A Beginner’s Guide to Triathlon
This is a quick, Irish specific Beginner’s Guide to Triathlon. It’s based on several years of queries from athletes I’ve coached, competitors at races I’ve organised and from readers of the IrishTriathlon website as well as some internet guides (notably Paul May’s).
It covers beginners training tips, equipment advise and a guide for your first triathlon. Plus I try to debunk some of the myths surrounding the very positive and sociable sport of triathlon.
If you have any questions just leave a comment at the bottom and I’ll get back to you. No question is silly.
What is Triathlon?
A triathlon is a multi-sport endurance event consisting of swimming, cycling, and running in immediate succession over various distances. Triathletes compete for fastest overall course completion time, including timed “transitions” between the individual swim, bike, and run components.
Other common multisports in Ireland include Duathlon (run – cycle – run), Aquathon (swim – run), and Adventure Racing (mountain run – cycle – kayak). A multisport is different from something like heptathlon, decathlon or modern pentathlon where there is a period of time/rest/shooting the breeze between doing one sport and the next. The fun of all multisports, including Triathlon, is that the “transition”between the sports is crucial, as well as the sports themselves.
There’s two school of thought when it comes to the history of Triathlon, with most believing that the modern sport of triathlon developed out of San Diego in the 1970’s. However triathlon type events took place in the early 1900’s in France, so they claim to be the first.
The sport of Triathlon that we recognise today began at the San Diego Track Club in the early 1970s as a fun diversion from normal athletics training. As is the way with these things, people got competitive and a more structured race format started to emerge. Soon other athletics clubs and individuals were competing and organising Triathlons, and the sport has continued in an unbroken line since then.
Triathlon grew in popularity throughout the 70s and 80s; and in 1989 the ITU was formed to govern the sport globally. Within only 6 years the ‘International Triathlon Union’ (ITU) had managed to gain agreement from the IOC that Olympic status would be given to sport (the Olympic distance Triathlon is cleverly based on three existing Olympic events; the 1500m freestyle swim, 40Km cycle and 10K run). The first official Olympic event taking place at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Triathlon today is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. There are over 100 national bodies funding and supporting local clubs and events. Internationally, two significant bodies have developed. The ITU mainly promotes Olympic style short course triathlon and the ‘World Triathlon Corporation’ (WTC) which mainly promotes long distance Ironman triathlon.
There are many different distances and types of Triathlon, from children’s distances and super-sprint distances, through to the most common distances Super-Sprint, Sprint and Olympic and the longer Half and Full distances (aka Half-Ironman, Ironman).
Most races conform to these distances:
Super Sprint/Try-a-Tri – Swim 400m-500m, cycle 15km-20km, run 3-5km
Sprint – Swim 750m, Cycle 20K, Run 5K
Standard/Olympic – Swim 1500m, Cycle 40K, Run 10K.
Half/Half Ironman/Ironman70.3 -Swim 1900m, Cycle 90K, Run 21.09K.
Full/Ironman – Swim 3800m, Cycle 180K, Run 42.2K
Note: the overwhelming majority of triathlons are Sprint or Olympic distance, making up 80-90% of all triathlons in Ireland.
Triathlon in Ireland
In Ireland, Triathlon has grown explosively in the last 10 years, but the first races was way back in 1983 in Skerries, Co. Dublin and Greystones, co. Wicklow. Maurice Mullins was the driving force behind the swim, cycle, run Skerries Triathlon, while Gerry Kelly was the organizer of the bike, run, swim Greystones triathlon, which was won by Michael (Mick) Walsh, a top Irish cyclist at the time won the event. A list of all Irish Champions since the 1980’s can be found here. The Irish Triathlon race calendar now has over 200 events all year round, but it’s really packed from May to September, with three or more races every weekend.
The vast majority of events have 200 or less competitors and so are small and friendly in nature.
In 2010 the ten biggest triathlons and multi-sport races in Ireland were:
Kilkee, Kilkenny, Dunmore East, Dublin City, TriAthy & TriAthlone.
Adventure Races: WAR- Wicklow Adventure Race series, GaelForce West, Connemara Adventure Challenge & Sea-2-Summit.
