traithlon training advice
February 8, 2006 6:54 PM   Subscribe

I've just signed up for a triathlon. I've got a long time to train, but I'm already more or less freaking out. I'm seeking information on beginning training programs and gear. Any advice you've got would be appreciated.


I'm really just starting, and not quite sure where to begin. Although I'm not in terrible shape, I haven't been exercising regularly for several months now (one of the reasons I signed up, to force myself to get back in shape) and I need to find some sort of beginner's training regimen.

I'd like to get a couple of training books. There are a lot to choose from and I'm somewhat bewildered by my options. Oh, long tail. Should I get a heart-rate monitor? Do I need to buy fancy goggles? I'm going to be swimming in the ocean and I assume I'll need a wetsuit. I'm in San Francisco, and there are a couple of Tri-clubs here. Does anyone know anything about them? Are they worth joining? Have you bought new sneakers lately that you adore? Will people laugh at me when I wear tri-shorts?
posted by emptyage to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I did my first tri a couple of years ago with Team-in-Training, starting as a *complete* newbie, but the distance you've picked is very doable.

I don't have any book rec's, but here's 3 websites that I found very helpful:
- Tri-Newbies
- Some general beginner info/FAQs
- Total Immersion Swimming - I got more rec's for these guys than I can count.

As for a heart rate monitor, I wouldn't waste your money as a beginner. A quality one can be expensive, and if you're not using one already, I'd skip it. Just focus on being able to complete and enjoy the event before you get a competative angle.

For a wetsuit, you'll want to check the event rules. Usually, there's a temperature range... under X- wetsuit required; temperature X thru Y- optional; over Y- wetsuits aren't permited.

For anything else like clothing, shoes, etc - its worth going to a triathlon and/or running store. They'll be able to give you advice and let you try out things to see if they're worthwhile. Triathlons can become a VERY expensive endeavor if you let it. You really don't need to go too crazy your first time out with a sprint distance. If you like this one and decide to do more (and longer ones), then start thinking about the bigger investments (like bikes, wetsuits, etc).

One last thing, since you have an ocean swim as part of the event, make sure you get some open-water practice swims. Laps in a pool are no comparison to the open water.

If you have any other questions, feel free to email me at the addy in my profile.

Good luck & have fun!
posted by dicaxpuella at 7:23 PM on February 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

First of all, don't panic! Like any athletic event, the vast majority of people who do triathlons do it recreationally. Don't be intimidated by the few people who make it their life's goal.

If you're just starting you don't need to buy heart-rate monitor, fancy goggles, or a wetsuit. You will, however, have to rent the latter. See if there is a tri shop in your community that rents them. Try it on when you reserve it, and reserve it early.

As for training, you've wisely chosen to do a sprint triathlon. Probably the first thing to do is to get your endurance up to a level where you can go for 1.5 hours at a good intensity. This doesn't mean that your workouts need that long. Rather, try to get a couple of shorter workouts in a day, and perhaps a long run or bike ride once a week. If you're comfortable with your endurance, then the best way to increase your speed is by doing intervals (to go faster, you must first learn to go fast).

Of course, joining a tri-club is a good for encouraging training and for meeting people. Also, the coaches and other triathletes in the club will be able to give you much more -- and, likely, better -- advice that you can receive via MeFi.

There are also loads of resources on the internet for first-time triathletes; for example, here. I don't think you really need to buy a book. Beginning training is, after all, mostly common sense.

Have fun!
posted by Elpoca at 7:33 PM on February 8, 2006

You can do some 5k's (3 mi) as training for the running. There should be plenty of them over the summer. It will give you some experience in running with people and not letting them set a pace that you can't handle.
posted by smackfu at 7:39 PM on February 8, 2006

Welcome to the sport!!! Live it up, the first race (and all the inevitable mistakes made) are something you'll remember for a long time!

I totally agree with every bit of advice already stated. I've met a ton of friends from TriNewbies and had every question and fear erradicated. I've had nothing but good experiences with clubs (though i'm a social person, your results may vary).. They help a whole lot in learning the ropes and improving in every area.

