Part triathlon training guide, part misadventure story, here are the "dos" and "don'ts" of competing in one of the most challenging, rigorous, and rewarding racing events that the outdoor world has ever concocted: the Triathlon.
"Ohhhh my friend! Did you sign up yet??"
I blankly stared at the text from my buddy Eric for a few seconds, knowing that my response would have to be "Yep!" despite, indeed, not signing up yet. To his credit, Eric had texted me about the sprint triathlon race several weeks prior, but I had been caught up in a little life event called "launching Expedition Detroit."
I detest lying - even well-intentioned, harmless little ones - so I quickly registered for the race and shot back a confirmative text with a clear conscience.
We had just signed up for Running Fit’s final “T-Rex Triathlon” event for last August - a sprint race consisting of a 0.5 mile swim, 12.4 mile bike, and 3.1 mile run. As any longtime reader of this platform is well aware of, we at Expedition Detroit are outspoken supporters of Running Fit’s races. So it didn’t take much for Eric to twist my arm into signing up three days before race day.
With Running Fit kicking off their 2023 "T-Rex Triathlon" season next Wednesday, May 31st, with the Stegosaurus Triathlon and Duathlon at Island Lake Recreation Area, we wanted to share this personal tale and educational article for all first-time triathletes diving head first into their new sport. Hopefully this article will catch you before you repeat our misguided approach to our race...
How NOT to Complete a Triathlon - A Personal Tale
I woke up on race day with the realization that I may have underestimated the consequences of my knee-jerk registration. Yes, I am an avid runner and mountain biker, but my swimming experience is largely limited to a few years on a swim team in elementary school, open water swims on beach vacations, and a few laps in my parents’ pool every now and then. I did not own a pair of goggles, let alone a swim cap, road bike, or tri-suit. What complicated matters further was that every retailer that I contacted mere hours before the race was either fresh out of tri-suits or closed (several had closed early for the event).
The silver-lining in all of this was that, by the grace of God, Eric was just as unprepared. We would swim in REI trail shorts, complete the biking portion on our mountain bikes, and finally be on a somewhat-equal footing with the other competitors during the run. Cool.
As I pulled into the parking lot at Kent Lake on race day, I could only laugh as I saw how unprepared I was compared to 90% of the other racers. While a typical hometown 5K has a broad range of experienced runners vs. those reaching the first milestone on their fitness journey, every athlete on the beach that evening looked like they were on track to race in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The gear? Immaculate.
The suits? Definitely not trail shorts.
The bikes? Tuned up for Le Tour de France.
Again, I didn’t stop laughing as I placed my trusted REI Co-op Mountain Bike on the rack next to top-market, triathlon-specific racing bikes.
“Just remember - the goal is to have fun.” I kept repeating that mantra to myself over and over, like a youth soccer coach knowing that their team is about to get absolutely smoked on the field.
And yet, despite all of these glaring deficiencies that I was solely responsible for, my first triathlon was one of the most fun racing experiences that I’ve ever had. Yes, I was recklessly underprepared, but my general conditioning allowed me to finish the swim before my heat. I actually passed some road bikes on my mountain bike, and had plenty of gas left in the tank for comfortably finishing the 5K.
Rather than crossing the finish line scarred for life, I found myself inspired to sign up for another race - but next time with a dramatically different approach.
Triathlon Training Tips for Beginners
“Intelligence” can be defined as “the ability to learn from your mistakes,” while “wisdom” comprises of “the ability to learn from the mistakes of others.” With regard to my first triathlon, I was anything but wise towards my training approach, although I gained some intelligence by learning precisely how not to complete a triathlon. That experience prompted my desire to research how a responsible triathlete would prepare for - and crush - a race.
Now, allow me to provide some “intelligent wisdom” via five triathlon training tips that you should incorporate into your preparation - ideally long before the morning of race day:
1. Invest in Proper Gear
Especially for sprint triathlons - where every second counts - investing a little extra time and money into proper clothing and equipment will pay dividends on race day. The essential clothing item is a pair of triathlon-specific shorts ("tri shorts"), which are moisture-wicking, typically offer enhanced ultraviolet sun protection, and contain a chamois pad that is thinner than regular bike-shorts for comfort during the run. There is also a full wetsuit alternative to the tri short for colder conditions, with triathlon-specific wetsuits being lighter and giving less resistance than normal wetsuits. Both tri-shorts and wetsuits should fit snugly on your body.
Additional event specific gear includes the following:
Swimming. We highly recommend that you acquire a swim cap and goggles. Optional gear includes a quick-dry towel, earplugs and nose plugs for the swim.
Biking. Easily the most expensive category for gear purchases, we would advise purchasing at least a road bike for maximum versatility during both the event and generally road biking purposes. There are also triathlon-specific bikes that are more aerodynamic and utilize the hamstrings efficiently for energy preservation during both the biking and running phases, although these bikes are typically more expensive, difficult for maneuvering and braking, and uncomfortable for longer rides than road bikes. Other cycling equipment to purchase includes a helmet, cycling-specific shoes (if you have clip-in pedals), socks, gloves, sunglasses, water bottle, and repair tools (more necessary for longer races).
