Beginner triathlon guide: Where to start

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Unlike any other sport, triathlon can incredibly intimidating to get started in.

Not only do you have to deal with essentially three training schedules in one, but also not every source agrees with how you should train. A simple Google search will regurgitate at least 10 different programs, most of which contradict each other in terms of what is needed to train.

You have to navigate the training, gear, and nutrition. And then there are the type-A personalities that seem to gravitate to the sport, who often like to give free advice, much of which may be conflicting.

It is safe to say that you can be overwhelmed and confused even before you take your first dive, stroke, or step.

So, where should you begin? Read on for a condensed beginner triathlon guide…..

Assess where you are currently, and accept it

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Are you coming off the couch after years of unhealthy living or are you a well trained masters swimmer/cyclist/runner who is looking for a change of pace? Many triathletes come from single sports because of overuse injuries. Switching to triathlon only to keep overtraining is not in your best interest.

First things first: Accept yourself where you are now.

Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” and “What is my goal?”

This is critical to motivating you forward. It could be health, fitness, glory, praise, setting a good example for your kids, beating your friend, raising money/awareness, whatever it is find it, write it down and post it everywhere you can.

This is the fire that keeps you going when things get tough. Make sure your answers are heartfelt and coming from your true self.

Once you have done these self inventories, you are ready for step two:

Choose a Plan

Obviously, this is dependent upon where you are starting and where you want to go. An experienced coach who relates to where you are coming from would be an ideal person to help with this.

If you are doing it solo then here are some tips:

-If you are well trained in a specific sport, you will need a program that emphasizes your weaker sports.

For example, if you were a runner, you need to adapt to running off the bike; or, if a cyclist originally, training for longer durations without drafting. If you are coming from a non-swimming background you definitely need to start with the basics in the pool- drills and technique emphasis.

-If you are coming from a different sport entirely and/or an active but non triathlete lifestyle, you need to build a base in all three sports. Start slow, build up your aerobic base for 6-10 weeks, then start getting fancy with sprint workouts, strength training, acrobatic yoga, crossfit endurance, or swimming in a tuxedo. 🙂

-If you are making a drastic lifestyle change, build slowly, be consistent, and be patient with yourself. The key in this stage is to build mini habits, build good form, and make small incremental steps each week. You are starting on a great but long journey so enjoy it, and celebrate each little victory as it comes.

-Look for a plan that meets and fits your lifestyle and your other commitments and addresses your specific limiters while keeping your strengths. If it looks like it will bury you and drain you of all energy leaving you with nothing for family, friends and work, start smaller, with challenges that are easily doable for you. Consistency is critical. You are better off doing four weeks of small but frequent workouts than one to two weeks of high volume- which can lead to three months of injury and sickness.

Choose Your Gear

Go for the basics here. You might be tempted to run out and grab the latest, most aero gear. Having worked in a bike store, I (Chris) know oh too well the overwhelmed look of new customers. Do not be suckered into expensive purchases. If it helps, go with a trusted friend to advise.

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Should you buy used? Yes, you can, but be sure you also buy having done your research on what type and size of bike you should get. Start basic, then after several months of training and even a few races you can upgrade. Overall, all you need to start are:

Swim: Goggles, swim suit, swim cap (kick board, fins, and paddles can come later)

Bike: You need a basic road bike that fits well. Even if you decide to not to triathlon, you can keep your road bike for your other biking needs. Also:

-Helmet (no wiggle room here)clipless pedals (get ones that can be used for spin classes like Look pedals)
-Water bottles
-Tri shorts
-Jersey (optional)

I would also add in a basic trainer/turbo so that you can workout early in the morning on your own trainer and work on bike skills like unclipping without traffic worries.

Run: running shoes, socks.

That’s it. Remember to not be intimidated by experienced athletes with their aero helmets, sleek one piece kits, and goofy aerobars but those are just shiny objects and toys. Focus on your own engine and having fun out there (and cherish the extra 10k that you saved by not getting those upgrades).

Dial in Your Nutrition

You’re taking on quite a physical endeavor, even if it’s “just a sprint” triathlon.

You will need proper fueling, and despite the 90s “common wisdom”, this does not mean stuffing your face with carbohydrates! If you are currently carbohydrate-dependent, consider getting off this roller coaster. But not all at once.

Implement small habits like having a salad once a day. Iced tea or sparkling water instead of soda. Drinking 6-8 glasses of water a day. Once you’ve adopted a healthy habit, it’s time to add another.

Finally, surround yourself with positive supportive people. It might be hard in certain places but look for a club or training crew to help you along the way.

This is particularly important when it comes to swimming. You will be better off asking for help first, learning how to swim right the first time around, and building from the bottom with help rather than going to YouTube University and books for help.

Youtube is great but it cannot replace eyes on the pool deck or a person analyzing your form via video.

Feeling overwhelmed? Chunk things down. What can you do today to move yourself forward? The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single dive, pedal stroke, and step…or simply, a good night’s sleep.

beginner triathlon guide