Triathlon 101: A Beginner’s Guide

Running your first triathlon race can be a daunting experience when you are starting out. Wendy Mader, IRONMAN certified coach and 2008 Kona 1st Overall Amateur, shares her memories of her first triathlon race and answers some Triathlon 101 questions for newbies.

First Ever Triathlon Race Memories

I remember my first race like it was yesterday. It was the summer after my freshmen year in college at Eastern Michigan University.

My swimming teammate asked me join a Triathlon Relay and participate in the swim portion of the Great Lakes Triathlon in Ann Arbor, MI. The other 2 sections of the race were to be completed by my swimming teammate cycling and her running friend.

Since I am a distance swimmer, the half mile swim was not an issue for me. I swam the race in 82-degree water, with no wetsuit, and as fast as I could.  During the race, I was unable to see anything and was also a little anxious about being in such a large body of water.

Aside from water skiing and tubing in a lake, I never swam for fitness in open water so did not know what to expect. I am not sure how I managed to sight and follow the orange buoys but I just swam and watched the rest of the race.

After the race, I knew in the back of my mind that as well as the swim section of the race, I could also complete the 12 mile bike and 4.5 mile run.

Feeling confident that I would be able to complete the whole race on my own, the following year I signed up again for the Great Lakes Triathlon in Ann Arbor, MI and did the swim, bike, and run by myself.

The Race

The race went well and the sections went something like this:

Swim:

I wore a speedo swimsuit, no wetsuit. My only open water swim experience was the previous year and possibly that helped as I exited the water with a good size lead.

Transition 1:

I suspect my slowest transition to date.  My mom competed in triathlon for a few years earlier so I followed her advice with setting up my transition.

I sat down in a lawn chair while I washed my feet in a bath of water. Then I continued to sit as I put my socks and shoes on.  Finally, I struggled pulling my large cotton LaLa Palazzo Tshirt and cotton spandex shorts over my swim suit.

Bike:

I rode a $200 mountain bike that I used to commute around Eastern Michigan University campus and wore my mom’s gigantic helmet. Not very aerodynamic. I got passed by a female every mile along the 12-mile course.

Related: Your Bike Fitting: What to Expect & Why You Need It

Transition 2:

Probably my quickest transition ever because I biked wearing my running shoes and also had my bib number pinned to my T-shirt. As a result, I only needed to re-rack my bike and run out.

Run:

This was my first “brick” transition run.

Finish:

Despite this being my first full race, and wearing an oversized helmet, I came across the finish line first in my age group, age 19, and was 14th overall female.

From then on, I was hooked. I spent the next month searching for a road bike, and the past 25 years learning to train and race.

I am still training, racing, and learning about the latest and greatest training plans and tools. The amount of information can be overwhelming. What to wear, how to train, what to eat, and what gear?

To help you get started, below are answers to some of the commonly asked questions I get asked from athletes entering the sport of triathlon.

Triathlon 101: Frequently Asked Questions

Triathlon 101 Q1. I am just getting started in triathlon and have a bike and can run but I can’t swim more than one length without being breathless. HELP!

A. If you are just getting started and want to complete a sprint distance triathlon and swimming is your weakest event, invest in a good swim instructor. Look for an instructor who does video analysis and spend as much time in the water as you can.

In addition, try to get comfortable with breathing, balance and rotation. I offer FREE swim Video Analysis. I have outlined some breathing, body balance and rotation tips here.

Related: Freestyle Swimming Technique: Breathlessness

Triathlon 101 Q2. I want to follow a training plan but there are so many to choose from – where do I start?

A. I recommend including 2 runs, 2 bikes, 2 swims, and 2 strength training sessions per week.  Each session should be 30-60 minutes in duration and training sessions can vary from athlete to athlete, depending on your goals and ability.

Some examples may include:

Swimming – swim with a masters group or take some swimming lessons.

Cycling – take a spin class, practice skills and drills on a bike trainer, or ride outside.

