Photo Credit: Robert Couse-Baker

You’ve decided that you want to do a triathlon. Great, but where do you begin? I often get asked by newcomers or those wishing to enter the sport how to begin. Here’s a brain dump based on things I’ve learned over the years and my own experience starting out. If you’re reading this and just starting out yourself, maybe it will ease some of your fears and answer some questions you may be thinking about.

Get Properly Equipped

At the bare minimum you’re going to need goggles, bike, helmet, running shoes, and some athletic clothing. If you’re not looking to break records and don’t want to blow your kid’s college fund, here are my suggestions:

Goggles - Buy goggles that fit well and are comfortable. If you’re only doing beginner distances, a cheap pair should do just as well as an expensive pair.

Bike - You may be on the bike for over an hour, so pick any bike you can comfortably ride for that period of time. Hybrids and even mountain bikes will work although you’ll be sacrificing speed. If you don’t have a bike and don’t want to spend money on one, try asking your friends if they’ll let you borrow theirs.

Helmet - Most races are going to require your helmet meets certain safety standards. This is a good thing. Accidents happen and this is your head we’re talking about. Spend a couple extra bucks and get an approved helmet. You can probably find one for $40 or less if you find one on sale. Make sure you get one that fits properly. If it doesn’t, it’s not going to do what it’s intended to.

Already have a helmet, but don’t know whether or not it’s approved? Just look inside. There should be a sticker from the manufacturer or safety standards organization that’ll tell you what standards it meets.

Running Shoes - While you could probably grab a pair of running shoes that are your size off the sale rack of your favorite sports store, I’d recommend checking out a local running shop and getting a proper fit. Out of swimming, biking, and running, you are more likely to get injured running. Take the time and spend the extra money to get the right shoes. To save money, try to get a style from the previous year. Watch for tent sales at these shops too. Often local running shops will have tent sales where they clear out old inventory to make room for new.

Athletic Clothing - You’ve got a few options here. For the swim, I have seen just about everything; athletes using their regular swimsuits, compression shorts, sports bras and bikini bottoms, and even boxer briefs. Whatever you choose to swim in, you’re going to be cycling and running in as well, so choose wisely. You’ll want something that is going to dry quickly and not be painful to do activity in when wet (You can get some bad chaffing from wet gear). If you don’t want to do the whole race being seen in your swim gear, you can leave a tech shirt and running shorts in the transition and throw them on before you hop on the bike. After you become a triathlete you’ll lose the self-conscious feeling about your appearance. You’re surrounded by people in tight clothing, you’ll blend right in, embrace it, it comes with the territory.

How to Start Training

Swim - Training for the swim can be tough. Mainly because you have to find access to a pool in order to do so. If a gym has one, but you don’t belong or don’t want to spend money on a gym membership, see if the gym offers a punch card system. Some gyms will offer punch cards, where you can get a certain number of visits for a fixed cost without committing to a membership. If you are just looking to use the gym to train for swimming, this is a great option.

If the only “swimming” you’ve done is wading around in a pool or ocean, you might want to consider taking lessons. Swimming is all about technique, and learning it can make all the difference. Look at private lessons, group lessons, or masters classes where an instructor runs drills and observes a group while giving tips.

If you have more time than money, you could get a book or watch videos on the internet and try to teach yourself the proper technique. Although without anyone watching you, it’s going to be hard to tell if you are doing it correctly. You could ask a friend to video you while swimming so you can observe how you look in the water.

There are no rules as to what stroke you have to use in a race, so if you want to skip all training and doggie paddle or back stroke your way through the swim, go for it.

Bike - Time in the saddle is key to cycling. If your race is 10 miles, make sure you can cover that distance by building up to it. Once you’re able to cover that distance, make sure you can do it and not be totally burned out. Remember, you still need to run when you get off the bike. You might even consider doing a short run after your bike occasionally. Doing so will allow you to feel what it’s like to run off the bike and see how your legs are going to feel.

I’d recommend getting yourself a bike computer. It’ll tell you how fast you are going and how far you’ve gone. Once you know what your average speed is, you’ll be able to predict race times and keep yourself from riding too fast during the race. You can get a cheap bike computer for $25.

Quick tip, if you belong to a gym, check out spin classes. Spin classes are a great way to build up and maintain your cycling fitness. In addition, the group aspect can really help keep you committed.

Running - As I mentioned earlier, running is the most injury prone sport of them all. Start small and build to the distance of your race. If you are brand new to running, start with walking, then start working in short run sessions. Eventually, your endurance will build up and you’ll be able to run farther and farther. Try not to increase your mileage too quickly though. A popular rule of thumb is to not increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% of the previous week’s mileage. There are lots of free training plans out there for running that’ll keep you on track.

If you are entering the race with a run/walk strategy, that’s perfectly acceptable too. I guarantee you won’t be the only one walking out there.

Start Small

A mass swim start in open water can be fairly intimidating. I still get nervous about swim starts and I’ve been doing triathlons for years. If the swim has been scaring you off from trying the sport, there are a number of triathlons that have the swim portion in a pool, which is great when just starting out. They will either make you snake through the lanes or do laps in the same lane, starting in waves.

Indoor triathlons are another variation available to beginners. The swim will be in an indoor pool, the bike on spin bikes that are able to measure distance, and the run on a treadmill. I have never done an indoor triathlon, so I can’t comment firsthand on the experience. It seems as if there would be a lot of waiting around and you might miss out on the true, group race experience.

If you’re not ready for the swim at all yet, but still want to see what a multi-sport event is like, consider doing a duathlon. Events sometimes define duathlons different ways, but typically they consist of a run, bike, run. Distances can vary widely, but a lot of races will offer both a short and long course. Don’t think that just because there isn’t a swim that these races are any easier. They are just as challenging as a triathlon.