The Complete Beginner’s Guide on How to Train For Your First Triathlon

From triathlon distances to race selection to training, gear, nutrition, and more - we’ve got everything you need to start the journey to your first triathlon.

Photo: James Boyle

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Getting started with training for your first triathlon can be overwhelming. After all, you’ve got not one, but three sports to train for: swim, bike, and run. That means picking a race, figuring out what workouts you’ll need to do, getting the gear, and eating like an athlete (in news that shocks no one, training for three sports makes you kind of hungry).

But as thousands of successful triathletes before you have discovered – it’s not that scary to train for your first triathlon. In fact, it’s really fun! As part of our My First Triathlon series, we’ve put together everything you need to know about beginner triathlon training and racing—from gear essentials and nutrition basics to mental prep and tips for hiring a coach—to help you have a successful first triathlon.

Follow these guidelines, and we promise your first won’t be your last. Welcome, new triathlete! We’re excited to have you join our ranks.

Can I do a triathlon?

Triathlon is for everyone. Every single person who does this sport today was once a beginner triathlete, just like you. Some triathletes start when they’re kids, and some don’t take up the sport until their late 50s and beyond. Some come as 5K runners looking for a new challenge, and others arrive via goals of getting stronger or taking charge of their health after a medical crisis. Some people see the Ironman World Championship on TV or go to cheer on a friend at a race and wonder: Could I do that?

The answer: Yes. You can do a triathlon! Triathlon is for everybody and every body. Triathletes come in every shape, size, age, and ability, so if you’re wondering if you belong in this sport, trust us – you do.

How far is a triathlon?

Just like running has a variety of race distances – from the 100-meter dash to the marathon and ultramarathon – triathlon offers a full portfolio of races to choose from.

The shortest triathlon distance is the super sprint – a non-standardized distance that usually involves roughly a 500-meter swim, six-mile bike, and one-mile run. The longest triathlon distance is an ultra triathlon, which is anything over a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2 mile run. Ultra distances are also “non-standardized,” meaning there’s a lot of wiggle room when it comes to setting distances for the swim, bike, and run.

Most triathlon races opt for a standard distance format, which means the swim, bike, and run are always the same distance as other races in that format. There are four standard distances:

Triathlon Distance Swim Bike Run
Sprint .75K / 750 meters 20K / 12.4mi 5K / 3.1mi
Olympic 1.5K / .9mi 40K / 24.8mi 10K / 6.2mi
Half-Iron/70.3 1.9K / 1.2mi 90K / 56mi 21.1K / 13mi
Ironman/Iron-distance 3.8K / 2.4mi 180K / 112mi 42.2K / 26.2mi

For more on each of these distances, check out our helpful primer: How Far is a Triathlon? What You Need to Know About Every Triathlon Distance

Are you taking on triathlon training as a beginner? Welcome! We can’t wait to cheer you on during race day. (Photo: Life Time Tri Chicago)

Choosing your first triathlon race

Some triathletes like to dip their toes into the (pool) water by learning the fundamentals of swim, bike, and run first, then when they feel ready, a race is selected. Others are motivated by the race itself, so they pick the race, then train. Either strategy is just fine! If and when you’re ready to pick a race, there are plenty waiting to welcome you.

When it comes to choosing your first triathlon, we strongly recommend you start with the shortest distance – either a super-sprint or a sprint. These distances are manageable for every new triathlete. Even if you’ve got a solid base in one sport, you’ll need to learn the nuances of the other two. More importantly, you’ll need to learn how to string all three together into one cohesive race. The shorter distances of a super-sprint or sprint triathlon let you master the fundamentals without a huge drain on your time or energy (or wallet!). As you get more comfortable and proficient, you may choose to move up in distance.

