Did you watch the recent NBC replay of the Ironman World Championships? I did. I had a trainer session that was almost the exact same length of the program and having watched productions from past years, I know it’s always pretty well done.
As I watched it occurred to me that the show would probably prompt some interest in the sport. As was pointed out at one point, football fans don’t get to throw passes at Lambeau Field nor do baseball fans get to pitch at Fenway Park. But on the same course as world class pros, age grouper athletes get to compete at the same time. It is indeed inspiring.
That got me to thinking about my own initial interest in the sport. Though my brother had already started, I still often found myself with questions. There are, of course hundreds or even thousands of questions that could be asked by any aspiring triathlete but I thought I would stick with what I think are the most common. To make it easier, I’ve tried to group them by general subject matter.
Can I use my mountain bike?
For your first race, which will likely be a shorter distance, a mountain bike is fine. Should you find you like the sport (and nearly everyone does) you’ll probably want to eventually get a traditional road bike or even a triathlon bike.
Okay, what makes it a “triathlon” bike?
Triathlon bikes are also sometimes referred to as Time Trial (TT) Bikes. They’re built with a little differently from the bikes you might see in the Tour de France. The most distinctive feature on these bikes is “aerobars” in which the rider leans over and rests their elbows and forearms on the front. They’re very cool bike but also very expensive.
Do I need a wetsuit?
Not necessarily. Wetsuits are great for swim events that take place in bodies of water that tend to run cold (especially early in the season in locales that experience cold winters). They also provide buoyancy which tends to make the swimmer a little faster.
Did you say bodies of water? You mean the swims aren’t in a pool?
Some races do make use of a pool for the swim portion, but most take place in a lake, slow river, bay or in some cases, the open ocean.
Are there special shoes?
Most road and triathlon bikes come equipped with pedals to which the shoe locks. It’s not unlike a ski boot to a binding. Your feet stay locked to the pedal until you twist your heel outward at which point they unlike. There a lots of opinions what shoes to wear on the run. Personally, I use my standard running shoes.
What other equipment do I need?
As for what you need, just the means to swim (a suit) bike (a bicycle and helmet) and run (shoes, shorts, shirt). There’s no shortage of companies lining up to sell you all manner of equipment, but much of it is unnecessary. Everyone decides what works best for them personally, but here’s what I would suggest:
· Swim: a long-sleeved wetsuit, a good set of goggles, a silicon swim cap and a suit designed for athletic swimming rather than hanging out at the beach.
· Bike: a road bike, a decent helmet, wrap-around sunglasses, a couple of pairs of cycling shorts (they have a padded crotch) and a couple of cycling jerseys. The latter are not strictly necessary but nice to have.
· Run: good running shoes that have been fit at a local running store. This is important for injury prevention. Also, a couple of pairs of running shorts and tops and socks intended specifically for running.
Many athletes wear triathlon-specific shorts which are basically cycling shorts without the bulky pad in the crotch. These are good for shorter races and workouts.
How long does it take to prepare for a race?
There’s no specific answer for that one since it varies from athlete to athlete based on their own general conditioning and capability. A general rule is that you should plan on at least six weeks and up to several months depending on your conditioning.
How do you even go about getting started?
There are lots of great books and websites on training. A web search of the term “triathlon training plans” will yield more results than you probably want. A few good sources are Beginner Triathlete, Tri-Newbies, or Training Peaks. Additionally, the American national sanctioning body for triathlons is called USA Triathlon (USAT) and they have some resources on their website.
Do you have to have a coach?
I am a coached athlete and very happy with that arrangement. However, I started out on my own and did reasonably well. My decision to hire a coach was fueled by a desire to improve my racing combined with the feeling that I could not do more on my own. Coach’s generally aren’t cheap (though they are also not the most expensive component of the sport) so it’s as much a financial decision as anything. A less expensive alternative is to utilize your local triathlon club (if you have one). They often have some level of coaching and you can always pick up informal advice from fellow-members.
I saw the Ironman but that looks like too much for me. Are there shorter distances?
