Tri New Things - Conquer Your First Triathlon With These 3 Tips

By Karen Poole

In college, I played team sports. After graduating I took up running and that has pretty much been my fitness outlet. Over the past three years, I have been thinking of doing a triathlon but I always talked myself out of it with excuses. “I don’t have a bike.” “The water might be too cold.” “I have no one to train with.” “What if I fail?”

This year I finally took the plunge. I had been discussing it with friends and decided now was as good of a time as any. It took me days to register and finally click the submit button, but I did it. As soon as I did, I started to feel a lot of nerves. I am a pretty good runner and a decent swimmer, but the bike is fairly new to me. I chose a sprint distance triathlon, so there was a half-mile swim, 20.5-mile bike, and 5k run. I knew I could run, but the swim and bike would be harder to gauge.

My Biggest Fears

I had a few fears and nervous moments leading up to the triathlon. For one, I would have loved to train more. I was also afraid I would be too slow on the swim or I would veer off course. I had heard stories of people being swam over and getting kicked in the face by other swimmers. I did not want this to happen to me! I am also very competitive, so I wanted to do well, and I was worried I would disappoint myself. I also was afraid of not biking fast enough, getting a flat tire or falling during the bike. Basically, I was getting in my own head. These are all legitimate fears and concerns, but not so much so that they should hold me back from trying something new. So, I told myself to swallow my fears and start training.

Training for the Race

For the swim, I trained mostly in the pool. I got a pass to the local gym for a week and swam the entire half mile 4 times. I also swam in Lake Shasta two times during Labor Day weekend. I would definitely recommend swimming for 8-12 weeks before any triathlon from 1-3 times a week. I was short on time, but if I had swam a few more times I could have perfected my form and raced the swim faster. I also wish I had trained more in open water. It is much different than swimming in a pool, so practicing in similar conditions to the race would be ideal.

Last winter I purchased a road bike and clip-in pedals and shoes, but I hadn’t trained on it yet. I had to learn from scratch. Road bikes are so different than my beach cruiser bike. Not only do they have skinny tires and different gears to shift, but the pedals! I literally had my husband hold the bike seat and run beside me as I learned to get in and out of the clip-ins. Which, by the way, is a great way to learn!

For my bike rides, I talked with friends in town that are avid road bikers and they agreed to take me out. My first ride was 28 miles! I wouldn’t recommend that far of a distance to most beginners, but once I was out and riding, I started to gain confidence. During the ride, I was able to practice gear shifting and clipping in and out of my pedals with ease. I felt more confident after this ride. For the next few weeks I went on one to two rides a week, ranging in distance from 5-16 miles.

For the run, I continued my normal training routine. I am currently training for a half marathon, so I just included those runs as triathlon training. I ran 4 times a week from 3-5 mile distances. A few days a week I would do a day where I swam and ran or biked followed by a run. 

Race Day

When race day arrived I felt genuinely prepared, but still nervous. I arrived at the race an hour and a half early and set up my transition area. I set out a towel, put my socks in my bike shoes so they would be easy to grab after transition and set my run shoes and fuel out so I could grab them right away on the second transition. After I was set up all there was to do was wait for the start.

It was a chilly day and right before my start wave I jumped in the water, surprisingly the lake felt warm! A perfect start for me since I was going without a wetsuit. I completed the swim in just over 20 minutes, only veering off course a few times. There weren’t a lot of people in the water, so I was able to swim fairly free on my own. I did run into a few people and a few people ran into me. It was nothing like I had built it up in my head though. Everyone was super nice, apologized and went on their way. The thing about open water swimming is that it’s hard to stay on track and in murky water you can’t always see the person swimming in front of you before you collide.

The transition from the swim to the bike took me a little longer than I was hoping for, but still not bad. I dried my feet, threw on my bike jersey and grabbed a quick drink of water and was off. The bike took me just over 1:17 to complete. It was probably my toughest leg, just because I am not 100% confident on which gear to be in at all times. I was also a little cautious on the downhills. Lesson learned for the next one!

After the bike, I transitioned to the run super quickly and was off. My legs felt a little jello-like, but a mile in I found my groove. I finished the run in just over 26 minutes, not my best, but good, all things considered! I finished my first triathlon in just over 2:09. When I crossed that finish line I felt so accomplished and excited! I had done something out of my comfort zone and found a new sport I really love! I honestly had a blast racing three different sports instead of just the runs I usually do.

Lessons Learned

Doing something new and different is always frightening, but in the end, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I ended up loving every moment of the triathlon. None of my fears were realized. The lesson I learned? Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and try new things! I honestly wish I would have done a triathlon years ago. I’ve been missing out on so many fun race opportunities. Lucky for me, there is time for me to do plenty more and keep challenging myself.

Have you ever thought of doing a triathlon? If so, I encourage you to jump in! Find a small, local race and sign up today. Not sure where to start? Check out the following three steps to getting started with triathlon training and my must have training gear.

Three Steps to Get Started in Your First Triathlon

Find a smaller sprint distance race and practice all three disciplines. Start small, and work your way up to longer distances. Practice swimming, running and biking. Do brick workouts - which basically means to practice the transition between sports. Practice the swim to bike and the bike to run transitions at least a few times. Practice for race day by setting up your transition area exactly how you want it during training. Practice will make race day a breeze!

Hire a coach. I plan on hiring a swim coach or going to Master’s swim classes before my next triathlon. Whichever discipline is your weakest, hire a coach for a session or two to correct your form and give you confidence on race day. The investment is worth it!

Don’t stress out. Seriously, believe me, I stressed out and it was not worth it. Trust your training. Give yourself 2-3 months to train and practice swimming, biking and running at least once a week leading up to the race. This will eliminate your fears, fine-tune your form, build endurance and prepare you to race your best race.

My Must-Haves for Training and Race Day

A Comfortable, well fitting helmet. I just got one from Rudy Project and love how light it is. It’s a higher performance helmet, but so comfortable! It’s easy to adjust while on your bike too. My previous helmet kept slipping down on my forehead and giving me neck problems. Find a helmet that fits you.  

A road bike. Your bike makes all the difference in race time. I was able to pass a lot of people on hybrid bikes which are heavier and slow you down. If you plan on riding the road, get a proper bike and get it fitted at your local bike shop. It makes a world of difference in comfort and injury prevention. If you can’t afford a road bike or aren’t sure if you will enjoy it, rent a bike or look for a low-priced used bike.

Bike shorts. The padding on the seat is a miracle worker. Save your buns by investing in a good pair of bike shorts for those long rides! You can also use them in spin class.

A good swimsuit or tri-suit. Practice in what you plan on wearing for race day. Make sure it’s something that works for swimming, biking and running. This cuts down on transition time and will get you a faster finish.

Well-fitting goggles. You do not want water pouring in your goggles during the swim. Or goggles that are too tight. Invest in a pair that fits well. If it will be sunny on race day look for a pair with UV protection or tinting to protect your eyes.

Your favorite fuel. Make sure you bring some sort of fuel. Hydrate with a sports drink such as Nuun. Also bring along gels or chews to give you energy, especially later in the race. I was so hungry after the bike, I was glad I brought my favorite gummies from PRO Bar along. They were a lifesaver.

Karen Poole is a RRCA certified running coach, personal trainer, and lover of all things fitness! She believes that dark chocolate and a good run can solve most problems. You can follow her on Instagram at @superwomankw and visit her website at

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