Race-day tips for first-time triathletes:
Be prepared. Study the racecourse before race day. The transition area (where you make the switch from swimming to cycling and cycling to running) probably won’t be set up until race morning, so study its layout–where you enter and exit–when you arrive that day.
Prerace prep requires more than knotting your laces and visiting the porta-potty. Try to arrive at least 90 minutes before the start so you have time to pick up your packet (if you can get it on race day), set up your transition area, and get your number marked on your body. Make sure you know where you’ll come into the transition area from the swim, as well as where you’ll leave it on the bike and in the run.
Once you’ve got your gear and yourself ready, warm up in reverse order: Do a little run, take your bike out for a spin, then get your wetsuit on and get in the water for a few strokes. That way, you can be sure all your equipment is set. If you’re nervous at the start, move to the side and count to five after the gun goes off; that way you’ll have some space from the chaos.
You’ll likely be starting in a wave with athletes in your age group (the waves go off every few minutes). Just focus on keeping an even stroke and a controlled pace.
Every five strokes or so, lift your eyes—not your whole head—out of the water to see if you’re going in the right direction. If that’s too challenging, switch to breaststroke to check your course; just keep going—regaining momentum after treading water is energy-sucking and tough.
If you can, draft behind somebody going at a similar pace to save energy. Don’t lift your head repeatedly to keep an eye on your drafter, just look for and follow the bubbles.
As you get out of the water, reach back, unzip your wetsuit, and pull it down to your waist. You’ll take it all off in your transition area.
As soon as you’re in your transition area, take off the rest of your wetsuit, your goggles, and your cap. Dry your feet before putting on your cycling shoes, then buckle your helmet and get your bike. Now is the time to think about grabbing something to eat and drink. Got everything? Run the bike to the cycling route, where you can mount it.
Even though you’re feeling strong (and psyched the swim is over), don’t go too hard and fry your legs for the run. “Even accomplished runners can end up run/walking the last leg because they didn’t gauge their effort right,” says triathlon coach Lesley Mettler. On the bike, aim for 7 on an effort scale of 10. This is also the best time to refuel since it’s easiest to eat and drink on the bike.
If your legs tighten up, stand up on the pedals to stretch out your calves and hamstrings.
Stay to the right, unless you’re passing, which is done on the left. Say, “On your left,” to alert somebody of your presence.
Drafting isn’t allowed in most races, and you should stay three bike lengths behind a cyclist in front of you.
After the bike leg, dismount and run your bike to your transition area. Rack it, take off your helmet, change shoes, and head out, aiming for a steady rhythm and pace.
Focus on your cadence and arm swing during the first mile. At this point in the race, your legs will be crying uncle, but your freshly rested arms can help pick up the slack. “Your legs fall in line with your arms, so I think about my swing when I get tired,” says Olympic triathlete Sarah Haskins. “At this point in the race, a 10-K should feel more like a half-marathon effort.”
Swimming is perhaps the perfect athletic complement to running because the two sports are so different. “Just about everything about swimming is exactly the opposite from running in terms of stresses on the body,” says runner-turned-triathlete Joe Friel, author of The Triathlete’s Training Bible (VeloPress, 2004). “Swimming tends to stretch you out, whereas running tends to compress you.” Running, of course, is a high-impact, primarily lower-body activity, while swimming is a full-body activity that’s both nonimpact and non-weight-bearing.
As a less natural and more technique-dependent sport than running, swimming requires a training approach that stresses efficiency. “For beginning triathletes, the path to swimming improvement is not to make more energy available through training, it’s to waste less energy by improving your stroke,” says Terry Laughlin, whose Total Immersion swim camps specialize in preparing inexperienced swimmers to compete in triathlons.
There are a number of ways to swim, of course, but unless you’re Olympian Michael Phelps, you’ll be swimming freestyle. While proper freestyle technique is relatively simple compared with the butterfly (see “Reach and Pull,” next page), almost all beginning triathletes need to get feedback on their stroke from a knowledgeable observer. “Find a local swim coach or a friend who is a good swimmer, and ask if they would look at your stroke,” says Siri Lindley, a former triathlon world champion and now a coach in Boulder, Colorado. Tips from a keen observer will save you weeks of struggling on your own.
