Getting Into The Sport Of Triathlon
Founded by several friends over two decades ago, the sport of triathlon is booming today. An endurance event usually comprised of a swim, bike and run, triathlons are now held worldwide, come in many lengths and types and have even made it to the Olympics.
There are plenty of great reasons to try tri. Maybe you love biking, ran cross country in college and would like to put your sports together. Perhaps you want to get in triple-good shape, so that like the Energizer Bunny you can go all day. Maybe you just need a new goal, and one even more exciting than the last. Triathlon certainly fills the bill.
Whatever the motivation, you won't find a more satisfying sport. From Ironman competitions and ultra events, to Xterra races, which are held mostly off road, to the sprint series so popular today, there are tris for every athlete and interest. What's more, almost anyone can participate whether you're a couch potato finally inspired to be slim and trim or a full-fledged aerobic animal vying for the top podium spot.
To start you on the path to triathlon mastery we answer the most common questions people ask us here. Keep in mind that we also have a storeful of bicycles, clothing and accessories to help you become a triple-sport threat and we're always happy to answer questions and offer advice, too.
Q: Aren't triathlons, like the Ironman I've seen on TV, grueling events only for super-humans?
A: While the Hawaii Ironman, which launched the sport of triathlon is probably the most well-known event, and is considered a distance tri consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile ride and a 26.2-mile run, there are tris with less-demanding distances. For example, the sprint distance races are very popular today, in which you stroke for 750 meters, pedal for 20 kilometers and stride for 5K. Next there's the Olympic race with distances of 1.5, 40 and 10K. Then comes the half-Ironman events (each leg is 1/2 the Ironman distance). And, there are even youth events, like the IronKids tris for ages 7 to 10 and 11 to 14 so your kids can have fun, too! You'll even find team triathlons, ones featuring canoeing instead of swimming and more.
Q: What if I'm only a biker or jogger and lousy at the other sports, can I still do triathlon?
A: There are multisport options for everyone. If you're really a one-sport specialist you can look for team triathlons where you pick your favorite event and team with a couple of friends who do the other legs. This is how a lot of people get introduced to the sport and a fun way to enjoy it without committing to doing all three events back to back. However, our experience is that once you do a few team events you'll be itching to see if you can do all three sports, too. And, we've found that most people who put their mind to it can, because fitness in any sport makes it easier to learn a new sport, or two. Or, if you simply dislike one of the other sports, you can take up a dual-sport event like duathlon (running and biking; sometimes mistakenly called "biathlon," which is actually comprised of skiing and shooting) or aquathon (swimming and running). So, there are truly multisport options for everyone.
Q: I swim like an anchor, should I even consider doing triathlons?
A: We know something about this because it's actually a common problem for top cyclists whose legs can be heavier due to muscle mass, than athletes who mainly swim or run. Top cyclists get in the water and their legs can tend to sink slowing them down and making swimming difficult. Yet, with proper training, some help from a good coach, and with work on proper technique many cyclists have become strong triathletes. That's not to say that it's easy to become a good swimmer. Like any other sport it takes practice and training, and the more natural ability you have the better you'll get at it. However, if you're willing to work at it, get some help from a coach, and practice, you should be able to master swimming enough to complete any triathlon. A really excellent way to improve fast is by joining a masters swimming program at your local pool. There a coach will run you through a workout and can help you improve, too. A lot of swimming is proper technique, which is why it's so important to have some one-on-one with a coach who can help you get it right. A good tip is to wear a wetsuit because it significantly increases your buoyancy making it easier to swim and especially to breathe. Something else that helps is knowing that in tris governed by the USAT, it's okay to hold onto the support boats if you need to to rest up before swimming some more. (You just can't push off.) And, keep in mind that if you find swimming too daunting, you can choose the sport of duathlon instead (running and biking only).
Q: I'm not that competitive. Can I just go out and go the distance to see if I can do it?
A: Sure! Local, smaller tris are perfect for this approach, though almost any triathlon without special qualifying requirements will usually work. In these events, there are people gunning for the winner's laurels but also folks just enjoying the camaraderie of a day outside swimming, biking and running, sort of like the people who jog and walk to complete marathons. You'll get a great workout and have fun, too. If you're going to do this we recommend doing some research about the tri to ensure it's the right one for you. You probably don't want an icy swim, Alp-like climbs and a tough run, for example. Plus, you don't want to mix it up with the faster racers, so you'll want to be casual in your approach starting your swim after the wave has hit the water and being in cruise mode on the bike and run, too. If you pick the right event you might find some folks doing it purely for fun even wearing costumes and riding cruiser bikes.
Q: If I'm just starting out, how long will it take me to get in shape to do a triathlon?
A: This mostly depends on your current level of activity and fitness. If you're working out already, you might have the strength and endurance to do a tri if you pace yourself and do it within your limits. You can always back off if you tire out. If you're not currently training, we recommend starting by having a physical examination so your doctor can clear you for exercise first. Once you get the okay, you'll want to pick an event as a goal, and then get out a calendar and plan your training. Depending on your fitness level and how you hope to do, you'll probably need at least 10 weeks to prepare for the race, less if you're already fit and only need to fine-tune your running or swimming. Ideally, you'll design a training program that works on all three sports, or two if you choose to do duathlons or aquathons instead of tris. And, your training should consider your strengths and weaknesses. If you're a good biker, you may only need to ride three times a week and focus on running and swimming on the other days. Your goal should be to gradually increase your effort up until a week before the event at which point you start taking it easy (called tapering) for your event. Also, it's best to increase the intensity of your workouts no more than 10% in distance or effort in any week. And, one of the most important principles of training is that you get stronger during the recovery phase. So, be sure to train hard but rest as hard because that's when the muscles recover and true gains are made. Those are some quick tips. You may want to pick up a book on training for more.
