How to Train for a Triathlon for the First Time

Triathlon is a scary word for many people, myself included. We imagine that those who compete in triathlons are among the fittest athletes in the world with the capability of breezing through miles of swimming, biking and running. In reality, however, with the proper training, anyone can run a triathlon. Take my dad, for example, who has run several triathlons over the last 30 years, beginning in the early 1980s, when the idea for the competition first arose.

My dad is a fit guy, but I think he would prefer watching football to spending an afternoon in the weight room and would choose a hamburger over a kale salad any day of the week. For him, triathlons weren’t about competing for time, but rather about completing a personal goal to improve his overall health and quality of life. So in order to show you beginners how to train for a triathlon, I interviewed my dear dad about his preparation process and what the average person should expect from their first race.

Can you tell me about your first triathlon?

I did my first triathlon when I was in college. At the time, triathlons were kind of a new thing. We heard legends about these races taking place in Hawaii and no one could believe that there were people running and biking and swimming all that way. I think it was ABC’s Wide World of Sports that televised the first Ironman and that’s when it started to become more mainstream.

My first triathlon was at the beach, so we swam in the ocean. I had trained in my college pool and so I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to swim in the ocean, where the waves are hitting your face and the current is pulling you to one side. The bike ride was along the beach — straight down and straight back. On the way down I was flying; then I made a U-turn and hit the wind … [that race against the wind] was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

What are the most important aspects of training to keep in mind?

I would say that practicing transitions is really important as well as trying to train in the conditions you will be racing in. My first triathlon, I had never practiced the sensation of trying to run after coming off a bike. When I started running my legs felt like cement; I still remember that feeling.

When I was racing in the ocean, I wasn’t prepared for those conditions or that environment. Mentally it was defeating to constantly get pushed 50 yards to the left [by the current]. When I was training in the pool I would lean on the wall to rest, but there’s no wall out in the ocean.

It’s also different training alone and then competing in a group. If you’ve been swimming laps in a pool, you’re not used to jumping into a big lake with a bunch of people whose feet are kicking you in the face. It’s sort of intimidating, and you will get kicked in the face and get knocked out under the water for a second.

What’s something that people often forget to prepare for?

You have to think about the time period between each leg, when you need to change from a bathing suit and put on shorts or put on biking shoes. The hardcore triathletes have special outfits or can change in the designated tents really fast. You also have to think about where you’re going to store your gear … What are you going to do with your bike shoes? Hard-core athletes have their shoes locked into their pedals because they are trying to shave seconds off their time. You need to think about things like goggles, snacks and drinks. An average guy like me doesn’t mind grabbing a granola bar to go, but the serious racers are so much more high-tech, so you have to think about your goal and what gear you need to accomplish that.

What is the most challenging leg of a triathlon, in your opinion?

You think it would be swimming, but when you competitively race on a bike it is so fatiguing. Biking is the hardest I think because you have a tendency to say, “Riding a bike is easy; I can go fast.” And then you get tired.

What are differences you noticed between your first and most recent triathlon?

Well for the first I was obviously a lot more fit. The one I did a couple years ago was just a sprint triathlon [recommended for beginners]. It was cool because the last leg of the race was in the pool so we all got to the pool at different times. We had to do these zig zag laps and I remember my arms were burning like crazy the last lap.

Any memorable stories?

I had signed up for one right after college, but the day of got so sick — I had the flu. I went to the starting point but realized I was too sick to race. My best friend came to watch but wasn’t competing because he had been out for months with an ACL injury. When I told him I couldn’t race, he ripped my number off my shirt and competed for me, limping all the way on his bad knee. He finished in last place and I remember that the next day in the newspaper they published the results of the triathlon and my name was dead last out of like, 400 people.

The other funny thing about that was I remember waiting for [my friend] to finish and coming in right before him was the huge, jacked guy that looked like an NFL player. We had seen him before the race and thought, he’s going to kill it. It just goes to show you that looks are deceiving. There are 95-lb women out there who could kick my ass.