I decided this past winter to enter the sport of triathlon. I was encouraged to begin training by a few friends I knew who did a triathlon – one did her first just last year. My goal was modest – I simply wanted to complete a sprint triathlon this year. I had just bought a cheap road bike on Ebay a few months back, and had just barely learned to swim (I was taught how to tread water when I was little, but never learned to swim). As for running, I could barely run 2 miles, maybe 3 if I was well rested and really motivated. In this article, I’ll tell something of my experiences these past 5 months as I learned to swim, got used to biking, and started running regularly. I’ll also try to emphasize the things I learned so you may benefit from my experiences.
But I don’t know how to swim… My biggest concern of the three sports, like most triathletes, was the swim. I didn’t know the first thing about swimming. During my first few trips to the pool I spent most of the time just hanging onto the edge and practicing breathing and turning my head. If you’ve never swum before, like me, I think it’s important to just get used to being underwater. It’s a whole different world. I have been using, and highly recommend, Terry Laughlin’s book, Triathlon Swimming Made Easy. He has other books which are also good. It’s definitely hard to read a book and try to apply that to what you’re doing in the pool, but I think he emphasizes several important ideas which a lot of people have never heard of or chose to ignore. Besides using that book, try to find a friend or two that you can go swimming with, and they can help by telling you how you look in the water. It’s really tough to critique yourself or improve your stroke, since you can’t see what you look like.
Getting used to road bikingI got my first road bike a few months before I started training in earnest. It’s actually turned out that biking is my best sport of the three, for some reason. Probably this is because I used to bike all over campus when I was in college. But lucky for me, I wound up being a pretty good cyclist. One thing I do know is that the single biggest improvement you can make to your bike is to get clipless pedals. Without them, you can only use the downstroke of your legs to move the bike. Moving your legs back up is just wasted movement. Clipless pedals allow to you to use your leg muscles throughout the entire pedal cycle. Toe clips will give some improvement, but they still only allow you to use 50-60% of your potential cycling power. It’s been recommended to me that cycling shoes are not the area to choose to skimp on. A good pair of shoes will last quite a while, and your feet will be in them a long time, so make sure they fit well.
Running… Ah, runningThe one piece of advice I have for running is to get fitted for running shoes at a quality, dedicated running store. Go somewhere where they really know what they’re talking about. Don’t go to the local large, all-around sporting goods store. The people there might know something about running shoes, but I highly doubt they’ll be able to truly get a proper fit. At the store I went to, all the employees have at a minimum a degree in sports medicine or fitness. And the prices were the same as anywhere else. I probably could have saved a few dollars by getting them online, but not much. Get recommendations from friends for a good store in your area. Or go to the BT forums and put up a post.
Training buddies!Find buddies on BT that can follow your training log. I didn’t do this for the first month or so, but once I found a few people life was sooo much better! Do a search for people in your area, put a couple posts on the forums, and you’ll find people fast. The BT community is great; I highly recommend making good use of it.
Race lessons learnedI’ve completed two sprint triathlons so far. The first was a pool swim, the second an open water swim – a shock, as it was my first open water swim ever! Here are some things that I learned. I hope my lessons will help you!
Warm up before the swim. Do something – anything – to get your heart rate up. Otherwise it’s a complete shock to your body when you try to go from rest to swimming your way across the lake or pool.
Remain calm during the swim! Count your strokes. Think about your technique. Do anything to keep your mind occupied, and off those thoughts about swallowing water, getting passed, getting pulled out of the water, etc.
If the water temperature may be cold, think about investing in a wetsuit. I don’t have one yet, but sure wish I did for my first open-water swim. It was 68 degrees!! I was cold, let me tell you…
Don’t destroy your legs on the bike. Only you can be the judge of this. It’s a careful balance. You want to push yourself, but you don’t want to take away from your run. Try to keep your cadence high, and therefore keep your legs operating aerobically. This becomes especially important during longer races.
Don’t forget to drink during the bike. At least take a few sips from your water bottle. This obviously becomes even more important if the temperature is hot or if the distance is long. But I found it amazingly easy to forget to drink!
If you have clipless pedals, practice clipping in and out of them a lot of times. You don’t want to fall over while trying to get off your bike before T2.
Walk during the rest stations on the run. I tried to swallow water while running, and nearly threw up. If you don’t need the water, then don’t stop. But if you’ve never swallowed while running before (I hadn’t), it might be harder than it sounds.
Finally, I found that the first 2-3 months were the toughest. But once you get past that hump, then the exercise starts to become a part of your life. You really, really get to enjoy it. You miss it when you don’t exercise for a few days. It really does feel great!