The skinny on everything a beginner triathlete needs to know...
With the spring heating up, and summer hot on its heels, triathlon season has well and truly arrived. Seasoned racers are no doubt chomping on the bit, but for those preparing for their first race the whole situation might just be becoming scarily real.
Triathlon events – a swim, bike and run all combined in one race – are hugely popular across the UK, with most beginners starting out over the sprint distance. This consists of a 750m swim, 20km bike ride and 5k run, though distances vary and of course there’s nothing stopping you going longer.
The great thing about triathlon is that though there is an overall race and a winner, every competitor takes part individually – meaning you can measure your success against your own expectation and previous results. The racing community is always friendly, and welcoming – so there’s no need to feel nervous at all.
Hopefully your training is underway already, or you’ve got a couple of months leading up to your event. However, if not – don’t panic. The sprint distance triathlon is a mega challenge, but the shorter distances mean that most people will be able to ‘get through’ without putting in too many hours. Of course, if you want to do it fast, the amount of time you could dedicate to training is similar to a piece of string.
We’ve split the sport into it’s three disciplines, to bring you key training advice, plus information on what you need to wear and tips for the day itself…
Arguably the most technical of the three sports you’re embarking upon, swimming is less about brute force and fitness, and more about perfecting an efficient stroke. Of course, fitness helps, but you can have the best heart and lungs in the world and still struggle if your stoke isn’t right.
You need: tri suit, wetsuit if open water, googles, cap
Training: Train with a swimming or triathlon club for technique advice
Training: Do one easy swim on your own to focus on stroke
Training: Practice sighting and getting used to the cold of open water
Racing: Expect a fast start, draft if you can, stay calm above all else
The best place to start is to book in for some swimming lessons, or check out your local triathlon club or swimming club. As an adult, you’ll join ‘masters’ sessions at a swimming club, and there will be coaches to provide you with technique advice as well as structured training intervals to work on your fitness. Most masters clubs will focus on all four stokes – frontcrawl, backstroke, butterfly, breastroke. The variety is great fun and fantastic for all over conditioning. However, you’ll mainly want to focus on frontcrawl, so do sessions on your own to supplement club swims. People do complete triathlons swimming breastroke, and there’s no reason you can’t do this if you prefer.
Ideally, you’ll want to complete at least a swim session with short hard intervals once a week, and a longer slow one, where you’ll think more about drills and technique.
The second key challenge here is open water swimming. If your event is a pool swim, you don’t need to concern yourself with this unless you’re planning for future races. If it’s in a lake, or the sea, you need to practice. There are many lakes in the UK (check the ‘wild swim map’ here) offering open water swimming training times, and it’s a very good idea to do a few before the big day.
When you first get into a large open stretch of water, it’ll feel cold – so it’s a good idea to become accustomed to the effect this has on your breathing. To overcome this, give yourself a few minutes to acclimatise and get used to the water. You also need to practice sighting – ensuring you’re swimming in the right direction by looking up instead of to the side every few strokes.
Kit you need
If you’ll be swimming in a pool, you’ll wear a tri suit throughout – this is a quick drying all-in-one suit that you can swim in, that has a chamois for a little padding, but is thin enough to run in.
If you’re swimming open water, unless it’s a very warm day, you’ll need a wetsuit which you wear over your tri suit. You can sometimes rent one for the day, but you need to be sure it fits. The suit must be a dedicated swimming wetsuit, to aid buoyancy and allow enough flexibility to move your arms.
You’ll also need goggles you trust – make sure you’ve used them before race day, and you’ll want a swim cap and cossie for training (we recommend Speedo for longevity, but any will do).
On the day
If you’re in a pool, you’ll be set off at thirty second or one minute intervals. Just make sure you’ve had a good meal around two to three hours before the off, be at pool side at least ten minutes early, and check your goggles are secure. If you want to overtake someone, tap their toes. If someone taps your toes, pull over to let them pass at the end of the length.
If you’re in the open water – make sure you get in with plenty of time to acclimatise to the conditions. Be prepared for a huge surge in speed in the first few minutes. You’ll be swimming in a pack, and drafting makes a difference – so if you want to be competitive, try to find some toes that look fast and follow them – even if that means a hard first five minutes. If you’re nervous and just want to get through comfortably, stay back a bit, and be aware there might be some accidental close contact in the opening metres, just stay calm and give yourself a minute of treading water if you need to.
The cycling leg of a triathlon, in most events (except Age Group Qualifiers), is non-drafting. That mean’s it is a lot like a time trial, where you ride on your own throughout the event.
You need: roadworthy bike, aero add-ons are nice to have but not essential
Training: Focus on steady intervals of 8 – 20 minutes
Training: Use long rides to practice technique and short intervals to develop power
On the day: Control your effort, eat and drink, don’t break the drafting rules
Like a time trial, you need to pace your effort so that it remains fairly even over the full distance, and you’ll need to leave enough in the tank to run when you get off the bike.
The best way to practice this is with longer intervals – sets of 3 x 8 minutes, perhaps progressing to 3 x 10 minutes, and moving on to 20 minute efforts with a warm up and a cool down either side. These intervals will be ridden around ‘FTP’ or ‘Threshold’ – the heart rate or power you could sustain for an hour. If you’re not riding with either tool, then simply ride these efforts at a pace you can hold for the duration and no longer.
Adding in some sessions which focus on short efforts of one to two minutes will help build your power, and longer rides will be an opportunity to work on endurance and bike handling – but these are supplements to the key sessions described above.
