When it comes to staying in shape, it’s tough to argue with a triathete. The combination of swimming, biking, and running works most of the major muscle groups. You’re not ripped like a gym rat, nor skinny as Kenyan marathoner. The result is a solid, toned look with cardiovascular fitness that borders on insanity.
So what does it take to complete a triathlon?
NBC does a great job with their coverage of the Ironman World Championship, but that’s not what all triathlons are. What you’re looking for is called a sprint triathlon. They’re in communities all over the country, so there should be one relatively close to you.
A sprint usually consists of about a ¼ mile swim, 10 – 15 miles on the bike, and a 3.1 mile run. The entire race should take you less than 2 hours. My first sprint was on the longer side for the bike and it still only took 1 hour, 26 minutes. Let’s look at what it takes to get there.
You can swim laps at your local YMCA, gym, or high school to get started. A ¼ mile is only 9 laps in a 25 yard pool, or 4-1/2 in a 50 yard pool. You’ll want to go ahead and work up to 600 yards though. Swimming in open water won’t be like swimming in the pool where you can see the lines, touch the bottom, and get a good breath every time you turn.
Don’t panic if you’re out of breath after the first lap. You’ve just learned the first lesson in endurance swimming – slow down. A successful swim on race day is all about rhythm and a calm mind. Use your feet to keep your body balanced in the water and your arms to pull you along. Long strokes and high elbows are the mark of a good swimmer. Start with one lap, then add more as you find your rhythm.
You don’t need a $12,000 triathlon bike to do a triathlon. They look crazy cool, but save your money for this first race. You can use a mountain bike, hybrid, or road bike. You can borrow a bike from someone else. Local bike shops will even rent bikes that can include higher end road models or triathlon bikes if you work with them ahead of time.
You’re likely going to be on the bike for an hour or less. Practice riding for that period of time. Go ahead and work your way up 3 – 5 miles longer than the bike course for the race you’ve signed up for. This will continue to improve your endurance considering you have to run when you get off the bike on race day.
Like the swim, the key here is take it easy. Some people describe the bike leg as their “resting period” during the race. You want to be able to hop off the bike and be able to run, so don’t blow up your legs trying to catch the spandex clad guy that just passed you at 25 mph.
Remember that you’re riding on the road. While some parts may be closed for the race, none of them are for your training. Be sure to follow all traffic laws and wear a helmet.
3.1 miles of running to finish the race. On a good day, you can do that in 30 minutes even if you’re not currently a runner. Off the bike though, your legs are going to feel like jelly and it’ll take a few hundred yards to shake them out. You’re going to run slower than you could without biking first, but it is still possible to have a solid run. The key here is to find a rhythm (noticing a pattern yet?) where your breathing is steady and your cadence is even. Some people will intentionally plan walking breaks at a specific interval or at water stations. If you need to do this, you’re better off planning them rather than just running until you’re too tired.
Putting it All Together
As you build up the prescribed distances for each leg of the triathlon, you’ll want to start stringing them together. Swim and then bike. Bike and then run. Swim, then bike, then run. If it’s possible, train on the actual course you’re going to race on so you know what to expect.
It’s good to hit the gym as well. Focus each workout on a full range of muscle groups, going for a high number of reps at a moderate weight. This will help develop the kind of strength you need for endurance. It’ll also help develop that toned look you’re going for.
If your community has a local triathlon club, get in touch with them. Most of them have organized training opportunities that are unbelievably helpful. You’ll find that the tri community in general is a pretty positive and encouraging group of people to be around.
Tell people about it! Let them know that you’re going to do a triathlon and see if you can get a friend or two to do it with you. This will motivate you to deliver on what you told your friends and family. Having people to train with makes the miles go by much faster and it becomes a genuinely enjoyable experience.
Finally, two weeks before race day, do a full practice run. Set up your own mock triathlon at the distance on each discipline at an effort level you want to be at for the race. Make sure it’s the effort level and not pace. Remember, it’s all about rhythm.
When race day rolls around, volunteers will be there to help you through the check in and transition areas. Other athletes are generally very helpful as well. Remember to have fun and smile for the camera at the finish line!