My favorite shops/sites:

Training logs: (my own little crappy but free site :)
posted by joshgray at 7:50 PM on February 8, 2006

(I looked at the site a bit more. The beach run is actually on the sand? I wonder how that works.)
posted by smackfu at 7:52 PM on February 8, 2006

Don't worry about not being in good enough shape for your first few races at all. As long as you have done all three sports multiple times a week, you'll survive. My ONLY advice there is do some "bricks", which are a short run right after a bike ride. You'll be amazed how rubbery your legs are after you switch up the muscle groups. It's good to experience this, and get past it in training and not in a race. :)

other tidbits:
- open water swim? ocean swim? i cannot stress doing a few of these in traning enough.. Most triathletes are afraid of the swim the most and occupy so much of their nervous thoughts in that area..... considering how short the swim is compared to the rest (in most distances of races), this is crazy..!

- if you learn nothing from ours or others advice learn this: practice every single bit of the race beforehand. get everything down pact so you are trying nothing new on race day. i repeat. try nothing new on race day. try nothing new on race day. good. now repeat it to yourself. again.
posted by joshgray at 7:58 PM on February 8, 2006

oooooh beach swim. ouch. that sounds brutal. not a whole lot of that out here in Kansas. get some practice there too :)
posted by joshgray at 8:00 PM on February 8, 2006

I started training last September for the Stanford Treeathlon, also a sprint triathlon, which happens to be in my neighborhood. I'd never been much of a runner, so I found the couch-to-5k training plans at to be invaluable in building my running base.

I also found a heart rate monitor to be very useful as a 'beginning runner.' What I found, when I was close to being able to run a 5k, was that if I kept my heart rate below 85% max (160bpm), I could run for as long as I wanted.

So I've been swimming ~2 times a week, for 600 - 1000 meters. And I've been running 3 times a week, usually at least 5k/run. I commute to work by bicycle, so I've really not been doing cycling beyond the 14k I ride every day getting to work and back. I've done a few longer rides but nothing regular.

Two days ago was the first time I worked out with a tri-club. I showed up to the swim practice, not really knowing what to expect. When I finished the workout, after a 2000 meter swim, I was pleasantly surprised that with only a little prodding, I could swim much further and faster than I thought I could. I also really enjoyed working out with the tri-club, and plan to go to their run workout tomrrow.
posted by u2604ab at 9:59 PM on February 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Just another note: As several people have noted, open water swimming can be a different experience. However, this is (for me, at least) due to the sheer pandemonium of all those people around you, and not because of choppier water or anything like that. Again, a tri club will likely have occasional mass swims that are good for honing your group swimming skills.
posted by Elpoca at 10:13 PM on February 8, 2006

Best answer: Welcome to the world of triathlon! Congratulations on taking the plunge-you're going to love it. It's a satisfying, challenging, addictive sport that attracts a fun, adventurous, open, and interesting kind of person. I'm a triathlete in my second year, and was right were you are last January. I can tell you unequivocally that you can do it, that any and all technique and gear problems can be surmounted by just - keeping - going, and that the whole journey is fun.

I'm giving you the single best resource out there for someone at your stage:

Beginner Triathlete.

This is a comprehensive, free website that has an amazing number of functions. Training plans for all distances and levels of experience. ARticles on specific performance/workout/training issues by elite athletes. Active, useful message boards on which you can ask any of the types of questions you're asking here, and more. A daily training log where you can track your workouts and let others leave you feedback and encouragement. REgional meetups and training sessions. Race-day coordination so you can connect with people you've been in touch with on the site at your events. I can't say enough about this site: it got me through season one with flying colors, and I met some wonderful people and made a commitment to stay with the sport. Enjoy it. By the way, I am Miko there as well. Look for me there when you join.

As to books: Most triathletes really favor the Triathlete's Training Bible. It's a one-stop book, but very technical. Don't let it scare you, take what you need. I also really enjoyed Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals. That's an older book, but very simple and low-stress for newbies.

