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We could fill every inch of a year’s worth of Triathlete issues with training advice—there’s that much information and that many approaches to triathlon training. But you don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport to get a successful start. We compiled some of the most common training questions we hear and had veteran coach and successful former pro Jimmy Riccitello (Riccitello.com) weigh in with his expert opinion.
How many months/weeks of training will I need? “If you’re a reasonably fit person who can swim a bit, you could do a sprint triathlon tomorrow,” says Riccitello. Recommended? No. But doable? Yes. “If you break it down into individual parts—a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride and a 3-mile run—it’s not such a daunting event,” he says, “unless you don’t know how to swim.” The swim is typically the biggest hurdle for newbies, says Riccitello, and “if the ‘sink or swim’ saying has a literal meaning to you, you’ll need to get some lessons.” However, if you are comfortable in the water and have a bike that’s in good working order, an athlete with decent base fitness should be able to pedal through 12 miles and run 3, he says. A caveat, though: “Having said that, the more time you dedicate to training for your first triathlon, the more prepared you will be.”
How many times a week do I swim, bike and run? For most of his first-time triathletes, Riccitello recommends 1–2 swims per week, 1–2 rides per week and 3–5 runs per week. “These are general recommendations that would change depending on individual circumstances,” he notes. For example, if you don’t know how to swim or are uncomfortable in the water, you should spend more time per week in the pool under the guidance of a good swim instructor or coach. Riccitello says the above guidelines assume a hectic work and family schedule and that it’s simply easier to fit in a few more runs than it is to find the time to swim and ride. “Considering the goal is to finish a sprint triathlon, you’ll get more bang for your buck by running more often, relative to riding and swimming,” he says.
Do I need a coach? If your goal is to finish a sprint triathlon, Riccitello says you don’t need to hire a coach. However, “a simple training plan that you can pick up online for free, or for a small fee, will help give your training some direction.” He also notes that “a good training plan should help you zero in on the work necessary to help you realize your goal—to finish a sprint triathlon, not to win a gold medal in the Olympics or crush Chrissie Wellington in the Ironman.”
Can I do triathlon even if I’m not a good swimmer? In a word, yes. “You do not have to be a ‘good’ swimmer, but you do have to be able to swim,” says Riccitello, adding that “you should be able to swim the length of a 50-meter pool without the aid of a flotation device including (but not limited to) floaties, a life raft, a wetsuit or those noodle thingies that they use in water aerobics class.” He notes that learning how to swim later in life is much easier than many think, and that taking lessons or hiring a swim coach will speed up the process. “And once you learn how to swim, you should take some time to get comfortable in the open water versus a pool. I know I’ve said that a sprint triathlon is a welcoming distance, but I’ve seen more safety issues in the swim than the bike and run combined. So be sure to do your homework with regard to the swim—then jump in with both feet!”
Any tips for a fast transition? You’ll want to use a colorful towel or triathlon mat to clearly mark your spot in the crowded transition area. For the swim-bike transition (T1), start pulling down your wetsuit and remove your cap and goggles as you run to transition. Before the race, unbuckle your helmet strap and prop it on top of your bike handlebars with your sunglasses inside; also make sure that the Velcro straps to your cycling shoes are free. For the bike-run transition (T2), have your running shoes (with race laces), racing belt, any nutritional drinks, gels or blocks and a hat (if you use one) laid out on the towel for a quick grab-and-go. Put on the belt as you run out of transition (or before the bike leg if the race requires it).