So you want to be a triathlete

By: gracilou - July 13, 2006

As one of those, "do before you die" sort of adventures, I recently decided to pursue my dream of completing a triathlon. Many people thought I was crazy, and I knew it would be no easy feat. Luckily, I discovered that the rest of the triathlon community was just as crazy as myself, if not more so. And therein lies my biggest advice for beginner triathletes: find training partners. I cannot stress this enough. By finding a triathlon training group, you automatically have a variety of doors opened for you. More experienced athletes can offer advice on how often, how much (or how little), or what type of training you should be doing. They can also give advice prior to race day about nutrition, transitions during the race, and other things to expect. Triathlon clubs will have organized practice times together so that athletes can encourage one another to show up, push harder, or simply provide a social atmosphere for the group. Without the aid of my teammates, I believe I would have not had the fine experience I did with my first triathlon. Now, I will pass on some information to you in case you can't find a local group yet and are itching to get started.

Decide on the distance.

You need to devise a training schedule to split your time between running, swimming, and biking. Practicing every sport each day would lead to overtraining. Mixing it up is all part of the fun. Decide which distance you want to race. The sprint distance triathlon is typically a quarter mile swim, 20 K bike and 5K run. The Olympic/international distance race is half of the half-ironman: a .6 mi swim, 22 mi bike, and 10 K run. The half-ironman is 1.2 mi. swim, 56 mi bike, and 13.1 mi run. The ironman is a 2.4 mi swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run.The distances may vary slightly depending on the race, maybe a few tenths of a mile, depending on where the race is held and the company that is running it. Again, this is where talking to experienced athletes comes in handy. They can tell you if a course is favorable or not, if the company in charge is efficient, has helpful water stations and recovery snacks and more.


As a beginner, you can expect to train for each event 2-3 times a week, with at least 2 days of weight training, and a day for recuperation and rest. Training programs typically consist of varying intensities of workouts, from those that challenge speed to those that challenge endurance, and then a mixture of the two. It is just as easy to overtrain as it is to undertrain. Make sure to listen to your body. If you are feeling chronically fatigued, it may be a sign of overtraining, and you should consider taking at least one or two days off. Your training and your body will benefit from the rest. You will be able to train harder once your glycogen stores are replenished and you will help to prevent injury by exercising on recovered, rebuilt, steady muscles and joints.


With all of your training, you will need a lot of fuel. When you have "two-a-days", days involving a morning and evening workout, your metabolism will be. It will amaze you how much hungrier you will be if you are not accustomed to working out twice a day. As you probably know, carbohydrates are king. They give you the fuel you need to power through the workout. But too many carbs can actually make you sluggish. Experiment during your training and see how much you need in order to feel your best during your workouts and at the start of your next workout. You should feel energized, rested and ready to go, even though you may be a little sore from a previous workout. Typically, an athlete of medium frame and build needs about 1g carbohydrate per minute of exercise. Protein is important in order to provide your body with the building blocks necessary for building lean muscle mass. If you are a vegetarian, make sure that the food you eat contains the 8 essential amino acids-these are the building blocks of protein that your body cannot store. Protein helps you build muscle, plain and simple. And yes, you need fat too. Fat is the body's stored fuel which provides energy for exercise after your carbohydrate stores are depleted. The "good fats," such as omega-3 fatty acids, are necessary. Most nutritionists recommend a 60-20-20 ration in a triathlete's diet which is carbohydrate-protein-fat. The latter two numbers vary from person to person, however. It is important to consume a balance of each of these essential nutrients each time you eat to keep you fueled and ready to train.

