Avoid disaster at your first triathlon

Is your multisport debut just weeks away? Don’t miss our essential tips and sessions to reach the start line with confidence

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Fired up by a New Year fitness pledge, signing up to your first triathlon was the easy bit. But with training now ratcheted up, a winter’s nip still hanging in the air and race day like a mirage on the horizon, both the motivation and knees are starting to creak.

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We’ve turned to TrainSharp’s head triathlon coach Phil Jarvis for some practical encouragement and some confidence-building sessions to navigate you through the final weeks before your first triathlon.

>>> Chrissie Wellington’s six top tips for triathlon beginners

1. Keep fit and healthy

Injury is the dread of all endurance athletes and as our bodies adapt to working out, occasionally things tweak, pull or break. Muscles and joints are particularly susceptible if they’ve been seldom used in the past, the pounding a swimmer-turned-triathlete endures on the run probably the best example.

Training consistently, week in week out, and not ramping up the volume or intensity too much mitigates the risks, but listen to your body and get little niggles checked. As race day approaches, non-impact disciplines of swimming and biking are less risky than running, and don’t be shy of the cross-trainer to keep up your aerobic quota. 

>>> Triathlon jargon buster for beginners

A healthy, balanced diet can bolster immune systems run down through training, but sometimes bugs even get the better of the best. It’s not a disaster if the lurgy strikes. Chrissie Wellington was forced to pull out of defending her Ironman world title in Hawaii in 2010, but came back stronger than ever the following year.

Chrissie Wellington on the bike at Kona

2. Manage your expectations

As race day nears and fitness improves, there’s a risk of ‘goal creep’. Where initially just completing 400m in the pool, staying upright on the bike, then not walking on the run might have been the target, with a couple of months of training (and fitness gains can be huge when starting out) there’s a danger of becoming over-ambitious for race day. 

Instead, err on the side of caution. Triathlon has witnessed many ‘one-and-doners’ because they had a horrible first experience – particularly when that race was over a longer distance. You only get one debut, so enjoy this guaranteed personal best and consider booking in another race later in the summer so you build on the momentum and can aim to go faster. 

3. Don’t despair

Sometimes life just gets in the way, but if your motivation is waning, take stock and don’t despair. If you’re clinging grimly to a set plan and feeling fatigued, look back at your training log and take time to celebrate how far you’ve come. 

Consider scheduling in some easier sessions, discuss your feelings with other triathletes and look for company on rides, runs or swims. On the flipside, if you’ve barely moved a muscle since signing up, remember the old mantra: ‘It’s never too late to start’.

Most races can still be completed – and even enjoyed – with a minimum amount of training. You might need to pause at the end of every length, resort to breaststroke, or opt for a run/walk strategy, but you’ll find race-day atmospheres are accommodating and non-judgemental. Stick with it.

Female triathlete crosses the line at Hever Castle Triathlon

4. Know when to taper

This is a tricky one to get right. If you have a coach or are following the plan provided in issue 308 (available here), you will have a good indication of when to ease back. The ideal taper is one that carries you to race day full of energy, but without having lost too much fitness from resting up. 

Don’t worry if you feel sluggish. The temptation can be to keep going flat-out, but you need to trust that by stepping off the gas you’re doing the right thing. However, don’t stop completely; keep the frequency of sessions so the arms and legs tick over, but drop the duration and/or intensity.

We continue our guide to preparing for your first triathlon…

5. Enjoy the process

It’s not supposed to be a purgatory endeavour. Enjoying (most of) the early-morning swims, chilly-fingered bike rides and runs that leave your shins sore is important, so never lose sight of the fun aspect.

As highlighted earlier, race day can be jeopardised through injury or illness, so it’s more healthy to view triathlon as a lifestyle, with racing the icing on the cake.

6. Test your equipment 

Swim

Open-water races aren’t just about dealing with the cold, weeds, jostling and navigation; there are also the practicalities of extracting yourself quickly in transition, especially when you’re a little light-headed having leapt up from a horizontal position.

Given the chilly British winter, it’s unlikely you’ve had much chance to get outdoors and smell the neoprene of a new wetsuit, but, when you can, get out and practise this as much as possible. 

Chris McCormack at a MaccaX training day

Bike

Learn to fix a puncture. Nobody is expecting a Tour de France-calibre mechanic, but you make sure you can change an inner tube, rescue a dropped chain and adjust the brakes if required.

Even if you think you’re a dab hand, it’s worth practising – and timing yourself – because it’s more difficult under pressure in a race, and those new tyres you bought might just be a little tighter to remove than your worn old set. 

It’s also worth making sure your bike fits you well. An experienced bike fitter offers the best solution, but if you don’t want to fork out, experimenting with your position by raising the saddle a few inches could revolutionise your performance. 

Run 

By now you should be incorporating ‘brick’ sessions where you run straight after biking. This will help you get used to the strange jelly-legged feeling, but also let you test how fast you can slip on your run shoes. A pair of well-adjusted elastic laces are the top tip here.

Nutrition

Whether you use sports nutrition or not, it’s worth practising before the big day in some of your faster or longer sessions. Avoiding the science of whether you can ‘train the gut’ to tolerate large quantities of processed maltodextrin, you’ll still want to know whether you can stomach the taste of gels, bars or liquids, and you need to be sure that, as a novice on the bike, you’re comfortable removing the bottle from the cage and sipping on the go. 

Triathlete in run training

Even the run has challenges. Marketing companies know many runners like to hold water bottles and have even invented ones that fit snugly into the grip.

While it’s good to be optimally hydrated at the start, if you’re racing over a short distance in the UK, it’s unlikely you’ll need excessive fluid. It’s also additional weight and might even affect your running style. If you’ve an inkling you might be using it as a crutch, then now’s the time to try to wean yourself off.

7. Research the event

Having signed up because it was a) local, b) your mate was doing it, c) the website looked pretty, you may or may not get a chance to reccie the course, but it’s worth asking friends if anyone has experience of the event.

Established races often have online reviews or even videos of the bike course, which can be handy to avoid taking a wrong turn or knowing if there’s a challenging climb or sharp corner to be wary of.

If it’s a new race, the bike course should still be mapped out somewhere, so incorporate it in a training ride if possible. And if not, don’t worry, none of the competition will be any the wiser either!

Triathlete in bike training

Three sets to check your progress 

TrainSharp’s triathlon coach Phil Jarvis outlines three easy-to-follow sessions to check your progress at the height of your training.

The Fat-Burner bike

Session: 60-90min bike, keep cadence at 95-105rpm. 

Phil says: “This is a high-cadence, low-power and increasingly fast-breathing set. Harder than it initially looks, if you can finish the session and feel fresh, you’re in good aerobic shape.”

Endurance swim

Session: Warm-up: 200m freestyle, 8 x 25m increasing speed. Main set: 4 x 100m with 20sec rest. Cool-down: 200m easy.

Phil says: “The goal is to achieve the highest sustainable speed to give the lowest average time. Try to keep each 100m within 15secs of one another.” 

Triathlete in swim training

Lactate tolerance run

Session: Warm-up: 10min easy jog. 

Main set: 32min steady run – every fourth minute build, so last 20secs above race pace. 

Cool-down: 10min easy jog.

Phil says: “A great beginner set to develop the ability to handle fatigue on the run. Includes eight minutes of build-pace running.”

(Images: Getty/Image.net, Jonny Gawler, Remy Whiting)

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For lots more newbie advice head to our Beginners section