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We sought out experts—in training, nutrition, psychology and everything tri—to provide solutions to newbie triathletes’ most common questions.
How many hours per week do I really need to train?
It’s easy to be a bit too eager and overtrain for your first race. “A beginner can realistically train two to four hours per week in preparation for a sprint triathlon,” says LifeSport head coach Lance Watson. If you’re a seasoned athlete in any of the three sports, you can use that base to start out at a higher volume, but, as Watson explains, “Someone completely new to endurance sport will get great benefits with four or five 30- to 45-minute sessions per week.”
Your first workouts
Assuming you have no experience in swim, bike or run, Watson recommends the following training volume to start.
Swim: Two times per week. “Start with very short segments in the pool such as 10–20 x 25 yards and progress to 50s and 100s.”
Bike: One to two times per week. “Most people can bike for 20 to 30 minutes nonstop, so starting there and progressing up to an hour over the course of four to six weeks is a great start.”
Run: One to two times per week. “Brand new runners should start with a walk-run program such as 5x(3 minutes jog/2 minutes walk).”
Do I need a coach?
As someone who is new to the sport, it may feel counter-intuitive to hire a coach because it seems like that is reserved for top-tier athletes. The truth is that, as a beginner, you stand to gain the most from investing in some guidance, especially early on. “Aside from the physical and mental demands, triathlon is a sport of experience,” explains Benjamin Drezek, the 2014 USA Triathlon national coach of the year and founder of KMF Performance Triathlon Club in Denton, Texas. “A knowledgeable coach who has seen it all can guide you away from many of the pitfalls and common mistakes a new athlete can make. A coach will teach you how to navigate the entire training and racing process and work with you to create an initial blueprint for success in all aspects of the sport.”
How do I find the time?
The idea of balancing the swim, bike, run and strength training required to be ready for your first triathlon can be overwhelming. Add to that the fact that all of the current commitments you have in your life—family, job, school, etc.—are not going anywhere, and getting to the start line can feel like an impossible-to-solve puzzle. We reached out to a handful of the best amateur triathletes in the world (all Ironman World Championship age group winners) to find out how they make it all work.
Have a plan.
“Plan ahead for the next training week, set clear targets and decide when you’re going to fit in your sessions. The worst thing is waking up not knowing what your training is for that day and not knowing when you’re going to fit it in.”
– Lucy Charles, (F18–24)
Have clear goals.
“Time management begins by establishing your vision. … Know your strengths and weaknesses, identify the two or three key workouts that will act as the building blocks for each week. … [Once you] know your specific needs and how to address those needs, then lay out your weekly schedule around your building blocks.”
– Greg Taylor, (M60–64)
“Look for and capitalize on opportunity. After dropping off kids at swim practice or piano lessons, squeeze in a run, bring your bike or swim with them. Find or create gaps in your activities that allow for training.”
– Chris Montross, (M55–59)
Get it done early.
“I get up early before work and on the weekends to get the bulk of my daily workout in so that it’s done for the day and I have time to do things after work. You have to prioritize. How bad do you want it?”
– Daniel Stubleski, (M35–39)
Remember this is fun!
“I still think of my workouts as ‘play time.’ It might be hard to get going, especially if it’s a really tough workout, but I do remind myself of how lucky I am to be able to do this sport. When I think of it as ‘play,’ it just naturally rises to the level of the fun thing I get to do, and it’s easier to make time for it.”
– Ellen Hart Pena, (F55–59)
Every little bit counts.
“Something is better than nothing. Twenty minutes in the weight room or half of your swim workout is better than not training.”
– Colleen De Reuck, (F50–54)
What if I can’t afford a coach?
If hiring a coach is too far out of your comfort zone, or if it’s too much of a financial commitment, Drezek recommends these other resources.
- Find training groups.
Many coaches and tri clubs offer free (or low-cost) group workouts, and many of the people there have probably been doing the sport for a while and have plenty of insight.
- Learn by attending a triathlon.
“Spectating or volunteering at a local race is an excellent way to see firsthand all that is involved in the sport and the many types of individuals participating,” Drezek says. “You will almost certainly identify with or be inspired by someone racing.”
- Visit your local triathlon, running or cycling shop. “This is a great way to meet like-minded athletes, discover local teams and find training partners,” Drezek says.
- Pick up a book (or two).
There are several great books out there that can help guide you, such as The Triathlete’s Training Bible by Joe Friel.
For your first triathlon, you can get away with borrowing or renting some pieces of gear so you don’t have to dump a lot of money into the sport before you know you want to race more. These are the essentials to complete your first race:
Tip: Many triathlon stores will rent wetsuits for weekend use, or you could borrow a friend’s who is close to the same height and weight. Just be sure to swim in it at least once before race day so you’re comfortable with the tightness and newfound buoyancy in the water.