Race Day

After eating well, training hard, and mentally preparing yourself for what seems like forever, it quickly begins to approach: race day. A few days beforehand, you will need to taper your training to give your body a little extra energy. If possible, pick up your packet early, instead of race day morning, so that you do not have to do it the day of the race. This also gives you a chance to scope out the course, since packet pick-up is held where the race is. For packet pick-up, you will typically need a photo ID and a USAT membership card (you can obtain this on their website, www.usat.org). Check out the transition areas and note subtleties such as the distance from the swim exit to the bikes. If it is a significant distance, you may want shoes or flip-flops by the water to protect your feet from rocks. After scoping out the site, you may have a better idea of how to pack your bag. The basic checklist includes: bike shoes, helmet, flat tire necessities (tubes, co2 cartridge, adaptor, levers), running shoes, running/cycling shirt, water bottle, sports drink, an energy bar or two, sunglasses, ID, race tags, directions, towel for your feet at transition, and anything else that makes your race more comfortable. Some people wear socks for races, others do not. It is a matter of personal preference. For me, the extra two seconds is worth saving myself from days of painful walking due to blisters from opting to go without them. Some people bring a bucket to dunk their feet in between shoe changes to clean off, but I find that a towel does the trick. Attach your race number where it is required, such as on your bike, helmet, and shirt. The less you have to worry about on race day, the better. Get enough sleep two nights before the race, because you will probably be up before sunrise the morning of the race. Get as much sleep as you can the night before the race. Try to eat a protein/carbohydrate combination about two hours prior to race time. Eat foods that you have been eating during your training that work well with your body. This is not the time to experiment with new foods. For example, I know I do not like peanut butter before a run, so I choose a power bar that is not peanut flavored. Remember to hydrate 24 hours before the race, and leave enough time to use the restroom before the race. When setting up your transition area, take notice of where your bike is, so that as you are racing to it in a frenzy you have key points that you notice along the way so that you do not run past or stop short of your bike. I find it easiest to rest my helmet on my bike so I just have to flip it on my head, snap, and go. I lay out my shoes and clothes in piles according to which I will use first. That way, everything is accessible and my transitions go smoothly. Remember to stay calm. If you start getting too worried about hurrying through transitions, you may get nervous and your transition will take longer. As for the race itself, each triathlete has his or her own unique experience.

The swim is most likely unlike any swim you have ever done before. If you are in an open water swim, you will be swimming with a mass of people. You may bump into everyone around you, but after a while, everyone finds their position in the water and there isn't as much contact. If you are a stronger swimmer, start to the outside, because you will be less likely to be caught up in the mass of people who will hold you back.

As for the bike, it most likely won't be like the Tour de France. There won't be massive crashes of 20 people, because there typically is not that dense of a concentration of people in the average triathlon. Most people speed out on the bike, only to become extremely fatigued by the end and barely finish the bike portion. Try to pace yourself. If you find yourself feeling great halfway through, then that is the time to pick up the pace. Make sure you know the rules on drafting as well. Drafting is riding very close to the back tire of an opponent and letting them break the wind for you. Most races forbid it.

The run is most likely going to feel different than usual for the beginning, because the blood in your legs will be concentrated in different muscles from the biking than where it will be for running. This is where the idea evolved for a triathlon bike as opposed to a road bike. The more you train for this transition, the more your body will become accustomed to this feeling. Even doing a short ten minute run after a bike workout once a week will help. "Brick"workouts, named after the athlete who has made them his trademark, are based on getting the body accustomed to biking followed by running.

There is always something new to discover about the triathlon, which is part of its beauty. Triathlons are not for everyone, but it can offer some memories and give you some fun workouts along the way.

About the Submitter


co-founders lil sis, Univ. of Miami student (neuroscience) wannabe triathlete, marathoner, and boxer

Public Comments

  • By: ncruden

    Friday, September 22, 2006 - 9:33am

    Good informative, motivating, yet realistic article, G. Is there hope for your ol' mom?

  • By: boisetiger

    Tuesday, July 18, 2006 - 4:38pm

    Would you Crudens please slow down? You're making the rest of us Proctors look like lazy losers!

  • By: ElizP

    Monday, July 17, 2006 - 10:54am

    Well you answered a lot of questions that I haven't been able to ask you about since last August!

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