A Beginner’s Guide to Triathlon

Getting into triathlon has been one of the most daunting, but rewarding training adventures I’ve ever endured. When I first started out I had so many questions, felt confused by a lot of the terminology and at times just didn’t know where to begin. My first triathlon was in 2018 and I’m now working towards my first half ironman which is my goal for 2021.

During 2020 I saw many people take up new sports, especially to pass the time during the lockdown and subsequent summer and I have no doubt people will continue to relish the challenge of trying something new in 2021. Running, Cycling and Open Water Swimming are becoming more and more popular, and alongside this there maybe he temptation to dabble in triathlon. I want to use this blog to tell you four things that I think everyone should know at the start of their triathlon journey: 1) triathlons are not reserved for elite athletes, more and more events now cater for beginners (and EVERYONE is a beginner once); 2) you may need to learn new skills, but this is part of the excitement; 3) it is ok to seek advice, ask questions, feel confused or a bit overwhelmed- there is a lot of new kit, training and terminology to get your head around; and finally 4) YOU CAN DO IT.

So if you’re thinking of dabbling in triathlon you’re in the right place. This is a comprehensive guide of all my top tips and insights to help get you started, keep you motivated and guide you through your first event (whenever these may return). I want to encourage more people to participate in triathlon and I especially want to empower more women to join me and toe the start line at multi sport events. I’m not a coach, or a super experienced athlete, I’m just a girl who gave it a go and fell in love with triathlon.

Credit Anna Rach Photography

Before I get into each individual section focussing on Swim, Bike then the Run (which all have links to even more information across my blog) there are many entry routes and distances you can enjoy as part of your transition to multi-sports including:

  • Aquathlon: a swim then a run
  • Duathlon: run, bike, run
  • Triathlon: swim, bike, run
  • Aqua Bike: swim then cycle

Within these, there are a variety of distances. In triathlon there is most commonly Olympic Distance comprised of 1500m swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run; sprint triathlon which is typically a 750m swim, 20km cycle and 5km run and super sprint which is a 400m swim, 10km on the bike and 2.5km run. I think super sprint and sprint are perfect places to begin. If you’re searching for something longer middle distance, also known as 70.3 or half ironman is a 1900m swim, 90km cycle and a half marathon (21.1km/13.1miles) and long distance/140.6/Ironman is a 3900m swim, 181km cycle and marathon (42.2km/26.2 miles). A triathlon may be very different to anything you’ve done before so its important to pick a distance that feels doable (believe me it’ll feel challenging on the day) and train/prepare accordingly.

The remainder of this blog is dedicated to triathlon but each section can be read alone with the accompanying links to help motivate and encourage you. I really hope that through this I can dispel some of the myths and remove some of the mystique around triathlon and help you to enjoy this fantastic sport. There is A LOT of information so you might need to read and re-read over a few sessions! Remember, you are capable, you are welcome and you can do this.

THE SWIM

Based on speaking to people about triathlon, it seems that their biggest fear is the open water swimming aspect. I can totally understand why, it was something I was frightened of too. If open water swimming REALLY isn’t your thing you can look for pool based triathlons (yes they do exist! Although rare) or opt for a duathlon (run-bike-run).

Getting over the fear of open water swimming:

So there is no hard/fast method to get over the fear of open water swimming and arguably, this can be one of the most daunting things about starting triathlon as a beginner, especially if swimming isn’t your strongest sport. It is completely normal to feel nervous, to worry about what is beneath you, or how cold/dark the water is- these are things I feel regularly too and I’m a confident swimmer. The main thing is to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. With swimming it is important to relax as much as possible and try to keep your breathing regulated. There are more specific open water swimming tips in this dedicated blog. But in general my top tips are:

Become confident and comfortable in a pool first. Build your endurance and stamina, become more competent at your stroke of choice, practice your breathing and try some relaxation techniques.

Look for swim venues that offer an introduction to open water swimming course where you can get help, guidance and support. For your first time I would always recommend using an open water swim centre as there will be lifeguards on hand and you know the water is bathing quality standard.

Additionally if the fear of deep dark water is putting you off search for venues that offer a shallow wade in entry rather than going off a pontoon into deeper water (once it is safe to travel more freely of course). This will give you chance to take things at your own pace rather than being out of your depth straight away. Similarly, if you’d prefer clearer water look for registered venues based in old chalk pits as these can have some of the best water clarity around.