Basic equipment required with basic costs are:
- Swim: wetsuit, goggles and a hat. (basic cost ~ €200)
- Cycle: Racing bike and helmet (basic cost ~ €700. The ‘cycle to work’ scheme will half this price)
- Run: Road running shoes (basic cost ~ €70)
- Race Clothing: the best option is a tri-suit (basic cost ~ €80)
As with a lot of sports, the whole equipment questions is a bit like the piece of string question. As this guide is aimed at the beginner, I’m recommending basic equipment, as your fitness will have a much bigger influence on performance than equipment. When you’re aiming to win races, yes that 30second gained with a sperm helmet is worth it, but not at the beginners level.
Have a look at this transition photo from the Runways Duathlon in the Phoenix Park and you’ll see that the vast majority of bikes are entry level road bikes costing less than €1000. The performance end of the sport in Ireland is very small.
Equipment in more detail:
- A swimsuit or swimming shorts - these shouldn’t be baggy, they should fit you snugly/comfortably so that you don’t drag through the water; it makes a difference. Most or all sports shops will have swimming gear and these should set you back about €20. Popular brands include BlueSeventy, Spiuk, Speedo, Zoggs, Aquasphere, 2XU. If you are feeling adventurous you can get tri-shorts or a tri-suit which is a combination of a swimsuit with a chamois (padding) for cycling. These are great because you when you come out of the water you can get onto the bike with some comfort, and you can swim in them while training if you like.
- A Wetsuit – In Ireland you will more than likely need a wetsuit to race as practically all open water races require one. For safety, speed and warmth, wetsuits are great. Plus they make you about 10% faster. The suit you rent or buy should be triathlon specific, meaning that it’s flexible at the shoulders to allow you to swim comfortably.
You can spend any amount of money on a suit but it needs to fit well…perfectly in fact. Swimming in a suit that is the wrong size is miserable; if it’s too small you will expend a tonne of energy fighting the suit, your breathing will be difficult and getting out of the suit in transition will be a nightmare (you will also probably damage the suit taking it off). If the suit is too big then the cuffs and neck will be loose, you’ll take on a lot of water, the suit will drag and you will move like a barge in the water. Take time picking a wetsuit, try on a few, swim in them if you can and pick one that gives you a good range of motion, feels snug but not too tight and is within your price range. If you’re worried that you’ll look fat/lumpy/skinny/weird in the suit then you shouldn’t; you will definitely look fat/lumpy/skinny/weird – but don’t let this influence the size you pick (seriously, don’t pick a smaller wetsuit in the hope that it’ll hold in your bits and make you look good – it won’t, and you’ll struggle in the water).
- Goggles – Goggles are a bit of a personal thing. Your goggles should fit snugly, form a tight seal against your eyes and nose, and give you enough range of vision to see where you’re going. A tinted lens is useful; especially in races where you’re swimming into the sun. A lot of triathletes train and race in fairly standard goggles, but some people use more visor style goggles with larger lenses. I use a pair of Speedo goggles with large wide-vision lenses, and they are pretty good.
- Swimming Hat-
Always wear a swimming hat when you swim, especially in open water. Your head gives off a lot of heat and with the cooling effect of the water flowing over your head you are literally dumping heat out of your body like a heat exchanger or car radiator. A brightly coloured (for safety) well insulated swimming hat is a cheap way to stay warmer when you swim. Top tip: wear 2 hats. Put on the thicker one first then your goggle, finally the second hat. This will stop your goggle slipping, while keeping you a bit warmer.
- Runners & Running Socks – If you don’t already run then you should get your feet properly assessed at a running shop and buy the runners that are good for your feet. Spending a little bit of time at the beginning finding runners that match your foot type is time well spent. Running in the wrong shoes is no fun at all, and eventually you can do damage to your ankles, knees, hips (I speak from personal experience here). Do not, under any circumstances, wander into a “sports” shop (where they don’t actually know anything about sport…you know the shop) and let a sales assistant pick runners for you because they are new and cool, or pick the most expensive/most well known brand. The right runners for you will cost no more than the wrong runners.
- Running socks are non-cotton socks that move smoothly inside your shoe and won’t chafe. Do not run in cotton socks. They will get soggy, clump in your shoe and form little creases – these creases will then cut your feet as you move and cause discomfort. Running socks are cheap and will save you a lot of hassle. You probably won’t race in socks (you’ll just throw your runners on and get motoring) but they are great for training.
