The Ultimate Beginners Guide To Triathlons

Updated: April 30, 2012

Joel Runyon

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This is a guest post by Joel Runyon, writer, triathlete and author of Impossible TRI.

I spent about 5 years of my life wanting to do a triathlon. I didn’t know how to do one, and I didn’t know anyone who had done one so I never did one. I thought triathlons were only for insane athlete types who could run marathons in 2 hours and hold their breath for 30 minutes. So, for the longest time, I didn’t do anything at all. Triathlons seemed impossible – way to difficult to even attempt. It was best to leave it to all those crazy marathoners who like that stuff.

When I finally decided to do my first triathlon, I realized that not only is a triathlon not impossible. Since then, I’ve done dozens and dozens of triathlons and pushed my limtis more than I thought I ever could.

If you want to do a triathlon, but aren’t sure you can do it, rest assured – you can train for your first one in just 3 months. There are countless triathlon training programs you can use to get started on, but if you just want to go out and do your first one – this article is everything you need. Here we go.

How To Sign Up For A Triathlon

If you want to sign up for your first triathlon, it’s pretty simple:

Step 1. Visit This will be your new best friend.

Step 2. Find a date 3 months out from now. (If you’re not ready for a triathlon yet, don’t worry – you’ll be able to run your first race in 3 months).

Step 3. Find a race labeled as a “sprint triathlon.” The exact distances will vary for these shorter triathlon shorter races due to the terrain of the specific course, but most sprint distance triathlons are about this distance:

  • 400m Swim
  • 12.1 mile Bike Ride
  • 5k run
Step 4. Choose a race close to you that’s 2-3 months out and sign up. Now. Put your credit card down and sign up. Congratulations – you just finished the hardest part. (If you’re having trouble finding a race near you, search or and find a race that works for you).

Now that you have a solid date in the calendar, lets get started.

What Triathlon Gear Do You Need?

Triathlon gear can get expensive fast. A $5,000 bike here. A $300 wetsuit there. Not to mention shoes, jerseys, bike kits, and more. It can add up quick. Fortunately, you can do triathlon on a budget. The rule of thumb to live by is to work with what you have and upgrade as it’s warranted.

I did my first 10 triathlon races on a $150 bike I bought off craigslist. I didn’t use a wetsuit for my first few races. They’re expensive and if the water is above 84 degrees Fahrenheit, you won’t be allowed to wear them anyways. So while you might see pro triathletes carrying around gear you don’t even know the name of, you can run your first triathlon with much less gear than you think you need.

Truth be told, to run your first triathlon, you only need 5 things – all of which are probably hanging around in your garage somewhere.

  1. Swimsuit
  2. Goggles
  3. Bike
  4. Helmet
  5. Running Shoes
That’s it. If you have those 5 things, you’ll be ready to go. You might not look as cool as the pros, but you’re not going to be winning thousands of dollars in prize money either.

It’s much better to be on a terrible bike and be slow than it is to spend a couple thousand on a new bike and still be slow! For your first race, you should spend your energy and focus on getting better. Then, if you decide to do another, upgrade your gear as you get better and better. You don’t need to start out with a thousand-dollar setup – you just need to start.

Training For A Triathlon

Training for a triathlon is intense, but it’s totally possible. If you pick up a training guide, follow the workouts, you can be ready to go in 3 months. If you’re not a swimming, biking or running pro – don’t worry. These will give you a crash course on each discipline in a triathlon and have you more than confident in your ability to finish come race day.

The Swim

The swim leg of triathlon is simultaneously the shortest and most universally feared part of the race. The key to the swim is to stay relaxed and calm. The worst thing you can do is to try and go too fast. You’ll probably end up going faster than you should, tiring out and possibly panicking.

Instead of trying to go fast, focus on smooth movements and moving effortlessly through the water rather than moving at a frenetic pace. If you start to get worried, slow down, tread water, breath and keep going. Remember, go at your own pace – just because there are a lot of people around you splashing everywhere, doesn’t mean that everyone is going much faster than you – it just seems like it.  Swim your race at your pace and resist the urge to try and go as fast as possible.