Remember you don’t have to put your head under or even swim far on your first go. You could simply use that first time to float or paddle about in the water and get comfortable with the idea of open water swimming.

Invest in a tow float, they’re great to hold on to if you’re feeling nervous or if you get cramp. A wetsuit can help keep you warm/buoyant but if you don’t want to invest in one until you’ve fully committed to open water swimming then a tow float is an essential piece of kit.

And finally, wait until late spring/early summer before getting started as the water will be warmer, this will help you relax and avoid the extra shock of cold water. If you’re approaching your training in winter use a pool to get comfortable or add bodyweight exercises into your routine to prepare for swimming.

Credit James Poole for Zone3

Spoiler: You Don’t Have to do Front Crawl

If crawl isn’t for you that’s ok. Plenty of people use breast-stroke during triathlon, or a mix of crawl and breast stroke. Crawl is preferable because it is more streamlined, avoids kicking people and I find it much faster and more comfortable in a wetsuit, but there is nothing wrong with breast-stroke if that is your go to. A swim is a swim at the end of the day and if that’s what you’re comfortable doing then its better to be happy in the water than stressed and exhausted.

What kit you’ll need for Open Water Swimming

If you’re aiming to compete you’ll ultimately need a wetsuit as these are often compulsory for some events (although do check the guidance for your target race). Wetsuits can be pricy and many events offer wetsuit hire to help alleviate this. There is also the option of buying from the Zone3 Outlet where you can get ex-demo wetsuits at a significantly cut price. I’d recommend a good pair of open water swim goggles ones that are polarised to help with glare from sunlight on the water. A brightly coloured swim hat is a must and often compulsory at many swim venues and races. A tow float is also great if you’re starting out and I frequently swim with mine for peace of mind. In training I wear a swimsuit under my wetsuit but on the day I wear a trisuit (more on that below), don’t get naked in transition. If you’re thinking of shopping via zone3 follow this link to a code for 15% off (affiliate link). It is nice to have some sort of robe to warm you up after swimming, but this isn’t a necessity.

Things to focus on in training

Sighting: One thing that makes open water swimming very different to the pool is that there is no lovely line along the bottom to keep to swimming in the right direction. Learning to sight in open water is essential otherwise you’ll be heading off in a random direction- adding unnecessary time to your swim and posing a hazard to others when you suddenly swim in front of them. Sighting isn’t fancy, it is literally looking where you’re going, so rather than ploughing along with your head constantly face down in the water, every few strokes look up and check where you’re swimming. Sometimes this literally requires you to fully lift your head out of the water, then as you become more competent you can lift just your eyes and incorporate sighting seamlessly with your stroke/ breathing. One way to get even better with sighting is to learn if you have a natural tendency to drift to one side (which can be expected if you have one arm stronger than the other). To do this during training pick a buoy or notable point in the water and without sighting aim to swim towards it (6-10 strokes). Then compare where you thought you were swimming to where you ended up- did you veer to the left or right or were you spot on? Knowing if you have a tendency to drift can help you work on stroke imbalance, sighting and position in the water.

Buoy Turns: space around the buoys can become quite congested, so you want to get around them quickly and get away. Focus on comfortably pulling yourself round and when to breath, bearing in mind that the water is likely to be choppier at this point.

One armed swim drills: when swimming in a pack there is the chance you may collide with another swimmer. One thing I have practiced and found useful are one armed swim drills. This gives you the chance to confidently continue to swim if you suddenly can’t use your arm due to another swimmer in close proximity and they’re great for some buoy turns.

Practice your transitions: especially getting your wetsuit off. Use the long pull chord and free yourself from the upper half of your wetsuit as you leave the swim exit, then remove the lower half in your transition space by gently standing on it so it goes inside out. A wet wetsuit is definitely easier to get off!

How much should I train?: I’m not a swim coach and everyone is different so it’s difficult to recommend a set amount of swimming you should do. I tend to pool swim 3-4 times per week during winter with a mixture of endurance swims and swim sets (building speed into my programme) In summer this tends to become 3 pool swims with 1 open water swim at the weekend. BUT when I first started I was doing 2 pools swims a week and 1 open water swim every 7-10 days as time allows. I love swimming and it feels natural to me, if swimming is your weakness- don’t shy away from it.