– Triathlon shorts
Tri shorts are designed to work well for all three sports—the material blend dries fast out of the water, and it has a chamois (pad) that provides enough comfort on the bike without being too bulky to run in. You can find quality tri shorts for around $50 from reputable companies such as 2XU, Zoot, De Soto and Pearl Izumi, and as the quality of the chamois, comfort of the stitching and leg grips and amount of compression increases, so does the price tag.
If you don’t want to buy a new ride, you have a few options: Simply use the hybrid or mountain bike in your garage (make sure to have a bike shop do a proper tune-up if it has been a while), borrow a bike from a friend or rent one from a local shop during the day.
A must-have, and most helmet companies offer an inexpensive option (around $40) that will meet your needs.
– Running shoes
– Hat or visor
Nice To Haves
– New wetsuit
Yes, wetsuits can cost a pretty penny (some are upward of $1,000), but you can get a decent entry-level suit for less than $200. The good news is a wetsuit can last you a few seasons if you treat it well, so it’s a worthy investment.
– Full triathlon suit
You can buy a matching tri top to go with your tri shorts, which will allow for less drag in the swim and on the bike, and they typically have a few pockets to store fuel during the race. One-piece race suits are also an option, which some people find more comfortable (but not as convenient for bathroom stops).
– Race belt
It’s an inexpensive item (about $10) but one that will make your life much easier. Simply snap your race number onto the belt, and it will keep you from using safety pins on your kit.
– New road bike
Want a versatile option but you’re new to the sport? A road bike is the perfect option for your first couple of years in the sport as you get comfortable with handling and decide whether or not you’re committed for a few years. You can find a road bike for $500, but if you want something you can grow into, expect to spend more than $1,000. When you’re ready to get a little more serious, consider adding aerobars—extensions that allow you to get lower to avoid wind drag.
– Race laces
Again, a cheap item that will save you time in transition. Swap out your standard tie laces for bungeed ones so you can slip your foot right in when you go from bike to run.
– Cleats and cycling or triathlon shoes
Using shoes that directly clip into your pedals will allow you to get the most out of your pedal stroke and make you faster and more efficient.
– Transition bag
For around $100, you can get a bag that is perfectly suited to carry everything you need for a race and easy to carry on your back from the car on race day. Most have a separate wetsuit pocket (to not get everything else wet) and several compartments to protect the small stuff like your goggles and sunglasses.
– Triathlon bike
Committed to go all-in? A triathlon bike, which has specific handlebars and a design made for time trialing and being as aerodynamic as possible, is a high-ticket item ($2,000 and up), but it’s worth it if you know you’ll be in the sport for a long time.
– Race wheels and an aero helmet
If you’re looking to capitalize on speed, adding deeper-rimmed wheels and wearing an aero helmet will cut down your drag in the wind, and both items make a bigger difference the longer the race distance.
– GPS bike and run computers
Data fiends will appreciate the amount of data you can collect from a single race, and splurging on a GPS device for either bike and/or swim will allow you to see your pace, heart rate, etc., over the course of the race so you can analyze it afterward.
How do I fuel for training?
You’re signed up for your first sprint- or Olympic-distance race, you’ve figured out your training, but now you have to solve the last piece of the puzzle: fueling. While nutrition is important, it’s not the most important thing, says Marni Sumbal, a board-certified sports dietitian and the founder of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition. “Beginners need to realize that their best performance enhancement is being consistent with training,” she says. “Newer athletes just need to eat a healthy diet so that they can train well and recover well—they don’t need to be doing anything fancy.”
That being said, there are some smart nutritional guidelines to follow for training:
You really only need to fuel during workouts that are about 75 minutes or longer. The purpose of this, Sumbal says, is to not only train your gut to tolerate sports nutrition, but also to learn the skill of being able to consume fuel while on the move.
Sports nutrition should be hydrating (replacing your lost fluids and electrolytes) while also providing fuel (in the form of carbohydrates). For triathletes racing shorter distances (sprints and Olympics), you can get all the nutrition you need from a sports drink or a diluted energy gel—you don’t also need bars, chews or other products.
After workouts, eat a snack or meal of some carbs (to replenish your energy stores) with protein (to repair your muscles) in the first 30 minutes. You can go for real food, such as peanut butter on a banana, yogurt with berries or a handful of raisins and some cheese. This is where protein powder or chocolate milk also become convenient, Sumbal says. The post-workout snack also serves another purpose: “For newer athletes, their metabolism is kind of all over the place when they start structured training,” Sumbal says. “They may not be able to identify what’s biological hunger—why am I hungry? Am I exhausted? Do I need to eat? So having some carbohydrates and protein after a workout, even if it’s just a 45-minute workout … is really going to help with some of those cravings and the tendency to overeat later in the day.”
How do I fuel for my first race?