There are a lot of fine points and finesse to triathloning, and a million questions to ask. And you're going to need to ask every one throughout this first season. But at the end of the day, remember -- what we now call a "Sprint Triathlon", and train for over the better part of the year, is also what at the age of 10 I called "a normal summer day" -- swim a half mile, bike 12, run 3. It's doable. You don't need to spend a fortune and you don't need to obsess. It can be fun to do so, but at the most basic level, start with confidence. You can do it.
posted by Miko at 10:14 PM on February 8, 2006 [3 favorites]

Oh, and your questions? Yes, you need goggles but not fancy ones. Yes, you'll need a wetsuit, but you can rent one if you aren't sure you want to buy. And yes, you should definitely join the tri clubs. Socializing and comparing notes is a big part of the sport, plus you'll learn so much more and faster in a group.
posted by Miko at 10:16 PM on February 8, 2006

as u2604ab notes, a heart monitor can be a great aid to training and makes it possible for you to track performance really easily. But a good heart rate monitor starts at about $70 and goes up from there, adn I am a cheapo triathlete, so I don't have one yet. Fortunately, you can also take your heart rate with a regular watch (with second hand) and two fingers at your pulse. I did this regularly during most workouts last year -- this year, I've found it much easier to gauge what percentage of max I am just by RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion). You just get used to what each level of effort should feel like.
posted by Miko at 6:41 AM on February 9, 2006

Great advice all around, and I'd like to make yet another recommendation for doing some open water swimming beforehand. In addition to having competed in several triathalons in the last few years, I've also been a lifeguard at dozens of events as well, and have seen firsthand exactly how wrong the swim can go in the open water. A couple of things in particular that I would work on:

Ambidexterity in your breathing: If you're coming from a pool swimming background (like I did) you've already been trained to breathe on either side of your body. Great. Keep in mind, though, that, apart from the entrance and exit, you're likely going to be swimming along the shore, meaning that you're only going to be able to breathe on one side (the shore side) of your body. If, right now, you breathe exclusively on the right side of your body, but the swim course takes you south, you're going to be sucking in water on every swell, and you'll find it much harder to navigate. I've had to pull a lot of people out of the water over the years who were decent pool swimmers, but who nearly drowned in the open water because they couldn't make the breathing switch to suit the conditions. Make sure that you are comfortable breathing exclusively on both sides.

Learn to navigate: It's pretty easy, really, but something you need to practice. Use a combination of shore markers (condos, palm trees, etc.), fellow swimmers (if that's an option), and occasionally pulling your head straight forward on a breathing stroke to check your position relative to the bouys (I like to do this about every 25 strokes). Determining your angle relative to shore using condos is probably the trickiest part. The difference can be very subtle, but if done wrong you'll be zigzagging all over the place, doubling the length of your swim and putting yourself in serious danger of being sucked into the breaking surf.

Practice your surf entry/exit: More people get knocked out of the swim portion during the surf entry than at any other time. They suck down huge amounts of water punching through the waves, their ineffecient technique exhausts them, they get injured by other racers... a lot can go wrong. A good surf entry has three components: running, porpoising, and swimming. Basically, you run until it becomes too deep (about mid-thigh deep), then you porpoise dive until it becomes too deep (just above your stomach), then you transition into the swim. When running, make sure to keep your legs high once you hit the water, like you were running the hurdles. Porpoise diving is like doing the butterfly off of the bottom of the sea. When you can't run anymore, dive forward with your arms in front of you, describing an arc with your body. Hit the water, cutting down to the ground with your hands. When your hands hit, tuck your legs back under you and explode off of the bottom, pulling a butterfly stroke. Another arc, hands hit, and repeat the process, until its deep enough to start swimming. Done right, it will be faster than swimming, and is the fastest way to get through water of that depth (mid-thigh to mid-chest) deep.

Also, during the entry, use the current in your favor. You'll no doubt be swimming in the direction that the current is flowing. This will help you once you're out, but can be a potential hindrance on your way out and in. Make sure when entering the water that you give yourself plenty of distance upcurrent from the first bouy. I've seen many people try to take the inside, only to spend 5 minutes swimming straight against the current, trying to get around the outside of the bouy.