You might feel great coming out of the water #1, but you still have 2 legs of the race left to go. If you spend all your energy there, you’ll be struggling on everything else. If you really want to improve your time, the bike and run legs are the longer segments where you can really make up some serious time – save your energy for then.

How To Improve Your Swimming Form

If you need help with your swimming form, here’s a few things to keep in mind.

  • Swim on your sides. Try standing against a wall with your arms over you head – they should be the same height. Now rotate your hip and reach up with your right arm. See how your body just got longer? You want to do that in the water. Make yourself long on each side and focus on smooth strokes as you rotate from one side to the other. Use your momentum as you swim from side to side to propel you forward.
  • Focus on each stroke being efficient. You might think you’re going faster, but a few strokes with proper form will take you much, much farther than several rapid strokes that don’t propel you forward at all.
  • Look straight ahead (or down) while swimming. You should be looking at the bottom of the pool or lake. If you’re in the pool, your lane will have a line in it. Look at that – when you see the “T” coming up, it means you’re coming up on the wall.
If you’re still having trouble, pick up a copy of Total Immersion. Spend some time watching and then implementing it. Above all, get in the pool and just practice, practice, and practice some more with getting comfortable in the water for periods of time.

The Bike

You can spend hundreds on bike fit systems in search of a perfect bike for your first race, but if you’re using the bike out of your garage or borrowing one from a friend you can give yourself a quick DIY bike fitting by keeping these things in mind.
  • Wear the gear you plan on biking in. There’s no use getting fit in one outfit, with one set of shoes, when you’ll be racing in a completely different one.
  • Stand over the bike. There should be about a 1 inch clearance between your body and the top bar.
  • Extend your leg all the way to the bottom of a pedal stroke. Your leg should be 80-90% extended. If it’s not, you won’t get the full power out of each stroke. If it’s extended too much, you’ll lose all your power at the bottom of each pedal stroke.
  • Adjust your seat so that your knee is above your foot. When your leg’s extended, you should be able to drop a plumb line from your knee to the ball of your foot.
  • When leaning forward, your body should be at a 45 degree angle, which your back arched and your arms slightly bent in order to absorb the vibrations from the road.
No matter what bike you’re on, if you have poor cycling form, it can be uncomfortable. Make sure you don’t end up with a weird kink in your back or neck after a few miles by following these tips on the bike:
  1. Your back should be arched and your head should be focused on the road in front of you.
  2. Your elbows should be slightly bent, but not locked. This lets your arms serve as sort of “shock absorbers” for the bumps in the road that you’ll be riding over.
  3. Your shoulders should be forward so that your chest can help carry your upper body weight.
Use smooth strokes while pedaling and be sure to not only push downward on each pedal stroke, but pull upward. This will help you pedal more efficiently, not to mention make you go faster.

The Run

Running is such a basic skill, but so many people do it poorly and end up injured. There are lots of blogs you can read for running advice, and I can’t cover everything, but here are 5 simple steps to better running form:
  1. Run using a mid-foot strike if you can. Avoid over- striding, which will cause you to strike with your heel and waste energy.
  2. Keep your shoulders back, and your head up.
  3. Look ahead. Focus on the ground about 20-30 feet in front of you.
  4. Let your arms swing naturally at your side. Let your arms swing forward and back (not side-to-side). Keep your arms bent at the elbow about 90° and keep your hands unclenched.
  5. Skim the ground. If your feet hit the ground too hard, you may be putting yourself at risk of injury and losing your momentum throughout the run. Run like you’re a stealthy ninja, not a thundering giant who needs his footsteps heard. Land softly and quickly and use the spring of your foot to take the next stride.
If you find yourself running more and more, you’ll want to go visit a running store and have your gait analyzed in order to get more personalized advice and find shoes based on your running style.