Experts also advise beginning swimmers to forget about the speed at first. “Swimming slowly is the best way to develop habits of efficiency and economy,” says Laughlin. Instead of trying to get across the pool faster, count your strokes per lap and try to reduce the number.
Drills can also help you improve your swimming technique because they allow you to break down the freestyle stroke into parts, so you can focus on improving one or two aspects at a time. Lance Watson, a Canadian triathlon coach, recommends a drill he calls the “Pause One” to improve body rotation. To perform this drill, swim freestyle, but pause for one second after each stroke in a fully rotated position, with one arm extended ahead of you. To learn other drills, consult a coach; books such as Total Immersion (Fireside, 2004), by Terry Laughlin; or videos such as Swim Power (Total Training).
Pool Your Efforts
Whether you’re serious about racing your first triathlon or you just want to do some cross-training in the pool, there are two types of swimming workouts that offer the most benefits for runners. The first is swimming laps, where you simply swim for a predetermined amount of time or complete a designated distance at a moderate intensity. Lap swimming is a great form of active recovery after a hard run, while it also prepares you for the rigors of a triathlon’s swim by requiring you to swim for an extended period without rest.
Swim intervals are the other important workout because they teach you how to vary your swim pace. A typical session starts with a few easy warmup laps, followed by some drills to improve your technique. For example, pick four drills and do 25 yards (typically one lap) of each drill with a 10-second rest after each lap. Next, do a set of higher-speed intervals to develop efficiency, such as swimming 6 x 50 yards a bit faster than your normal lap-swimming pace, with a 20-second rest after each 50-yard interval. Finally, cool down with a few more easy laps.
Nearly all triathlon swims take place in open water and in a big crowd, which is very different from cruising along in your own pool lane. So all beginning triathletes need to learn to swim in crowded conditions. “One of the hardest parts of swimming in a triathlon is the nervousness you feel knowing you have to swim among hundreds of other people,” says Lindley. “Confidence is key.”
To build this confidence you need to experience a little contact with other swimmers while training. Try gathering some friends and swimming together in a single pool lane. As you get more comfortable, increase the contact you have, intentionally swimming over the top of each other’s legs, which often happens during triathlon swims.
It’s also important to do some of your swim training in an open-water environment so that you can get comfortable with the poor visibility, cooler water temperature, the need to “sight” (look ahead at a buoy or landmark every few strokes), and the lack of walls to push off (or rest on). When choosing a training site, make sure it is a designated swimming area, and always work out with at least one partner. “Open-water workouts are also good opportunities to practice starts and exits,” says Watson. Practice running into the water, diving forward, and swimming hard for 30 seconds, as you will have to do in a triathlon. Then turn around and practice swimming toward shore until your hand touches the bottom, standing, and running back onto the beach.
Reach and Pull
The five elements of proper freestyle technique:
Body Position. The optimal body position is to float high in the water, as this minimizes drag. Beginners tend to allow their hips and legs to sink. To avoid this error, concentrate on pushing your chest toward the bottom of the pool. This will naturally cause your hips and legs to rise.
Rotation. By rotating your body from side to side with each stroke, you can slice through the water with less drag. As you extend your leading arm ahead of you, rotate your body from the hips about 60 degrees toward the opposite side (as though you’re plucking an item off a high shelf). Keep your neck and head neutral.
Arm Cycle. Your leading hand should enter the water about a foot in front of your shoulder. Once you’ve reached a full extension with your leading arm, rotate your shoulder and elbow so that your hand and forearm form a single “paddle” that pulls back toward your feet. Your hand should exit the water next to your upper thigh. Your arms are always at opposite points of the arms cycle, so when one hand is entering the water, the other is leaving it.
