Completing a triathlon can be a grueling physical feat — but the challenge of training, the camaraderie among participants, and the sense of accomplishment when you cross the finish line are just a few of the reasons why so many people are deciding to “give tri a try.”
Still, signing up for your first triathlon can be intimidating. When I entered my first sprint triathlon almost 15 years ago, I was genuinely uncertain about whether or not I would finish the race. Sure, I knew how to swim, and I had done plenty of running, but I was a rookie cyclist and I had no idea if I’d be able to put all three sports together.
But I did — and I’ll never ever forget the joy and jubilation I felt as I neared the finish line. I was buzzing for days, and it wasn’t long before I found myself registering for other races. Just a few years later, I quit my job as a newspaper journalist to become a professional triathlete.
Sure, the triathlon bug bites some of us harder than others. But even if you just want to check “run a triathlon” off your bucket list, there are a few key things you need to know before you register for your first one.
How Long Is a Triathlon?
A triathlon typically combines swimming, cycling, and running. (There are other variations that include sports like paddleboarding, kayaking, or mountain biking, but we’ll stick with the basic triathlon here.)
For many people, the word “triathlon” conjures up images of the Ironman race series, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run (yep, a full marathon). But if you’re not quite ready for that yet, there are plenty of shorter triathlon options:
- The Ironman 70.3 is essentially a half Ironman, consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1-mile run.
- A sprint triathlon typically consist of a 0.5-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride, and a three-mile run.
- An Olympic triathlon consists of a 0.9-mile swim, 24-mile bike ride, and a six-mile run.
On the other end of the distance spectrum, an ultra-triathlon is anything longer than a full Ironman
If you’re new to the sport, your best bet is to start with a sprint triathlon. That will allow you to ease into multi-sport training, building the foundation of strength, power, and cardiovascular endurance necessary to tackle longer distances without increasing your risk of overtraining or injury. Plus, training for a sprint triathlon involves a relatively low time commitment, so you can get a taste for the sport without having to completely rearrange your life.
What Gear Do You Need for a Triathlon?
Once you catch the triathlon bug, you’ll likely start geeking out over the latest bikes, the newest swim tech, and cutting-edge shoes. But all of that can drain your wallet, and it’s not necessary right away.
For your first triathlon — especially if you’re preparing for a sprint triathlon — all you need are a few basic pieces of equipment.
- Swimsuit, cap, and goggles. If you’ll be racing in chilly conditions, you also might want to consider buying a wetsuit.
- Bicycle. No need to get fancy (yet). A road, mountain, or hybrid bike will do the trick as long as it fits you and is in good working order.
- Cycling shorts. Trust me, these are a smart investment, especially if chafing and saddle sores don’t appeal to you.
- Cycling shoes and clipless pedals. These aren’t essential, but they’re worthwhile if you decide to continue with triathlons, as they can increase your power and efficiency on the bike.
- Running shoes. You don’t have to break the bank, but it’s important to find the best running shoe for you. Head to a local running store to get fitted by a salesperson who can help determine the right running shoes for your biomechanics and athletic needs.
Triathlon Training Tips
If the thought of training for three different sports at the same time sounds daunting, you’re not alone — every triathlete knows how you feel. But if you’re training for a sprint triathlon, you don’t need to log long hours in each discipline to build a solid foundation for your first race.
You can make remarkable gains during a typical 12-week training period by committing to just five or six hours per week spread over five or six days.
As a general rule, you want to spend 50 percent of your training hours cycling, 30 percent of them swimming, and 20 percent of them running.
The Basics of Cycling
Frequency: Two to three times per week
Cycling makes up the largest part of the race, so it only makes sense that it should take up the largest chunk of your training. Focus on building endurance with longer, steady-state rides before you start adding speed work to the mix in the form of tempo rides and intervals. (For more info, check out the four kinds of cycling workouts every cyclist should do.)
The Basics of Swimming
Frequency: Twice per week
Unless you’re an accomplished swimmer, you’ll likely find this discipline the most challenging. My advice: Invest in some adult swim classes to simultaneously improve technique and develop fitness. Once you’re comfortable in the pool, consider occasionally taking your swim workout into open water, such as an ocean or lake. You won’t believe how much it can ease your anxiety on race day.
The Basics of Running
Frequency: Once or twice per week
The running leg of a sprint triathlon is only three miles, so your training regimen is as simple as lacing up and logging miles. But as you progress to longer events, you’ll need to train harder and weave in some speed work. If you’re competing in an Ironman 70.3, for example, you’ll need to be prepared to run a half marathon.
Even if you’re a seasoned runner, keep in mind the final leg of a triathlon isn’t like a typical road race. You’re transitioning from the bike, so your legs aren’t fresh. Prepare for that by adding “bike to run” sessions to your routine once your body has adjusted to the rigors of multi-sport training (after a few weeks). These are exactly what they sound like — cycle for a while, and then jump off the bike and start running, pausing only long enough to switch shoes.
The Basics of Strength Training
Frequency: Once per week
Recreational endurance athletes often skip this aspect of their training. Here’s why you shouldn’t: Research suggests strength training can increase your speed, running economy, and time to exhaustion. If you’re doing five days of cardio per week, give strength training its own day. If you’re doing cardio six days per week, perform your strength training on the same day as a “distance” cycling or running workout.
Rest and Recovery
Frequency: Once per week
It’s advisable to plan a recovery day each week — especially when you’re just starting out. Either take the entire day off, or do “active recovery” in the form of a very light swim or a restorative practice like yoga. Use this time to reboot physically and mentally, and try to keep it as stress-free as possible.
Triathlon Training Plan
Not sure if you can fit triathlon training into your hectic schedule? Here’s a sample weekly training schedule to help you plan your workouts and train for all three events.