We also recommend picking a race that is exciting and motivating to you. Maybe you want to enter your local tri so you can have your family cheer you on to the finish line, or perhaps a group of your colleagues at work have all agreed to train for a specific race together. You might be looking for a specific kind of race experience, like a women’s-only triathlon or to race alongside athletes with disabilities. Or maybe you’ve got an iconic destination race in mind already, like the Boston TriathlonLeon’s Triathlon, or Malibu Triathlon.

To find a triathlon near you, TriFind is a great search engine that lets you set parameters like date range or location. You can also use our expert-curated race guides, like this one: The 12 Best Beginner Triathlon Races in the U.S.A.

Can I do a 70.3 or Ironman as my first triathlon?

Some people are inspired to go big – really big – for their first triathlon. Though there are stories of people who skip shorter distances and go straight to a half-Iron (70.3) or full Ironman as their first-ever triathlon, it’s not usually a great idea. The longer the race, the more you have to train: A sprint triathlon can be accomplished with just two months of training 4-5 hours per week, while Ironman training takes many many months and volume can sometimes exceed 20 hours per week. (For more on this, check out our guides to training for 70.3 and full Ironman).

There’s also something to be said for learning the ropes at shorter distances. Sprint distance triathlons can help you get comfortable with all the nuances of race day, from the transitions between swim and bike (which is known as T1) and bike and run (T2), passing and being passed on the bike, knowing when and how to eat and drink while in motion, and managing fatigue. Building your proficiency while racing shorter distances will help you have a much better experience when you step up to a half- or full-iron distance race.

Shorter races also provide you with an opportunity to meet and learn from your fellow triathletes. While racing, you might find that the person who racks their bike next to you in transition has done the 70.3 you’ve been eyeing, and is happy to answer any questions you may have. A person standing in line with you in the swim start might have some helpful tips for putting on your wetsuit or coping with pre-race nerves. While on the run leg, you might meet someone who will become your best training buddy. These are all valuable experiences that will make you a better all-around triathlete.

That’s not to say you can’t have a 70.3 or full as your ultimate, long-term goal – only that you’ll want to include shorter races along the way to prepare. Start small. You’ll be glad you did.

Can I do a sprint triathlon without training?

Can you do a sprint triathlon without training? You can. But should you? That’s the more important question. There are people who have tried, and most have found it to be a painful, unnecessarily difficult experience. A sprint triathlon may be short, but it’s still a physical effort, and if you’re not adequately trained, you might be in for a world of hurt. You might have a bad experience and never want to tri again. Where’s the fun in that?

There are also safety concerns when it comes to doing a triathlon without training. Swimming in a backyard pool for fun is much different from competitive swimming in a lake, river, or pool (also known as “open water”). Open water can be dark, there are no lane lines to help you navigate, and you can’t always touch the bottom to stand up if you need a breather. Also, don’t forget there will be other triathletes bumping into you.

Likewise, riding a bike on a quiet bike path by yourself is not the same as riding on the road with others, and running after riding a bike is much different than running on fresh legs. In training, you’ll learn how to handle all of these factors before your race, so that your feeling crossing the finish line is more OMG! and less WTF?

How much time does it take to train for a sprint triathlon?

With just 4-5 hours of training per week, you can get to the start line of your first triathlon in just 8 weeks! It’s a good idea to follow a training plan, like our free 8-week sprint triathlon training plan for beginners. This helps you to stay organized and eliminate the guesswork of figuring out which workout to do on which day.

Most sprint triathlon training plans for beginners have just one workout per day – a swim, bike, or run. Occasionally, you might have what is known as a “brick” workout, where you do a short run immediately after a bike ride to get used to the sensation of running off the bike.

Though it may feel like you “should” be training all three disciplines back-to-back-to-back all the time, trust us when we say most triathlon training plans are designed to get you to a fitness level where all three come together seamlessly on race day. (And it will come together for you, just as it has for so many first-time triathletes!)

RELATED: How Much Time Does it Take to Train For a Triathlon?

Do I need a coach for a triathlon?

