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August 04, 2022

Triathlon 101: Key prep and race day tips to help you experience success as a first-time triathlete


Mindset is Everything

Completing a triathlon is easy. Especially if you want to do it and consider training for the race to be fun. 

Do you see what I said? You must want to do it and think it is fun to train for it. If you have any mindset challenges, such as: 'I don’t have time'; 'I hate swimming'; 'I haven’t ridden a bike in years'; or 'how on earth am I going to run 5 km after swimming and biking'; then you will have to replace these negative thoughts with more positive thoughts when committing to training for a triathlon. 


Get Inspired: Read more about Vicky's own journey as an Ironman triathlete


Getting Started - Choose a Race Distance

Once you've committed to experience your journey as a triathlete with a sense of joy, you then need to decide how far you actually want to go. A triathlon consists of three sports: swimming, biking and running. In that order. There are, generally, the following type of races, increasing in distance: sprint, Olympic, long course, half Ironman and Ironman. I have completed each race distance and have a pretty good sense of how long each “leg” of the swim, bike and run will take me in each distance.

Naturally, you would want to choose a race distance in order to set your initial training goals. If you have never completed a triathlon before, starting with a sprint distance is the usual approach.  Although, there are no prerequisites so you are welcome to choose the distance that excites you.



Training and Preparation

If you haven’t been training consistently in one of the three disciplines, the first step would be to begin. If you are a natural swimmer and love swimming or have trained consistently, but you haven’t ridden a bike in years, continue with the swimming and add the bike training. If you already run but you haven’t been swimming, add swimming. Start with small amounts of training once per week so it’s not overwhelming.


Swim Training

When I get back to the pool after taking time off, I start with just 15 minutes. This is a mindset program for me. I personally resist going to the pool and sometimes I have negative thoughts associated with being cold and swimming lengths, so, by starting with 15 minutes, I can feel that it is easy and brief and not a big ordeal. Then I can slowly increase by 5 minutes each week until I get to 30 mins swimming or the required distance for the triathlon. For the sprint distance triathlon, the swim leg is usually 750 metres and it is 30 lengths of a 25 metre pool to get to 750 metres. This should take me about 18 minutes. Therefore, by doing 30 minutes, I feel confident that I have trained enough for a sprint distance.



Bike Training

If you are just starting out with triathlon, use whatever bike you currently have to make sure you love the sport before you invest in something new. I rode a 20 year old mountain bike for my first sprint triathlon in 2000 and I averaged 24 km/h. When I graduated to a road bike for my first Ironman in 2002, I only averaged 26 km/h in the race. So the advantage of the road bike was not that obvious. Of course, it was hilly with many turns and I was really mentally not prepared at all for that bike course but you can see that the actual speed of the two bikes was not that different.

I ride a road bike inside on a trainer in the basement year round so I always feel like I could quite easily go outside and ride for an hour when spring weather arrives. The bike I have on the trainer is a road bike that I bought before I ran and completed Ironman in Florida in 2007. It has drop handle bars with aero bars clipped on. I feel very comfortable on this bike and rode it outside in the summer each season since then. I also began to use a Tacx resistance trainer as it gives you an indoor cycling experience that's just as realistic as riding outdoors. 

In 2021, I bought a new Bluetooth Tacx trainer that is compatible with training apps, such as Zwift and FulGaz, because I knew I would want to spend a lot of time training for the Ironman World Championship (IMWC) over the fall, winter and spring.

In addition, this year, I bought a new triathlon (tri) bike to have something special and that made me feel prepared for the IMWC. But it has taken some getting used to it. A triathlon bike is much more narrow at the handle bars and has aero bars so I can feel less secure when reaching for my water bottle or riding through traffic. This means I will want to spend a lot of time on my tri bike to learn to be comfortable and confident.

If you have any confidence concerns about your bike riding skills, find a friend who is willing to ride with you. I recommend doing this anyway, as it’s much safer to train with someone else. If you only start out doing loops around your neighbourhood, that will work just fine.


Run Training

Running requires some equipment as well including running shoes that support your running style and technical clothing to help you remain comfortable in the various weather you will encounter. If you are new to running, start with running 20 minutes only. This can be a combination of running and walking and then build up to 20 minutes of continuous running. From there, add 5 minutes per week to your longest run until you are able to run for an hour, either running continuously or with walking incorporated.

You can also join a Learn to Run program at your local running store. Many running stores have free running groups that leave from the store and will have runners at various levels. This is a good solution if you don’t have a friend or family member to run with. When you are first starting out with any new sport, having support from others is very helpful. I trained for my first half marathon with Running Free in Markham and enjoyed having structured workouts (which are not something I have kept up with since!)



Brick Training

Once you've established a base in each of the three sports - swimming, biking and running, and you've chosen your first triathlon race, it’s time to add some brick training. This is when you do two or more of the sports in one workout. If you are swimming and can bring your bike to the pool, you could go for a training ride immediately after swimming. If you've completed a bike training session, you could immediately go for a run afterwards.

This type of training is an important way to see how you feel after completing each sport training session and immediately after transitioning to the next sport. It will also help you to better understand how your body responds to the demands of more than one sport in terms of endurance, hydration and nutrition.


Nutrition and Transition 

When you're in a triathlon race, it’s important to wait 15-20 minutes after the swim to start drinking and adding nutrition. It's important because your body needs time to adapt from the swimming to the biking and nausea can result if you start taking on fluids and nutrition too soon. When transitioning from the bike to the run, there's a distinctive 'heavy-legs' feeling that takes time to work through.  So having experienced it before the race will give you the advantage of knowing how long it normally lasts for you and how to best manage pace and mental stamina as you work through it. 


Now that you're armed with the basics of how to train for a triathlon, it's time to get started. Remember that it should be fun. When I finished my first sprint triathlon in 2000, I had two friends in the race that I trained with and supported each other. When we finished the race, we jumped up and down with our arms around each other like little kids and shouted “that was so fun!” We went on to complete two additional sprint triathlons that summer and loved each and every race.


You can do this. Now go do it.



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