You've done it–you committed to completing your first triathlon. Whether or not you've registered, commitment is the first step toward accomplishing this significant goal.
Completing your first triathlon can feel daunting, no matter what distance triathlon you're preparing to conquer. You may feel a bit panicked, wondering what you signed up for. Perhaps you're excited about the challenge. No matter how you enter this journey, you belong here and can do it! But the correct information can make all the difference.
One thing you'll discover is how much information and how many different opinions there are about training for triathlons. It's easy to get overwhelmed.
I've been racing triathlons and coaching triathletes at every level for years, so I wanted to share some of my top tips and advice that every triathlete should know.
1. You don't need all the gadgets and gizmos and gear.
Triathlons do require a lot of gear, but it doesn't have to break the bank–especially when you're getting started. Really, it takes a season or two of consistent training and completing a few races to learn what gear best fits your wants and needs.
Even though there are countless gadgets and gizmos on the market for triathletes, it's ok to start with the basics and upgrade as your experience and abilities demand.
Craigslist, Facebook buy-sell-trade pages, and eBay can be excellent places to find gently used gear at great prices.
Here's the bare minimum gear you'll need to successfully train for and complete your first triathlon:
Race kit: You don't need to purchase a high-end speed suit (though you can find many gently used ones for sale). Many triathletes compete in a swimsuit or tri shorts and a top. Choose something snug fitting that's comfortable to swim, bike, and run in. Remember, changing your top in the transition area is fine.
Wetsuit: This only applies if your race occurs when the water is cold. It's also a matter of personal preference. Plenty of athletes choose to skip the wetsuit or choose warm-water races. If you think you'll want to wear a wetsuit but don't want to purchase one, consider renting a wetsuit for your first race. Just be sure to do at least one or two practice swims before your race. Swimming in a wetsuit can feel very different than swimming without one.
Goggles: Any pair of goggles will work as long as they're comfortable.
A bike: Focus on comfort and fit when looking for a bike. It's more fun to train for your first triathlon when you have a bike that's fun to ride. You'll see all kinds of bikes in the transition area on race morning–especially if you're participating in a sprint, Olympic, or 70.3 triathlon. Consider a road bike if you're relatively new to cycling. They're much easier to ride when developing endurance and good bike-handling skills.
Bike helmet: USA Triathlon requires every athlete to wear a bike helmet that is approved by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Look inside the helmet to ensure it has a CPSC sticker. That is the only requirement. Any proper-fitting helmet with that certification will work great for your first triathlon!
Running shoes: This is one area you don't want to be overly cheap. You don't need a pair of Nike Vapor Fly super-shoes but you will need a pair of quality, comfortable running shoes for training and racing. Consider visiting your local running store to get a foot analysis. The experts there can help you choose the right shoes.
Race belt: This small accessory makes wearing the required race number on the bike and/or run easier. You probably won't want to wear that paper bib during the swim, and fumbling with safety pins isn't fun. These $10-15 race belts are the perfect solution (but an elastic string long enough to go around your waist will work, too).
Anti-chafing cream: Trust me, you'll want this. When you're going from swimming to biking and running, most triathletes experience chafing from time to time. Body Glide, Trislide, and 2Toms are three of the most popular anti-chafing products on the market, but there are many other high-quality options.
2. Everyone needs a training plan.
Training for three sports is a juggling act, especially when you're working to maintain some balance with everything else in life. A training plan takes the guesswork out of training, keeps you on track, helps you train each discipline at the appropriate level, and prevents over-training.
While there are many free or inexpensive "canned" training plans on the internet, I recommend at least investing in a personalized training plan.
With a personalized plan, a coach will assess your current fitness levels, life demands, and goals to develop a custom training plan that will best prepare you for success in your first triathlon.
"Canned" training plans often have too many "junk" miles built in, putting athletes at risk of overtraining. They're also very generalized, making it difficult for athletes to adapt to their personal needs and goals.
If you have the financial ability to invest in one-on-one coaching, that is a valuable purchase for all athletes at every level of experience. A quality coach will help you balance training, work, and life, help you build on your strengths and shore up weaknesses, and develop a good hydration and nutrition plan for race day.
While it might seem like a luxury investment, an endurance coach can set you up for long-term triathlon enjoyment, health, and success.
3. Set a realistic goal.
When training for your first triathlon, I always recommend that the first focus is to finish and have fun. Completing a triathlon of any distance is a significant accomplishment.
