By Javier Gomez
Lately I have seen lots of talk in the various triathlon discussion forums on topics like “How to start in triathlon,” “What type of bike should a person get,” “Do I really need a coach?” etc. It seems the sport is growing, but folks are getting confusing messages about what they really need to get started. So I decided to help to try and clarify the situation.I am writing this as a person who has graduated into the intermediate triathlete world after having completed two half-Ironman races, three Olympic distance races, and four sprint races, Nine races in total. I am NOT an expert, but I have done enough that I now have been able to distinguish between the message that we get from advertising, and what we really need complete a triathlon. For areas where I am lacking in information, I have consulted with experts for the purpose of this article.
Are you competitive or not?Now to answer the question, what do you need to start in triathlon? First you need to determine what type of triathlete you really are or want to be. The age-group triathlete (amateur) can be divided broadly into two types of athletes: non-competitive and competitive. This is really determined by what your goals are for doing a triathlon. Are you doing this for the fun of it? To get in shape? For the adventure? Then you probably fall into the non-competitive type. If you are doing triathlon for all of the above but also have a very competitive personality, who likes to see yourself on the podium often, then you are the competitive type. The division is far more gray than that, but you know what your ultimate goals are and should be able distinguish this.
Almost all of the equipment you see advertised in triathlon-related magazines are really aimed for the competitive type. To get ahead in racing, the equipment you use really does make a difference. Two athletes of the same skill level and abilities each using the same equipment will probably have the similar results. However, give one better equipment, and that one will do better. Therefore, if you are a non-competitive type you could pretty much ignore most of the advertising.
So what do you really need? I will go down through the different skills involved in triathlon and list out what I feel you need to start.The Swim This is the part of the race that most folks find the hardest, not because it is so much more physically difficult, but because it is the most unnatural for us as land dwelling animals. It also happens to be the most dangerous part due to the very real possibility of drowning. So what do we all really need here? We need to know how to swim. If you do not know how to swim, obviously go get lessons. Aside from that you will need access to a pool or open water (lake, river, ocean, etc). The benefit of a pool is that it is measured and you can do workouts based on distance. It is nice to have a pool of at least 25 meters or yards. If a pool has lap lanes that are less then 25 meters or yards, then 15 or 20 meters is acceptable, but you will find your workout pretty tedious going back and forth that much.If you are non-competitive, all the equipment you will need is a good pair of goggles, a bathing suit, and a wetsuit (not required, but it helps in dealing with the cold water and buoyancy, thus making the swim a little easier). To be more competitive, you will want to get equipment to help you get more out of your swim workouts such as a pull buoy, kickboard, and paddles (you wear these on your hands to add resistance). You will also want to get triathlon-specific shorts that have a thin padding so that you can hop right on your bike right after the swim. It saves the time from changing to cycling clothes. The Bike For the non-competitive type you can use just about ANY bike you want. However, it is advisable that you try to get a bike that will suit you for the distance you are riding. As such, I recommend, as a minimum, a fitness bike (a road bike frame that uses a cross bar instead of that curved handle bar generally seen on a road bike). Mountain bikes can also work if you switch out the tires to smooth type of tire made for riding on roads (unless you are doing a Xterra race which requires a mountain bike).
You may nonetheless want to invest in a road bike, which is the most efficient type of bike for road racing. An entry level road bike can be obtained for a few hundred dollars. Due to the investment required for bikes, this is a good time to figure out what your future needs may be. If you have never ridden a bike and do not know if you like it, you may want to borrow a bike from a friend and try it out first. If you are not so hot on the subject, then by all means go with the least expensive option.
However, if you do like it and see yourself doing this quite a lot, you may want to invest a little more here because the price of bikes really does make a difference in the equipment. You may think you are saving money by starting out with a low end bike, but could easily find yourself unhappy with the decision within a few months (I know this first-hand). For a few hundred dollars more you could greatly improve your bike selection.If you are the competitive type, you will want to get as light a bike as you could afford (usually made from carbon fiber) and/or a bike with a tri-specific geometry. This type of bike is designed to put the rider in a more aerodynamic position and to also benefit the rider’s legs a bit so they are not so fatigued when starting the run. These bikes can run from a bit over a thousand dollars all the way up to the price of an entry level car. As for the pedals on your bike, there are three types: basic pedals, cages (or clips), and clipless. The basic pedal is the type we are all familiar with: a platform that you push down on with your foot. It works, but it is not very efficient. The next two types are more efficient for riding. The cages are your basic pedal with a cage-like structure that allows you to slip your foot in and keeps it from sliding forward off the pedal. This allows you to put more force on the pedal without fear of your foot sliding off. You can also put force on the pedal through more of the pedal cycle than a normal basic pedal allows.The clipless, this is far and away the most efficient type of pedal. Efficiency translates to speed. It’s called clipless because it does not have a cage or clip on top of the pedal. I feel the name is a bit misleading since in fact you clip into a clipless pedal. Anyhow, it is the most efficient pedal since it allows you to use your energy and force on the whole complete cycle of the pedal stroke.
If you want to be competitive, you will need to have a clipless pedal. It feels a bit scary at first, since you feel trapped in the event you are falling. But after a few tries (and a few embarrassing falls) and you will quickly learn how to easily unclip quickly when needed.When getting clipless pedals you will also need bike shoes that have a harder sole to help in putting pressure while pedaling. They also have the mount points for the pedals you will be using.Make sure your bike is the correct size for you. If it isn’t, you could end up wasting energy having to use more force while pedaling. You could also injure yourself. A good bike fitting is always recommended no matter what your objectives are for cycling.Running Competitive or non-competitive athletes should go to a running shoe store and get a real running shoes. There is a tendency to think that the running shoes you find in a discount store are good enough. They are for a very casual runner. But the training for a triathlon is more demanding, and a good running shoe will help prevent injuries in the future. When I first started, I went the cost saving way, buying shoes at the local department store. They said they were running shoes.
I soon found out they were not the type I needed. Within a month I had knee pain and problems with my feet. After taking a break to let my injuries subside, I went to a running shoe store. The salesman did a gait analysis and told me I tend to “pronate” (flattening out of the arch) my feet when running. He recommended a shoe that offers more stability than a normal shoe. I bought them and no longer had these types of problems.These are pretty much the basic needs for a new triathlete. Beyond this there are items like heart rate monitors, which are very useful for helping gauge the effort levels being used in training.Books
As for the training itself, there a plenty of good references out there for beginners. Many of these books also have pre-built training plans that a new athlete could use and modify for their own needs. Books I have used and can recommend are “The Triathlete’s Training Bible” by Joel Friel, and “Triathlete Magazine’s Complete Triathlon Book” by Matt Fitzgerald. These books offer all the advice and information a new triathlete will need to plan their training. The “Triathlete Magazine’s Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide” by Fitzgerald provides detailed training plans for all distance triathlons from sprint to Ironman distance. The plans are divided up by your goals for each race and for the amount of training time you have available.Happy Racing