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How to Go From Swimmer to Triathlete

You've logged endless hours in the water, but now you're ready to test your legs on dry land.

So you’re ready to step out of the water and take your first, tentative steps into the world of triathlon? Fantastic! Let’s see how we can help you make a smooth transition from swimmer to triathlete and find your land legs.

Pick A Triathlon Race

First, triathlons come in all shapes and sizes—from super sprint to Iron-distance, from road to off-road to aquathlon to winter tri. Figure out what you makes the most sense for you as you transition from swimmer to triathlete. A sprint distance race will take between 60-90 minutes to finish (already 3-4 times the longest race in a pool) and the Olympic distance will take between 2.5-3.5 hours to complete. An aquathlon—swimming and running—or an aquabike—biking and running—could also be a fun place to start, or even jump into a more extreme partner swimrun event (not the same as an aquathlon).

A good idea is to start with a small and short local race and build from there. Have an enjoyable and pleasant experience for your first triathlon so that you keep coming back for more. Local races also mean you don’t have to spend on travel or hotels, plus you’ll be on familiar roads with lots of friends. 

RELATED: What You Need to Know About Every Triathlon Distance

Triathlon Distance Swim Distance Bike Distance Run Distance Average Participant Finish Time
Super sprint .5K 10K 1.5K :45-1:00
Sprint .75K 20K 5K 1:15-1:45
Olympic 1.5K 40K 10K 2:30-3:30
Half-Iron 1.2mi. 56mi. 13.1mi. 5:00-6:30
Iron 2.4mi. 112mi. 26.2mi. 10:00-14:00
Make sure your gear is safe and ready to go when you transition from swimmer to triathlete.
Make sure your gear is safe and ready to go. Photo: Getty Images

Getting the Tri Gear

Once you know what race you want to do, it’s time to get the gear. The most expensive part of triathlon is cycling, but you can usually piece together the necessary gear from what’s already in your garage. Make sure that you really like the sport before you go on a spending spree and get a brand new bike. For your first race, use a mountain bike, cruiser bike, or borrow a friend’s bike to get started. Be sure to take an older bike in for a tune-up at the shop—safety first!—and invest in a brand new helmet. (Did you know helmets have an expiration date of 5-10 years?)

Shoes are the one run-specific item to go “all-in” on. Book an appointment at the local running store for a professional fitting. When going from swimmer to triathlete, your feet, legs, and hips are not adapted to this form of land travel called “running” and wearing the correct shoes for your body (not just the pretty ones you see on the internet) will help save you from doctor’s visits down the road.

Then you’re almost ready to go. There are just a few small, yet vital, gear items that will make training and racing smoother. You can get by without these items, but you’ll be glad you have them:

  • Anti-chafe cream (commonly referred to as Body Glide): Get a stick of this for the inevitable. It will happen!
  • Chamois cream: Similar to above, but for your most sensitive bits. Read the instructions, follow the instructions, apply liberally, and you will be glad you did.
  • Number belt: A strange strip of elastic with a dangling bib number that you will see around the waist of most triathletes in a race. Safety pins are so old school!
  • Elastic laces: As soon as you get your new professionally fit running shoes, many triathletes will rip out the laces and replace them with elastic versions to save 15 seconds in transition.
  • Cycling shorts: This is another item to go for full price and brand name. In the wrong shorts, sitting on a bike seat can be miserable and make you question your entire triathlon plans.

More gear resources:

Find A Tri Coach

The one other thing it’s probably worth spending money on: a coach. Remember all the years, months, and countless hours of time in the pool under the watchful eyes of your swim coaches? It took a lot of work to adapt your body into a proficient swimmer. Give your body time, with a slow progression of smart training, to develop into a successful triathlete. A triathlon coach is a priceless investment to help you navigate the perils of these land sports and to avoid the injures that come with inexperience. Look for a local coach that offers face-to-face training sessions so your technique and form can continuously be evaluated and improved. And if it comes with a local training group or club to keep you motivated, the more the merrier.

RELATED: How to Find The Right Triathlon Coach For You

Common Swimmer to Triathlete Issues

Navigating the new sports will likely come with some setbacks—but some smart preparation might mitigate the amount of time you are sidelined. The first issue you will likely face as you transition from swimmer to triathlete are blisters! This is almost inevitable for a swimmer with baby soft skin. Investing in good socks and professionally fit running shoes will reduce the amount, but blisters will form anywhere your foot moves until your skin builds up a callus. Chaffing is another painful experience that will occur on any skin (outside of your shoes) that rubs other skin. Common areas are inner thighs, arm pits, and nipples (for the guys). Reduce the pain by applying anti-chaffing lubrication (like Body Glide) or wear form-fitting clothes on these areas.

Overuse injuries, like shin splints, knee pain, and tendon pain are also common due to the high impact that running puts on your body. You can prevent many injuries by taking it slow, maintaining a stretching and mobility routine after workouts, adding weekly yoga and massage, and following the 10% rule (mentioned below). Most importantly: Take rest and recovery days when needed!

RELATED: An Injury Guide for Triathletes

Most cycling discomfort originates from your saddle area. All of these issues (numbing, sores, discomfort, pain) should be remedied with a bike fit, a new saddle, high-quality cycling shorts, and lots of chamois cream. Numb hands are also a common complaint due to the pressure on your ulnar nerve from resting on the handle bars. Simple fixes are to wear gloves, use a bar tape with more cushion, and move your hands to different positions every couple minutes. It’s also common to have some falling or crashing when biking, but most falls can be prevented by riding within your skill level and taking lessons to improve your bike handling abilities.

Handling skills and road safety should always come before speed. It does not matter how fast you can go if you cannot control your bike, corner smoothly, avoid obstacles, or stop safely. Working with a local coach or bike specialist can make this a quicker and easier learning curve rather than a painful trial-and-error method of doing it on your own. This is never truer than when you are graduating to clip-in cycling shoes. A one-hour session with a professional can save weeks of frustrations, unnecessary falls, and impact injuries.

RELATED: Clipless Pedals: A Beginner’s Guide

Most importantly, have fun with your triathlon training. Photo: Getty Images

How to Train for Tri

The biggest difference between swimmers and triathletes is the intensity of training. A swimmer will think nothing of having two to three main sets of high-intensity work in every session. On dry land, you must switch to a runner’s approach of 80/20—80% of your training is low intensity while only 20% is at high intensity. Additionally, there is also a common 10% rule about not increasing your running mileage by more than 10% each week. These guidelines are designed to slowly adapt your body to pounding the pavement and lower the risk of injury.

RELATED: The Science of 80-20 Training

Plan a regular training routine that you can sustain and repeat weekly. While you’ll want to keep some regular swimming, you most likely will need to cut down to accommodate running and biking without taking on too much training stress. To help you monitor your training load (and not ramp it up too quickly), you can keep track of your total workout duration and distance. You can use fancy GPS watch or just manually log your workouts. Here is a starting point for a weekly tri training plan when going from swimmer to triathlete:

  • Monday – SWIM practice & RUN 20-30 minutes easy
  • Tuesday – BIKE 45-60 minutes, with 5 x 5-minutes strong effort
  • Wednesday – SWIM practice & 30 minutes stretching/yoga
  • Thursday – RUN 30-45 minutes, with 5 x 1-minute efforts
  • Friday – SWIM practice & 30-45 minutes strength/core
  • Saturday – BRICK 90-minute bike ride, with 20-minute run off the bike
  • Sunday – REST day