No one grows up competing in triathlons. Most people participate in one of the three components — running, swimming, biking — and migrate to the sport in adulthood. The learning curve is intense, which can make competing for the first time especially daunting.
First, the basics — triathlons are generally separated into four distances: sprint, standard (“Olympic”), long (“half-Ironman”), and ultra (“Ironman”). There are also options for those who don’t want to compete in all three disciplines, like the duathlon (run, bike, run); aquathlon (run, swim, run); and aquabike (swim, bike).
For a closer look, Fit asked three seasoned triathletes to give advice about how to attack your first event.
GET ON THE TRAIN Dr. Kathy Krummen, a physical therapist with Ohio State’s Endurance Medicine Team, helped prepare a group of women for their first triathlon by starting their training program five months before the event with 20- to 30-minute workouts three times a week. All the women were intimidated by swimming and biking so they regularly swam double the race distance and biked an extra three to eight miles to help them gain confidence.
WEAKNESS OVER STRENGTH Eileen Collins, a former Columbusonian now living in Chicago with her husband Brett, finished her first triathlon at Miami University, where the couple competed on the swim team. She and Brett began taking triathlon seriously post-graduation when they felt their workouts plateau without a competition to push them.
“It was hard when I was getting into the sport to be able to do something longer,” Eileen said. “I had no idea how to pace because I’d never done it.”
The pair had more confidence swimming than most triathletes, but in Brett’s first Olympic-length event he was fourth out of the water only to slide beyond 80th on the bike. He said that a common mistake is focusing on one’s strengths, where you can only achieve marginal gains, rather than spending more time on improving weaknesses. He recommended breaking training time into sections that correspond to the races — about half the time biking, one-third running and the rest swimming.
ON OPEN WATER The water leg of the race is often the area of most concern for first-timers. Even if you’re an accomplished swimmer, most people haven’t had much experience swimming longer distances in open water surrounded by competitors.
“It’s a lot of sensory input at once,” said Krummen, who has completed multiple Ironman events. “I swam competitively for 16 years, and every now and then I’ll still be intimidated by a mass swim start if people are accidentally bumping me, or the sun’s shining in my face and I can’t see the next buoy.”
She recommended doing some training out of the pool (always with at least one friend) at a place like Alum Creek so that you can swim along the beach while using the buoys to practice sighting.
RIDERS ON THE NORM The bike phase presents its own challenges, not the least of which is the equipment itself. Eileen used a borrowed, unfamiliar mountain bike for her first triathlon, and she was also unprepared for the hilly southern Ohio terrain and the buffeting wind. She recommended that new triathletes get fit for a bike at a cycling store and use one that’s comfortable.
Krummen advised attending a mechanic’s night at a bike shop to learn about correct tire pressurization, how to change a flat and what to include in your saddle pack because any outside assistance will disqualify a racer’s official time.
RUNNING INTO BRICKS One of the trickiest aspects of a triathlon is the bike-to-run transition. A triathlete’s legs, accustomed to a fixed pedaling motion, will struggle at first to find a natural, efficient running pattern. Krummen’s biggest mistake from her first event was never training on tired legs, so her running segment was more painful and difficult than she expected.
To combat this problem, Brett suggested using a training method known as a “brick.” These multidisciplinary workouts stack consecutive legs into one session — a 30-minute ride and a 15-minute run or a 20-minute swim and a 10-minute run. This system maximizes the number of times per week you train at each sport while improving the all-important transitions between components. He also said that maintaining a fast cadence — or pedal rate — will help ease the transition to the run.
The most important piece of advice to keep in mind, Krummen said, is that you need to be patient with yourself because the first triathlon will serve mostly as a learning experience. For all three competitors, that initial event has blossomed into a way of life that keeps them in peak physical condition.
“The races are exciting, but then also just the training for ‘em to me is exciting,” Brett said. “It forces variety into your workouts, and it always keeps you newer, keeps you fresh.”