Triathlon Brick Workouts

You’ll want to practice brick workouts a few times before your first race. A brick workout is a workout where you incorporate two disciplines and transition from one to the other in the middle of the workout as you would in a race. The most common brick workout is the bike to run transition, although swim to bike transition can also be done. The first time you do a bike to run brick workout, you’ll be inexplicably sore.

While your legs will be warmed up from the bike ride, they’ll also be quite tired and the first couple times you transition from biking to running, you might feel like your legs are asleep. Get used to that feeling –  it will go away after the first 1/4-1/2 mile – but the first few times, it will feel like forever. At that point, you want to keep an eye on your watch. The fatigue in your legs may make you run faster or slower than you’re accustomed to so make sure you continue at a pace that’s sustainable for you for the rest of the race. If you practice these a couple times while practicing, you’ll be much more prepared for it when race day comes.

Triathlon Nutrition

Nutrition is often referred to as the fourth element of training because it can have such an effect on the outcome of a race. This is especially true when it comes to longer distance races, such as a half or full Ironman. Nutrition is an area that can get really complicated really quickly. The easiest way to avoid that is to keep things simple:
  • Stop eating junk food.
  • Stop drinking pop, juice and other beverages besides water, tea and Gatorade (after workouts).
You just cleaned up your diet 80%. Boom.

I advocate a paleo diet as outlined by the Paleo Diet For Athletes. It’s a modified version of the strict Paleo diet that allows lots of starches so your body utilizes the energy from fat stores as much as possible, while only using carbohydrate-based energy when you need energy quick. There’s, much much more to this, but the incredibly simplistic version is this:

Eat lots of fruits, nuts, eggs, meats and vegetables. Before and after races, focus on starchy fruits and vegetables (bananas, sweat potatoes or squash) in moderation. These will break down into glucose quickly while replenishing your quick-use energy stores. If you need energy supplements throughout the race, use them as necessary.
Sample pre-race breakfast.

You want to eat something 2-3 hours before your race. A good rule of thumb is 200-300 calories/hour before a race you’re planning on eating. For example, if you’re eating 2 hours before a race, you’d try to eat 400-600 calories (200-300 calories x 2 hours).

I use this pre-race breakfast almost every race.

  • 3-4 Eggs Scrambled
  • Banana
It’s not only effective, but you can eat it anywhere. If you’re on the road for a race, you can hard boil the eggs beforehand and eat them wherever you want or microwave them, if you don’t have a stove nearby. The eggs provide the protein your muscles will need. The banana is the most portable food in the world and is a great starchy fruit to make sure your body’s energy stores are topped off right before your race.

To Carbo-Load or Not To Carbo-Load? That is The Question

Actually, it’s not much of a question at all. For your first race you don’t need to carbo-load. If you eat properly, your body will store enough energy for 90-120 minutes which is more than enough time for you to finish your first sprint distance race.  The truth is for the shorter races in triathlon (I know, right now a sprint triathlon might not seem very “short”, but in the scheme of endurance racing it is) the only thing carbo-loading will really do is upset your stomach if you’re not used to it so don’t worry about it until you’re on to much longer distance races. If you find yourself running out of energy during practices, you can easily handle your energy levels through a variety of gels or other nutritional supplements (Shot Bloks are my favorite) – so carry them with you and take them about 40 minutes into your race (while you’re still on the bike) and you should be good.

Wrapping It Up

Triathlons aren’t just for Lance Armstrong look-a-likes and genetically-enhanced humans who’ve trained in the lab the last years. Triathlon is one of the fastest growing sports in America – and there’s a good reason why. Everyday, normal people are deciding to try it, push their limits and have a ton of fun along the way. Even if you’re not in great shape, if you can exercise for 15 minutes at a time, you can start training to run your first triathlon in 3 months (seriously). It’s not always easy, but if you work on it and train hard, it’s totally possible. But there’s one more thing left to do – stop reading and start training. Good luck!

Want to get started in Triathlon? Start training today and run your first triathlon in 3 months with Impossible TRI

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