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Men diving into open water in a triathlon swim

The Quick Guide to Preparing for Your First Triathlon

Cyclists have a complicated relationship with triathletes — with any multi-pronged sport, if we’re honest. Many hold onto the idea that “pure” cycling doesn’t mix itself with other sports. But with more stories of professional cyclists choosing to give the triathlon a try, new lanes are opening for crossover athletes. 

Aside from some of the stigma, the idea of training for your first triathlon can be intimidating. If you’ve dedicated your time to cycling, you might feel a little shaky as a swimmer. Fear not! We’re here to help. 

On top of our own research, we’ve recruited a former pro triathlete, swimmer and hobby cyclist to shed some light on the training process and help you get over the hump. From competitive swimming in elementary and middle school, to his first marathon in seventh grade(!), to competing in over 100 triathlons, it’s safe to say Doug Roberts has picked up a thing or two along the way. Our quick triathlon training guide merges his wisdom with some of the tips most commonly heard among experienced triathletes.

How Does a Triathlon Work?

First off, the basics. If you’re only vaguely familiar with how triathlons work, here’s a basic overview: triathlons, in their most common form, are timed endurance races consisting of swimming, cycling and running (in that order). There are two transition areas for competitors to change gear after the first portions of the race, and these transitions are timed as well. An important aspect of training for your first triathlon is working on not only your strength and endurance in each sport, but also your ability to quickly change and transition between them.

Triathlon distances vary. The shorter sprint is usually 16 miles (25.75K), consisting of a half-mile (750m) swim, a 12.4-mile (20K) bike ride, and a 3.1-mile (5K) run. The longest triathlon, the Ironman, is 140.6 miles (226K), with a 2.4-mile (3.8K) swim, a 112-mile (180K) ride, and a 26.2-mile (42.24K) run. For this guide, we’ll assume you’re relatively sane and thinking about a sprint for your first go.

Tip #1: Check Your Head

When you begin training for any new sport, half the battle (if not more) is mental. If you’re a longtime cyclist preparing for your first triathlon, you might have to deal with some nagging little voices in your head.

“I find with athletics, oftentimes people unnecessarily have self-defeating attitudes,” Roberts says. The swim might be the most unfamiliar part of the race, he adds, and “they’re thinking, ‘All these other people who are doing this have a swimming background.’”

His advice is simple. “Recognize if you’re experiencing that and counteract it,” he says. “Tell yourself, ‘This is not about going out and becoming the world champion tomorrow, it’s about going out and enjoying myself.’”

If you shift your mindset in that way, you can focus on learning something new. You can always improve in later races — if you enjoy it.

Tip #2: Consider a Coach

A coach isn’t necessarily essential, but it can be helpful, especially for the swim.

“More than running, swimming is one of those sports that, unless you have a pretty good history of doing it, you don’t really have the stroke developed,” Roberts explains. “And it really does take quite a while to develop the stroke or the feel for the water.”

Even if you’re comfortable in the water, there’s a big difference between casual swimming and distance swimming. Learning to breathe effectively and to conserve your energy is essential, and these are challenging skills to teach yourself. It will also help prevent injury.

“Have someone analyze your stroke from the pool deck,” Roberts says. “A good coach will help you become efficient in the water, where you’re not expending unnecessary energy.”

Tip #3: Focus Your Training

In terms of time, a triathlon isn’t evenly split across the three sports. You’ll spend roughly 20% of the race swimming, half of it on the bike, and the final 30% running. Your training should reflect those proportions. You’ll still do similar numbers of each kind of workout, but the amount of time you devote to each one should reflect the way you’ll spend it during the race.

And don’t take your experience as a cyclist for granted. Triathlon cycling is all about speed, and if you decide to use a “tri bike” for your first race, you may be surprised by the seat tube angle, which pushes you forward on the bike. Your training for this portion of the race will be different than a normal road race, so don’t neglect it.

Transitions are an important part of your training, too. If you think it’s easy to strip off a wetsuit, pop into your bike shoes, and snap on your helmet quickly while running to your bike (and do it without making a fool of yourself), you’ve clearly never tried it. And for many cyclists, that first experience of trying to run off the bike only to find your legs feel like bricks, is … humbling.

Tip #4: Give Yourself Time

No matter how fit you are, if you’re not already trained in all three sports, you need plenty of time to prepare. Each one works entirely different muscle groups, and each has different methods for conserving energy. Get started well before race day.

“Most recommend at least six months, ideally a year,” says Roberts. “If you feel like you’re already pretty fit in one of these disciplines, you can probably get ready for a race in three to four months.”

A typical regimen will probably involve two days for each sport every week, plus some resistance training and a day of rest. You’ll want to limit your distance increases to no more than 10% each week, so once you have a baseline for each, you can plan your total prep time accordingly.

Building stamina and endurance while preventing injury is a delicate balance. Don’t rush the process when you’re preparing for your first triathlon.

Tip #5: Enjoy the Process

When you start training for a triathlon, it’s easy to get swept up in the competition. But trying a new sport is, first and foremost, about enjoying a new experience, personal growth, and camaraderie.

“Go into your first race without the expectation of placing on the podium,” Roberts says. “Go into it with the idea that you’re starting a new lifestyle. Enjoy the process even more than the actual event. The event becomes a catalyst for you to begin a new endeavor, and the journey is really where it’s at.”

Cyclists aren’t strangers to the social experience of a sport. Keep that in mind as you train for a triathlon. When you’re enjoying the sport with other competitors, you might even be able to get over those sleeveless jerseys.