Above all, have fun, don't do anything your body adamantly refuses to do, and tell us how you did!
posted by saladin at 7:17 AM on February 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This si really great advice, thank you so much.
posted by emptyage at 7:25 AM on February 9, 2006

I'm a cyclist, not a triathlete, so maybe I'm out of my element here, but Joe Friel, who wrote The Triathlete's Training Bible also wrote the Cyclist's Training Bible, which is both comprehensive and very readable. My copy is literally falling apart I've read it so much.

Assuming his other books are just as good as Cyclist's..., I second the suggestion about his book. He also has another one out, which I haven't read at all, but certainly sounds useful for you. It's called Your First Triathlon.

From the little I know about triathlon, I'd guess that you'd want to do lots of training for sustained, hard, but below lactate-threshold efforts. (As opposed to a bike race or running race, where you have to do lots of above threshold work to prepare yourself to attack, counter attack, or sprint for the finish.) This is the kind of training where a heart rate monitor can make a really big difference. You don't need anything fancy, and places like usually sell decent ones -- discontinued models for example -- for as little as $40. It's a worthwhile investment, especially if you think you'll get more into the sport. And chances are, after doing one triathlon, you'll be hooked.
posted by dseaton at 8:40 AM on February 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

you'd want to do lots of training for sustained, hard, but below lactate-threshold efforts. (As opposed to a bike race or running race, where you have to do lots of above threshold work to prepare yourself to attack, counter attack, or sprint for the finish.) This is the kind of training where a heart rate monitor can make a really big difference.

True, but also note this. It's your first season, you really should keep your time goals wide open. You are in this to see if you can do the training and finish a race or two, and see if you like the sport. You can be successful without getting too technical in your training, and that's a bonus if you're not a real technical person or a gearhead. That's why the sprint distance is an excellent place to start.

There's a lot to learn, but for a sprint, simple endurance training is not that hard to do. At peak training, you'll be looking at 4-6 hours a week of cardio, 2000-meter swim sessions, hour-and-ten-minute runs, and hour-and-a-half bike rides. You'll also be doing some bricks of combined bike/run and swim/bike. Nothing there is so complicated that you need a PhD in sports medicine for your first season. A heart-rate monitor makes endurance training more convenient, but it's still not completely necessary. It's gravy, until you're more of a competitor.

I'm not panning the more technical points -- the more experienced I am, the more I get into that stuff. I just know that when I was starting out, I was really encouraged by the demystification of the sport. It can be complicated if you want to train that way, but it doesn't have to be.

All that said, I'd have a heart monitor for convenience if I had the spare cash. It's just not a high budget priority for me, and I'm reaching my performance goals without it. Everybody trains their own way.
posted by Miko at 8:57 AM on February 9, 2006

You didn't mention buying a bike, so perhaps you already have one, but if not, resist the urge to splurge right away for the lightest, meanest machine. Most triathlon courses are on fairly flat ground, so aerodynamic drag constitutes 99% of the resistive forces you fight against. So long as you have aerobars, the wheels are true, the drivetrain is smooth and the frame fits your body well, the penalty of a heavier bike to the performance of a newbie is trivial. Any road bike less than a dozen years old will do.
posted by randomstriker at 9:22 AM on February 9, 2006

Good advice to wait on the splurge, and just for perspective:.. I did my sprint on a very heavy hybrid with regular bars. And no toe clips. And I wasn't the only one. And I beat many people on expensive road bikes. I wanted to wait to buy a bike until I knew I would stay with the sport...I still haven't bought my road bike for 2006.

Miko: keeping the bar low!
posted by Miko at 11:07 AM on February 9, 2006

If you usually wear glasses or contacts, a pair of prescription swim goggles might be useful. (I can't wear contacts, so goggles were a necessity for my first tri.)

My goggles cost less than $25, and are close enough to my prescription to allow me to see well enough to find my bike.

I also used's sprint program for my training and had a good race for my first time out. I'm using their Olympic program now for a longer tri I'm doing in July.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:26 PM on February 9, 2006

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