Last August, I completed my first triathlon. It was an Olympic-distance race, which made it a far cry from the sport’s ultimate challenge — the Ironman competition — but a longer race than most people tackle in their triathlon debuts.
I’d been in plenty of running races before, everything from one-milers to 5Ks to half-marathons. In fact, I was halfway through my training for a full marathon. The swimming, however, was another story.
I’d learned how to swim as a child but I had never competed in any sort of race. Lazy summer days at the pool and beach comprised most of my swimming experience, with the exception of a few miles of laps in the weeks before the race. And the bike portion? Well, I’d just purchased my first road bike two months earlier, and, although I loved my new ride, I had almost no confidence that I’d be able to repair a flat tire along the course if disaster were to strike. I’d practiced clipping in to the pedals just once before the race.
But, I made it through the race, loved it and now find myself eager for warm weather and race season to return.
Whenever I get involved in a new endurance sport, I eventually reach a point where I become hooked on the activity and want to know everything about it. I’ll read books, go to stores, try all kinds of things out.
But there are always nuances I find out about the hard way — that is, a discovery whilst putting my body on the line in insanely challenging endeavors. So I’d like to help you out with some pointers for first-time triathletes. Basic stuff. But take it to heart, please, and you’ll avoid physical, emotional and financial agony!
Choose a race that you really belong in.
You’ll have butterflies in your stomach before your first race, regardless of what it is, but you want to be absolutely sure that those are butterflies of excitement, not of serious doubt that you’ll be able to survive the experience.
No one runs a marathon before a 5K or takes the SAT’s in the fifth grade (if you have, I’m sorry for you). Most people begin their triathlon careers with the shortest, cheapest and most doable race offered: the sprint triathlon. It’s the type of race that, even if you crash and burn early, you can probably walk to its finish in a reasonable amount of time. Not so much in an Ironman.
Plan your finances.
This means setting your priorities, especially if you are a college kid like myself. Figure out a budget so that you can obtain the gear you need without going hungry for a year. Swimming will cost you almost nothing; the main expense of running is a pair of shoes; biking (gear, clothes, shoes) is what will drain you if you don’t plan your budget. Do this before you even make your first purchase, otherwise you’ll feel obligated to keep buying until you have everything you need.
Use a road or triathlon bicycle.
Now that you’ve committed to being financially sensible about this whole thing, accept the fact that a mountain bike just won’t cut it in a triathlon, especially anything longer than a sprint. There are plenty of great options for any budget, and you’ll feel as powerful as Lance when you’re going 35 mph down a hill with no effort at all.
Prepare your fitness.
I’m not sure I even need to include this one, but I might be letting people down in a major way if I don’t. Train, people — you’ve got to. Make sure you’ve been regularly working out on the bike or running for several weeks and can comfortably complete 5-mile runs, 20-mile bike rides, etc.
If you’re in shape to run, you’ll be able to begin training for the other components smoothly. Be sure to complete at least one “brick” workout (simulating a shorter version of the race by swimming, biking and running — in that order — in one workout) within a week or two of the race.
You don’t need to complete the entire race distance, but be sure to wear your race-day clothes and prepare for the same conditions. For my simulated race workout, I swam one mile in the community lane pool and then ran over to the parking lot where my mother was waiting in her car. I took my bike out of the trunk, changed into my cycling gear, and left my swimwear in her car. Then I biked 15 miles to my old high school, where I had parked my car a few hours earlier.
I locked up my bike, made a quick change at the car, ate some granola bars and then ran five miles, returning to the car in the last mile to then drive home. The planning for this workout was immense, but it was a one-time necessity and gave me so much faith in myself on race day when challenges arose.
These bits of advice will get you to the starting line of your race with just enough confidence to counter, in part, the assault of nerves. And, while I have much more to say about this sport and how I entered into it, I will conclude by assuring you that you are more than capable of completing this rewarding accomplishment if you simply take some practical steps.