Credit: London Aquathlon

On the Day:

I really feel the nerves before a swim start. I don’t like the washing machine chaotic feel and the idea of bashing into people in the water. I worry about cramp and getting my wetsuit off at the other end. Focus on what you can control, rather than what you can’t. On the day, arrive with plenty of time to spare. I find that getting to and dropping your bike into the transition zone, laying your kit out and getting your wetsuit on takes so much more time than you originally anticipate and the last thing you want to do is rush putting your wetsuit on and feeling uncomfortable during the swim. I find arriving 1.5 hours before my wave time is the minimum amount of time I need to get everything done in a calm way. Always attend the swim briefing, ask questions if you’re unsure and ensure you know the route.

You’ll likely be given an ankle tag, I promise this will fit under your wetsuit. Check this is secure but don’t fasten too tight otherwise it’ll dig in on the run.

When entering the water, if you’re worried about getting pushed or clawed at by other swimmers start at the back and let them go. There are also ladies only waves or some events offer mates waves where you can swim with someone you know. Once you’ve gotten away from the start the swimmers start to spread out and it is much less scary.

When exiting the water you might feel a little dizzy, take some deep breaths, give yourself a moment, then start trying to get the upper half your wetsuit off. Some races eg London Tri require you to have your wetsuit off before entering the indoor transition zone, whereas at other events it’s a get it off on the go kind of thing.

Credit: AWOL Adventure, Dorney Lake Triathlon

THE BIKE

The bike is my weakness when it comes to triathlon (it’s ok to have weaknesses!). When I first started out I was a very nervous cyclist and this is something I’ve been really focussing on over the last 12 months. The cycle is the longest portion of the triathlon and this will be where most of your time is spent on the day.

Buying a Bike:

Buying a bike is likely the biggest investment you’ll make as part of your triathlon dream. A bike is an investment piece and you need to consider your budget, purpose and the spec of the bike. You can purchase bikes online direct from retailers such as Liv, Ribble, Giant, Specialized, Trek and many more, from companies such as Wiggle, Evans or Halfords or second hand through local market place sites, Facebook Groups or eBay. Ultimately you don’t need a super fancy bike to take part in triathlon. Yes at the upper end of the scale you’ll see VERY fancy bikes, specially designed for triathlon but most people begin with a road bike or even a hybrid. My very first bike was a hybrid and I used it for the Ride London 100 mile cycle, London Duathlon and my super sprint duathlon in February (which I actually placed 2nd lady and 5th overall). My best advice would be get a bike you’re happy with, is within your budget (although compare bikes at the upper end or just above your budget if you can to see if you can get more for your money) and if you’re targeting a certain race check their guidelines.

I’ve written a full, detailed blog on buying a bike here, which includes some jargon busting and what to look for. If you’re buying a bike I really recommend having a read.

What Kit you’ll need:

Invest in a good saddle. Ladies if your bike doesn’t come with a women’s specific saddle consider changing it, it will make your life much better! I highly recommend the Selle Italia Diva Flow or if you want a forward saddle (conducive to a more forward position) the Liv SL forward is great. Gents if your saddle isn’t comfortable change it too, it is so important that you have a good saddle that doesn’t cause you pain.

You don’t necessarily need cleats. Cleats are specific cycling shoes that can be attached to your pedals. Yes, they’re often more comfortable (especially over longer distances) and can help generate more power, but if you’re left terrified when using them then that’s more likely to slow you down and leave you tensely perched upon your bike. If you aren’t wanting to go straight in with cleats but want a pedal that helps keep your foot in place I recommend some of the Rockrider strapless bike toe clips from Decathlon priced at £4.99. These are a great way to build up to cleats and feel much more secure and safer than flat pedals.

Lycra: oh the joy! The one thing that first put me off cycling was the lycra! Tight tops, tight shorts, tight trisuits, but I promise you it isn’t as scary as you first think. Padded shorts are a necessity for comfortable cycling and I highly recommend getting a pair. Similarly cycling jerseys are extremely comfortable and they’re cut to fit your shape when leant forward on a bike and have pockets to store snacks and handy bits like your phone or a multi-tool. Here is some additional reading to help guide you through the cycling kit you might like to try:

A trisuit: for the day itself (and your brick training sessions) I really recommend investing in a trisuit. Of course this isn’t compulsory, I’ve seen some people pop shorts over a swim suit, but having some specialist technical kit will feel much more comfortable. Trisuits come as an all in one suit, but you can also buy separate tops and tri shorts. Yes its scary wearing an all in one and if you feel self conscious shop around- I’ve found patterns are much more forgiving that plain black. Think of it as your superhero suit because that is how you’ll feel when you complete your race! The benefit of trisuits or separates is that the come with a cut that is comfortable under your wetsuit, hunched forward on the bike and are supportive on the run. They’re quick drying (so you aren’t freezing on the bike) and have some light padding for cycling which doesn’t feel weird when running.

