Swimming, biking and running — each can be quite a workout on their own, but doing them all together? Now that’s a challenge. Not only can signing up for a triathlon be especially intimidating for first timers — there’s also the training, gear and equipment to think about. “Registering is half the battle,” says Andrew Kalley, NASM, an elite triathlete, Certified USA Level II Triathlon Coach, and coach for my first tri, The Iron Girl in Sandy Hook, NJ. “As long as you give yourself enough time to prepare, you’ll feel more comfortable as the race day approaches.”
If you’re a first time triathlete, chances are you’ll want choose a sprint distance race. Though the distances are unregulated (meaning they can change up to race day), the course is generally a half-mile swim, 10-mile bike and 5K (3.1 miles) run. And even with shorter distances, athletes still need some guidance. Joining a triathlon club or group is a great option for first timer, as you can learn with others new to the sport, and support one another. However, because I didn’t have much time to train, I chose a one-on-one option and got a coach. “Six weeks is enough time to train for a sprint tri,” says Kalley. “Though having more time can’t hurt.” Below is Kalley’s six-week training plan, with tips and feedback along the way.
While you could conceivably complete a tri with just a swimsuit, the bike in your garage and your running shoes, having the best equipment not only helps performance, but it can also put your mind at ease.
Though each athlete’s choice in attire and equipment will vary, coaches and experts in specialty stores can often help make recommendations. For me, I went with Aquasphere and 2XU for my swim gear and wet suit, Liv/giant for everything bike related — including the bike itself, the Avail Composite 1 — and Shimano for my cycling shoes, and for the run, I knew I’d be using my tried and true Asics. Coaches recommend training in the gear you plan to race in, so you should get it as soon as possible. To learn more about tri gear and to see clothing options, click here.
Whenever you’re competing, the best coach or persons to get advice from is someone who has competed in the sport him or herself, an individual who had been a coach for year, or joining a triathlon club or group. Knowing Kalley, who trains at The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers (one of the few gyms that has a pool in NYC), had completed many triathlons himself and was the coach of a tri club, Full Throttle, I chose to train with him. And like many tri newbies, swimming was my weakest of the three sports, so that’s where we began.
SwimFreestyle is the best stroke for a triathlon because it’s the most efficient for you to move quickly in open water, says Kalley. But when it comes to training, don’t be surprised if you’re winded after the first 50 yards. While you may know how to swim, Kalley says, form is a common hurdle for those not too familiar with the water. The good news is, practicing a variety of drills can help, including side kicks to work on rotating the body and breathing, the one arm stroke and catch-up drill to single out and correct form for each arm, laps with a buoy between the legs to focus on arm strength and endurance, and holding onto a kickboard to work on kick and leg strength.
“A big issue for newcomers to the pool is that they don’t rotate enough when breathing,” says Kalley. “You waste a lot of energy lifting your head up and out of the water instead of just turning it sideways in sync with your body.” By doing different drills, we were able to improve my stroke, and swimming from one side of the pool then back became less tiring. While freestyle is the best stroke to get through the swim most efficient, Kalley says you can do any stroke you want (breast, side, even doggy-paddle) to help you get to the end of the swim.
Kalley also emphasizes training on land using resistance bands to imitate arm strokes. Taking water out of the equation allows you to solely focus on your arm and the movements it should be making. It was hard for me to remember what each part of my body should be doing at first and I’d lose my rhythm midswim, but the more I did it, the more comfortable I became. “Once you’re more comfortable, you’re able to think less,” says Kalley.
Biking may come easier to some than others, but your first time on a bike for competitive purposes can be nerve-racking. Getting acclimated with the bike and the gears is the first step, says Kalley. When my Liv/giant road bike arrived, I spent a lot of time just riding it around (in NYC — scary!) and getting used to which gear made pedaling easier, harder, and how sensitive my brakes were.
Then comes clipping into the bike. While not all bikes have clipless pedals, for triathlons, it can be preferable. Clipping into the bike allows you to waste less energy, because you’re getting power when you push down and pull up on the pedals, and therefore your speed increases. But clipping in can be extremely intimidating if you don’t know how. It’s important to practice, and find someone who knows how that can teach you. Though I was very nervous and only decided to try it a week before the race, learning with Kalley, in an area with a very low volume of traffic made me less scared. I also told myself, “the worst that can happen is I fall and then just get back up again.” I’m proud to say I didn’t fall once practicing, nor did I when I clipped in during the race.
Three miles may sound easy, but after you’ve exhausted yourself biking and swimming, it can be a lot more challenging just to keep your legs moving. But with enough training under your belt, the run can be where you make up for wasted time in transitions or during other portions of the race.
Even if you’ve run a few races before like I had, Kalley recommends spending at least one session practicing transitioning from the one activity to the next, whether it be swim to bike or bike to run. It’s important to experience that moment when your legs are so exhausted from the bike and you still need them for the run; they’re like rubber and it seems physically impossible to go another step. While this feeling does pass, I found it really helpful to know what it felt like before it happened on race day (which it did… and was even more intense). “Practicing is the best way to prepare for what actually happens during the triathlon,” says Kalley.
If you’ve followed your training plan, you’ll be as prepared as you can be on race day. Luckily, I traveled to the race with liv/Giant (and other racers), and had some of their experts help me set up my transition stations — the area you go to between sports to change gear for the next leg of the race. It’s common to feel overwhelmed the day of, so don’t be afraid to ask someone for help if you’ve never racked your bike before, or aren’t sure where you should lay your stuff out. Here are some other tips Kalley said to keep in mind:
Get there early! Racing is stressful enough for most people, so don’t add more by being late or cutting it close. You want to get the lay of the land and where everything will be coming in and going out of. “Try to gain a good perspective of your position in transition with respect to the swim, bike, and run exits and entrances,” says Kalley. “Every race is different.” Knowing where to go will save time and frustration.
Check your bike tires. Be sure they’re pumped within the pounds per square inch (PSI) range recommended for your specific tires (imprinted along the side of the tread). Flat or low tires don’t roll fast. If you need help, ask someone around you who is experienced, or someone working the race.
Take the warm-up swim. If you didn’t visit the race site for a test swim beforehand and are offered the opportunity jump in and warm up pre-race, definitely get in. This will help you get acclimated to the water temperature and loosen up.
Let the alphas go first. If you’re nervous, which is common, line up at the back of your swim wave, Kalley says. The last thing you need is people swimming over you. Start slow and get your breathing rhythm set, then build pace if you’re feeling good.
Have your bike in a moderate to low gear. You don’t want to jump on it and have it be in a high gear. “It’s better to start with low gear and high cadence to set your legs up for the rest of the bike portion,” says Kalley.
Stick to short, quick run strides. Kalley suggests repeating “shorter-shorter-quicker-quicker,” in your head. This will save a ton of energy on your run.
Think positive. Even if you don’t feel great, keep your thoughts as positive as possible. “It seems simple and cheesy but it works,” says Kalley. Once you go to negative town in a race there’s no coming back. Smile and stick to a mantra that motivates you.
Have fun. You’re doing the race for you, so enjoy it. Especially for your first triathlon, don’t get caught up on your time. “Make your goal just to finish,” says Kalley. “If you do that, you’ve won.”
The Finish Line
Despite choppy water conditions, and attempting to mount my bike five feet too early, I had a successful first triathlon. Having the support of my family, the Liv/giant team, friends and my coach helped me feel confident through each leg of the race. Though it was difficult at times, I finished, which meant I had reached my goal. I completed my first triathlon and didn’t die doing it! And, as most first-timers are warned, I’m already looking forward to signing up for my next.