With the help of some triathlon veterans, T.J. Murphy answers some of the most-asked beginner queries. Plus: Later this week we’ll profile four newbie triathletes who’ve faced some of the most common challenges when just getting started in the sport. Let their rookie mistakes—and our expert-sourced solutions—give you a competitive edge, no matter your racing level.
Q: Triathlon is a loner sport, right? A time trial against yourself, the clock, Mother Nature and all that. Should I do most of my training alone?
Lonely By The Sea, Miami, Fla.
It’s true that six-time Hawaii Ironman champion Dave Scott credited a mental and physical edge to long, hard training sessions on the hot and wind-ripped roads surrounding Davis, Calif. At a Chicago Triathlon near the end of his professional career, he wistfully suggested that he wished he’d spent more time training with his contemporaries. Why? Because it’s just more fun. In fact, it’s the No. 1 piece of advice that Ironman Arizona champion Linsey Corbin offers to aspiring triathletes. “Find a group to train with,” she says emphatically. “You’ll have fun and get pushed to train harder than you can on your own. Plus, it’s a good place to find answers to all the basic questions you’ll have.”
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Q: There are so many races to choose from these days, and I want to do them all. Is there anything wrong with that? Won’t that just make me a better triathlete?
Unleashed Puppy, Yazoo City, La.
“Over-racing is the one of the biggest problems I see with beginners,” says Jennifer Fritzsching-Rulon, a top triathlon coach and kinesiologist in San Antonio, Texas. “They’re often Type A and just go all in, wanting to race every race they can, racing five, six or more times in a season.” The problem, says Fritzsching-Rulon, is that doing too much, too soon wears down the body. “At the end of the year they ask, ‘Why haven’t I improved?’ They simply overdid it in their first season.” Fritzsching-Rulon counsels her athletes to use “good-old periodization” and cut their racing schedules in half, allowing more time for adequate training and peaking. Joe Friel, triathlon coach and author of The Triathlete’s Training Bible, says that setting a clear and simple goal is a far superior approach than just running and gunning it. “If you don’t set a goal and make a plan, you won’t know where you want to go,” Friel says. “Then you’re lost. You’re not training—you’re just playing. Even if it ends up that the plan was wrong, you’ll still be far better off than the triathlete who didn’t set a goal. And you’ll have learned something.”
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Q: I asked a hotshot in my triathlon club about what diet I should follow, and he said, “I do triathlon so I can eat whatever I want.” Is that true? I want it to be true. All of those diets out there seem overwhelming.
Hungry Hal, Queens, N.Y.
Food is fuel. Would you fill the gas tank of a Ferrari with Schlitz beer? Of course not. That said, the warring world of diets (Paleo, vegan, high-carb, low-carb, South Beach) is overwhelming for sure. Fritzsching-Rulon offers her triathletes two basic rules to follow when it comes to diet. “Shop the perimeter of the grocery store,” she says, alluding to the fact that fresh meats, fish, vegetables and fruits are usually found there as opposed to the junkyard of processed foods that fills most of the aisles. Her other suggestion is to simply develop an awareness of your eating habits. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I eating? Why am I eating it? When? Where? And how much?’” Asking these questions, Fritzsching-Rulon says, will help you exercise common sense with your eating that can work wonders for you, with or without a stack of cookbooks and guides at your side.
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Q: I’m pumped up for triathlon and am thinking about making a poster that reads, ‘GO HARD OR GO HOME’ for my living room to remind me that the more training I pack in, the better. Good thinking, right?
Logbook Sally, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Er, hold on. Going overboard in your early years as a triathlete is as common a problem as racing too much. Patience is the key thing: “Most people will be set back by either injury, illness or an accident,” says Scott Molina, an icon in the sport who collected more than 100 victories in his career and now helps conduct the Epic Camp training programs around the world. “If we can minimize the chances of those three things happening, then we’re going to make good progress.” He advises athletes to “develop a program that is methodical and well-rounded, and specifies a gradual, consistent increase in training loads that the body is capable of absorbing.”