Sprint triathlon training for the minimally ambitious newbie
February 6, 2016 11:45 AM   Subscribe

I signed up for a sprint triathlon in June. By the time June rolls around, I want to be confident that I can complete the triathlon in relative comfort and calm, and not be dead last. Basically, by race day, I want it to not be a big deal. I don't care about being fast. I have some very basic equipment and a limited budget, and a *very* constrained schedule for working out. Help me figure out the bare essentials of preparing for this triathlon.

There are lots of triathlon training guides out there, but they tend to advocate maximally effective optimized schedules, diet regimes, equipment and training strategies. I have neither the time, the money, nor the inclination to do "ideal" triathlon training. I am doing it because I have always wanted to, it's a personal challenge, and it's good motivation to exercise.

The distances: 500m swim, 10 mile bike, 5k run

Right now, I can:
-easily swim 500m without stopping (probably takes about 10-12 minutes at a comfortable pace? haven't timed myself)
-easily bike 10 miles without stopping (not much sense of how long it would take since I've never timed myself nor tried to race, but it's definitely under 40 minutes)
-run 5k without stopping in 30 minutes, but it's harder for me than the swimming or biking (I recently got some pretty vicious exercise-induced asthma under control which is helping enormously with the running)

Hopefully the fitness I'm starting with makes my goal doable.

I have: running shoes (not new)/shorts/t-shirts, a road bike (no bike shoes though), a standard swim suit/cap/goggles.

I swim on Monday afternoons, Wednesday evenings and once on most weekends. I can run once on a weekend day and most Fridays. It's winter here and there's no easy way to bike right now, but in May and June I can bike on the weekends. It works out to 4 45 minute workouts per week. I often go hiking on the weekends, which might count as "cross training".

My questions: do I need new running shoes? Should I get bike shoes to clip in properly? Do I need some kind of special triathlon suit? (The water temp will be about 72, wetsuits not required.) A waterproof digital watch? Anything else?

I know you're supposed to do "brick" workouts, but I'm not sure how people really make this happen. (After swimming, how fast are you supposed to start the next thing? How does that work when you're at a gym?) How far over the actual race distances should I practice, so that I feel really comfortable on race day? Do I need to do any other kinds of workouts to avoid injury?

I'm not worried about the swim or the bike from an athletic perspective (I can easily swim/bike triple those distances without stopping), but is there something I should do to prepare for riding with a lot of others around, or getting kicked in the head in the water?

Running is much harder for me than the other two, and it's LAST! I'm the most worried about that. I know very little about the ins and outs of running training, and I'm not trying to be super speedy or even really increase my speed (5k in 30 minutes is OK with me), but maybe there are training techniques (intervals? fartlek? long runs? I know some buzzwords here) that would help me feel confident. I suspect that I need to be able to run much more than 5k alone, so that 5k after the swim and bike seems easy. Is that true?

Any other tips? Again, my goal is to feel confident that completing the sprint tri is no big deal, even if I'm not fast.
posted by Cygnet to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a runner, so I don't know a lot about tris, but if you can build your run distance to a comfortable 10k, or longer, I think you will find the 5k at the end of the race a lot easier to do.

As for brick workouts, my friends who do that only do bricks on the bike/run, not swimming. And most of their workouts are 90 minutes-2 hours on weekdays, longer on weekends, for sprint distance.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:55 AM on February 6, 2016

you do not need bike shoes that clip in. they take some getting used to and are absolutely not necessary at this level.
posted by andrewcooke at 12:13 PM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Frankly, you are already substantially fitter than I was for my first triathlon, and I was not dead last (quite).

My main suggestion would be to try to get in a few open water swims beforehand, if you're new to that (or if you're not but the last time you swam in a lake you were 10, or whatever). Lots of people, even confident swimmers, panic in open water the first few times. As far as being kicked, it happens; if you line yourself up toward the back of your swim wave, that will keep you out of the initial flurry until people space themselves out a bit.

You don't need to do super-intense bricks, but it's helpful to do one or two just to know what it feels like to run right after a bike when your legs feel weird. You also probably don't need to worry about riding with tons of others, since most US races are not draft-legal, which means you have to stay a few bike lengths away from other cyclists unless you're actively passing, so no big pelotons or anything.

Good luck, have fun, you've got this :)
posted by dorque at 12:50 PM on February 6, 2016

Do you need new running shoes? Not unless they are worn out. If you do get new ones get them soon and get used to them.

Should you get clips? Not unless you want to. And if you do, get them soon and get used to them.