A coach can be helpful for new triathletes, but it’s not mandatory. In fact, many new triathletes choose to follow a free training plan for their first triathlon, then seek out additional resources after finishing their first race.

Free training resources for triathlon

In addition to free training and racing advice for first-time triathletes online, new triathletes might also check out books from the library (we recommend The Triathlete Guide to Sprint and Olympic Racing), join a local triathlon club for open-water swim practices and group rides, or visit race expos and online seminars.

Getting a triathlon coach

If you’d like more support than just reading a training plan, then getting a triathlon coach for your first triathlon may be for you. Be specific about what you’d like from your coach: Are you looking for a training plan that accounts for an unpredictable work schedule? Nutritional advice for special dietary needs? One-on-one instruction for learning how to swim for triathlon? When searching for a coach, have these specific goals in mind as you search for a coach (we recommend starting with the USA Triathlon Certified Coach search engine to find one near you).

RELATED: How to Find the Right Triathlon Coach For you

Can I do a triathlon without training? Likely not.
Every beginner triathlon training plan should include learning how to swim for triathlon. (Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images for Life Time)

Can I do a triathlon if I’m not a good swimmer?

Are you new to swimming? We’re so excited for you! Learning how to swim for a triathlon is one of the most satisfying experiences you’ll ever have. There’s nothing like going from “I’ve never put my face in the water” to “I just crushed that swim.”

If you don’t know how to swim, or if you feel like your basic skills could use a tune-up before a race, lessons are a must. This will help you learn the technique required to swim without injuring yourself, as well as build your confidence and conditioning prior to beginning your structured triathlon training plan.

How to learn to swim for your first triathlon

Taking adult swim lessons with an organization like the American Red CrossBlack People Will SwimTotal Immersion, or Saf-T-Swim is the best bet for hands-on, individualized instruction in the water. These lessons are in a controlled pool environment with lots of supervision and safety equipment available, so you can feel well-supported as you learn to swim.

If you’ve already got some basic swimming skills but want to learn tri-specific swim elements, our free Guide to Learning How to Swim for Triathlon will take you through a list of technical elements to perfect before starting your triathlon training plan. Many new triathletes also find these articles helpful:

When learning how to swim for your first triathlon, remember that good technique is always more important than speed! In addition to reducing the risk of injury, good technique will help you swim faster with less effort. If you’re not sure if you have good technique, consider signing up for a one-on-one swim lesson with a local swim instructor or triathlon coach.

What gear do I need for my first triathlon?

Three times the sports means three times the stuff. But if you think you need to spend thousands of dollars to get new triathlon gear for your first triathlon, think again. In fact, it’s possible to do your first tri, from no gear at all to finish line for under $1,000 – this new triathlete did it for under $600.

The list of gear you’ll truly need for a triathlon is only six items long, and many of these items might already be in your garage or closet:

  • Goggles
  • Swimsuit
  • Bike
  • Bike helmet
  • Running shoes
  • Clothing (shorts, shirt, socks, sports bra)

Yes, that’s it. Truly. When it comes to training for your first triathlon, you really don’t need much. Certainly, there are optional items you can add to this for additional comfort and safety (a wetsuit for the swim, or sunglasses for the bike and run) or to collect training data (like a watch). We’ve listed them in this roundup of Beginner Triathlon Gear. You might also wish to invest in tri-specific gear for your race, like a tri suit or a pair of triathlon shorts – we cover all of that in this guide: What Do I Wear to My First Triathlon?

Can I do a triathlon with a hybrid or mountain bike?

The best bike for your first triathlon is the one you already have. Whether it’s a mountain bike, a beach cruiser, a hybrid, or even a road bike you borrow from your neighbor, any bike is a good bike for your first triathlon. Buying a new bike can be expensive, and it’s best to wait until you’ve done a race or two to confirm you enjoy the sport enough to invest in new gear. (Spoiler alert: You’re going to enjoy it.) Once you’ve decided to commit to triathlon for the long haul, begin shopping for a new bike. We’ve got a few recommendations in our roundup of the best beginner bikes for triathlon.