Kick. Kicking too hard creates more drag than it does propulsion, so swim with a tight, “flicking” kick that uses minimal energy. “Imagine you’re kicking a soccer ball gently with the top of your foot,” says Roch Frey, who coaches triathletes through multisports.com. Kick twice with each leg for each stroke. Breathing. Turn your head to the side and inhale when your leading arm hits full extension, then turn your head toward the bottom of the pool and exhale. Inhale on one side every second or fourth stroke, or on alternating sides every third stroke.
Get in the Swim
Smear a small dab of baby shampoo on the inside of your swim goggle lenses to keep them from fogging up. Swim fins help you learn a tight, efficient kick. Use short, stubby swim fins, such as Zoomers ($30; zoomers.net) or Zip Fins ($28; aquasphereusa.com), which allow a more natural kick than big, floppy scuba fins.
Swim paddles are like fins for your hands. Use them occasionally to help you develop a correct “high-elbow” arm pull. Paddles come in various sizes. Less experienced swimmers should use smaller paddles, which put less strain on the shoulders. Try X-small TYR Mentor hand paddles ($20; tyr.com) and small Speedo contoured swim paddles ($16; speedousa.com).A triathlon suit combines the hydrophilic properties of a swimsuit with the padded seat in bike shorts, so you don’t have to change clothes midrace. Prices for one-piece and two-piece styles from popular brands like Zoot ( zootsports.com) and DeSoto ( desotosports.com) typically range from $80 to $150.
Like swimming, cycling provides a great cardiovascular workout without any impact. But cycling is far more like running in that it is primarily a lower-body workout. The quads and calves work even harder on the bike than on the run, making cycling an effective way for runners to develop these muscles.
Because of the similarities between the two sports, the fitness gains you obtain from cycling will have a direct, positive impact on running. In a Purdue University study, runners who added three weekly cycling workouts to their training schedule improved their 5-K race times as much as runners who added three additional runs to their weekly regimen. So whether you’re hopping on your bike to prepare for a triathlon or just to diversify your training, you can expect to become a better runner as a result.
To reap all the benefits of cycling, however, you first need a bike. Will that old Schwinn Varsity cut it? Most experts agree that it’s okay to do your first triathlon or a modest amount of bike cross-training on just about any bike you have. “Once you’ve done a triathlon and liked it, then maybe it’s time to start looking at a road bike instead of a mountain bike or an old clunker,” says Friel.
If you’re sticking with your old bike, for the time being, you still need to make sure that it fits. Riding any bike that doesn’t fit you well, whether it’s a dusty hybrid or a high-tech performance racer, can make your training less productive and increase your risk of injury. To get properly fitted for your bike, it’s best to take it into a bike shop and have fit experts take a look at you on the bike.
Even casual cyclists have to master a few basic skills. “Cycling is a more technical sport than most people realize,” says Troy Jacobson, founder of the Triathlon Academy in Baltimore. “Runners assume they’ll be able to cycle effectively because of their leg strength and cardiovascular fitness, but that’s rarely the case.”
Beginning cyclists often make two common mistakes. The first is “pedal-stomping,” where you put all your effort into pushing the pedal down in the first half of the pedal stroke and then fail to actively pull the pedal upward in the second half of the pedal stroke. To correct this flaw, Jacobson suggests practicing pedaling with just one leg on a stationary bike while concentrating on using your muscles to lead the pedals in complete circles.
The second common flaw is called “mashing,” which means you’re using too big of gear with a slow cadence. “To avoid mashing you need to learn to pedal the bike with a high cadence,” says Friel. Try to maintain a pedaling cadence of at least 80 revolutions per minute on flat terrain. If you can’t keep up that cadence, you should shift to an easier gear.
It’s also important to learn how to descend hills and corners. Gale Bernhardt, coach of the 2004 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team, recommends a monkey-see, monkey-do approach to building these skills. “Get in with a group of cyclists who are a little more experienced,” she says. “You can learn by imitating them.” To find cycling clubs or riding groups in your area, call your local bike shop.