– 24 hours pre-race:
“Keep the breakfast the day before the race as your biggest carb meal and taper off volume of food in general,” Sumbal says. Suggestions for breakfast: pancakes, French toast, granola (all carb-rich) with some scrambled eggs or yogurt and some fruit.
– 20 hours pre-race
Keep lunch lighter, low-fiber and low-fat to help minimize GI issues. Lunch ideas: wrap, sandwich or soup.
– 15 hours pre-race: For shorter races, you don’t need to “carbo-load” the night before. “Your body’s going to have adequate fuel going into the race,” Sumbal says. “I would say that most beginners probably will taper too much going into a race, so they should be just fine with their energy stores.” Dinner suggestions: a potato, rice, maybe a piece of fish or chicken or some hard-boiled eggs or tofu plus a very simple salad of Romaine lettuce and tomato (avoid high-fiber veggies).
– 2.5–3 hours pre-race: “Make sure you have a plan,” Sumbal says. Pre-race breakfast should be something you’ve practiced in training (what breakfast has sat well with you before a long ride?). You’re probably not going to nail your pre-race meal the first time around, Sumbal says, but learning and trying things out is all part of the process. The best template is to have some type of carbs, layer on some protein-slash-fat, and have some fruit; aim for 300–400 calories, depending on how large of an athlete you are. Breakfast suggestions: If you start with a light, low-residue carb base (rice cakes, Saltine crackers, pita bread, crepe), you can add on some honey, peanut butter, banana and/or some dates. If you want a more dense carb (waffle, bagel, oatmeal), throw in a little nut butter.
– During the bike: “The most important thing is to keep it very simple,” Sumbal says. “In a sprint triathlon, you don’t need a lot.” Aim for 20–24 ounces of fluid and at least 150 calories per hour on the bike, all from a sports drink, so that would be one bottle for the bike leg of a sprint and 1.5 bottles for an Olympic bike leg. Shoot for getting 2–4 swallows every 15–20 minutes during the ride. Drink suggestions: Infinit Nutrition, CLIF Hydration, Skratch Labs Active Hydration.
– During the run: For a sprint triathlon (5K run), you can just stick to water at aid stations and avoid carrying anything with you, but if you’re concerned about low blood sugar, you could carry an energy gel. For an Olympic run (10K), the best strategy is to have a gel flask and put 1–2 gels in it, diluted with water so that you can consume fuel at your own speed (and not have to consume an entire gel at once), or use a sports drink. Product suggestions: GU Energy Gel, CLIF Hydration, Osmo Men’s Active Hydration or Women’s Hydration.
– Post-race: If it’s your first race, go ahead and celebrate! “But we really don’t want to see every race as a reward [so that] you can eat whatever and have a big heavy meal because you really just need to replenish what you’ve used in that race,” Sumbal says. First, evaluate how you feel—if you’re dehydrated, get in some electrolytes, fruit and fluids. If you bonked during the race, drink some Coke or something sugary to elevate your blood sugar quickly. But if you’re feeling great, eat normally—if there’s something that appeals to you and you want to treat yourself (ice cream!), go for it. “But really after a few hours, you should be getting back to normal eating … something healthy that makes you feel good, nourished and clean inside,” Sumbal says.
What about beer and coffee?!
A cup of coffee on race morning, especially if you drink coffee regularly, is fine (phew!). “It really helps to lower the perceived effort and to give you that mental boost,” Sumbal says. And even caffeine in sports drinks and gels, which is usually only about 25 to 50 milligrams, is OK during the race. What Sumbal warns her athletes against, though, is drinking an energy drink or taking some heavy dose of caffeine right before a race—she advises you get in a good warm-up to raise your heart rate naturally instead. Energy drinks have been shown to also raise blood pressure, and beginner athletes are going to have enough of a cardiovascular effect just getting into the water on race morning that they don’t need to raise their heart rate chemically or to cause possible cardiovascular concerns when taking the plunge.
The research is pretty clear that alcohol has a dehydrating effect, so it’s best to avoid it before the race. “If somebody needs a beer or wine just to relax, it’s not going to hurt you,” Sumbal says, but you should also look into other ways to deal with your nerves. “The liver has to metabolize it, and we really want to keep our organs ready to handle the upcoming [race] stress,” she says. But what about a post-race libation? Again, it’s going to be a high metabolic cost to digest alcohol, she says, so if you want to consume, take care of your nutrition first (rehydrating and refueling) before your beer or glass of wine.
Choosing your first race
When helping a new triathlete choose her first race, USA Triathlon and Ironman-
certified coach Moira Horan of Jersey Girls StayStrong Multisport Club guides the process using four questions:
1. When will you be ready for your first triathlon?
“If you can devote the time to train in the early spring, I’d suggest a late spring or early summer race for your first triathlon,” says Horan. If other obligations—work travel, kids’ sports schedules—won’t free you up to train until the summer, then an early fall race is best. A full eight weeks is an ideal lead time when prepping for your first tri.