Running. As you may have guessed, choosing the right running shoes is essential for success in any footrace, especially a triathlon where the run is at the tail-end of two other intensive events. I personally opt for trail-running shoes for most running events - I’m on my third pair of Hoka’s “Speedgoat” trail shoe series, which are light-weight, provide extra cushion for my tendency to heel-strike when racing, and have enough grip for use as both a trail and biking shoe. Additional running gear to consider depending on the length of race and race day conditions includes a hydration pack or belt, sunglasses, and lightweight running hat.
2. Complete a Training Regimen
While my race demonstrated that you can comfortably complete a sprint triathlon with general swimming, biking, and running experience, we highly advise against this approach. Most weekend warrior distance athletes do not introduce the element of combined, sequential activities into their workouts, which is obviously a fundamental component of a triathlon.
Outside Magazine’s Triathlete content - a gold mine for information pertaining to the triathlon universe - sponsors an 8-week Sprint triathlon training regimen intended to take athletes from couch to finish line. The prerequisite fitness metrics for starting the regimen include being able to swim 100 yards non-stop, 20 minutes of continuous cycling, and 10 minutes of continuous running. Each week contains 5 days of event-specific training workouts with specific instructions on distances and “perceived effort zones.”
Following and completing a training regimen - especially with the gear referenced in step one above - will all but guarantee that you arrive at the beach on race day with optimal physical conditioning and confidence.
3. If Practical, Train On-Site
One of the few elements working in my favor during my first triathlon was my familiarity with Island Lake Recreation Area. Had I swam half a mile into Kent Lake before? No, but I had regularly kayaked and paddle boarded into its relatively calm waters, in addition to the countless bikes and runs that I had completed on its roads and trails cover the last few years. This familiarity with the course enabled me to recover some lost time due to my serious equipment deficiencies, most notably on the biking segment (just ask some of the road bikers that I managed to burn past on uphill climbs).
Especially if you live near the race site, we strongly advise conducting at least one regimen training workout for each event, per week, on-site. A material element in any race is a competitor’s mental state - familiarity with a particular course not only lessens race day jitters (and their corresponding mistakes), but can also be fundamental for implementing a strategic approach for planning speed bursts, navigating currents, and general pacing. If you are not able to train on-site, then at a minimum you should review course maps and elevation charts - bonus points if you find similar locations in your vicinity to train at.
4. Treat the Race as Starting during Race Week
This may be an impossible ask, but there should be no surprises on race day. How does one accomplish such a feat? By treating the days before race day - and most importantly the night before - as critical stages of the actual event.
Here’s a quick pre-race checklist, starting with larger lead-time to night-of items:
Confirm that your bike is tuned up (REI is my go-to for routine bike tunings).
Starting three nights before, eat normal-yet-balanced dinners. Try to incorporate protein (chicken, fish, turkey), healthy fat (avocados, nuts, olives), and a lot of carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans) into these meals.
Starting with two nights before, prioritize getting a good night’s rest.
Confirm your directions to the race site and parking location - nothing is worse than a pre-race parking scramble.
Layout, label, and pack each item of your equipment. Bonus points if you put everything in the car the night before to minimize open variables on race day.
Confirm that you have all credentials required for the registration packet pick-up, which is even more important if the event only has a race day pick-up option. This typically includes photo ID, registration or bib number, and your USA Triathlon membership number.
Charge your fitness monitor.
Especially if it’s a morning race, set more than one alarm via different means (e.g., phone, watch, alarm clock, early-bird partner). Again, I learned this one the hard way.
5. Good Vibes Only on Race Day
You have completed two months of training. You have prepared your body and mind for this one great event. You have taken all of the prerequisite steps to minimize any unpleasant surprises during the race.
Now, all that’s left is to relax, trust the journey that you have nearly-completed, and get your butt to the event!
Practically speaking, every action that you take leading to the starting gate should be focused towards improving your mental state and optimism towards the race. At least two hours before the race, eat your favorite, nutritious pre-race meal. Dress in comfortable layers over your tri-suit. Arrive to the race location an hour early so that you can leisurely check-in at the registration booth, set up your transition area, and break the ice with other athletes in the area (avoid talking about training techniques - this is a Bar Exam tip that directly applies to endurance racing). Line up in your pacing corral of choice, recognize how cool and unique this crazy event is about to be, take a deep breath, and…enjoy the ride.
BONUS - Post Race Tips
Congrats - you’ve finished your first triathlon and have graduated from “rookie” status!
After receiving your post-race finisher’s shirt and/or medal, be sure to keep walking around the finisher’s concourse while hydrating. Now is also the optimal time to stretch while your legs are still warm.
Once you’re well-stretched and hydrated, your body will thank you if you bring warm, dry, and comfortable clothes to change into. Most racing companies (especially Running Fit) do an excellent job at creating festival-like environments around their events for both runners and spectators, so be sure to stick around for free or discounted snacks, beverages, and live music. Also, we all enjoy having a crowd cheer us on as we sprint towards the finish line - be sure to pay it forward and cheer on other finishers that are in the homestretch!
Please note that this article is NOT a comprehensive list of all training tips, gear, and other considerations that you should take into account while considering or preparing for your first triathlon. The information provided in this article is intended to be supplementary to more detailed triathlon training regimens and advice that are available for review online, such as articles published by REI, Triathlon Lab, Active, and My Tri World.