Running – run one day focused on skills and drills, and on another day build up a longer run at least the distance of your event. In addition, try to add a run after one of your bike sessions.

When your goal is to finish under a certain time, the intensity of training becomes more critical and you may also want to invest in some coaching to help you balance frequency, intensity and duration within your training plan.

If you are looking for a training plan to follow, I offer an 8 week plan for FREE.

Triathlon 101 Q3. What gear will I need to complete my first triathlon?

A. Swim-suit, cap, goggles, running shoes, bike, helmet, tri shorts and top. Most of us also have cycling shoes, cycling tools, tri suit, wetsuit (pending open water),

Some triathletes invest in the aero tri bike, wheels, aero bottles, power meter, heart rate monitor, nutrition, training plan, coaching…and the list goes on and on.

To get started, firstly invest in the basics – a swim suit, running shoes, bike and helmet.

Triathlon 101 Q4. What do I eat while training?

A. First of all you need to identify what your nutrition plan is now? Knowing where you are and what your goals are, will help determine what you need to change, if anything.

Many of us get into the sport for mental and physical well-being and maybe to drop some body fat while getting fit and healthy.

My advice is to speak to a registered dietitian with regards to your current daily baseline nutrition intake. They will be able to help determine what types of foods, proteins, carbs and fats you need, and how to add calories into the mix to sustain your training, recovery and performance.

Triathlon 101 Q5: How do I determine how fast to swim, bike and run?

A: If you’re goal is to finish in a certain time, then training with intensity, either with a power meter or heart rate monitor, becomes invaluable.

When it comes to cycling, right now the gold standard for measuring performance is power/wattage.

In running, you can set goals using either pace or heart rate. These can be determined via a lactate threshold test in a lab or a simple field test during a 5k or treadmill session,

I use a variety of protocols to test athletes and use the data from the test to set training zones. Furthermore, when I work with runners and multisport athletes, I focus on HR and pace for running, heart rate or power for biking, and pace for swimming.

Related: Running Pace: How to Find the Right Pace for You

Triathlon 101 Q6. What do I do for strength training?

A. Strength training is a positive element for triathletes to implement. The question is, what type of strength work is going to maximize triathlon fitness?

From P90x, Crossfit, Yoga, and Pilates, to “functional” strength, it is easy to get a bit confused about what specific program can best fit the needs of our sport. I suggest trying out all of the above and pick the ones you enjoy.

Over the course of your new triathlon lifestyle you will figure out what is best for you. The bottom line is you MUST incorporate some strength training for injury prevention, maintaining lean body mass, and general health.

Related: Trail Running – Tackling Winter Trails

Triathlon 101 Q7. What supplements should I take? 

A. Firstly ask yourself what your reason is for wanting to take supplements? If you eat a clean balanced nutrition plan, you might not need to spend money on supplements.

There are a variety of supplements including energy bars and drinks, protein powders, or supplements like vitamins and minerals. For the latter, consult with your physician and get a blood test to determine if you should be taking supplements.

What kind of energy bar, gel or hydration depends on one’s taste.  Start with using what is on the course for your event and then start trialing a variety of products. You need to like what you are ingesting or else you will not use it.


Practice Makes Perfect: Triathlon Transition Tips | Wendy Mader | Linked Fitness CommunityAbout the Author

Wendy Mader

MS, Ironman Certified Coach, TRX and ACE Certified Winner, 2008 Kona 1st Overall Amateur

Wendy is co-founder and owner of t2coaching and has made a lifelong commitment to fitness, sports, coaching, and triathlon.

From her youth as a competitive swimmer to her current career in the fitness industry, her dedication shines.

Wendy is a former collegiate swimmer and has 25 years experience in triathlon including 15 Ironmans.

She is the Head Coach of SASfit Team in Turkey and also Head Coach at Endurance House in Westminster Colorado.

To find out more about Wendy Mader, visit her coaching website t2coaching.com

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