When I entered the triathlon world more than a decade ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew I would get in better shape, I was pretty sure I would enjoy the competitive aspect of it, and I was admittedly anxious about becoming a swimmer and a road cyclist – two things that were new to me. Now, many years and races later, I can say that deciding to do triathlons was one of the best decisions that I ever made. I just wish there were a few things I wish somebody would have told me during that first season. Perhaps someone did tell me, and I just didn’t listen.
Here are seven things I wish I would have known as a new triathlete.
- It is all about staying healthy. Some new triathletes are trying to be finely-tuned athletes, applying their training a discipline to a new sport. Others are simply trying to find a way to get back in shape and have fun doing it. Maybe others have “do a triathlon” on their bucket list and want to do just one. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, know one thing: The name of the game is to train safely and not get injured. During the first couple years of doing tris when I adopted the sport with vigor, I found myself getting hurt far too often. Tight hamstrings, IT Band issues, and a shoulder that was telling me my swim stroke was off. I had to fundamentally adjust my training, because if you are not able to compete in races, it doesn’t matter how fast you are becoming. The lesson: Ramp-up your training gradually, stretch, and pay attention to your body. Goal #1 is to be able to race. Racing faster is great, but it requires you to be healthy.
- Nutrition matters. When I was a new triathlete, I had some people tell me that you can gut out a Sprint triathlon regardless of how you feel or the conditions. Most of the triathlon nutrition articles focused on the HIM and IM distance races. Even if you are doing a Sprint or Olympic race, understanding how to fuel your body is a core skill of triathlon. A car is at its fastest if it has some fuel in the tank – not completely full, and not empty – and the right kind of fuel. The same goes for athletes, and that balance is different for everyone. I once bonked in a sprint triathlon, on the run leg, on a hot day. From that point on, hydration and nutrition have been something I think about, even if I am doing a short race. It might just be understanding how many swigs of water to take on the bike ride, and figuring out the perfect pre-race breakfast for you…. But don’t leave it to chance.
- Rest is a big part of a good training plan. Nearly every triathlete hits a phase, once addicted to the sport, where it feels unnatural to not workout. Even if it is the mythical “recovery run”, many triathletes feel better knowing they did something rather than just rest. This is the wrong approach. Rest is not only a net positive, but it is something you should proactively work into your training plan, with a little more frequency than you probably think you need. I was reminded of the need for rest one season after doing my “A-Race”, a challenging Olympic course in early June. I trained hard, and did very well. After the race, I travelled in Europe for a couple weeks. I did not even bring running shoes. I didn’t do a single workout, other than walking around old world cities, for more than 15 days. When I got back, I started doing a few runs and bike rides, and then on a whim decided to do a longish Sprint. Despite not training hard for nearly a month, it was the fastest bike pace I have ever turned in. The lesson: Taking time off is necessary, and even building extended time off between races can actually be a great thing.
- Open water swimming really is different. I went for one open water swim in my wetsuit before my first-ever race. It was probably a 100 meter test swim, just around the boundary of a local swimming beach. Every little bit helps, but in retrospect I should have done much more. Swimming in a pool is great, and an important way to build up your stamina and good technique. If your race is going to be in open water, though, there is really no substitute for doing some open water swims. Your wetsuit will feel a little weird at first, and it is good to experience a variety of conditions – wind, sun (i.e. glare), cold, heat. I did just fine in my first few open water swims, but if I could go back and do it again I
would probably insist on no less than four open water practice sessions before attempting my first race. If you are reading this before your first race and don’t have time to do four, don’t stress…. But try to do at least one.
- Don’t cheap out on gear. This is probably the one tip on this list that will get the most debate. Can you do a triathlon on a 20-year old mountain bike, without a wetsuit, and in running shorts? And I would much rather have you do that then not try doing a triathlon at all. You see everything you could imagine at a race when it comes to gear and equipment. If I could go back, though, I would have invested just a little more in my wetsuit and bike. What happened is that I bought some very basic gear for my first race, and then I got hooked. So I upgraded a little for my 2nd race, and as I got into my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th seasons I felt the need to upgrade again and again. The result? By the time I was in my 5th season. I think I was on my 4th bike and my 4th wetsuit. I would have been better off investing in a little better gear at the outset. Unless you are positive that you are only doing one triathlon, perhaps to check it off your bucket list and then be done, consider getting some mid-range quality gear.
- Come race day, you are all a team. I remember being nervous about my first race. It is completely normal, and I still get butterflies before every race even though I have now done dozens of them. I wish I would have known that race day is one of the most supportive environments you can imagine. Don’t get me wrong – people are competing, and there will be winners. But if you have the courage to sign up for a race, and have the discipline to train for one, by the time you get to race day you are among a team of like-minded people. The goal is for everyone to maximize their potential, have fun, and maybe turn in a PR. Don’t stress about what race day will be like – you will no doubt have a support system and cheering fans even if you don’t know another soul there.
- Other triathletes love to share their knowledge. As a new triathlete, I remember consuming online resources (like this one) and triathlon books. I would talk with my spouse about my training and race strategy. But one thing I did not do is talk much with other triathletes. That was a mistake. I felt a little chip on my shoulder to make it look like I totally knew what I was doing. So many triathletes – neighbors, friends, even people at the local tri shop – love to talk about the sport, and they don’t look down upon a newbie. Most triathletes know that for the sport to sustain and endure, each race needs a healthy number of first-timers. Any question is fair game, whether it is about equipment or how a race goes down or anything else. Don’t hesitate to reach out to people and ask them about triathlons and training – most will be thrilled to share everything they know, even if they have done 5 Ironmans and look like Usain Bolt.