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Transition from Running to Triathlon: Do’s and Don’ts

A guide for the runner who wants to be funner.

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You know how to run—you’ve shown that at several races already. You’re pretty sure you remember how to bike. And the swim? Well, you’re game for learning. But one thing is for certain: You want to give this tri thing a shot. Here’s how to successfully transition from running to triathlon.

Many triathletes come to the sport by way of running—some swim and bike as cross-training, others discover it while rehabilitating a running injury. Many, however, were just looking for a new challenge. In fact, that’s how Olympian Katie Zaferes got started. As a Division I runner for Syracuse University, Zaferes was introduced to multisport by the USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program.

“I often get bored doing the same things, so for me triathlon was perfect because there is so much variety within it,” Zaferes says. But even though she’s one of the sport’s top pros today, the transition from running to triathlon didn’t come naturally. She was overwhelmed by how different triathlon training was from her experience as a runner. “It was a challenge to balance all three disciplines,” Zaferes says.

It’s a sentiment many triathletes share, says veteran triathlon coach Jesse Kropelnicki of QT2 Systems. “The complexity of the sport and all the equipment needed usually come as a surprise, and is a big adjustment,” Kropelnicki says. “Running is one of the simplest and least expensive of sports. If you have running shoes, you can go anytime, anywhere. Swimming and cycling bring on a whole new level of complexity in terms of the equipment needed, the time needed to train in those sports, and the expense of them.”

But fear not. Like Zaferes, many athletes discover the evolution from runner to triathlete to be a worthwhile one. Here’s how to ease the transition.

Transition from Running to Triathlon: Do’s

Plan your workouts on a calendar.

“Triathlon training takes up a lot more time than running, and there are way more pieces to look at within a training block,” Zaferes says. A calendar will help you to stay organized as well as anticipate fuel and recovery needs.

Keep an open mind.

The skill sets for swimming and cycling may not come naturally to you at first, and that’s okay. “The bike was difficult to learn, because at times I genuinely felt scared going down steep hills or twisty roads,” Zaferes says. “So learning how to relax when my brain is telling me to do everything but—that was a challenge.”

Be patient.

“Growth and improvement take time and are not always linear. Know that some days will be better than others, but keep working toward what you want to achieve and be kind to yourself on days when you may be frustrated,” Zaferes says.

Transition from Running to Triathlon: Don’ts

Stay in your comfort zone.

“Runners tend to want to run all the time,” Kropelnicki says. “It’s hard to let go of training like a runner—three to four key run workouts a week where you feel fresh and are primed for. Now you’re fitting in runs amidst swim and bike training; runs may feel sluggish and not as sharp.”

Go it alone.

“Have someone look at your swimming and bike fit to make sure you are starting off on the right foot and not developing bad habits as you progress,” Kropelnicki says.