Training for your First Triathlon

So a friend or relative told you about this "triath-a-lon" thing and you’ve decided to give it a whirl. Fantastic. It’s a load of fun and a great way to stay motivated, keep fit, and meet new people.

But you don’t know where to start. Maybe it’s been a while since you swam laps with that age-group swim team. Maybe you've never jogged more than two miles. You don’t even own a bike!

That’s ok. If you’re in reasonable shape (ie, you’re not currently obese or have other serious health problems), there’s a very good chance that in about two months you can be ready for your first sprint-distance triathlon.

First things first: Pick a local sprint distance race and enter it. Races nowadays are reaching full capacity months prior to the race date. The sport has become very popular. You certainly won’t be the only “first-timer,” and your race may actually have a special first-timer division.

Now, you can’t get in shape without having the proper gear. Here are a few very quick tips:

One thing you’ll want to do is decide how much money you can afford to spend on a bike. Click here for a more detailed explanation. You can race on any reasonably maintained road or mountain bike. You will certainly need a helmet. Clipless pedals are helpful but not essential.

Next, you’ll want to buy running shoes. Do not try to run in walking shoes or cheap running shoes. Go to a running specific store, spend a little time with the salesperson, who will hopefully take a look at your feet (and tell you if you pronate, supinate, or are neutral) and help you find the right kind of shoe. I tend to spend 60-80 bucks a pair and usually wear Nike, Asics, or New Balance.

Goggles are easy to come by, but you’ll want to find a pair that don’t fill with water every time you dunk your head. Speedo, Tyr, and Seal all make good models. You will want to try a couple different ones out.

A swim suit is a must. Don’t be shy. Get a racing suit that fits you snugly & comfortably.

In addition, your race may have the option of a wetsuit. Triathlon wetsuits are specially designed for swimming and come in all sizes. Quintana Roo, Orca, Ironman Wesuits, and DeSoto are four of the best around.

I have the gear, what do I do next?

Now you are ready to plan out a training schedule. If you have been inactive or only modestly active for a while, you will want to ease into it. If you’re coming from another active sport or a single sport, you can be a little more aggressive in your training volume and intensity.

To get in shape for your first triathlon you will want to swim, run, and bike an average of 2-3 times per week per sport. 6-9 workouts may sound like a lot, but you won’t be spending a whole lot of time per workout.

For example, let’s say Mr. X has a total of six hours that he can afford to spend on training for his first triathlon. In his first two weeks he will only train 3 hours, because while he plays the occasional soccer or tennis game, he doesn’t do anything very regularly and wants to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.

In his first couple weeks, Mr. X should probably swim about 45 minutes, ride 1 hr and 15 minutes, and run 1 hr or less in his first week. That works out to a ratio of 45:75:60, or 3:5:4 for swimming, biking, and running.

For your first sprint distance triathlon, 3:5:4 is a safe time/effort ratio. You can mix it up as you go along. You may sometimes want to swim less (2:5:4), or run more (3:4:5), or ride more (3:6:3), depending on what you are already good at and what you want to get better at. But, in general, you will want to spend more time riding than running and more time running than swimming.

Back to Mr. X. With 3 hrs, Mr. X can do 2 x 20-25 minute swim workouts, 3 x 20 minute runs, and 2 x 35-40 minute bike rides during the week. None of these workouts are long enough to be very stressful, and Mr. X will probably do a run-walk for his first few runs as well as take a break every few laps in the swim. Mr. X has a full-time job so he decides to schedule his week like this:

































On Saturday, Mr. X does two workouts so that he can take Sunday off and spend it with his family.

Mr. X decides he likes this schedule so much that he will stick with it until the race. All he needs to do now is slowly add a bit more time over the weeks. If we call his race week “Week 1,” and count backwards, his first week will be “Week 9,” and we can make a time schedule with a maximum of 6 hours for Mr. X.

Because Mr. X is concerned with finishing the race and not how fast he does it, he schedules his training sessions by total time rather than distance. This way, Mr. X doesn't push himself too hard, too fast, in an attempt to achieve a certain distance. Mr. X will be sure to do the full distance of each leg at least once during his training so he knows approximately how long it takes him, but he doesn't live by a mileage chart.

With this well planned schedule, Mr. X’s biggest week of training is Week 3, which ends exactly 2 weeks before his race. During this week, he decides to swim a bit less and ride a bit more, for a ratio of 2:6:3. He swims 1 hr (2 x 30 minutes), rides 3 hrs (1 x 2hr, 1 x 1 hr), and runs 1.5 hrs (1 x 30min, 1 x 40min, 1 x 20 min). That Saturday, Mr. X does his first brick workout, in which he rides 1 hr and then runs for twenty minutes immediately after the ride so he knows what it feels like.

During Week 1, his 'rest' week, Mr. X decides he’d better practice a few transitions. He's heard people can save a lot of time with fast transitions. Mr. X learns how to quickly pull on his helmet & bike shoes as well as how to safely mount and dismount his bicycle. If he has the time, he visits the race site so that he can learn the course and get his bearings. Mr. X wants to be well prepared and relaxed when race day arrives.

Race Day Arrives

Mr. X knows that he’s done the work necessary to finish his first triathlon without hurting himself. He has a modest breakfast consisting of oatmeal, fruit, a PBJ sandwich, or other light fair, and arrives at the race site early in order to have time to take care of business. The first thing he does is pick up his race number and his timing chip. Then Mr. X rides his bike easy for ten minutes (he had it tuned up that week) and jogs for five minutes. Then he sets up his bike and all his gear at his marked spot in the transition area.

At this point Mr. X might eat a bit more, drink some fluids, answer nature, and stretch. Hopefully he says hi to some people and makes some new friends. Then, with twenty minutes until race start, he'll smile and don his cap and goggles for a few minutes of easy swimming.

When Mr. X's starting wave arrives, he is loose, relaxed, and ready to go.

Don't you want to be like Mr. X?

Enjoy and be safe,

Marty Gaal