- A Bike – Practically any bike will do for your first race. Yes, you can race on a hybrid or mountain bike and you can modify practically any racing bike to make it a more efficient triathlon bike. If you’re going to use a bike that you already own then make sure that your gears, brakes and tyres are in good shape. If you’re going to buy a bike then take some time to get one that is the right size for you. Most good bike shops will be able to measure you and match the right frame size to your measurements. Top Tip: Use the bike to work scheme to half the cost of the bike. Use can offset the first €1000 of the cost of bike, helmet, shoes and other cycling kit against tax, essentially halfing the price. Ask any bike shop for details.
Training for Triathlon
Training for Triathlon is fun and challenging; it takes some planning and some effort – but the vast majority of people will be able to fit enough training around their work and life to finish a sprint or Olympic distance race. For a comparison a sprint distance triathlon is about as taxing as a 10km running race and an Olympic triathlon is comparable to a 1/2 marathon.
There are lots and lots of websites that have free, downloadable training plans. Here on IrishTriathlon there’s the beginners training plan by Wicklow based coach Eamonn Tilley and the advise for your first Duathlon from Limerick based coach Mark Dempsey. Plus open water swim tips from Tri-Planet. There’s plenty more advise in the training section. These plans are generally a good source of information, in that they show the approximate effort required to build up to a race, but a few words of caution before you start following an off-the-shelf plan:
- They are completely oblivious to your own personal circumstances. Even though most of the plans say that they need to be tailored to your own needs, there is only so much tailoring you can do to a plan that says you must do X sessions or distance every week.
- You will probably not keep to a training plan that you didn’t write. A training plan that has been written by somebody else, no matter how flexible it seems, is not your training plan. A training plan is like a to-do list; and following a to-do list given to you by somebody else is no fun at all.
- Off the shelf plans de-emphasise the importance of training with a group. Triathlon is a very individualistic sport, but the training shouldn’t be. Whatever plan you come up with will probably need to balance the needs of a few different people; your boss, your family, your training buddies.
A few of the terms that you’ll come across and what they mean:
Transition: the forth disciple of triathlon. Getting slick at the transition from swim to the cycle called T1 and the transition from the cycle to the run (T2) is an art in its own right. Sprint triathlons are often won and lost in transition.
Brick session: a cycle followed by a run session to prepare your legs for the jelly like feel of running after a hard cycle.
Tri-Bike: the top end bikes with cow horn handlebars used by the top competitors to get an aerodynamic position on the bike.
Getting Started with Training
The bottom line with Triathlon training is that by a certain date (your first race) you should be reasonably confident that you can complete the three distances back to back. This means that for a sprint race you will need to be able to swim more than 750m, cycle more than 20K and run more than 5K. You will generally train over the distances for your target race so that when you put them together you have enough in the tank to finish the race.
Here’s what I recommend when you’re getting started;
- Get a Checkup – I would recommend that you should go and have a checkup from your doctor/gp before starting any new sport or significantly increasing your level of physical activity. This might sound dramatic and is definitely not meant to scare you, but it will identify any potential problems and will hopefully give you the confidence to train without worry. Triathlons are achievable for practically everybody, but they place demands on a number of different parts of the body in quick succession, so a quick checkup is very worthwhile.
- Give yourself enough time. For every hour of endurance sport like Triathlon you will probably need to train for between 5-7 weeks (very rough average). So, with a typical Olympic distance Triathlon taking about 3 hours, you should probably give yourself between 15-21 weeks to train; depending on your level of fitness when you start training and other factors. There are 10 week plans our there but these are probably not a great idea unless you have a good handle on at least one of the sports, you recover quickly, already and aren’t coming directly from doing no sport at all.
- Join a Triathlon club early in the year. I can’t emphasise how much more you will enjoy training and racing when you are part of a group. Dragging yourself out of bed for a long cycle on your own on a Saturday morning requires motivation, whereas popping along and joining in on the cheeky banter on your club spin is much easier. Finding a club is generally not difficult, there are clubs in a lot of towns and cities around Ireland. Pick a club based on their training times (do they fit with your own plan?), their training locations (will you be able to make it to training?) and the club structure (some clubs are well organized and stage many events every year, just look out for who’s organizing your local events). Most clubs have good websites, so just drop them a mail, ask a few questions – and join the club that seems to fit with your needs. If you can join a club early (pre-Christmas or New Year) then you’ll have a huge advantage over the Johnny come latelys.
