Transitioning to Triathlons: A Runner’s Basic Guide
Thinking of giving triathlons a whirl? Whether it’s due to pure curiosity, injury prevention or the need to up the cross-training, yearning for a change of scenery, or perhaps in solidarity with a training partner, the avid runner occasionally dives in to the triathlon scene at some point in their running career. It seems a fairly natural transition, particularly when you’ve already gotten your mileage up to a certain baseline level. Why not add two more sports into the mix?!
Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. And being a fast or experienced runner does not necessarily carry over to instant triathlon success. There’s really no running race out there that quite compares to a triathlon. Even the Spartan-type obstacle races are different. Simply put, running is different than running after swimming and biking, no matter how well you’ve trained. Triathlons involve a particular endurance rhythm that is punctuated by intense and abrupt transitions to something equally and cumulatively taxing on the legs.
The predominant muscles used in the 3 sports of swimming, cycling and running are based around the hips, legs and core. Many people think of swimming as an upper body-dominated sport, but the elite swimmers engage their hips and core muscles and power their stroke with their legs significantly more than you would think. However, this strategy often changes in the triathlon in efforts to conserve lower extremity energy for the bike and run. Regardless of the swimming technique strategy, the quadriceps-hamstring dominance on the bike combined with the same large muscles powering the run means that your legs inevitably feel like jello 2/3 of the way through the race. It’s the ultimate test of endurance.
For starters, here are some beginner tips to keep in mind:
TIPS for TRAINING
1. Don’t underestimate the training needed. Give yourself enough time to prepare. Experts recommend a minimum of 8 weeks of training for a sprint triathlon, and 12 weeks minimum for an Olympic distance. (I would actually tack on another 4 weeks to that advice for each!) You’re looking at half a year minimum for a ½-Ironman and at least one year to prepare for a full Ironman.
2. Pick your race distance wisely. If you have a longer race distance in mind (greater than Olympic distance), build some shorter triathlon races into your training plan. Most people start with either a Sprint or an Olympic distance race.
Sprint: 750-meter swim, 12-mile bike, 3.1-mile run
Olympic: 1500-meter swim, 24-mile bike, 6.2-mile run
½ Ironman “70.3”: 1.2 mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run
Ironman: 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run
3. Create a training calendar and stay consistent with it. Don’t skimp on the bike training. Runners tend to stay running-heavy when triathlon training… yes, we’re creatures of habit! Make sure you get the proper bike mileage in to prepare, and ample time in the pool to feel ready for race day.
4. Join a masters’ swim team, triathlon club, or hire a personal swimming coach. Most runners are most apprehensive about the swimming portion. Focus on this area from day 1 and you’ll find that you will make leaps and bounds of gains, if you have a good coach helping with your technique.
5. 2 workouts a day can make the training more manageable with ample recovery time. However, also make sure you do include some longer back-to-back sessions to simulate what your legs will feel like on race day, and to build up stamina.
6. Maintain the “quality” workouts but expect your running mileage to drop from what it was previously. It’s simply unrealistic, unless you quit your job, to maintain your running mileage while also adding on another 5-10 cross-training sessions per week. Keep at least one running speed or tempo workout in the mix, even though your total mileage will probably drop
7. If you don’t have one already, find a training partner. Even though the conversation is to a minimum when you’re swimming, it’s helpful to have someone to help hold you accountable to those early morning dips in the pool! Likewise, longer bike rides are much better in a group setting.
TIPS for RACE DAY
8. If your race is outdoors, practice open water swimming before race day. This is VERY helpful. Many people panic the first time they swim in a murky lake. Get used to it in advance. You’ll need to practice “sighting” which is raising your head up every few strokes to look for the buoy and make sure you’re still swimming straight and on-course.
9. Consider renting gear for your first race, if cost is a concern. Wetsuits and bikes are readily available for rent in most big cities. Make sure you test out any specific rented gear ahead of time to be comfortable with it on race day. Get to know the bike, and keep in mind that wetsuits make your body have a slightly different buoyancy which can take some getting used to.
10. Get bike-savvy. I got a flat tire on my first Olympic triathlon, and that cost me an extra 20 minutes! (probably longer) Practice changing tubes until you can do it in your sleep! REI and many other local bike shops will offer free classes on bike maintenance and repairs for beginners.
11. Remember that fueling may be different than what you would do for a running race. The total duration on the course could be longer than what you’re used to. Certain foods may sit better before you begin your swim, and you may be able to eat something completely different on the bike than what you’re used to doing on the run. Practice different foods in your training sessions and have a good nutrition and hydration plan. Remember that you sweat a lot when you swim, so stay extra hydrated before the race and into the start of the bike.
12. The swim portion of the race may beat you up the first time. Stay calm. Expect chaos at the start. It can be a dog-eat-dog world out there at the start of the swim, so expect to choke on water, get kicked in the head, half swam-over, and possibly have someone yank your wetsuit zipper down! Take some deep breaths before the start and just focus on breathing smoothly in and out as you start until the first few minutes pass and the field spreads out. This is where people panic the most, so practicing swimming in choppy water can also prepare you for this aspect. And remember, you can always turn over and swim backstroke if you need a minute to catch your breath.
13. Practice the transitions! The transitions from swim to bike and bike to run can be frustrating for new triathletes. Lay out your gear so that the transition goes as smoothly and logically as possible. Get advice from other athletes on this and other aspects of the race course.
14. Write out a race- day packing list so that you don’t forget anything at home. Mine includes:
Swimming essentials: Swimsuit/tri suit, caps, goggles, wetsuit, towels
Other: body glide, water bottles, hydration and nutrition sources, flip flops, change of clothes for after the race, sunblock, chapstick, watch, permanent marker, safety pins, snacks for after, camera
15. Don’t take it too seriously; remember to smile and enjoy it! Know that your second tri will be much smoother than the first. No matter how much you practice or prepare, you will learn a lot in your first race. Go easy on yourself and have fun with it!