The types of bike workouts will sound familiar to runners. There are easy rides, long rides, tempo rides, hill repetitions, and intervals. But whether you’re training for a triathlon or taking up cycling to improve your running, it’s best to stick with easy rides for the first few weeks to give your body a chance to adjust.
When you’re ready for more challenging rides, Bernhardt recommends hill repetitions to build leg strength. A good beginner hill workout could include four hard hill climbs lasting two minutes apiece, with three minutes of easy pedaling between climbs. If you’re training for a triathlon, do hill repetitions once a week for several weeks, then replace this workout with a weekly tempo ride: a steady effort at race intensity lasting 10 minutes or more, sandwiched between a warmup and a cooldown. Ideal Wheels
To buy a bike or not? That is the question. For those not quite ready to plunk down the cash for a brand-spanking’-new triathlon bike, there are a couple of simple–and relatively inexpensive–modifications you can make to your current bike for more comfortable and productive training.
If your bike has a kickstand, for instance, take it off–it just adds weight. Also, consider adding a clip-on aero bar. This will enable you to ride in an aerodynamic “time trial” position that saves a lot of energy by reducing wind drag. Also, consider replacing your flat pedals with a pair of clipless pedals and bike shoes. This combination will allow you to produce greater force throughout the pedal stroke.
Once you’ve decided it’s time to buy a real triathlon bike, use the following checklist from Bicycling magazine’s deputy testing director, Mike Cushionbury, to guide you through the process and help you get the right bike for you.
Contact the closest triathlon club and ask them to recommend the best local bike shop that specializes in serving triathletes. For a better deal on a new bike, buy-in mid- to late summer, when many shops slash prices on last year’s models to make room for new models.
Don’t expect to see major differences among the various entry-level triathlon bikes, which usually cost $1,700 to $2,000. “Most of these bikes are very good,” says Cushionbury. “Try a few, and buy the bike that fits best and is most comfortable.” The Trek Equinox 5 and the Specialized Transition Elite are two bikes that score especially high marks among triathlon newbies.
Put most of your money into the frame. “You can always upgrade to lighter wheels and better components later,” says Cushionbury. Examples of entry-level tri bikes with quality frames that can “grow with you” include the Felt S32 and the Quintana Roo Kilo.
Consider buying a tri bike with a reversible seat post such as the Cervelo Dual and/or a clip-on aero bar, such as the Cannondale Sprint. “These two features allow you to adjust your riding position between the low, flat ‘aero’ position that most experienced triathletes prefer,” says Cushionbury, “and a more relaxed, upright position that most beginners find more comfortable.”Get the Right Gear
Always wear an ANSI- or a SNELL-certified helmet while riding. Entry-level helmets, such as the Bell Furio ( bellhelmets.com) and Giro Eclipse ( giro.com), are priced in the $50 range.
For comfort, invest in some padded bike shorts. They usually cost $60 to $100, with the pricier shorts being more durable and more comfortable. Most bike shops stock reputable brands, such as Pearl Izumi ( pearlizumi.com ) and Nike ( nike.com/nikecycling).
Clipless pedals and bike shoes increase pedaling efficiency and are essential for the competitive rider. There are two basic types of clipless pedals, which cyclists usually refer to as the Speedplay type and the LOOK type, although there are other brands in each category. Shoes must be bought separately and must be compatible with your pedal choice. Good options include Sidi and Northwave brands ($50 to $230; sidiusa.com, northwave.com).
Sometimes you can get great deals on secondhand bike accessories at bike swaps and through Web sites, including eBay and Craig’s List ( craigslist.org).
Here’s a no-brainer: When you add swim and bike workouts to your training, you need to adjust your running schedule. But more specifically: As you make room for these new sports in your training, you have to plan more carefully the types of runs you do so that your running will stay strong–or get even stronger–despite a reduction in mileage.
The secret is to cut the fluff from your schedule and retain only the more challenging runs, such as tempo runs, interval workouts, and long runs since they are the real fitness boosters. “Most of your easy runs should be replaced with swimming and cycling,” says Lindley. Swim and bike workouts help you recover from your hard runs in the same way that easy runs promote recovery.