Whether your goal is to finish or to post a competitive time, that goal will help determine the volume and type of training you need to accomplish that goal.
Consider setting smaller "process" goals along the way, too. Process goals allow you to grow through the entire training and racing process. They enable you to celebrate progress rather than limit your focus to outcome-based goals, like finishing in a specific time.
For example, if swimming is your Achilles heel, consider setting a goal of completing the swim calmly and consistently. Or you may choose to focus on keeping positive self-talk through challenging workouts to improve your mental resilience.
I encourage my athletes to set both race day goals and process goals so they can enjoy mental and physical growth throughout the training and racing process.
4. Don't skip strength and conditioning.
I get it–training for the swim, bike, AND run takes a lot of time and energy. You're probably thinking, "Where will it all fit into the schedule!?" Strength and conditioning is often the first thing to slide off a triathlete's priority list. But it's actually quite crucial for all athletes.
Strength and conditioning are critical for injury prevention and overall health. As your training volume increases, you'll need a strong core to keep your muscles and joints healthy.
Don't panic. I'm not talking about spending several hours lifting heavy weights. Even two 20-min strength sessions each week can be enough. A good coach will help you get creative to work the right strength and conditioning into your routine.
If you're using a "canned" training plan, consider adding one or two 20-min core strength sessions and one or two yoga sessions into your week. Your body will thank you.
4. Practice everything before race day.
Do a "race rehearsal" before race day. Take time in the weeks leading up to your first triathlon to visualize the race. Visualize everything you want to do when you get to the race venue.
Practice setting up your transition area so you know where to put everything. Go through all the motions before race day. This will help calm your nerves because you'll know what you need to do. Even professional triathletes practice their race day routines.
If you have an opportunity to ride or drive the bike course before race day, that can go a long way to calm your nerves.
Pro tip 1: Write your name and phone number on all your gear with a permanent marker. In the unlikely event that you lose something or another athlete has the exact same gear, it will be easier to be reunited with your belongings (accidents happen, especially when everyone's running through the transition area).
Pro tip 2: Clip your toenails at least 4 days before race day. This one may sound weird, but you don't want long toenails that might cause issues, and you don't want to clip your nails too close to race day–just in case.
Some triathletes joke that "Tuesday toenail day" is the best day to cut their nails for a Sunday race.
Regardless of when you choose to do some foot and nail care, be sure your feet are in tip-top shape for race day (and if pedicures are your thing, try to keep your callouses… those will protect your feet from nasty blisters).
5. Don't skip the bike tune-up.
Whether you feel confident to complete your own bike maintenance or you take your bike to your local bike shop, don't skip the bike tune-up before race day. Nobody wants their race to be derailed by a minor bike mechanical issue.
6. Everyone gets nervous–it's not just you!
Whether it's race-day jitters or training fears, every triathlete experiences nerves, anxiety, and a host of other emotions. When you show up on race day and see the overly-confident experienced athletes, rest assured they're probably feeling a lot of emotions, too.
Visualization is a powerful tool for staying calm. Visualize finishing the swim and getting out of the water. Mentally go through the motions of putting on your helmet and getting on your bike.
Of course, remember to visualize the finish line and all the feelings of accomplishing your goal. When you start feeling those race morning jitters, take a deep breath and mentally go through all the steps you plan to do.
Many triathletes use meditation apps and other calming strategies for race morning. Don't be surprised if you see many athletes walking around the transition area with headphones on, seemingly lost in their own world. They're probably visualizing their own race.
7. Don't forget to enjoy the process!
Above all, don't forget to enjoy the process of training and preparing for your first triathlon. This is meant to be a positive addition to your lifestyle. Don't be afraid to try different things and find what works best for you.
I could keep going with many more "pro tips for first-time triathletes," but I'll stop there. What I want you to hear most clearly is that you CAN do this! Triathlon is a beautiful sport that is challenging, exciting, invigorating, emotional, and inspiring. The key is to enjoy the journey, celebrate your accomplishments along the way, and relish the start and finish lines.
If you'd like to chat about how I can help you conquer your first triathlon, send me an email!
Gregg Edelstein is a certified USA Triathlon Level 1 Coach, an IRONMAN University Certified Coach, and a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach based in the greaterinto Boston area. Gregg offers his athletes insight on the principles of exercise, nutrition, sports psychology, and injury prevention, working to make them well-rounded and engaged athletes that share his passion for sport. Gregg can be reached at Greg@TeamMPI.com