Five Things I Would Tell My Beginner Triathlete Self

For those of us who participate in triathlon, we all came to the sport for various reasons. Some of us have a lifelong background in one of the three disciplines of triathlon (swim, bike, run)  and just needed a couple more sports to add to one athletic event.  Maybe some of us wanted to find a way to be motivated to exercise and stay healthy, or it was just something fun to do with friends.  There may even be those of us who got tired of watching our loved ones at every triathlon event and decided being a participant would be more fun and even less exhausting than tracking and running around the race course in hopes of spotting their athlete for two seconds.

Running is where my triathlon journey is rooted. I LOVED racing and pushing my limits, especially in the half-marathon. This is from the Deseret News Half Marathon in 2014 where I placed 3rd.

Whatever the reason, we were all beginners at one point, and even if you’re years into the sport, there is always more to learn.  It is a constant learning experience as we try to develop ourselves as athletes, not to mention keeping up with the ever changing world of gear and technology the sport has to offer!

I have been asked more than once what advice I would have for someone just starting in triathlon, so I thought I would share those thoughts here.  These things aren’t in order of importance and come from the experience I had before I was a full blown triathlete, as well as the experiences I have had in the recent past.  Everyone is going to have different advice and opinions on this – so by no means is this an exclusive list of what to know.  If you’re a beginner, be sure to consult all of your triathlete friends :).

  1. Don’t underestimate the swim.

When I tell people I’m a triathlete, many people go into how they would love to do a triathlon… “BUT THE SWIM.”  So what about the swim? Don’t know how to swim? Terrified of water? Can’t get your breathing figured out? There are a lot of reasons for “but the swim,” and that’s why I say not to underestimate it.  It turns out that the swim is, in fact, part of a triathlon and the time it takes you to get through the swim and out of the water does count in your race time (I’m still accepting this fact myself :)), and the better you feel and perform on the swim, the better the entire race will go.  

It’s worth your while to get in the pool regularly – at least 2 to 3 times a week if possible (pools open early so set that alarm!). If you don’t know how to swim well, it would also be worth your while to get some instruction on how to swim.  Of course I would recommend a triathlon or swim coach (I know a few great coaches here), but I’m sure even some solid YouTube videos would be better than going out and winging it.  If you really want to be brave, go jump in a master’s swim class and get comfortable with swimming around other people.  

All swim ready as a newbie! I'm sure I swam at least a few times before this race :).
All swim ready as a newbie! I’m sure I swam at least a few times before this race :).

Don’t dread the swim or plan on just “surviving” the swim – embrace the swim, because it’s not going anywhere in triathlon!  The more you swim, the better you will get at swimming, and hopefully the more you will enjoy it.  

  1. Do some brick workouts.

Brick workouts have nothing to do with what your house is built out of, and everything to do with getting your body used to combining three sports into one event.  A brick workout is doing one workout right after the other.  Most common seems to be doing a run right after a bike ride because we want our legs to be used to running after using them so much on the bike.  I’m not sure I ever did a single brick workout before I got a coach, or at least if I did, it wasn’t intentional.  Now I am running off the bike regularly to make sure my body knows how to handle the transition and change in muscles.  If your schedule is limited, I would at least recommend doing a short transition run off the bike – even 10 to 20 minutes at an easy pace will give you an idea of how your body will feel.  This will also help you recognize any aches and pains that your bike may be causing you, which leads to me to my next point…

  1. Get a bike that fits you, and then get your bike fit to your body.

Bikes are one of the biggest expenses in triathlon. You can spend anywhere from hundreds to thousands, but more important than what you spend is how your bike fits.  A $10,000 bike that doesn’t fit you is still going to ruin your race (especially if you’re doing half or full ironmans!), so if you are planning on taking triathlon seriously and especially if you’re digging into longer distances, make the investment of getting your bike fit to your body.

Getting serious on my first road bike during one of my first local triathlons in 2010.
Getting serious on my first road bike during one of my first local triathlons in 2010.

I didn’t buy a triathlon specific bike or get it fitted to me until I got with a coach (triathlon bikes are more aero, have a different geometry, use different muscles, etc).  I always got by on a road bike that was fitted to me at the bike shop I bought the bike from, and that seemed to do the trick well enough. With that said, I can’t tell you how much better my biking and running experience has been since I got a triathlon bike and then got it fitted to me.  I remember one of my first workouts with my team and with my new bike (before I had time to get it fitted), a few of us did a longer ride and then did an hour run right after.  My lower back was KILLING me during the run, and I kept having to stop to stretch it out.  I was with one of my coaches, and I told him I don’t usually have lower back issues running.  He told me I needed to get with our bike fit guy as soon as possible because my pain was likely due to my bike fit.  I got my bike fit and now running off the bike feels like a dream.

Point is, road bike or triathlon bike, if you want to do your best, get your bike fitted to you. If you’re just testing the triathlon thing out, maybe give one shorter race a go and see how you feel.  If you decide triathlon or even just cycling is your new found passion, get serious about the bike fit.  I get my bike fit here, if you need a guy :).

  1. Make a plan and stick to it.

Hiring a coach is the easiest way to do this one – puts the planning and the science in the hands of someone else and you just have to stick to the plan.  For many people, a coach is more commitment than they’re ready for, or a coach just isn’t in the budget.  It took me years until I talked myself into getting a coach.  

If a coach is out of the picture, you can still make a plan!  I’m not one who is into researching workouts or reading about threshold and recycling lactic acid, and it wasn’t until I was doing my second half-ironman that I even remotely drew up a training plan.  A training plan doesn’t have to be complex, especially if you’re just looking to “finish” a triathlon.  My plan was honestly as simple as planning to swim, bike, or run, and which day/time of day I would do it. So start with scheduling out the days you will swim, bike, or run, and when you will do them, and then make it happen!  When triathlon isn’t your full focus, workouts will likely be missed or negotiated because of work, family, etc., but try your best to get them in.  Just don’t forget those brick workouts :).

  1. Get involved with a training group or friends who swim, bike, or run.

Being friends with people who were into triathlon is how I got into the sport, and now being part of a training group is how I’m getting better and enjoying each day.  Whether it’s a triathlon club, swim group, running club, cycling group, ANYTHING, being around people who are doing what you are doing will help you feel motivated and will likely teach you a few things.  

Here with some BYU Tri Club originals - this was after winning a 24 hour relay running race. Our 6 person team beat all the 12 person teams! These guys were my first triathlon friends.
Here with some BYU Tri Club originals – this was after winning a 24 hour relay running race. Our 6 person team beat all the 12 person teams! These guys were my first triathlon friends.

Joining new groups can be intimidating when you feel like you are completely inadequate (the reason I was always too scared to go swim with the master’s swim group), but from my experience, most people are friendly and are willing to help and give advice :).  I’ve never been to a workout of any kind with any group of people where we didn’t talk about our experiences in the sport, what we learned in our last race, the latest gear we have our eye on, or what we are trying to improve on.  You will get all the opinions you could ever ask for on every topic imaginable, but it’s better than sitting at home just trying to figure things out on your own. What might seem like going out of your comfort zone will quickly turn into your new comfort zone.  

Triathlon is a wonderful sport and I hope that if you are just getting into it, that you will love it as much as I do!  If you’re not a beginner anymore, what would you tell your beginner self?  

Questions and comments welcomed!