In an event where you’ve got no one to draft off, the more streamlined and aerodynamic you can make yourself, the better. We’ll come on to the kit that can help you do that later, but it’s a good idea to practice this on the bike by making yourself as small as possible to reduce your drag. That means keeping your elbows in, your head low, and riding on the drops.
Finally, no one wants to ruin their race with a crash. Triathlons often include climbs as well as descents, and a fair few corners. Practice these, and ideally ride the course before your event so you know what to expect.
Kit you need
This one comes back to ‘how long is a piece of string’? Time trial specialists will tell you that you can spend a pretty endless amount of money on getting more aero. However – you don’t need all the gear to have fun and even to be competitive.
Minimum requirement: your bike needs to be roadworthy. Ideally it’ll be a road bike, which is quicker due to being lighter and the drop bars making you more aerodynamic. Moving up the scale, you can attach aero bars for added speed, or opt for a full time time trial or triathlon bike – at which point we can start talking about wheel upgrades and so on.
If you’re in the market for a bike, one really popular option is the Specialized Alias (number 7 here). Made only for women, this road bike comes with clip on bars and a spare seat post that will put you in a ‘time trial’ position – this means bike is perfect for training on and can be modified for racing.
You can ride in a t-shirt and shorts, put on over your swimming gear in transition, or complete the entire race in a tri suit to cut down on time. The tri suit will be aerodynamic, with little flapping material.
Y0u won’t be able to ride without a helmet, and it’s a good idea to invest in a ‘tri belt’ to pin your number too, though you can attach it to a t-shirt left in transition.
On the day
Once you’ve exited the water, you’ll run to your bike in transition. Therefore, when you leave it there before the race, make a clear mental note of where it is.
Leave your helmet, any clothes you’ll be changing into, and helmet clearly laid out for you so they’re easy to find. You must not mount your bike until you helmet is on.
Experienced triathletes will practice their ‘transition’ and ‘flying mount’ – jumping on to the bike whilst running. You can do this, but there’s no harm in taking 20 seconds to get on to the bike comfortably.
The cycle will be a non-drafting affair – unless you’re trying to qualify for the Age Group World Champs. This means you can’t ride in close quarters to another competitor. When overtaking, check behind you, move out, and overtake cleanly, don’t hover near anyone’s back wheel as this could be considered cheating.
Running works your body hard – it torches calories and strengthens your entire body, but it also puts the most impact and stress through your joints. The key concern, therefore, is gaining running fitness without risking an injury.
You need: Quality trainers, elastic laces nice to have, sports bra, maybe good socks
Training: Find a club and join their track sessions, but watch our for injuries
Training: Practice bike/run brick sessions
On the day: Push through the first few minutes – it gets better!
The best sessions for increasing speed are running track sessions – most running clubs (there will be one near you!) have a session a week and these will without a doubt push you to improve. However, always make sure you keep the session the next day low impact (swimming is ideal) and never start a track session if you’re worried about a niggle.
Long slow runs on the weekend are great for boosting your endurance and fat burning – if you can fit one in.
It’s important to remember that you’re not just training to run – but to run after a bike ride. ‘Brick sessions’ usually featuring bike and run elements are the building blocks for most triathletes. It’s a good idea to complete one once a week – when we interviewed World Duathlon Champ Emma Pallant she gave us an example session here. These sessions are also great because they encourage you to run on fully warmed up muscles, which can help you to avoid injury too. Initially, running off the bike will feel hard – but with practice it’ll become more natural.
Kit you need
For the run, you’ll probably wear whatever you did on the bike. A tri suit is ideal, as it has some padding, but enough to allow comfortable running. A good sports bra is always a helpful addition and you’ll need one for training, too.
The number one concern is your feet: good trainers are a must. Ideally, get these fitted at a specialist running shop – the right trainers will support your running gait and could make all the difference.
Many triathletes take off cycling shoes after the run, then slip on running shoes fitted with elastic laces (found in most sports shops) – without socks. This can result in chafing – it’s up to you to decide if the seconds saved warrant the potential discomfort.
On the day
The run can be tough – you’ve just pushed hard on the bike, and now there are many more steps to go.
However, it’s always the first few minutes that hurt the most. So rack your bike, put on your trainers, and just push through – it will get easier. Concentrate on your form, which can start to suffer as you get tired, and adopt a positive mantra or song to keep the footsteps coming.
Eventually, you’ll reach the line – and that post-race recovery drink (or cake!) is going to taste sweet!
Fitting it all in
We’ve covered off a lot here – and you’ll need to slot the suggested sessions in to suit your own work/life schedule. If you’re short on time, you can include more rest days and spread the sessions out over a fortnight. If you’ve got lots of time, you can add in more – but make sure you’re getting enough recovery!
Here’s a sample week to give you an idea…
Monday – Club/hard interval swim – listen to the coaches who will provide advice on stroke and technique
Tuesday – Interval bike ride – 3 x 8mins, 3 x 10 mins, or 1 x 20 minute effort
Wednesday – Easy solo swim – concentrate on stroke learned in club sessions
Thursday – Club track/hard interval running session – if you feel any niggles, don’t go!
Friday – Rest – stretch and do some core exercises if you can
Saturday – Long run – the length will depend on your ability, but this should be at any easy, conversational pace
Sunday – Long cycle – suggested 2-3 hours, but choose a time span that’s a challenge for you. Once in a while, shorten the ride and head to your local lake for some open water practice.
We wish you all the best with your triathlon exploits this season! Triathlon is a varied sport that offers the opportunity to enjoy yourself over a wide range of disciplines and ultimately get yourself feeling super fit. Most of all, however, it’s a sport that people of all levels can enjoy together, and you’ll always find a great community there.
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