Some of my top trisuits can be found here.

Credit: London Triathlon

A helmet: these are compulsory at the majority of cycling and triathlon events. I always recommend buying your helmet brand new as you know its history and that it hasn’t taken any knocks or bumps that have compromised its integrity. It’s also nice to have some glasses- either sunglasses or clear lenses to protect your eyes from flies, dust, debris and wind. Specific cycling glasses are best as they have a wider field of vision, don’t create blind spots and can help make potholes easier to spot.

A puncture repair kit: for those pesky punctures- always carry at least one inner tube (I wrap mine in a sandwich bag to protect them from scratches), a multitool, some tyre levers and a small pump or CO2 cartridge.

Getting going on your bike:

Starting cycling can be a little nervy, some people take to it instantly whilst others need a bit longer to get going. Confidence and ability does come with time. If you’re nervous, begin on quiet roads or cycle paths before heading off into traffic. Learning road skills and other important skills like changing a tyre are essential for your safety and enjoyment. Check out my previous blog on beginner cycling tips here as there are loads of helpful tips to get you started or help keep you going. I’ve also shared my top tips for building confidence on the bike, I’ve certainly found going downhill an uphill battle!

Some things to focus on in training:

Testing your kit: ahead of your race thoroughly test your race day kit. Chaffing can be common on the bike and therefore you want to either find a tri-suit that doesn’t cause discomfort or find a way to alleviate this eg chamois cream.

Running off the bike: one area of training that will hugely benefit your triathlon challenge is getting familiar with running after a cycling session, or running off the bike, also known as a brick session. In very simple terms this is doing some cycling then going for a run in a very short succession without a period of recovery in between. You don’t need to be an elite to do this, these sessions are the bread and butter of triathlon training. You’ll likely find your legs initially feel a little sluggish and you’ll be slower than your usual run times but after about a mile your legs will wake up a little and things should feel a bit easier.

Fuelling: I really really recommend you learn how to fuel on the bike- taking on board some form of energy (food or gel) and hydrate whilst on the bike. During this section of the triathlon you’ve already exerted some energy from the adrenaline of the swim and you’ll be putting a lot of effort into the cycle with the run still to come so its essential you top your energy up somehow otherwise you risk feeling wiped out during the run. I like gels or energy bars on the bike and use some Science in Sport Go hydration powder with carbs in my water bottle. During longer bike training sessions I love real food like home made flapjacks or the odd jam sandwich which don’t cause as much hassle as sticky gel packets. Eating on the bike is a bit of an art (opening a gel feels almost impossible sometimes!) you need to become confident at cycling with one hand and its good to practice this in your training rides so you know what you like, what works for your stomach and you’re confident getting any packaging open.

Credit: Andy Astfalck

Focus on a variety of speeds in your training: just like running think about incorporating longer endurance cycle sessions, and faster, harder sessions. If you’re lucky enough to have a turbo and Zwift set up there are some great training sessions on there.

Practice transitions, especially shuffling along with your bike (some people run along- listen to the rules of your race). Think helmet on before you touch your bike and bike racked before you take your helmet off. Also take your cycling glass off if you wore them. I’m forever running out of transition in cycling glasses, whoops.

On the day:

You’ll need to rack your bike (unless there is the option of dropping it off the night before) and ensure it has any necessary numbers or sticker correctly attached. When entering transition with your bike you’ll need to pop your helmet on, they’ll also likely check your brakes and that your bike is roadworthy. Then find your space and try look for something discernible that will help you spot your bike when you’re rushing in and out of transition. Rack your saddle over the bar and pop your stuff on the floor around your bike. Make sure your hat, glasses, race number (on a race belt), fueld and cycling shoes are easy to get to.