There are. A common entry level race is referred to as a “sprint.” These races don’t have an official distance but normally consist of a swim of no more than 750 meters (a little under half a mile or 32 lengths of a 25 yard pool), a bike of no more than 20 miles (often quite a bit less) and a 5 kilometer/3.1 mile run. Other types include:
· Olympic/International: Usually a 1500 meter swim (around a mile) a 40K/24.8 mile bike and a 10K/6.2 mile run. This can vary from race to race.
· Half Iron or “Half”: A 1.2 Mile Swim, a 56 mile bike and a 13.1 mile run
· Iron or “Full” : A 2.4 Mile Swim, a 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run.
The most famous of the last one is the race in Hawaii in October. While the name Ironman is trademarked, the distances are not so other race organizers may not use that term but will still offer a race that has the same distances. There are no “official” rules for these distances but they tend to be the most common.
So triathlon is swimming, then biking and then running. What happens in between these?
That sequence is generally though not always the case. In between each sport is what we call transition. Between swimming and biking is Transition 1 (called T1) and between biking and running is T2.
Do you have to change clothes in transition?
Longer races (mostly of the long distance 140.6 mile races) have tents that allow for a full change of clothes between races. Shorter races usually involve just adding or removing an item. For example, you might be wearing your tri shorts and jersey under your wetsuit and then remove the wetsuit in T1 followed by putting on cycling shoes, helmet and sunglasses before heading out on the ride. Likewise, you would doff your helmet and cycling shoes in T2 and don your running shoes and perhaps a cap or visor before starting the run.
Does the time in transition count?
Absolutely. A key to a successful race is to get through transitions as quickly as possible. The clock keeps running from the time you start until you cross the finish line.
How do they keep track of everyone’s time through all of this?
These days, the most common means is by a “chip” that you wear just above your ankle on a soft neoprene strap. These are issued by the race organizers usually on the morning of the race though sometimes a day or two before. It stays with you during the entire race. Whenever you step over a timing mat on the ground, it makes a recording of that event and this is used to provide times for each event as well as how long you spend in transitions.
Isn’t that uncomfortable?
Not at all. In truth, I only notice my chip if I’m thinking about it.
How do I know where to go?
A good race will be a combination of good marking and volunteers to point the way. During the swim, buoys are set up on the course and you simply swim from one to the next. Bike and running courses are typically staffed with volunteers telling where to go.
Someone drowned at our local race a couple of years ago. Is the sport really dangerous?
It would be less than honest to say that the sport is without risk. Swimming in open water and riding a bike on roads you share with cars are inherently risky activities. What’s more, if you have a serious underlying health condition like heart disease, you can also put yourself in mortal peril.
All of that said, with the application of preparation and common sense, you can enjoy the sport and be safe. Many drownings (though not all) are the result of a cardiac arrest that may have been brought on by the stress of swimming in cold water with lots of people splashing around but also due to someone having heart problems that may not have been diagnosed.
Preparation (including getting checked out by your physician) is the best way to mitigate but not eliminate risk factors.
I’ve been told that triathletes are a bunch of self-important douchebags. Is that true?
Triathletes are a group of people and like any group, there are some bad apples. Some would argue that the sport attracts a disproportionate number of unpleasant people. I can’t say but my own experience is that most folks in the sport are not only friendly, but also very welcoming of new-comers.
I suck at swimming. How do I make it through that portion of the race?
While I have no hard data on this, I suspect most people would rate swimming as their weakest discipline. The best advice I have is to train and train. One resource I found very helpful was Swim Smooth. In particular, I liked their Mr. Smooth app. I made a lot of progress just trying to imitate his style.
Books have literally been written about the various questions new triathletes have. My intention is not to write another one here. If you have a question you want answered or if you want more detail on one of the questions addressed in this post, feel free to leave it in the comments sections.
Also feel free to peruse the blog and see about my experiences training and racing. In fact, I’d suggest perusing several blogs.
Thanks for reading and good luck in your training.