Triathlon 101

I recently received an email from a reader “toying” with the idea of training for her first triathlon. Overwhelmed and slightly intimated, she was looking for advice on getting started to help her successfully cross her finish line. Are you thinking of entering the world of triathlon but have some questions? Hopefully the following information is helpful and encourages you to bite the bullet and register for that first race.

Getting Started

You don’t have to be in killer shape or be an amazing swimmer to do a tri. You don’t have to own a top-of-the-line bike or be a serial runner either. One of the most amazing things about this sport is the variety of athletes. I’ve finished 12 triathlons varying in distances from sprint to half ironman and have been amazed and inspired by the people I’ve seen. If you train properly (and smartly) you’ll be successful.

Build a Base

If you’re a newbie, look for a local race that is 8-10 weeks away. This will give you plenty of time to train across the three disciplines and mentally prepare. Be realistic with the time you have to train and balance your obligations. Don’t bite off more than you can chew and take on too much too soon. You’ll most likely end up injured or burnt out, which would really be too bad because triathlon is one of most invigorating sports there is! Websites such as Competitor, Active and Slow Twitch offer great training plans that cater to all fitness levels and tips to navigating your first race.

There are four different kinds of triathlon that vary by total distance. Pick a distance that’s appropriate for your lifestyle and time you have available to dedicate to training.

Sprint: 15.97 miles (approximately)
Olympic: 31.93 miles (approximately)
Half Ironman: 70.3 miles
Ironman: 140.6 miles


The swim is often the most dreaded of all three legs, but the good news is it is the shortest leg, and the first – so you get it over with! Most commonly in open water you need to be prepared not only to swim the distance, but brave the elements. Unlike the pool you were training in, there are no lane lines, no walls to flip turn against and the water isn’t crystal clear. Triathlons are usually held in rural areas and the swim is usually in a lake or harbor. There can be heavy waves and cooler temperatures. Most triathletes opt to wear a wet suit to keep their bodies warm and also keep them buoyant. There are regulating temperatures however, if the water is at a certain temperature wet suits will be illegal so it’s wise to be prepared to swim with or without one. The most important thing is to expect a certain level of chaos, it’s part of the experience! People will be all over the place, in fact, someone will probably try to swim over you, it’s a total sh*t show! It’s not malicious, everyone is trying to do what you’re doing – get through it and swim to the other side. Find a space, sight your course, and move with efficiency.


Wet suit (wear it over your triathlon kit)
Swim cap
Anti-fog drops


  • The race will provide you with a swim cap, but be prepared with an extra in case one breaks.
  • If you’re wearing a wet suit use a skin lubricant on your neck, forearms, shins and ankles to help you slide your suit on and off, otherwise you’ll have one helluva time in transition.
  • Coat your goggles with anti-fog prior to race day. Nothing worse than a warm body and cold water fogging up your vision from the get-go.
  • Stay calm


The second and longest leg, the bike of a triathlon is your chance to fire up your legs, hydrate and your first opportunity to refuel. Coming out of the transition area your legs will feel strong since all of the blood will be in your arms from the swim. Despite feeling strong, be sure to pace yourself so you don’t start too powerful and burn out. I typically start my ride one gear easier than I feel possible in the early stages of course to maintain energy levels and then build intensity as the ride progresses. Through training you’ll get a sense of when and what to eat and drink, don’t skip fueling no matter what. Often times during a race adrenaline will take over, or nerves will effect your stomach. Try to maintain your eating schedule so you don’t deplete your energy.


Fuel/Hydration (should already be affixed to your bike prior to tri start)
Race belt/bib
Shoes/clips (should already be affixed to your bike prior to tri start)
Spare tire kit (should already be affixed to your bike prior to tri start)


  • Know exactly where you bike is in the transition area
  • Anticipate carrying your bike in and out of the transition areas
  • Know how to fix a flat tire and practice. I went to a workshop at a local bike shop on how to do this and practiced in my living room. Of course, I knew deep down if I ever got a flat during a race I’d cry on the side of the road until a good samaritan offered to help me – triathletes are REALLY friendly.


The last leg, the last stretch, the hardest part. Running in a tri is hard. Out of transition focus on a quick cadence and short stride. Like the bike, ease in and build rather than burn out. The run is where your fatigue has the potential to really set in so everything becomes mental. Concentrate on the cadence of your stride, the rhythm of your breath and stay hydrated.


Running Shoes
Fresh pair of socks


  • Take your time coming out of transition. No matter how slow you think you’re jogging, it’s probably too fast
  • Make sure you have your shoes on the right feet (seriously)
  • Take off your helmet from the bike…don’t forget (seriously)

Many triathletes say that on race day, your only goal should be to finish. When you enter the finish line chute remember every second and remember every step you take. You’ll be crossing that finish line a different person, a strong person, a triathlete. Good luck!

Half Ironman Triathlon

Post Half Ironman Lawrence, Kansas, 2012. One of the hardest, worst and best experiences of my life.

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