If you only do one of the sports in a triathlon — swimming, cycling, or running — you're safe for now. But as soon as you take up a second, a thought begins to sprout in the back of your mind. What if I did a triathlon? it whispers. I would only have to learn one more thing.
Photo by Anthony.
I did a triathlon a few years ago. It went well enough that I felt great about myself — triumphant, even. But crossing the finish line, I felt so done with triathlons. That made it, I suppose, the exact right amount of triathlon for me. Some folks love triathlons, though, and if you have any suspicion that you might be one of those people, you should consider doing a triathlon this year or next.
So what do you do when you get that whisper in your brain? Start by looking up just how much work a triathlon is. These are the popular distances:
- Sprint: 750m swim, 20km bike ride, 5km run
- Olympic: 1.5km swim / 40km bike / 10km run
- Half ironman: 1.9km swim / 90km bike / 21.1km run
- Ironman: 3.8km swim / 180.2km bike / 42.2km run
Whichever sport you know, you're probably looking at that distance to get a sense of how hard the triathlon will be. A marathon is a ton of work, a half-marathon is pretty hard, a 10K isn't too bad, and a 5K, well, that's a half hour of jogging. Easy peasy.
But in a triathlon, you don't get to run that 5K until you've spent a 5K-like amount of effort on two other sports. And if you're a runner, you think of 5Ks as easy because you're good(ish) at them. If you can only sort of ride a bike, and basically don't know how to swim yet, those two legs of the event will take a lot more effort than you're counting on.
Find Out What Your Triathlon Will Look Like
A lot of triathlons don't stick with the standard distances and some have logistical quirks that you definitely want to know about ahead of time. So make sure you look up the triathlons that are held in your area, and figure out which ones you might want to sign up for, and how they work.
The sequence is (almost?) always swim, then bike, then run. My theory is that they are ordered according to how likely you are to die if you collapse during the event. If you poop out while you're swimming, you could drown. While biking, you could crash. While running, you'd just fall on the concrete. I'm not saying this will happen. It's just a helpful mnemonic.
A standard tri involves an open water swim, meaning you and a bunch of other people will run from a beach (maybe an unpleasant gravelly one) into a (maybe very cold) pond or lake or river. Once you survive the swim, you'll find your bike and do your best to put on shoes and whatever else you need to start cycling. The clock does not stop during transitions, so you'll need to practice doing this quickly. After the second leg, you park your bike and head off for the run.
Here are some of the ways this may be different in your hometown tri: the swim might be in a pool instead of a lake. (Mine was.) The transitions might not be timed. The bike or the run might turn out to be on muddy trails instead of nice smooth roads. Yours might be an indoor triathlon that uses treadmills and exercise bikes. I've even heard of triathlons that substitute different activities, like one that allowed participants to swap out the swim for a jaunt in a kayak.
Bottom line: do your homework.
Figure Out What You Need to Learn
Professional triathletes have to be great at all three sports, but the people who line up at your friendly neighbourhood tri are going to be good at one or two of the sports, and just able to scrape by on the rest.
The upside is that you really don't need to be an expert swimmer or bike mechanic or marathoner to dabble in that sport. So if you're looking for training plans or basic advice, check out information geared towards triathletes to get the cheat-sheet version.
But on the flip side, beware of taking too much advice from fellow triathletes. A lot of them are shitty swimmers, for example. If you need a coach's expert eye on your freestyle stroke, book a lesson with somebody whose background is actually in swimming.
Here is an unscientific breakdown of what people most commonly need to learn for each sport:
- Swimming: Learn good form so you can relax and float to save energy, rather than flail like you're dying. If it's an open water swim, get over any fears you might have about swimming through kelp and mud and figure out how to swim in a straight line even though there are no lane markings.
- Cycling: Get familiar with your bike and how to use it. Physically, cycling is the easiest leg — heck, you're sitting down — but if you don't know how to change gears or if you're afraid of going fast downhill, you'll be miserable.
- Running: Knowing how to run is the most basic skill, but you really need the ability to keep on running even when you're really damn tired. This is part cardio, and part mental training.
Don't Skimp on Training
The most gruelling part of a triathlon is the training. (This is true for any long race, to be honest.) Anybody can go out and run a couple times a week, or bike a couple times a week, or swim a couple times a week. But now you have to do all of those. In the same week. Every week.
The good news is you can cut down the schedule for each a bit. If you would normally run four or five days a week when training for a race, you can get away with two or three when you're training for a triathlon because your other workouts are still keeping you in shape.
But you do need to do all three. The year I ran my triathlon, I figured I remembered how to swim just fine, and only got out to the pool a few times. Big mistake: I survived, but I had the slowest swim time in my wave and never caught back up. A little more training in the pool would have really helped.
To fit in all those workouts, and also to practice your transitions, an important workout is the brick: you do a swim and then a bike, or a bike and then a run. This is always in the same order you would do them in the race, so that you can get the transition right. It's not easy to put cycling shoes onto wet feet, and you don't want race day to be the first time you try.
That said, nothing beats finishing a run and then jumping into a cool lake or pool. So, consider that too.
Race Day Is Complicated
You're basically running three races, so of course it's a trickier setup than any one event by itself. The night before my tri, I showed up to pick up my race packet, and the volunteers helpfully wrote my race numbers in Sharpie on my arms and legs. (You can't really wear a race bib while you're swimming, after all.)
Most triathlon courses can't accomodate everybody at once, so you'll have an assigned time for your "wave". In open water swims, you may be issued a colour-coded swimming cap so volunteers can keep track of who's who.
You're usually allowed to wear a wetsuit to keep warm in that cold lake. Wetsuits actually help you float just a little bit, so they make the swim easier, but you typically aren't allowed to wear them unless the water is actually chilly. That means race organisers will decree on race morning whether it's a wetsuit day or not, according to the thermometer.
You have to arrive early to the race so you can set up your bike in its assigned spot, and set up all your gear for the transition. Definitely browse every triathlete forum you can find, because they're full of weird little tips. (Tape a snack to the handlebars! Dust your running shoes with baby powder!)
You may be able to follow the person in front of you when you run a race, but there's no such shortcut in the transition zones. Definitely check those out beforehand, including any rules about what you can and can't do where. For example, you'll run with your bike until you get to the line where you're allowed to hop on and pedal.
It's really not until the final leg that you can stop thinking about logistics; your transitions will be over, and the only thing you have to do is keep on moving. After just a few kilometres — which will of course feel like forever — you'll hit the finish line, pause for a drink and a photo and then start to think about whether or not you're in love.