Preparing for Your First Triathlon

With the booming growth of Ironman and the spectacular addition of triathlon to the Olympics, our sport has grown in leaps and bounds – especially in North America.  Today, there are more people training for and competing in triathlon than ever before and there is no better time to consider participating in your first multi-sport event. If you are already running races, you will have a great base of cardiovascular fitness. You can use that base as a platform for triathlon, and enjoy the challenge of learning some new skills!

In completing your first triathlon there are some key concepts that you need to keep in mind, the most important being “enjoy the experience”.  From the day that you decide to do the race until you cross the finish line, relish the experience.  You will quickly find out that triathlon is a lifestyle more than a race.  Don’t place unrealistic expectations on yourself for your first race or undue pressure.  A triathlon is as much a social gathering as it is a race, and for the first time you should treat it as such. 

The following are some basic suggestions that will help you in getting your first race under your belt with as few unexpected surprises as possible (except for how well you are going to do!)

Choose the event that you want to compete in.

This may be a local fun race, or you may want to travel for a fitness race-vacation. It is up to you, but make sure that it is something that excites you, and motivates you to get to the start line.  Look for an appropriate event early in the year as the most popular events are filling up very quickly.  Finally, pick an event at least 3 months away so that you have time to prepare for it. Most athletes start with a sprint or Olympic distance race as their first. These distances will provide the greatest chance of early success.

Get a coach and a training partner.

Once you have decided upon completing your first triathlon, drag a friend/partner/relative into it with you, and get a coach.  There are some good reasons for this.  Training with someone is more fun, and sharing the experience is more inspiring.  Those mornings that your pillow is calling you back to bed, the knowledge that someone is waiting for you will be a call to action!  Working with a coach is a good idea, as they will actively work to keep you motivated while guiding you through your first season.  Make sure the coach you choose is experienced and has a proven track record.

Finding facilities

You will need to find some facilities in which to practice.  Running is easy, it can be done outside almost all year round (dress appropriately!). Biking and swimming take some planning. Most communities have at least one pool and many gyms are now offering spin classes, which work well in lieu of outdoor riding.  The local YM-YWCA will be a good, inexpensive choice, but depending on your schedule and budget there may well be other options.  Pick a facility that motivates you to go, taking all factors into consideration; even if a gym has nice scenery, and state of the art machines, if you have to fight traffic after work to get there you may end up avoiding the place. Plan to try some outdoor riding on quieter, country roads.

Developing a Program

You’ve taken the hardest step – the first one.  You’ve decided to begin training; but don’t train in vain.  Train smart.  You want to get the most you can from the time that you are investing in training.  More doesn’t equal better. 

Having a program to follow will help you to maintain your motivation, get you to workouts, and develop your burgeoning talent.  The best way to ensure that you are maximizing your training is to get a coach, but if that is not a viable option, it is possible to figure out a basic training plan through doing some research. 

One common mistake that new triathletes make when starting out is training their best event. Running fast after struggling through a swim practice gives them a feeling of confidence.  Nobody is equally strong in all three disciplines of triathlon, so focus more on your primary area for improvement so that you become a well-rounded triathlete.  For example, if you are a weaker swimmer, try to hit the pool three times a week, and bike and run twice a week.


Make sure that your training is moving forward at an appropriate pace.  Ensure that you are not doing the same schedule week after week, with the same workouts.  You need to increase the speed, intensity, or duration of your workouts or else you will plateau.  Likewise, be careful not to increase your distance or intensity too much at a time.  A safe rate of increase is to up your distance by no more that 10% a week.  In your progression, plan in a day or two of complete rest (from training that is) each week, and an easier recovery week every third or fourth week of your training plan.

Equipment Needed

As with almost every sport, you are going to be required to procure some equipment so that you can complete your first triathlon.  You don’t need to rush out and buy these things, in fact I recommend against that.  Wait until you have done one or two events, to decide if you really need it.  The basics you will need to beg, borrow, or steal are:

  • Running shoes
  • Bike: Any safe bike with functioning gears will do. A road bike is preferable.
  • Bike Helmet (Safety Approved)
  • Swimsuit
  • Goggles
  • Wetsuit (to at least borrow for race day)

There are also a multitude of other little goodies that will assist you in both training and completing triathlons as quickly as possible.  A couple of little hints to make life easier are:

  • A floor bike pump (to pump up your tires)
  • Wind/Magnetic/Fluid/Compu Trainer (allows for indoor riding – think stationary bike)
  • Cycling shorts and jersey
  • PowerGels for easy race nutrition
  • Elastic laces (so you don’t have to tie your shoes in transition)
  • Sunglasses (they will not only make you look cool, but protect your eyes from the sun, bugs, and little rocks that shoot up during a ride)

Fuel your Engine!

Your car requires fuel.  You wouldn’t drive your car without gas and oil in it. And you don’t put leaded gasoline in a Ferrari. Your body is no different.  Its gas is good quality carbohydrate and protein, and its oil is water.  Try going for a long ride without taking some food, and you will find out what PowerBar means when they say “Don’t Bonk!”  “Bonking” is the triathlete’s term for the feeling you encounter when your body runs out of carbohydrates.  You become weak, disoriented and extremely fatigued.    Eating properly 1-2 hours before workouts will help to prevent this from occurring.  Taking energy supplements on longer training sessions will also aid in preventing bonking.  Finally, after finishing a workout there is a thirty minute window where your body can optimally use carbohydrate to help recover from the workout and to get you feeling ready for the next session sooner.  So always bring a snack in your gym bag, as well as a water bottle.

If you follow the advice above you will find your first triathlon to be an enjoyable and rewarding experience and is likely a starting point for a wonderful adventure in the sport.  Above all, remember that the best advice is to have fun with it.

LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 28 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Contact Lance to share your goals, race faster, or master the Ironman distance.