hours. This requires you to get energized and keep yourself hydrated. So, carry a water bottle or a sports drink, especially during the foot race.

A Balloon: A balloon or any other marker that you can spot should be tied to your cycle. This marker would help you reach the spot quickly and without getting confused.

Eating and Drinking

Make a fist and take a look at it as it denotes the amount of food that you need to consume before and after your workout. The meals that you eat are more like appetizers and should be rich in carbs and proteins. The good old peanut butter sandwich is a perfect option for a snack after training. Have low-fat milk chocolate for additional energy.

When Should You Eat: A lot of new athletes make a common mistake, that is, not eating before a workout. If you don’t eat anything before you train, you won’t have enough energy to keep yourself going. Once you are done with your training, eat something within 15 minutes. Doing so helps your body in creating muscle glycogen, and you will recover faster. Additionally, you might also reduce or even prevent delayed-onset muscle soreness. Eating before and after a workout is important, but you also need to eat four-square meals a day. Consider your daily meals to be separate from the exercise plan. However, be careful about what you eat during these meals.

Eating During a Triathlon Race

A workout will hardly last for more than an hour. However, a race will last at least three hours. So, you need to consume something during the race. This is where sports drinks are quite useful. These drinks contain fluid, carbohydrates, and electrolytes to keep you going during the race. Use a particular brand during your training and use the exact same brand of sports drink in the race. Now, you might not be running an Olympic triathlon, but that will be your next target. This race is longer than a Sprint Triathlon, and you would need something more than sports drinks. You can use refueling gel during the bike ride in this event. Refueling gel is a carbohydrate-rich paste-like substance that will keep you going throughout the race.

Staying Hydrated

A lot of athletes fear that they are not drinking enough fluids. You might be aware that an excessive amount of anything is harmful. This saying holds true for water as well. So, drink only when you feel thirsty. Carry a small water bottle as you run and keep a water bottle on your bike during the race. Doing this will help you get access to water whenever you feel thirsty.

Drinking When Cycling

A lot of cyclists find it difficult to drink water while cycling. So, practice drinking water during your exercise so that you can drink water during the race without any difficulty.

Race Day of Triathlon

Finally, the day has come. You are going to participate in one of the most difficult athletics competitions out there. So, you need to be prepared.

  • Ensure that you are well rested before the race.
  • Don’t exercise one day before the race.
  • Eat a proper breakfast, but don’t overeat in all that excitement.
  • Reach the venue at least one hour before the scheduled time to familiarize yourself with the place.
  • Listen to the instructions carefully and don’t carry or use any forbidden products during the event.
  • Know the rules and regulations and follow them properly.
  • Ensure that all your equipment is in order and at the designated places.
  • Keep your cool during the various phases of the triathlon. As a first-timer, finishing the race is more important than winning. So, don’t push yourself too hard.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate once you finish the race.

Do all these things on the race day, and you will have the perfect start of your career as a triathlete.

Next Step

Now that you have participated in your first triathlon, it is time to look forward to your next goal. The immediate goal would be to be one of the winners during the next triathlon. Once you achieve that goal, you can start training for the next big challenge, the Olympic triathlon. The Olympic triathlon is more challenging and requires additional efforts to achieve decent results. Your training for Sprint triathlon will come in handy to prepare you for the Olympic triathlon. So, don’t abstain from the basic swimming, cyclic, and running exercises that you were doing for the first triathlon. Preparing for the Olympic triathlon will be quite similar. The only difference between the training plans would be that the Olympic triathlon plan would be more rigorous.

Triathlon Preparation FAQs

How Long Does a Triathlon Last?

The duration of a triathlon depends on its type. A Sprint triathlon lasts for a maximum of three hours, whereas an Ironman triathlon can take half a day.

How Much Time Does It Take to Get Ready for a Triathlon?

If you are in proper shape, you can get ready for a Sprint triathlon in six weeks. In case you are not fit, you would take an additional month to get in shape for triathlon training.

Is Triathlon Equipment Expensive?

Yes, running a triathlon is expensive as you need gear for running, swimming as well as cycling. So, get ready to burn a hole in your pocket while preparing to participate in a triathlon.

Can I Listen to Music During a Triathlon?

No, you are not allowed to listen to music during a triathlon.

Do I Need a Special Bike and Shoes for Triathlon?

No, you can use a normal mountain bike or commuter bike along with normal sports shoes while participating in a triathlon.

Finishing the Ultimate Endurance Test

This is one of the most comprehensive guides on triathlon available on the web. It contains all the essential information that would help you prepare for a triathlon. It not only talks about the training and equipment but also gives you an overview of what a triathlon is and how to excel at it. So, if you are planning to participate in a triathlon, then do not forget to go through this guide at least once.

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