It took me just under two years to complete my first triathlon. I knew how to run and bike but I was starting from zero on the swim. If you are reading this because you are thinking of doing your first triathlon my perspectives and advice are going to be focused on the swim because of my personal challenges and achievements – besides most people have the most anxiety about the swim.
Why a triathlon?
Everyone will have their own reason to do a triathlon. My main reason was simply an excuse to learn how to swim. With two young kids in swimming lessons I felt a bit like a hypocrite encouraging them to keep pushing when they had challenges yet I had no idea how to swim myself. It was time to learn.
A secondary reason was simply cross-training. I have been a runner for upwards of 10 years and I have read a lot of stories about the body breaking down if you don’t cross-train. Even if I never do a triathlon again (I will probably do them for at least one more year) I will always be a fitness swimmer.
Why not a triathlon?
When I got into training one thing I promised myself and my family is that it would not interfere with other more important aspects of my life – such as faith and family. This meant getting up at 5:30 and even those evenings where I may have been tired and wanted to shut down I refused to. If you are thinking about doing a triathlon you first need to decide where it stacks in your priorities and time.
Reflecting back there was a time that I was just about to walk away. It wasn’t because my training was taking up too much time but the challenges that I was experiencing were consuming my every thought. This was impacting my family and faith. I gave myself two weeks to get a handle on this or walk away. It was a great two weeks. I had the chance to reset and remind myself to focus on what is important. The rest of my experience was much better since it was no longer consuming every piece of me.
You need to find a triathlon that will be your first. Even though you may be anxious to get started I would find one that is further out than your earliest date you think you can be ready. Remember that I stated from scratch on the swim but it took me about 18 months. If you have some comfort in the water or no other commitments and you train constantly then you can probably cut a lot of time off of this. I would also focus on the swim when looking at races. Don’t make my mistake and sign up for a 1/2 mile swim for your first triathlon. You should not do a triathlon that has a swim any further than 1/3 mile but would encourage you to look for a race that the swim is 1/4 mile or less.
For someone that does not know how to swim at all this may be the hardest piece. During my journey I questioned a lot of things that I did but looking back I think I would do it all the same way. Here is a brief outline of what I did and what I would recommend.
– Start out by getting comfortable in the water. Do this by simply going to the local pool. Don’t try to swim laps but just play around, dunking your head, holding your breath, floating on floaties, etc. Just have fun and get more comfortable in the water.
– Then sign up for a group lesson. Even though the class selection times may be limited many local swim schools have adult lessons. With the first bullet I was able to get comfortable enough in the water to go to level two of the adult classes but if you are having a hard time getting comfortable do not hesitate to start with level one – which is usually water comfort. You may want to take one or two sessions.
– I would then start spending time in a community pool. Take a break from lessons and just focus on pool time. You may want to put aside your run and bike training for as much pool time as you can get. Start with small expectations. Work on one length, then one lap, and work up from there. To work up from one lap I would set a goal of total laps – say five – and do one lap at a time with a break between each lap up to five. Then think about the break you took between each lap and start timing it. Once you know what your baseline is reduce it each time you go. For example, say your average break between each lap was three minutes, next swim take a break of two minutes and forty-five seconds between laps. Work this down until you need no break. Then you can add laps. This will be the most frustrating time in your swim training. Do not be afraid to take a break from pushing yourself and just have some fun in the pool if you are getting frustrated. This could be doing a workout on your back, doing individual lengths, putting on flippers, etc. While you are working up your distance you do want to take time and work on your form. No goal on length or time but simply swimming smoothly. There are a lot of resources online to help.
– Once you are able to get to 3 – 5 laps it is time for a group of personal one on one lessons. This is very important to do before you get too far into your training to stop you from developing really bad habits. Anything that you read says that successful swimming is more about form than fitness. So take a lesson every two weeks for about two or three months.
– Then it is time to get back into the pool. Set some goals and keep swimming. If you are able to, one nice thing to have done is to have someone record you swimming once and awhile. you will be surprised about some of the things that you are doing.
– When choosing a bike simply walk to your garage and whatever bike is there is the bike you should ride. Before my first triathlon I am sure that I drove my wife crazy talking about buying a new road bike. In the end, I am very happy that I didn’t. I ride a Trek FX and was very happy with it for my triathlon racing. One thing that I was concerned about is that I would be the only one without a road or triathlon bike – far from the truth. There are all sorts of bikes at a triathlon, even the smaller triathlons.
– One thing that I learned is that bike fitness does matter. With not allowing myself to get wrapped into the potential training demands I did very little biking. If I were to focus on improving my overall time at a triathlon this is probably one area that I could focus on.
– Being a very slow swimmer I had the chance to pass several people on the bike. It may sound weird but I have no desire to be a front of the pack triathlete or runner. When you are in the back of the pack you get a chance to get to know other racers. I believe the bike is the best opportunity for this. So as you are on the bike do not be shy about starting short conversations as you pass others or as others pass you. I remember talking to two sisters who trained together, a daughter who was riding for her dying mother, teasing my coworker as I passed him, and so on.
– With running being the final sport of the three I would encourage you to have a pretty good base. By the time you get to this sport you are getting tired. Be sure that you are able to run a few miles further than the race distance itself.
– I would also practice what they call brick workouts. This would be going for a bike ride and then a run. Your first time you will be amazed at how your legs feel like, well, bricks.
– If you don’t have a history of running I would sign up for a quick local 5k. Most communities have them on most summer weekends. This will help you get a taste of a race.
– Mix things up (this can actually go for all three sports). For me I usually focus on three types of running workouts. They would be long (long and easy), tempo (shorter but all out) and hills (probably doesn’t need any explaining – running up and down hills – hurts like hell but so much fun). This helps you mix things up and encourages better fitness. If you have time there are other types of workouts so feel free to just do a quick search and many websites will explain those.
– Otherwise, simply enjoy this portion as you are guiding in to the finish of your first triathlon.
– Put together a schedule. This will help you keep everything organized but also encourage you to do it – no different from getting up for work (you know what days and what time you are needed in the office and you show up).
– Remember to check yourself here and there to make sure that you are having fun.
– Keep it prioritized as it should be. In my case it is behind faith, family, friends, and many more other things. For me, it is truly a hobby and how much time it takes up must match that. I would encourage you to take a deep look at this as well.
– Find someone who is willing to answer your questions as you train, but even more so as the race day gets closer, you will have questions. I am also happy to answer any you leave in comments here.
Finally, be safe and have fun.
Join me as my 2015 triathlon race will be the Lifetime Minneapolis Triathlon. Would love to hear about others doing their first triathlon this weekend.
See you in the waters!