Beginner's Guide to Triathlons
By Ritanne Duszak
Have you been thinking about a new challenge for 2017? Maybe tossing around the idea of a triathlon, but unsure if you’re ready to go for it? When I signed up for my first triathlon, I had no idea what it entailed other than swimming, biking and running. I was totally intimidated, but in a haze of new year’s resolutions, I clicked “Register Now” for a local race, closing my eyes at the last second. Ten years and over thirty races later, I'm so grateful that I threw caution to the wind and signed up for that first race.
Triathlon is a challenging and satisfying sport. With three separate disciplines, there’s always room for improvement, and although triathlons require more equipment than running, they don’t have to break the bank. No matter what you read on the internet, I'd suggest holding off from any major investments until you’re sure you want to stick with the sport.
Triathlons come in four main distances: sprint, Olympic, half-Ironman,and Ironman. Sprints are typically the least expensive and offer a great chance to get your feet wet – both literally and figuratively. Sprint races typically range from 500-1000 yards swimming, 10-15 miles biking and 5k (3.1 miles) running. This post will walk you through each of the disciplines, identifying the minimum equipment you need, and suggesting a few tips. Designed primarily for people tackling a sprint, the training suggestions won’t be too detailed because this is really about just getting started.
If swimming scares you a bit, you are not alone. This is often the biggest intimidator, especially for people like me who did not grow up on the swim team. The first step is pool access. Do you belong to a gym with a lap pool? Can you join a gym that has one? Can you tag along with a friend who has pool access? If you aren’t sure about options, https://www.swimmersguide.com can help you find a good choice nearby.
Next, you need a bathing suit. I suggest starting with any suit that you own (but probably not a two piece if it is more bikini than athletic oriented) or getting an inexpensive suit. I bought my first one at Costco because I was food shopping, and it was super cheap. If you want to spend just a little more, consider a polyester swimsuit because they last longer.
You also need goggles. The key is no leaks, and that’s different for everyone. It took me a while to find a pair that fit properly. The best dryland test is, without using the strap, to push the goggles onto your eyes. If there’s good suction, the goggles probably fit. If they don’t stick to your face, they will probably leak in the pool. I also suggest wearing a swim cap to protect your hair, and also to keep it away from your goggles. Especially if your hair is color-treated or you have highlights, put a little conditioner on your hair before wearing the cap. I prefer latex swim caps, which are less expensive than nylon, silicone or lycra, but that’s a matter of preference.
For your swimming needs, swimoutlet.com is an excellent resource. Most things are reasonably priced, and they ship quite fast. For swimsuits, I usually pick one of the Grab Bags - you don’t get to choose the pattern of your suit, but you do save a few dollars.
Total Investment: Swimsuit (if needed): $20-30
Swim cap (suggested): $2.50-10
Swimming Total: $30-60
With these items, it’s time to get to the pool.** Jump in, splash around, and try swimming one length of the pool (typically 25 yards). Don’t worry if it leaves you winded. Go back a couple of days later, and do it again. If you have trouble, focus on trying to swim slow, steady, and relaxed. Add another length next time, and before you know it, you will be able to swim a hundred yards (four lengths) without stopping. Continue this way, and aim for at least two swims per week. At some point before your event, you may want to swim the full race distance straight through once or twice. But most days, you should keep your intervals shorter (50-100 yards) and give yourself a short rest period (10 or 15 seconds) in between. Swimming in open water at least one time before the race is also recommended, but your access will depend on where you live. For example, there are not many options for this in Philadelphia itself, but once the warmer weather hits, there are open water possibilities in both South Jersey and PA, outside of the city:
For those in DC, an option is the open water swims hosted at the National Harbor:
While I don’t have direct experience with those swims, I do believe they may occasionally be followed by happy hour, so how bad could it be?
If you can’t join a gym with a pool, don’t give up on the idea of a triathlon. If you are in Philly, there are free public pools, including a 50-meter pool near Memorial Hall. They don’t open until late June, and they close in mid-August, but that still gives you two months of swimming, so a late season triathlon could still be a realistic option. If you are in Washington, DC, you have some great public pool option there too. I used to swim at the Takoma Aquatic Center – it was both free (for DC residents, non-residents pay a small fee) and a fantastic pool.
**This is if you know how to swim. If you have not learned to swim, please start with lessons.
Do you have a bike sitting in your garage? A friend who can lend you one? Access to bike share? Great. That’s all you need. Although you will see some people at races with super fancy bikes and wheels, I suggest starting with whatever you have.