2. What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Whenever possible, you want to select a course that plays to your strengths. With the swim especially, it’s important to make sure your skills and confidence are up to the challenge. Are you comfortable in a pool, lake or in the open water? “Since the swim is the first event, this choice is very important,” Horan says. “You want to start off with a positive to motivate you to keep going to the next leg.” If you are an experienced cyclist with either a road or triathlon-specific bike, your choices are wide open, she says, as distance and terrain should not really be a deal breaker for you. Similarly, if you are an experienced runner, the distance (sprint or Olympic) and terrain of the run leg is not a huge concern.
3. What do you want out of the experience?
What will make for a successful day? “Think about what will make this the most enjoyable experience for you,” Horan says. For some it’s just finishing; for others it’s a podium placement. “Would you prefer a small, local race vibe? A women’s-only event? Do you want to train and race with friends? Talk to other triathletes, check the race website, look at past results. It’s the best way to get a feel for what an event is all about. Even if you are going for a podium spot or looking to win a championship slot, triathlon should always be fun.”
4. What’s your budget?
If it’s tight, consider a local race. No need to incur the added expenses from race travel out of the gate. Maybe you are fortunate enough to have more flexible budget concerns and want your first triathlon experience to be a racecation. “For most athletes, my recommendation is to get your feet wet at a smaller local event,” Horan says.
Don’t fear the swim!
Use our open-water skills checklist to make sure you’re prepared for the rigors of the race-day swim. Confidence counts most in triathlon’s first leg!
Dolphin diving can give you an edge up at the start of the swim.
When it’s too shallow to swim and too deep to run, the dolphin dive is the most efficient way to move through the water at the start of a race. How it works: Dive toward the bottom of the lake or ocean, pulling at the sand with both cupped hands. Bring your feet toward your hands, then push off the bottom with your feet to shoot out of the water. Repeat the dive as much as needed to get to swimming depth.
Swim in a straight line—and stay on course—by sighting as you swim.
Before the race, check out the swim course and familiarize yourself with the buoy markers. Take note of landmarks on shore that are in line with any buoys. When you’re swimming and raise your head to sight, it’s much easier to see a large landmark like a tree or building than it is to see a buoy resting on the surface of the water. When sighting, the goal is to lift your head just enough to glimpse the buoy or landmark while not losing momentum with your stroke. At the front of the stroke, as you put your hand into the water, press down while raising your head enough to sight and continue fluidly with your stroke pull and by bringing your opposite arm around. Repeat the motion every 10 strokes, or as needed.
Unlike in the bike leg, drafting is not only legal—it’s smart racing.
If done correctly, drafting off another swimmer can save energy by 30 percent or more. To catch the best draft, swim directly behind another racer, just off his toes (while not constantly hitting or tugging at him). You can also catch a draft while swimming beside someone, staggered behind her at the hip. Practice drafting in the pool with a training buddy of similar speed (hopefully a little faster than you!) to feel your way around the draft zone without being intrusive to the other swimmer.
Visit Triathlete.com/openwater to watch a demo of many of these skills by pro Luke Bell.
Getting comfortable being uncomfortable
We’re not sure if pro triathlete Meredith Kessler coined the phrase “Get comfortable being uncomfortable,” but with 56 Ironman finishes under her belt, she’s certainly an expert on the topic. “This is where the magic happens—the raw, subtle moment of pleasure and pain,” says Kessler, who went from clocking an eight-hour Ironman bike split in her first race at 21 to becoming one of the top American pros in the sport.
Inevitably, there will be moments during a triathlon when the challenge feels silly hard. The succession of swim-bike-run—as fast as you can—isn’t easy. It is how you respond in those moments of difficulty that can determine your enjoyment and success in the sport. Do you throw your hands up and relent to the strain? Or do you accept it, maybe even dance with it a little? (Note that we do not advocate pushing yourself beyond what is healthy or safe. Every athlete should consult with his or her doctor about individual physical condition and athletic goals before beginning any training regimen.) Triathlon will push you to the upper edges of your athletic ability, ultimately expanding them, and that sensation takes some getting used to.
When stuff gets real during a race, Kessler employs a three-word mantra: It will settle. “Whatever I may feel during a period of time, it will settle, and I will rise above any issues that may arise,” she says.
In her training, Kessler will do threshold workouts in which she brings her heart rate up to Zone 4–5 (“barely able to hold on to the effort, but still tolerable”). For her, these sessions are “crucial not only for overall fitness gains but also for mental fortitude.” The key is also training your brain to adapt to the harder efforts, she says. Just like you build muscle memory in your legs to prepare for race day, you also have to flex your mental muscle to make it stronger.