A man does a beginner triathlon
(Photo: Chicago Triathlon)

Nutrition and fueling

Many beginner training plans talk about how much you’ll need to train, but they don’t typically talk about how much you’ll need to eat. If you’re increasing your activity levels above what you’re used to, you’re going to need more fuel in the tank. But that doesn’t mean you should go and eat all the food in the fridge – instead, you want to take a thoughtful approach to fueling like an athlete.

The triathlete’s diet should include a good balance of protein, carbs, and healthy fat to stay full and well-fueled during workouts and beyond. When training, fuel throughout the day with lean proteins, good fats, a wide range of colorful fruits and veggies, and complex carbs (e.g., potatoes, rice, whole grains) during meals and snacks. Hydration around the clock—not just during workouts—is absolutely essential as well. Be sure to sip on water and/or an electrolyte beverage throughout the day.

When training for a sprint triathlon, most of your workouts will be under one hour – short enough that you won’t require calories during the session. If you are fueling well throughout the day, water or a sports drink should suffice during training sessions; top off with a small snack before a workout if it’s been a few hours since your last meal.

After a workout, recover with a mix of carbohydrates and protein to replenish your stores, promote muscle repair and growth, and boost adaptations from the training session. Contributor Dr. Stacy Sims recommends male athletes eat a snack with a minimum of 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein after a workout; for women, the recommended ratio post-workout is 1.5:1. Some examples of post-workout snacks might include a small smoothie, yogurt and granola, fruit and nut butter, or veggies with hummus. Again, don’t forget to hydrate!

Race-day fueling

Part of your training preparations should include figuring out what foods work well for your body (and what definitely doesn’t). As you train, try different pre-workout meals and snacks, including dinner the night before a longer weekend workout or breakfast the morning of a big session. Note how certain foods make you feel – are you bloated or rushing to the bathroom during a run? Do you feel sluggish, or full of energy? This information can help you dial in your pre-race meals for the big day.

The same goes for sports drinks and other sports nutrition products, like gels, bars, or chews, you might like to use. Test everything during training workouts so that you know how your body tolerates it – the last thing you want to discover on race day is that your sports drink makes you nauseous while sloshing around in your belly!

We’ve made it simple to plan your race day nutrition with this advice from sports dietitian Susan Kitchen: How to Fuel For Your First Race. It contains everything from what to eat the night before your race to how to fuel during.

Essential skills to practice before race day

At the very minimum, you want to become proficient at swim, bike, and run before your first triathlon. But there are a few other skills to practice while you’re training for swim, bike, and run. These essential skills will help you nail your race from start to finish, or adapt quickly on the small chance your gear malfunctions:

  • Your first triathlon should not be the first time you swim in open water. Practice using this guide from transitioning from pool to open water with this advice from coach Sara McLarty.
  • Sighting is an open-water swimming skill that will help keep you on course in a swim venue that has no lane lines or pool ropes. Learn how to do it here: How to Sight When Swimming in Open Water
  • Learn how to change from swim to bike or bike to run (also known as “transition”) with this guide from coach Marcus Fitts: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Triathlon Transitions
  • It’s rare, but flat tires can happen during a race. If you know how to fix a flat tire, you can get right back on the course quickly and not end your big day prematurely.

RELATED: The Illustrated Guide to Racing a Triathlon

What is a Good Triathlon Time for a Beginner?
What is a Good Triathlon Time for a Beginner? (Photo: Lukas Schulze / Getty Images)

You can do it!

What are you waiting for? You’ve got a triathlon to do! Good luck, and don’t forget Triathlete is here to help. Check out our free resource library for beginner triathlon, and keep us posted on your training by tagging us in all your swim-bike-run fun on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. We can’t wait to see that smiling finish-line photo of yours!

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