The number of weekly runs you should cut depends on the number of swim and bike workouts you want to add. And this number, in turn, depends on whether you are training for a triathlon or just cross-training. If you’re cross-training, add one swim and one bike workout each week. You can then run four times a week and take one day off. To ensure that your running stays strong, make one of your four runs a long one, and include some high-intensity efforts in two other runs.
If you’re training for a triathlon, you need to do a more even mix of swimming, cycling and running. “That usually means cutting your normal run volume by anywhere from 30 to 50 percent and filling in the training time with swimming and cycling,” says Jacobson.
Beginning triathletes need to swim and bike at least twice a week to develop adequate skill and fitness in these new disciplines. This leaves room for only two quality runs and one day off unless you choose to squeeze in two workouts a day on one or more days.
Run like a triathlete
Along with paring down your running schedule, runners taking up triathlon also need to practice the transition between biking and running. Any experienced triathlete will tell you that running right after a bike ride is a completely different experience–your legs feel rubbery. So several times during training you need to run after a ride to get used to the feeling.
A training run immediately following a training ride is called a transition run. It doesn’t have to belong–10 minutes will suffice–because it’s the transition from cycling to running that you’re working on. For runners, a second advantage of doing transition runs is that it affords you a third weekly running opportunity without requiring you to do two separate workouts in one day.
Slightly longer transition runs can be beneficial for runners who are using swimming and cycling for cross-training. “Longer transition runs can make a great substitute for traditional long runs when you’re trying to limit impact,” says Bernhardt. For example, instead of doing a 90-minute run, do a 60-minute bike ride followed by a 30-minute run.
Get it together
Unless you do the right mix of swimming, cycling, and running, your cross-training may quickly become cross-purpose training. Here’s how to add swimming and biking to your running routine to reap optimal cross-training benefits.
Replace one easy run with an easy swim and one easy run with an easy bike ride.
Do your swim as the next workout after your hardest run each week for active recovery.
After a few weeks, you may add a second ride and/or swim or add back one or two runs as you see fit, but proceed slowly and listen to your body.
Once you’ve cross-trained consistently for several weeks, you can keep doing swims and rides as recovery workouts or, maximize performance, experiment with some higher-intensity workouts. But the keyword is “experiment.” While some athletes experience running performance benefits from high-intensity swims and rides, others find it’s too much.
If you want to do a triathlon, and you have not been swimming or cycling, you need to give yourself ample time to prepare. For most beginners, completing a sprint-distance triathlon–the most popular triathlon distance–is the best initial goal. While there is no single standard for all sprint triathlons, most consist of a .5-mile swim, a 12- or 13-mile bike ride, and a three-mile or 5-K run.
There are also intermediate-distance (also known as Olympic-distance) triathlons that are made up of a 1.5-K swim, 40-K bike, and 10-K run. Finally, there are long-distance triathlons, which include the Half-Ironman (a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run) and Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run). Just as most runners race 5-Ks and 10-Ks first, then move onto the longer distances as they gain racing experience, most triathletes start with sprint-distance races. To help you get to the start and the finish line of your first sprint-distance triathlon, see the 12-week Triathlon Training Plan at the end of this article and remember these tips:
Choose a triathlon that’s 12 weeks away or more–you’ll need at least that much training time. Just make sure to register well in advance, since many triathlons sell out early. Check out usatriathlon.org for a calendar of popular triathlons.
Don’t go overboard with your training–your body needs time to adapt to new activities. If you’re fit and competitive, do slightly more challenging workouts instead of extra workouts.
Since opportunities to swim tend to be more limited, schedule your swims first. And since running workouts are the most convenient, schedule them last. Try not to do the same activity twice in a row.
Do mostly moderate-intensity workouts plus technique work in the first few weeks of your swim and bike training. Then add some high-intensity workouts. Just prior to a race, including more race-specific training, such as race-pace intervals.