Should you get a triathlon suit? Again, not be necessary. I did my first triathlon in board shorts the whole way.

Waterproof digital watch? Again, not needed unless it's very important to you to see what time it is. Just race your best and they tell you your splits at the end.

After swimming all you do is put on your bike gear and go. You can towel off if you want but the wind from the ride will dry you. Don't sweat the transitions, just gear up at a normal pace.

Work to up your run distance to 10k -- just run a little bit further each time. As far as bricks and such, I suggest you just do the complete tri distances back to back as training a couple of times in May (or sooner) before the race, just to get a sense of the length of time involved and sense of how tired you will be when it comes time to run.
posted by dzot at 12:53 PM on February 6, 2016

I completed my first sprint triathlon last September! If you can swim well, you are at an advantage already, imo. Good luck!

Look in your area to see if there are any triathlon training clinics. I did one where they taught me how to swim in choppy open water, there were others for how to pace yourself at the run.

Is your swim in the ocean with waves? Is it in a pool/calm pond? These things matter, swimming in the waves adds something different, and I saw some confident swimmers panic.

Ignore the Gear-n-Gadget pushers. (as I give you gear advice...) You don't need fancy things to complete this!

Shoes: If you were going to get new shoes anyway, then get whatever your preferred running shoe is. You don't need clip-in shoes.

Watch: If timing your segments in real time is important to you, get a waterproof watch. I didn't wear a watch, that way I could focus on going a good speed for my body, "shoulds" be damned.

Tri-Suit: For the bottom part of your swimwear, get some tri shorts. They will be so much nicer than running in soggy diaper bikeshort butt or thigh-chafe swimtrunk crotch. Tri shorts tend to run small, read the reviews. For a top, I wore a sports bra with no padding in the cups and polyester tanktop. I wore an athletic long-underwear top over it all when I was swimming. Poor woman's wetsuit. I stripped it off at the first transition (swim-bike)

Extras: I would invest in some bodyglide to go over arm seams/nips/buttcrack/thigh seams. It just feels nicer in the long-term. Also, Gatorade/Powerade/etc. in one water bottle, water in another on your bike. Gatorade gave my brain a sugar boost when I was biking that helped me stay positive on the run.

To brick workouts in a gym: It's hard to brick swim transitions. I didn't come up with a way that maximized my time. I didn't brick swim/bike and it turned out ok. I am a horrible swimmer, so a strong swimmer like you might not need to brick.

Bricking bike-run saved my legs. I had no idea it would be so hard to go from bike to run (my run is weaker than my bike). Bike motion and run motion take some getting used to that close together. I nth roomthreeseventeen, brick the bike/run. In addition to my regular run/bike routine, I would do "half tris", where I would ride for 5mi and then run for 1.55 once a week for about 2 months leading to the triathlon. I did a "full tri" [bike+run] brick once or twice a week for 3-ish weeks leading to the event.

Have fun!
posted by Guess What at 1:03 PM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh! Also, bring extra socks or wear wool/tech socks so your feet don't chafe. My feet were mysteriously soggy after the bike (shorts drip? abnormal sweat?) and bike-run transition to dry socks would've been great. [Sock transitions may be laughable to hard-cord transition timers, fyi...]
posted by Guess What at 1:06 PM on February 6, 2016

As you get closer to the race, try to find some open water to swim in (assuming your race is in open water). Even experienced lap swimmers can have a hard time swimming a straight line in murky water while getting swum over and around by dozens of other people. You can also practice sighting in the pool.

Practicing transitions between sports is also helpful. Knowing what you need to do to get from the water onto the bike and from the bike to the run will save you time, minimize fumbling, and boost your confidence on race day.

Re: clothing and gear, you don't need to buy anything new. You can wear your regular swimsuit and a pair of running shorts on top. If you want to be a little more comfortable (I personally don't like biking/running in a one-piece swimsuit), you could also a get a pair of tri shorts and a swimsuit top (something like this), and wear those for the entire race. Some people will wear wetsuits for the swim, but you'll be fine without one.

Bike/run bricks are key to making sure you feel strong on the run. 5-6 miles on the bike plus a 1-2 mile run will help you know what to expect.

Tris are awesome. Have an amazing time!
posted by rebekah at 1:06 PM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions so far. Wanted to note that I signed up for the beginner's swim start, at the back, so hopefully that will help. It's open water, but a small lake, not the ocean. I swim in oceans/lakes every year, but only paddling around, no workouts, so I'm definitely new to that aspect.
posted by Cygnet at 1:09 PM on February 6, 2016

For what it's worth, I'm doing a sprint in May and I'm not near where you are in your training. I have zero worries.

