Categories: Race
Tags: triathlon

7 tips for your first triathlon from a 3-time Ironman

May 8, 2018

Photo credit: James Mitchell

Congratulations: You’ve decided to become a triathlete!

Maybe you’ve run a few 5Ks or you’re a cyclist who wants to embrace the swim and the run, too. You don’t “just” swim, bike, or run – you do all three, transitioning masterfully between each, crossing your finish line having donned a wetsuit, a helmet, and running shoes all within the span of hours.

Get ready for an awesome adventure, an exciting physical challenge, and the opportunity to boost your mental fortitude along the way.

Whatever motivated you to pursue the swim-bike-run challenge, get ready for an awesome adventure, an exciting physical challenge, and the opportunity to boost your mental fortitude along the way.

You’re as tough as they come, and you know it. But as with any discipline or with three at once there’s always more to master. Before jumping in the pool, clipping in, or lacing up, here’s what three-time Ironman and NYC-based coach Christopher Baker says you should know about training for your first triathlon.

1. Don’t go it alone

Baker’s most important piece of advice: Don’t try to do everything alone!

“Reach out to seasoned triathletes and consider hiring a coach even if it’s your first triathlon,” he says.

2. Get experience ASAP

“If you’re interested in a triathlon, you’re probably already a swimmer, cyclist, or runner,” Baker says. “The key now is gaining experience so your mental game is as strong as your legs and lungs.”

“If you’re new to swimming, sign up for a few open-water races so you’re used to swimming in a pack and you’ll have better chances to master the swim,” Baker advises.

3. Play to your strengths and work on improving your weaknesses

Maybe you were a competitive swimmer in college but haven’t run a mile since fifth grade. Or maybe you can crush marathons, but you’ve never clipped into a road bike.

The challenge of a triathlon is learning to be adept at all three disciplines. That doesn’t mean mastering each, but it does mean playing to your strengths and not letting your weaknesses define your race.

The challenge of a triathlon is learning to be adept at all three disciplines. That doesn’t mean mastering each, but it does mean playing to your strengths and not letting your weaknesses define your race.

“It’s hard to narrow down which specific leg presents the most difficulty for first-timers, as each athlete has his or her own strengths and weaknesses,” says Baker. “Oftentimes, weather is the biggest factor. If you live in North Dakota or someplace with big snowfall and you have to use a bike trainer for most of the season, that could be as mentally taxing on your training as the physical work.”

4. Your routine is paramount to your success

The toughest part of training for a tri isn’t necessarily the physical work.

For serious but not yet professional triathletes, the toughest part of training for a tri isn’t necessarily the physical work. It’s the balance required to train in three sports at once and still hold down a job, a social life, a family, and whatever else you need to do to be able to pay for that fancy new Cervelo you’ve been eyeing.

“You need to establish a routine,” Baker says. “Humans in general are very routine-oriented, so if your training plan always has a swim on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it’s easy to plan for.”

“Plus, you’ll need to fit each discipline into the schedule that works for you. If you always have an event like a kid’s soccer game or weekly brunch date on Saturday mornings, you’ll need to avoid making your long run that day,” Baker adds.

5. Volume is good — quality is better

There’s no tried-and-true triathlon training plan that will work for every athlete no magic swim/bike/run ratio to swear by.

“For some athletes, I suggest heavy volume including two-a-days three to four times a week,” says Baker. “But if you’re racing an Olympic-distance tri or a sprint, that will be overkill.”

There’s a reason customized training plans are the way to go.

And consider the fact that each athlete comes equipped with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and there’s a reason customized training plans are the way to go.

“Each athlete is different, so someone who is a talented cyclist and a poor runner needs to put their focus on the run,” Baker says.

6. Find your triathlon training plan sweet spot

You want to find a training plan that’s long enough that you can build volume and intensity without risking injury, but not one that’s so long you’ll get bored or burn out.

If you do the work, stick with your training plan and listen to your body along the way, you’ll feel the results on race day in your first triathlon.

“Ultimately, not following through with your training can result in both bad training and a bad race,” Baker says. “But if you do the work, and you stick with it and listen to your body along the way, you’ll feel the results on race day in your first triathlon.”

7. Slow down — and have fun!

Yay, it’s your first triathlon and you’re excited but beware being too excited too soon. “Don’t get too serious too fast,” Baker says.

If you struggle getting your wetsuit off for 10 minutes, don’t be so hard on yourself, and laugh a little.

“Take it slow, and remember to have fun. Putting all three disciplines together can seem daunting at first, so practice will help. If you struggle getting your wetsuit off for 10 minutes, don’t be so hard on yourself, and laugh a little. Remember, it’s happened to everybody.”