A Beginner’s Guide to Triathlons

I actually don’t know what made me do my first triathlon.

1) I hate running

2) I don’t own a real race bicycle

3) and I never swam more than a few laps in a pool

I guess it was the urging of my brother or friends who signed up for the New York City Triathlon in 2015, but I don’t regret it one bit. The training is tough, but once you start to see your improvements over a few months you really start to get into it. Everyone in the sport always says “You’ll never do just one triathlon. Once you do one, you’re hooked.” And they weren’t wrong. While I’m not hooked per se, triathlons are definitely something I hopefully see myself doing well into my 30s, 40s, and hopefully 50s to stay fit and active without putting much damage on my joints. I just completed my fourth triathlon in four years.

The one speed bump for some people is that it can be a pretty expensive sport. Between the race entry fee (anywhere from $100-500), bike ($500-$2,500 depending how serious you are), gear (helmet, swim suit, goggles, running shoes, proper race clothes), and the other potential training costs that come from gym memberships or swim club fees, it can add up quick.

Olympic Triathlon Distances

  • 1.5k swim (0.9 miles)
  • 40k bike (24.8 miles)
  • 10k run (6.2 miles)

I never wanted to be one of those ultra-triathlon people who brag about their races and put 26.1 stickers on their bumpers. I didn’t want to become the annoying weekend cyclist who wears neon tights and takes up the whole road with his gang of cycling buddies. But a few things happened since I completed my first triathlon in 2015:

  • I actually gained a lot of respect for cyclists, or anyone who commutes via bike on a public road. Riding a bike means you either don’t have a car, or you’re just trying to get in some exercise. Nothing wrong with that. There isn’t a lot of room on the roads or sidewalks to ride a bike long distance, and it’s also scary as hell when cars are zooming by you. The US is pretty behind when it comes to bike lanes and the only way to get my training in was to ride around the neighborhood and even then I was contantly looking out for cars. So give cyclists the benefit of the doubt and respect them for being better than your lazy car-driving-emissions-dumping-ass-self
  • I now truly enjoy swimming as one of my favorite workouts. I used to hate the training aspect of it, but I now swim 1-2x per week for fun or when I’m just too sore to run or lift weights. It’s a workout I see myself doing well in to my 80’s or 90’s, since I’m usually the youngest person in the pool by 60 years anyway…
  • I got a lot better at running, improving my overall endurance and my per-mile speed. But I still fucking hate running. I won’t do more than 6.2 miles. Never have. Never will
  • And as everyone told me, once you do one triathlon, you’re bound to do more
Triathlon 3
Locked in

When I did my first New York City Triathlon in 2015 I figured I would be one and done. My swim time was terrible. I had a panic attack when I jumped in the water with hundreds of people and couldn’t see anything in the murky Hudson River water. I ended up backstroking half the thing and pausing every 90 seconds. It took me 32 minutes to complete the mile-long swim. It took the winner 12…

The 26 mile cycle is relatively easy if you’ve ridden a bike before – but you do need to have strong legs and good stamina do deal with the hill-climbs. After that, it’s mostly dealing with fatigue and having the psychological willpower to complete the 6.2 mile run. I had never ran more than 3 miles in my life before this race.

Triathlon 2

Workouts:

  • Running: 40-50 yard hill sprints twice a week (10 sprints)
  • There’s an abandoned exit ramp near my apartment that is perfect for hill sprints. It’s a gradual incline but absolutely brutal to run up. I also would go to a park nearby my parent’s house that had a huge grass hill about 40 yards long
    • I absolutely hate running long distance so I would do a 3 mile run once or twice a week depending on my mood. I mainly did this so that I had a good idea of my typical pace heading in to the race
    • Personally, I think strength HIIT workouts and hill sprints are better for cardiovascular training than just running boring 4, 5, or 6 mile runs at a 8 minute pace, but I have no factual evidence – just hate running distance
  • Biking: anywhere from 6-18 mile bike rides once a week
  • SoulCycle or spin class once a week
    • Biking wasn’t something I really focused too much on. I have a pretty ordinary road bike so I knew going in to the race that I wasn’t going to be breaking any records. Basically if I completed the 26 miles in less than an hour and a half I would have been happy.
    • Spin classes don’t really help you at all with riding a bike, but I think they’re decent for strengthening the muscles needed for a grueling bike ride and also good to get the heart rate up in a race-like situation
    • I think it was helpful to get on my bike for long rides as much as possible to get used to the gear changes, the way the bike rides, and the inevitable butt pain that comes from sitting on a bike seat for 90 minutes.
  • Swimming: 15-30 minute lap pool sessions twice a week
    • I joined a gym near my house just because they have a great pool that is almost always empty.
    • I don’t have a training regimen other than just swimming for 15-30 minutes
    • If you’re swimming properly, it should feel as effortless and relaxing as walking. I now find it incredibly relaxing to get in the pool and think about absolutely nothing for 20 minutes
    • It’s also extremely important to practice “spotting”.
      • When you’re in open-water, swimming with over 100 people right next to you, you’re not going to be able to see shit. Hence “spotting”
      • This means every 6 strokes or so, picking your eyes up out of the water and scanning what’s ahead of you
      • It’s a bit difficult to get used to, but once you practice a few times in a pool it gets easy. But this is crucial to practice before you get in to the open water on race day. Open-water triathlon swimming is totally different than lap pool swimming
      • “Spotting” is also really important to make sure you’re swimming in a straight line

If you have trouble swimming, I 100% recommend reading this quick article that explains the easiest way to get better at swimming. I read this article twice and improved my mile swim time by 10 minutes year over year. 

Total Immersion Swimming

I started training about 3-4 months in advance. My gym had a pool so I would swim for 10 minutes, change quickly in the locker room, bike on the spinning bike for 30 minues, then run on the treadmill for 20 minutes.

I would definitely recommend biking and running back to back when you’re training because it helps to know how heavy your legs are going to feel transitioning from the 26 mile bike ride to the run.

That said, it’s fun to do something challenging. Signing up for a race forces you to change your mindset. The risk of drowning means you HAVE to train. I don’t know if I’ll ever to an Ironman or even a Half Ironman but I do think triathlons are something that will keep me motivated to stay in shape and form a fun community with the people I train and do these races with.

It may be a 5k, a 10k, or maybe a sprint triathlon – but sign yourself up for something you don’t think you can do today. You’re going to hate it in the months leading up to it but you’ll thank yourself later and the feeling of finishing a race you worked hard to complete is one of the most rewarding experiences in the world. Having friends and family there to cheer you on and celebrate with you after makes it even more special. But I think the most positive part of these races is the communal aspect of all of the people you’re competing both with and against – you cheer each other on and also push each other to keep going. Random people pat you on the back and high five you along the way. How awesome is that?

Tri Five

-KB

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