- Draw up your own training plan – Cobble together a plan that makes sense for you. Use the resources on the web, in books, or use your club training times as a basis for your week. Start out by assigning the days of the week with Swim, Cycle, Run, Rest, Other. Swim, Cycle and Run are obvious. “Rest” is a day when you do not train. “Other” might be something like yoga or walking. You can choose to do more than one activity per day, like a run after work followed by a stretching session; but this is up to you. The frequency and time you spend training is very much up to you. Start slowly; very, very slowly and increase your training workload by no more than 10% per week. 10% might seem like a hard number to calculate, but if you think in terms of minutes (not miles, Km, laps and lengths) then you should be able to work out a reasonable plan. Do not go out and try to blitz your training schedule in the first week to see how far you can push it – this will probably lead to an injury and will definitely make you feel bad.
- Periodise your training – You cannot and should not just keep increasing your training time every week. If you do this then you’ll quickly start to come apart at the seams. Instead, you should periodise your training; ramp your training up and down gently to give your body time to heal and strengthen. Assume that every 4th week is going to be a light week and work around it; peaking your monthly training just before this light week.
- Pick a race and plan your season. Start out with a vague notion of what race you’d like to do and when. There are dozens of races on the calendar. Read about the races; find one that will give you enough time to train and seems like a good fit for you (the race is close to where you live, other people are doing it, it’s in an interesting place, the distance fits with your plan, it’s an interesting course etc.). Find out when race entry opens, put a reminder in your diary/calendar and enter the race as soon as it opens (a lot of popular races sell out within hours). Once you’ve entered you have a solid date to aim towards, which will help you motivate yourself as you train. It’ll all become much more real once you know where and when your first race is going to be.
Once you’ve decided on your first race you can start thinking about other races and planning your season in more detail. You might want to do more races so taking some time to plan your season will allow you to work with your friends and family to work out holidays, commitments etc.
Picking your first race
Keep it local, keep it short.
Very few races are no beginner friendly, so popping along to your local sprint distance event, should be a lot less intimidating that signing up for an international Ironman. However there are some courses which due to their layout are more geared to beginners, the pool based triathlon and the river & lake based triathlons with closed roads for the cycle.
Pool based triathlons
There’s Nenagh, Limerick, Abbotstown, Roe Valley, Waterford, Portlaoise & Antrim, which are all early in the season and popular with beginners. One word of caution is that, while swimming in your local pool with 2 people per lane is vastly different from being in Limerick with 12 people racing in the same lane. Plus these events usually sell out quickly, so you may not be able to get an entry unless you enter early.
River and lake triathlons with closed road
Athy, Athlone, Lough Neagh & Dublin City all fall into this category. The closed roads for the bike make these triathlons probably the safest events. Plus the lack of waves make swimming much easier than sea swimming.
Triathlon is a physically demanding sport, but a modern, balanced diet should give you everything you need to train safely with plenty of energy. What I describe here is what I do, but isn’t necessarily what you should do – these are just things that I have found to be beneficial for me.
Kevin Beasley has written a very good artical on Nutrition for cycling, it simiply advises what to eat before, during and after training.
Good hydration is absolutely crucial when you’re swimming, cycling and running. When you go to the pool to train, bring a sports bottle and some fluids. When you’re on the bike you should be consuming one 750ml bottle per hour, more if it’s hot, when you’re running you really need to make sure to keep hydrated, so carry a bottle or plan stops along your run. When you sweat you lost electrolytes, so using a sports drink to replace them as you train is a good idea.
Early on in training I found a carbohydrate & hydration drink that I liked. The drink comes in a powder, meaning I can mix bottles of it when I need to – which is much much cheaper than buying off the shelf drinks. The flavour of this drink is clean, it contains glucose and fructise to replace energy, vitamins and electrolytes which are depleted during training. You should try out a few different drinks, see which one you like.
A growing collection of books and sites that I’ve found useful.
- Triathlon Training Bible – Joe Friel’s book is comprehensive and very useful.
- Swim Workouts for Triathletes – This book does exactly what it says on the tin; it is a collection of swim sessions bound in waterproof plastic that you can bring to the pool as a training guide. I’ve found it very useful
- IrishTriathlon’s training section.
- Tri Newbies – A good beginner’s website with sample training plans and advice.
- Beginner Triathlete – A very good beginner’s website but requires registration and a subscription fee.