By Branden Rakita
Jack of all trades, masters of none. A person who does not understand one sport is enough. Why be bad at one sport when you can be bad at three, or why be good at one sport when you can kick ass at three. All very common descriptions of a triathlete.
A triathlon is any event or race consisting of 3 different sports, but most specifically a swim, bike and run, transitioning from one leg to the next as quickly as possible. The most common order is swim, bike, run but there are races where the order is a bit different.
Over the past 44 years triathlons have grown, changed and now have many different distances, from short sprint events to the well-known iron-distance events and even longer. Sprint distance usually consists of a ½ mile (800m) swim, 12 mile (20km) bike and 3 mile (5km) run. Olympic distance is 1.5km swim, 40km bike and 10km run; iron distance is 2.4mile swim, 112mile bike and 26.2 mile run. But, the distance does not matter; by completing a swim, bike, run as a single event you have completed a full triathlon!
Road triathlons are the most common form, though there are what I consider more exciting forms called off road triathlon (XTERRA or Cross Tri), consisting of a swim, mountain bike and trail run. You may start seeing new gravel triathlons advertised as well with the growing gravel bike market.
If you want to complete any sporting event you should train for it, as generally the experience will be a bit better. The swim leg typically will take place in some form of open water: a lake, ocean, river etc., but there are triathlons where you swim in a pool. More than likely you will train in a pool. I highly recommend joining a local masters swim team for motivation, as you're often surrounded by other athletes. Private lessons or coaching sessions may also be an idea to help you learn proper swimming techniques. Training with the group will help you build up to the swim distance of the race. Once you feel comfortable in the pool I recommend trying to find organized open water swim sessions because there is a difference between swimming in a pool and in large body of water. In open water, with no walls to push off of or the bottom to see, and having a mass of other people around you can cause some to panic and it is best to get those feelings under control before racing. The swim is typically the most neglected in training but putting in the time can pay major dividends.
The bike leg makes up approximately 50% of race and training time. If you come from a cycling background it is a good idea to spend a little less time riding and put more time and effort on the weaker sports. Because in a triathlon you are not allowed to draft and must maintain a certain distance between you and the next athlete, it is a good plan to do intervals on your own. Joining on a group or club ride is still a good idea for learning where to ride and improving bike handling skills; additionally, more than likely you'll be pushed harder than training on your own.
You can use just about any bike in a triathlon; for road triathlons I have seen people use mountain bikes simply because that's the bike they have. A road bike can be used and adapted too with a pair of clip-on aero bars. When you are just getting into the sport these are great options, especially when you start with the shorter distance races. Hopefully you will really enjoy the challenge and then as you race more you may want to get a triathlon or time-trial bike designed to cut through the wind faster. While you can spend a lot of money trying to get “free speed” from more aerodynamic equipment, the money is better spent on coaching.
Running is where a gradual progression in training is the best plan as it is the hardest sport of the three on the body and increases the likelihood for injury the most. A good rule of thumb is to increase your run mileage no more than 10% a week to help your body adapt. Running on softer surfaces can also help the body not get beat up quite as much. Going to a running specific shoe store and letting them fit you in the right shoe can also help prevent injury. In training one specific workout would be a run directly after a bike ride. Getting off the bike and then running right away is a different feeling. The first couple of times you do it you may feel like you have “jello legs”, but getting your body accustomed to it before racing is a good idea.
As with any sport consistency in training is key. Setting a schedule to get out and swim a couple days a week, bike a few days a week and run a couple days a week will set you up for success. I recommend starting with shorter races, sprint or Olympic, and trying to get faster at those. Or, maybe you are more of a distance athlete and want to build to a half Ironman or longer. Enjoy whatever gets you out, gets you moving, and gives an excuse to eat a few more Enduro Bites and sip down some Beta-Red.