Once you have secured a bike, you need a helmet. This also doesn’t have to be fancy. As long as it meets Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) standards, which most helmets do, you are all set. The helmet will have a CPSC sticker on the inside. As for shoes, your running shoes will suffice. If you decide to stick with the sport, clip-less pedals will be important, but they are not at all necessary to start. I personally don’t wear cycling gloves, but some people do because gloves can make switching gears on your bike easier when your hands are sweaty and, in the event of a bike incident, they may protect your hands. They aren’t too expensive if you do want a pair.
I do strongly suggest that you invest in cycling or triathlon shorts. They are not cheap, but they make a world of difference. Personally, I find tri shorts to be more comfortable because I feel like I am wearing a diaper with the bigger pad in cycling shorts. One pair of tri shorts is enough, so long as you wash them after each ride. When it comes to race day, you wouldn’t want to swim in cycling shorts because that would be very uncomfortable for the rest of the race (see diaper comment above). Also, you are not supposed to wear underwear with cycling or tri shorts – the shorts are designed to be worn without. That’s something no one told me when I started, and I wish I’d known earlier.
Once you have your biking gear in order, I want you to think about the freedom you felt as a kid riding a bike. If you didn’t ride bikes as a kid, imagine the freedom you would have felt -- like you could go anywhere. So embrace those memories, whether real or imagined and head out for a ride. You can do loops on the path along the Schuylkill, or in April, hit West River Drive on the weekends. Start out with a couple of miles and build on it. You can even make it a destination ride. Coffee tastes even better after a few miles in the saddle, and so does Gatorade at a gas station! Along the way, just be sure to give audible warnings when you pass someone and be prepared in case runners, walkers, dogs, or strollers make sudden U-turns, as they sometimes do. If you already are a runner, cycling will give you a new appreciation for looking over your shoulder before making any sudden movements on the path. Before the race, it would be wise to ride your full race distance at least a few times with no stops.
Total investment: Bike – Costs variable (I strongly recommend a tune up if the bike has been in a garage for a while.)
Cycling gloves: $15
Biking Total: $50-150
For your biking needs, I suggest hitting your local cycling shop for a tune up, if needed. For gear, Swim Outlet, despite the name, can be a good source. You could also visit your local cycling or triathlon shop if you want to try things on.
The only equipment here is a decent pair of shoes. Training-wise you may already be covered if you do the CFG weekly runs or run on your own. If not, start slow and consider a walk/run combo. The biggest challenge in a triathlon is running on wobbly legs after you have already swum and biked; it’s a very different feeling from other kinds of running. (The first running mile of my first triathlon was one of the hardest miles of my life.) But you can train your body to do it. In triathlon training, the term “brick” refers to any run you do immediately after biking. It’s a good idea to do a brick a few times prior to race day. Even ten or fifteen minutes of running after a bike ride can help train your body (and your mind) to handle that experience on race day.
Total Investment: Running Shoes: $0-150 (if you already have shoes, those are fine)
The biggest key is not to get overwhelmed. Do an inventory of what you already have, and what is a necessity. If you have friends or coworkers who are triathletes, don’t hesitate to ask if you can borrow a small item or two. For example, most triathletes have spare swim caps because you’ll get one at every race. If you decide you really like triathlons, you can upgrade your equipment over time, but there is absolutely no rush. And on your first race day, just try to stay relaxed, take everything slowly and step-by-step, and try to have fun. Keep in mind that even people who might look the part of a triathlete at your race, likely didn’t start out that way:
The progression from my first ever triathlon (2007) to racing at the Ironman World Championship (2013).
Are you convinced yet to sign up? If so, some good beginner triathlons include:
Philadelphia Escape Triathlon- Sprint, June 24 (Philadelphia, PA)
There is new race ownership this year and a new name, but this event tends to draw a lot of first timers. A bonus is that you may even be able to bike to the start.
And I promise, swimming in the Schuylkill River really is not that bad.
Local Danzeisen & Quigley events- Various sprint events from May 27-October 1 (Various locations in South Jersey)
These tend to be smaller and very beginner friendly.
Columbia Triathlon – Iron Girl – August 20 (Columbia, MD)
I did my first triathlon ever at this race in 2007 (see photographic evidence above) and I highly recommend it. It was a very supportive environment and there were a lot of first-timers.
Ritanne Duszak is a USATF and USAT certified running and triathlon coach who loves working with beginner and advanced runners. When she isn't running herself or coaching, she is working on her M.S. degree in Human Nutrition from Drexel University. You can follow her on Twitter @ritanneo or reach out to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.