Q: How do I get more involved and find out about the races?
A: We can let you know about the local events and we recommend subscribing to the magazine Inside Triathlon, which does a fine job covering the sport around the world. Other excellent sources with information on getting into the sport and events around the country include USA Triathlon and the ITU.
Q: How do I find the time to train for so many different sports?
A: It seems impossible, yet even busy professionals find ways to fit in their workouts. For example, masters swim workouts typically take place early in the morning before work, so it's just a matter of getting up in the wee hours and heading down to the pool for that workout. Then, if you get an hour break for lunch, or can take a little more, it's the perfect time to fit in a nice run. And, on days you want to bike, you might be able to ride to the office in the morning and back at night. Weekends are ideal for longer rides and for linking together swimming and biking or cycling and running to get used to transitioning between events. With a little creative thinking like this you can plan the best way to fit in a nice blend of workouts during your weeks leading up to the event. You'll probably be surprised how much you can do in the average week and how good you feel, too! Finally you get to do some multitasking for you!
Q: Can I use the bike I have or do I need a fancy and expensive aerodynamic machine?
A: In most tris you can use any old bike you want. But, keep in mind that if you want to go fast it really helps to have a speedy bike. So, riding a standard mountain bike with its upright riding position causing you to catch a lot of wind right in your chest and its heavy, slow tires adding lots of drag, you go slower and work a lot harder than the folks on road bikes. You can still do it that way if you want. Or, if you don't want to get a different bike you can install faster tires on your mountain bike and some aero bars and get some of the speed of a road bike with relatively little expense. It mostly depends on what your goal is. Those who want to race and set personal records will choose a road bike equipped with aero bars and even aero wheels. And the top individual competitors usually go a step further and choose one of the wind-cheating road rockets completely engineered to be as slippery and speedy as possible (photo). If you can tell us at what level you want to compete, we can show you some ideal bicycles or how to set your current bicycle up for success.
Q: Shouldn't I worry about sharks?
A: Probably nothing we can say will prevent you from worrying about sharks in ocean tri swims if you're so inclined, but it might help knowing that we've never heard of a shark attack in a triathlon even in known shark habitats, such as Northern California and Australia where they held the Olympics. It could be that the mass of swimmers and support boats and surfboards in the water scare them away, but whatever the case it seems they don't care for the sport — or perhaps skinny athletes. If you're really afraid, you could choose only fresh-water events, too.
Q: Should I eat during the race, and what?
A: Your body can only store about 90 minutes of glycogen reserves and it's likely you'll go through this because you're linking three sports together, and going pretty hard. So you'll want to drink and eat during races. Having a bottle of your favorite energy drink along with another bottle of water works well. You can also tape energy bars or gels to your bicycle for easy access. And you can keep them in your transition area for quick consumption on your way to the bike and run. The tricky thing is figuring out which energy food works best for you and how much you need to eat, so it's important to experiment in training and find that fine line between getting enough to do your best and not overdoing it. It's much better to figure this out in training than on race day.
Q: What do you wear in a race?
A: The best approach is to learn as much as you can about the conditions, which you can do by asking other triathletes or reading up on it on the event website. If it's an ocean swim in cold water you might want a wetsuit, if wetsuits are allowed. If you're racing you might choose a tri suit that you can wear all day, during the swim, bike and run. These dry fast and provide comfort on the bike and run legs. If you're taking a more casual approach you might change into clothing you like to wear for each leg in the transition area. Shoes make a significant difference in the bike and run legs, so most athletes slip into cycling shoes before the bike (often leaving them in their pedals so they can leap into the saddle and close their shoes as they start out onto the course), and slip on their running shoes when they get back. Clothing is another thing that's good to experiment with in training to find what you like to wear and what works best for you.
Q: What other equipment do I need to do triathlons?
A: While you could do tris with only baggies, a bike, a helmet and a pair of sneaks, we find that most people that give it a go get hooked and soon want the "right stuff." We usually set them up with an appropriate bicycle for the type of tris they're doing, making sure it fits right, of course. We also equip them with a helmet, cycling shoes, gloves and eyewear. And, we have a wide selection of cycling clothing perfect for racing and training to get ready for triathloning. Besides these items you'll need good running shoes, maybe training and race models if you're competitive. You may want a wetsuit if you're swimming in cold water or like swimming in one. You'll want to get swimming goggles as well, and perhaps some pool toys for use during swim workouts (your instructor will advise). Plus, a supply of energy food will keep you fueled during training and races and let you recover more quickly, too. Other niceties triathletes appreciate include cyclocomputers, heart-rate monitors, caps, singlets, cycling socks, training diaries (print and/or digital), running clothing, watt meters and more.
We hope these tips help jump-start your triathlon career. Be sure to swing by to see our wide selection of triathlon bicycles, accessories and clothing. And, good luck at the races!