Wet suit is more about buoyancy and body position in the water than warmth. Trisuits will have less padding through the shoulder and more in the legs. That allows good shoulder rotation without fatigue. You'll be fine without one, but nearly everyone will have one. I showed up for my first tri and was the ONLY person without a wet suit. And it was no big deal.

My biggest advice is to practice transitions a lot. The clock runs while you are in transition. The thing that happens at every race is people can't figure out when to leave T1 and T2 - do I have my helmet, do I have my bottle. I used the pile method - all the things I need for transition are in 1 stack in the order I'll put them on. When I get to the bottom of the pile, it's time to go.

Have fun! Sprints are for fun.
posted by 26.2 at 5:00 PM on February 6, 2016

You're gonna be fine. Others have covered most of your questions. Two resources I recommend, that helped me leap into my 1st sprint:

Beginner Triathlete forums (for questions much like yours, training partners/cheerleaders, tips)

Slow Fat Triathlete (you don't have to be either, but it's focused on getting through the race, not beating average times, etc).
posted by Miko at 5:29 PM on February 6, 2016

And practice your swim start, ideally, if possible in the actual location where the swim will start. It's very hard, especially the first time - not because it's open water, but because people are churning all around you and you're amped up. Practice running in, diving under, surfacing and getting into pace.
posted by Miko at 5:30 PM on February 6, 2016

You will be fine - you sound much more fit than I when I did my first sprint. Everyone has their best event, everyone might have to dog it another event. It will make you feel better to set up your transitions (lay out your shirt and shorts, etc). Sprint is fun and be careful, because you may find yourself addicted....
posted by Pax at 8:18 PM on February 6, 2016

Yep, you're already about where I was when I did something similar, and you've got many months in hand.

I particularly recommend practising running after cycling - your legs can turn to jelly as a result of that transition. I used to cycle to parkrun once a week and that helped.

Definitely practice outdoor swimming - it's so different to swimming indoors, and doing it in race circumstances will be massively different from summer splashing about. Things to think about: Can you breathe to your left and right? (so that if the wind is blowing in either direction you can breathe away from it and not get a mouthful of spray); is it a deep-water start? If so, can you tread water for a while without wearing yourself out (that's one thing the buoyancy of a wetsuit is great for)?
Practice sighting - looking up every few strokes to find your destination and make sure you're going in the right direction - it's so easy to veer off course.

The main stress I remember on race day surrounded transition and working out what kit to have where. I was grateful to have bought cheap tri shorts and a tri vest so I could go straight from the water onto the bike without trying to do furtive public change of clothes (the shorts are basically like Lycra bike shorts but tight enough not to sag in water and with only a small amount of padding so you can happily get them wet and then ride/run in them).
posted by penguin pie at 6:35 AM on February 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here is beginnertriathlete's 13-week sprint training plan. This is what you need to do to get ready for race day. The only addition I'd suggest is making one bike per week into a brick by running a mile right off the bike. That's it. No intervals, no speedwork, nothing high intensity, just steady and consistent work. Any tri clubs near you? They can be good for scheduling group open water swims, etc.

Race day rules boil down to:
-general: no headphones, no littering, no glass in transition, don't be a dick
-Swim: any stroke you like, but no forward progress if you're touching anything other than the lake bottom (it's legal to hang on to a kayak or boat if you need a breather)
-Bike: run your bike out of transition past the mount line, no drafting, ride right and pass left, don't cross the center line of the road, don't block anyone, dismount before the dismount line
-run: smile, you're almost done

Gear: if you can swim in open water without a wetsuit, you don't need one. If your current bike setup is comfortable, you don't need to change anything (but make sure your helmet has the CPSC sticker on the inside). If your run shoes are okay, don't replace them. You don't need a HRM or GPS, you don't need special nutrition, you don't need special clothing.

If you really want to upgrade your equipment, I'd recommend you start with bike shoes and clipless pedals. They're like a seatbelt for your feet; you don't pull up, but you do unweight your foot during the recovery phase, and being clipped in makes it much less likely for your foot to leave the pedal. After that: tri top and tri shorts enhance comfort (and holy shit trying to wiggle into a shirt in T1 is a major bummer); a wetsuit provides warmth, comfort, security, and speed; a Garmin provides biometric data and helps you pace yourself; and a tri bike adds a few mph. But all of that stuff is unnecessary just yet.
posted by disconnect at 8:14 AM on February 8, 2016

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