Matt Fitzgerald provides answers to some of the most commonly asked questions he receives from beginners.
The sport of triathlon used to be considered a bizarre form of self-torture engaged in by endurance junkies who had gone over the bend. Today, triathlon is thoroughly mainstream. Each year, thousands of everyday men and women – and even boys and girls – participate in their first triathlon in search of fitness and a rewarding challenge.
Nevertheless, the sport remains rather intimidating for beginners. It is complex, and the learning curve is steep for first-timers. In this article, we hope to provide a boost along this curve for those of you who are considering a first triathlon by answering some of the questions that beginners most frequently ask.
How do I train?
In a typical triathlon, the average participant spends about a fifth of the total race duration swimming, half of the total race duration cycling, and about 30 percent of the total race duration running. Your training should approximately match these distributions. Each week, you should do roughly equal numbers of swim, bike and run workouts, but your bike workouts should be longer and your swims shorter. For example, if you work out six times, you will swim twice, bike twice, and run twice, but your longest bike ride might be one hour, whereas your swims last 30 minutes each and your runs, 40 minutes.
Begin with an amount of training that is appropriate to your present level of fitness and increase the workload incrementally throughout the time you have available before your race, always allowing yourself enough time for recovery. If you’re a typical out-of-shape adult who’s neither overweight, elderly, nor suffering from any debilitating medical conditions, you’ll need about 12 weeks to prepare for a sprint triathlon (approximately a 0.25-mile swim, 15-mile bike, 3-mile run).
You may have heard triathletes or other endurance athletes talk about “intensity” and various workout types that target different intensity levels. Forget about this for now. While training for your first triathlon, keep the intensity level between four and six on a scale of one to 10 for all workouts.
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How do I learn to swim?
Swimming is the greatest source of anxiety for most beginning triathletes, who can stay afloat and splash around, but have never learned to swim long. Every new triathlete should get some kind of swim coaching. Proper swim technique is so subtle and precise that even professional triathletes continue to work on it throughout their careers. You’ll never discover this technique on your own. The best way to develop it (and the confidence that comes with it) is to find a master’s swim group in your area and talk to the coach. While you may need to increase your fitness before you’re ready to join the group workouts (which I highly recommend that you do eventually), the coach will in most cases be more than happy to work with you individually for a reasonable fee. Most new triathletes who take this route achieve very rapid progress.
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What kind of equipment do I need?
Don’t go out and buy a $2,000 triathlon bike for your first sprint triathlon. They’re terrific, but you should probably get a taste of the sport and determine whether you like it before you make that kind of investment.
Essential gear for swimming includes a swimsuit, goggles, and a swim cap (if you have longer hair). If you’re new to swimming, swallow your self-consciousness and wear an actual “Speedo” racing suit (male or female). The truth is, you’ll feel more self-conscious wearing anything else, as the vast majority of lap swimmers sport the Speedo look. Choose goggles that fit the shape of your face, or else they will leak. To avoid lens fogging, spread a tiny drop of baby shampoo on the lenses before each use.
For cycling, you need a bike, of course, plus cycling clothes, a helmet, cycling glasses, a tire pump, a spare tube, and a hex wrench set for tightening and loosening bolts. If you happen to have a road bike, use this. Otherwise, an off-road bike such as a freestyle or mountain bike will serve, although it won’t go as fast. You can improve the speed of a mountain bike by replacing the fat, knobby tires that come with it with smooth, thinner tires meant for street riding. A mechanic at your local bike shop can make the switch for you. Whatever kind of bike you choose to ride, get it tuned up before you begin training on it. Your mechanic will clean and lubricate the drivetrain, replace worn parts, and adjust the fit, and can also suggest simple upgrades. Get some basic maintenance tips (how to fix a flat, oil the chain, etc.) while you’re there.
For running, you need running clothes and running shoes. Choose running clothes that are made of moisture-managing fabrics such as CoolMax. Buy your shoes from a running specialty store whose sales personnel are highly knowledgeable. Getting shoes that don’t fit perfectly or are inappropriate for your stride is a recipe for an overuse injury. Try on a variety of models, run around the parking lot in each, and ask your salesperson questions about your foot, stride, and shoe needs.
There’s also lots of optional equipment you can get. I highly recommend the use of a good sports watch. Heart rate monitors are extremely useful but are less essential. Triathlon suits are swimsuit-cycling short hybrids that are meant for triathlon racing, and nothing beats them for this purpose. Let’s leave it at that.
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What should I eat and drink?
Your everyday diet should be the same as any other health-conscious person’s diet: high in slow-burning, low-glycemic carbohydrates (e.g. whole grains), fresh fruits and vegetables, and water, and low in processed foods, refined carbohydrates (e.g. cookies), and saturated fats. Your proteins should come from quality sources such as fish. Eat enough calories to maintain a consistent bodyweight once you’ve shed any excess fat through your training. You may find that you need to eat more to maintain your weight than you did when you were less active.
Carbohydrate is the primary fuel source for cardiovascular exercise. Eating plenty of low-glycemic carbohydrates is the best way to keep your muscles stocked with glycogen, which your body relies on during long workouts. During workouts, drink a quality sports drink containing water, 6 to 8 percent carbohydrate, electrolytes, and possibly some protein. After your workout, immediately ingest a recovery sports drink with the same ingredients. Getting the proper amounts of carbohydrate and protein into your body within the first 30 minutes of completing exercise will dramatically increase your performance the following day.
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How do I stay injury-free?
Most injuries that befall triathletes are overuse injuries, as opposed to acute ones (like when you fall of your bike and bruise something). While overuse injuries are fairly common among triathletes, they are relatively easy to prevent and treat, if you’re careful.
The most effective way to prevent overuse injuries is to prevent and reverse the muscle imbalances that contribute to most of them. Through the nature of the postures and repetitive motions involved, triathletes tend to develop particular imbalances that are associated with particular injuries. To correct imbalances, you need to stretch muscles that tend to become shortened through training and strengthen muscles that tend to become weakened. Triathletes should frequently stretch their calves, hamstrings, hip flexors, lower back, neck, and chest, and should regularly performing functional exercises that strengthen the hips, butt, abdomen, upper back, and shoulders.
Poor technique is also associated with a majority of overuse injuries. Swimmers who deviate from the recommended arm cycle technique tend to develop swimmer’s shoulder. Cyclists who position their seat too high or low tend to develop low back and knee problems. Runners whose feet over-pronate tend to develop plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, and runner’s knee. Have knowledgeable persons inspect your technique in each of the three triathlon disciplines and point out flaws. Modifying technique takes time and discipline, but it does work.
A third factor that is associated with many overuse injuries is sudden and substantial increases in training volume. Always increase your training volume gradually from one week to the next, and don’t increase it every week. The tissues in your body require time to adapt to the training stimuli they experience. For that matter, your body also needs time to adapt to the stress of each individual workout, which is why you need to perform a thorough warm-up each time you swim, bike, and run. Hamstring injuries in particular are known to result from failure to warm up properly.
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Looking to compete in a beginner-friendly triathlon? Our partner, the TriRock Triathlon series, offers eight races across the country featuring a fun atmosphere for triathletes of all levels.