You’ll most likely need to purchase some sort of bike insurance or a race license. Most races offer options to purchase day passes (if you aren’t already with British Triathlon) or it may be included in your race entry. You must comply with these instructions in order to race so make sure you check all the instructions. I’d also recommend taking out some personal insurance if you’re cycling on the roads as part of your training. The British Cycling or British Triathlon websites are great places to start.

Check your tyres are adequately pumped up and make sure your water bottle is in your bottle cage ready.

To get back into transition at the end you’ll need your race number so keep this on you at all times.

Credit: Anna Rach Photography

THE RUN

The run is that final victory lap of your triathlon, but gosh it can feel like a bit of a slog at the end! If you’ve practiced running off the bike you kind of know what to expect and you’ll feel more prepared for your legs to be a little sleepy when you first get going. The run is the time to dig deep, focus on mental strategies to power you through and visual finishing strong and hopefully your body will follow.

What Kit You’ll Need:

The run is the least kit intensive part of a triathlon. If you’ve already got your tri-suit sorted you just need a comfortable pair of running shoes. You can buy tri-specific shoes such as the ASICS GEL-NOOSA TRI 12 (see my YouTube review here) but often regular running shoes work perfectly. One top tip is to buy some elastic laces and re-lace your shoes with these as it makes them easier to slip on/off. Its your choice whether to wear socks- I personally do but some don’t bother trying to wrestle socks on in transition.

Some things to focus on in training:

If you’re new to running that is ok! Build up gradually and take it one step at a time ESPECIALLY if you’re coming to running from cycling. Running is a much higher impact sport and whilst you might have a good level of fitness from cycling, your legs may not be used to the repetitive impact associated with running. I’ve shared some beginner running tips here.

Absolutely focus on those brick sessions, they’ll get you used to how your legs are going to feel after the cycle and give you the confidence to know that your legs will work! Mix it up and practice run-bike-run too as this will be useful if you want to do duathlons and swim run if you think an aquathlon might be on the cards.

Vary your running sessions, explore different speeds and sessions. You can find some more information on running sessions in this blog.

You may need to fuel your run differently to your cycle. When cycling its easier to stomach energy bars as you don’t have the jolting motion running creates. When running you might find that you prefer gels as these are easier to take and keep down. Always be prepared to fuel on that final run, especially during longer distances.

Develop some mental strategies to help get you through, the run can be tough especially since you’re tired and getting ready for things to be over so practice some techniques to help motivate you. I always say to myself, it might feel difficult now but how will you feel sat on your sofa this evening, will you feel happy that you gave it your all?

Enjoy it and I don’t just mean the run training! Enjoy it all. Triathlon training is the biggest learning curve, it’ll teach you so much about your mental and physical resilience. What’s more fun that one sport? Three sports!

Credit: ASICS

On the day:

Familiarise yourself with the run route and the distance/ number of laps you’ll need to do. The run is often a lapped course so find a way to keep count- e.g. a running watch and don’t rely on the person in front as they might be doing a different distance to you.

Have a recovery kit bag ready in transition for when you finish with some warm dry clothes, some snacks or recovery drinks and comfortable shoes.

SOME ADDITIONAL INFORMATION THAT MIGHT HELP YOU

Triathlons are EXPENSIVE. From bikes and wetsuits to entry, race belts and training kit. You can find an older blog with some of my money saving tips for tri here.

Want to hear more about my first triathlon experience? You can catch up with my London Tri race recap here.

Want to know more about fuelling- especially in summer when most triathlons tend to take place? Here are some fuelling tips shared by the amazing friend Livvy who is a keen runner and NHS Dietitian.

Juggling it all can be difficult. I’ve found that double days and adequate rest form two vital components of my training, there are some more time saving hacks here.

So there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of all my beginner triathlon tips! Whatever your triathlon goal is, I hope you enjoy the process and find a new love for swim, bike, run. Whilst many events may be tentative this year, I love the process of training for triathlon- it is a real adventure and a fantastic chance to push your limits.

Credit: Anna Rach Photography

2 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Triathlon

  1. I thought your bike buying post was very good – but thought wheels might be worthy of comment. One of the very easy components to upgrade and one that can pay dividends because so many bikes have relatively poor wheels to hit important price points.

    Like

  2. Great post! One of the best additional investments bike-wise even for beginners would be clip-on aerobars – amazing gain for what they cost!

    Like

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