You’ve likely heard that “variety is the spice of life,” and when it comes to exercise, this is definitely true. Switching up your activities can help you stay motivated, reduce boredom and decrease your chances of suffering an injury. It may even help you reach a new level of fitness.
If you are looking for a challenging way to add variety to your routine, you might want to consider the possibility of entering a triathlon, a continuous endurance race that involves swimming, cycling, and running. Forget about focusing on just one form of cardio, as you would with a marathon—a triathlon provides natural cross-training. And there’s a built-in incentive because finishing a triathlon is synonymous with accomplishment—no matter what your speed or where you finish in the pack. If you’re interested in getting ready for a spring triathlon, this is the perfect time to begin your preparations. Here’s how to train for a triathlon:
- Choose a race. It’s best to look for a short or “sprint” triathlon if this is your first race. They’re called this because the distances are usually considerably shorter than the Olympic distance triathlons (1.5 kilometers of swimming, 40 kilometers of cycling, and a 10K run). Ideally, your first triathlon will include a 400- to 800-meter swim (usually in a lake or ocean, but sometimes in a pool), 20 to 25 kilometers of cycling, and a 5K run. For information on finding races in your area, check out Beginner Triathlete or USA Triathlon.
2. Learn about the three legs.
If you’re thinking of doing a triathlon, chances are you already feel comfortable with at least one of the three disciplines. Below are guidelines for each leg of the triathlon designed to help you out whether you’re just beginning or are an experienced veteran.
If swimming is new to you, focus on learning to swim safely and correctly by taking lessons and/or joining a master’s swimming group in your area. Take heart that the swim portion of any triathlon is short relative to the other legs. All you need to do is focus on being able to comfortably cover the distance—not how fast you go. A good prerequisite to fulfill before beginning triathlon training is being able to swim continuously for 15 to 20 minutes at any speed.
A couple of important issues for beginners are finding a bicycle that fits properly and getting a certified helmet. Check with a local bike shop-not a department store where the staff is trained on how to fit your bicycle to your dimensions and riding style. Most shops include this service with the purchase of a new bike. You can also pay to have your old bike adjusted to fit-just be aware that some of the adjustments may require buying some new parts if the bike fit is way off. As for a helmet, be sure you purchase one that is approved by ASTM, CSA or Snell, three groups that provide safety standards for sports headgear and helmets; check inside the helmet for a certification sticker. Before beginning training for your triathlon, build-up to the point where you can go 45 continuous minutes on your bike at any speed.
Another decision you’ll need to make is what type of shoes to wear. You can wear regular running shoes and ride with regular (flat) pedals or pedals with toe clips (metal cages with straps that hold your feet on the pedal). Or you may want to invest in a rigid-soled cycling shoe that can be used with flat pedals or toe clips; this prevents your foot from flexing, which helps you push down on the pedal much more effectively. (You can also purchase cycling shoes with cleats and compatible pedals; although this set-up is most efficient, it is more expensive and takes some getting used to.) Obviously, if you go with special cycling shoes, you’ll also need to bring along a pair of running shoes for that portion of the race.
- Running: Once again, there’s no need to run fast to be able to train for or participate in a triathlon. In fact, you’ll get faster just by learning to run continuously. If you’ve just started running, check out Your 5K-Training Schedule. Ideally, you should be able to do 30 minutes of steady running at any speed before embarking on your triathlon training.
To prepare your legs for the race, it’s essential that some of your runs be done immediately after cycling. (This type of training that stacks one discipline on top of another is called “brick” training.) Because the bike-to-run transition is so difficult, it’s essential to practice it in training. Do this by adding a bike-to-run “brick” on one day per week in your last month of training (see the sample schedule below).
- Master transitions.
The transitions from one discipline to another make the triathlon what it is. It’s one thing to do a hard effort in just one sport and then kick back with a cold glass of water and a healthy lunch. But in a triathlon, you have to immediately change clothes and equipment and get back on the course, all the while trying to convince your already-tired muscles to do a totally different sport.
Things to consider about your transitions:
What to wear. You’ll come out of the water in your bathing suit and have to decide if you’ll ride in just your suit or if you’d be more comfortable slipping cycling shorts over the suit for the bike portion. On the next leg, you’ll have to decide again whether you want to do the run in just your bathing suit or the-cycling-shorts-over-the-bathing-suit combo, or if you want to slip running shorts over the bathing suit. (With shorter triathlons, there are generally no changing stations to do a complete change.) Ultimately, the choice comes down to your personal preferences. Things to consider when making your decision are how modest you are (are you comfortable running or biking in front of others in just a swimsuit?), whether you want or need the extra padding and protection from chafing that real cycling shorts provide and, finally, whether you feel comfortable running in the cycling shorts or would rather change out of them and pull on running shorts (which are made of a lighter material for better breathability and don;t have the padding to get in the way while running) over your bathing suit.
The sand solution. After running from the water to the transition area, your feet may be wet and dirty or sandy. A quick rinse with a water bottle (separate from the bottles you need for drinking) and a wipe with a towel before putting on your shoes can make you much more comfortable.
Fueling the fire. For shorter races, you may not want to eat anything. But a quick hit of an energy drink or an energy gel and water can give you a boost of energy and motivation. Practice with different combinations in training so you know what works when race day arrives. And don’t forget to put extra water or energy drink in the bottle cages on your bicycle.
Parking pointers. On race day, be sure to get to the site early to pick a good spot in the transition area. The transitions from the swim to the bike and from the bike to the run typically take place in the same location, and each athlete has a “stall” in a row of bicycle racks where she can put her bike, shoes, food, drink, towels, etc. Pick a landmark to help remember where you put your stuff. Then lay everything you need out in the same way you’ve practiced in training.
- Set a training schedule.
A great goal for beginners is to swim, bike and run twice a week; the sample training schedule below helps you meet this goal. It has you doing the more time-consuming workouts on Saturday and Sunday and gives you two days off each week. As long as you follow the guideline of doing one short and one long workout for each leg during the week, you can switch the days up to fit your schedule.
The times listed are the suggested minimums (starting duration) and maximums (the target to build up to) for each discipline on a given day. The actual amount of training time you choose to start with and, therefore, how quickly you progress, will vary widely based on your current fitness level in each discipline. And it’s a good idea to take an easy week every three to four weeks—during this week, you should cut back on the duration of your workouts by about 25 to 50 percent as well as reduce the intensity of your workouts to a level considered light.
How To Train For A Triathlon
Monday – Off
Tuesday – Long swim (15 to 40 minutes)
Wednesday – Short bike (30 to 45 minutes)
Thursday – Short swim (15 to 20 minutes) and short run (15 to 20 minutes)
Friday – Off
Saturday – Long bike (45 to 90 minutes)
Sunday – Long run (30 to 45 minutes), or short bike (30 to 45 minutes) and short run (15 to 20 minutes) “brick” in last month of training