Photo: Meyer Felix, Flickr Creative Commons
With two seasons (and six races) under my race number belt, I'm still not an expert, but I am an expert at getting started. Unlike a lot of the triathletes who like to give advice, I'm an not a very good athlete. I have to work harder than most people to achieve the same level of performance. I'm okay with that, but that also makes me unusually qualified to give advice to those who aren't abnormally athletic but who are considering trying to finish a triathlon for the first time. Here's my advice to those looking to get a start in the sport, but who aren't experienced athletes.
Show Me the Money
Triathlon can be expensive. All you need to run is a pair of decent shoes and $20 (or less) to sign up for your first 5k. Triathlon has a few more requirements. The race fees alone are usually significantly more expensive than the typical run or bike race. For example, the Peachtree Road Race is one of the most expensive runs I do each year and only sets me back $38.05 after taxes. Most of my races are small town runs that cost between $5 (including T-shirt) and $20. Contrast that with the my closest Ironman branded event, the Augusta 70.3 race, which starts at $275. That right there is enough to scare off a lot of potential competitors, especially if they're like me and not rich.
Ironman isn't the only game in town, though. Most of the triathlons around me are much cheaper (especially if you stick to the short sprint and Olympic/International distance events). A sprint race I do in the Okefenokee starts at $50. An Olympic-distance event in North Carolina is $65. You can even find 70.3 and full Ironman-distance events for a savings. The Atlantic Coast Triathlon is the same distance at the Ironman 70.3 races, but starts at $175. Sure, these are all more expensive than you'd expect for the typical run or bike race, but you're not having to pay hundreds for one race, either.
Of course, the entry fee isn't the only expense in triathlon. There's the wetsuit, which will cost hundreds. There's the bike and related gear, which can run into the thousands. There's the specialized clothes, the shoes that are made just for triathlons because they go on and off more quickly.
Except, you don't need most of that as a beginner.
Let's face it, unless you're coming to triathlon as a highly competitive runner, cyclist or distance swimmer, you're not going to have a chance at winning anything to start with anyway. Finish a couple of races with the bare-bones gear and then start building your collection once you decide if you're going to stick with it or not. Here's what you'll really need to get started:
- A racing swimsuit. Men are really the only ones who have to worry about this part as there are no aerodynamic casual swimsuits for men, at least in the US. You either wear board shorts or racing budgie smugglers/jammers. For women, if you feel comfortable actually exerting yourself in your regular one-piece/bikini, you're probably already good. Fashion swimsuits won't cut it, but you can easily find something suitable that could also serve you well hanging out at the pool.
- I'd pick up a pair of decent goggles. You want to be able to keep an eye on the buoys that mark the swim course, and if you're like me, seeing with water dripping in your eyes is nearly impossible.
- A decent road bike. You don't need the specialized time trial bikes to start with. If you're doing Xterra or other off-road triathlons, you just need a decent mountain bike. Now, I will be honest. A time trial bike will make a very real difference in your performance. It just won't make enough difference to be worth the money unless you had a chance to make the podium without it. If you're lucky, you can find someone with a bad back who will give you their road bike on long-term loan for free like I did. If not, you can get a decent bike for good money used on Craigslist, and that's assuming you don't already have a suitable bike.
- Helmet. There is no reason to spend money on the high-end helmets unless you're also shelling out for the time trial bike.
- Clipless pedals and bike shoes are preferable. They really do make a difference, but if you're not sure you're going to stick with triathlon or bike riding in general, you could save some money by sticking with platform pedals and running shoes (and shave time off your bike/run transition).
- Running shoes. You don't have to spend a lot on these, but you need shoes that you can run comfortably in for at least 3 miles.
That's it. You probably already have some of these. The only guaranteed big money is the bike itself. You can probably get the rest for under $200 if you're careful with your purchases and buy used when that's a reasonable option. Notice the common triathlon gear I didn't mention:
- Wetsuit. I have never used a wetsuit. I do not own a wetsuit. I have actually won my age group at a small race without a wetsuit. In fact, because I live in the South and race between late May and September, most of the races I do aren't even wetsuit legal. If the water is over 78 degrees (25.5C) you can wear a wetsuit, but aren't eligible for awards. At 84 (28.9C) degrees, no wetsuits are allowed. I start swimming outside once the water temps are over 60 (15.5C) degrees and I currently feel no discomfort in water that's around 66 (18.9C). Why wear a wetsuit, then? Well, some races are in colder waters where wearing a wetsuit is a safety issue. Minnesota in June? May want a wetsuit. It also increases your buoyancy, which means you ride higher in the water, which means you likely swim faster. Like the specialized bike, this just isn't necessary unless you're competing for the podium and basically wasted money if you race in the South. Live up north? Find a race in the South and build a vacation around it (or race in August).
- Triathlon suit. You can get one-piece or two-piece suits that are designed for triathlons. I, in fact, own a two-piece suit. It's basically a pair of swimsuit jammers with a thin chamois (the padding in the crotch of bike shorts) and a top that is made out of swimsuit material as well. The advantages are that you have a little padding for the bike while simultaneously having clothing that works fine for both the swim and the run. The thing is that you don't really need that chamois for short races. Most sprint-distance races only have you on the bike between 10-16 miles. If you've been training, your butt is going to handle that without a problem. If you're doing longer distances, you may actually want a pair of tri shorts at least. The top is optional. I wear one because I'm fat and self-conscious about my gut. If you have a better body, go ahead and show off that core.
- Specialized shoes. They make specialized bike and running shoes for triathletes. If you notice, they typically have big loops or holes at the back and on the tongue of the shoe and usually have special lacing systems or straps. All of these are designed to shave seconds from your transitions. Unless you're ready for the time trial bike and funny helmet, you are definitely not ready for a pair of shoes you'll only use for the race. Don't bother.
Make Sure to Practice
Money won't be your only concern, of course. There's also the whole training issue. Triathlons are hard. That's the whole point. If you have a really good cardio base (active runner or cyclist) then you can probably get away with only spending three months of active training. If you are fairly fit, but running three miles isn't easy, you may want to give yourself an extra month. Live a sedentary lifestyle, are overweight and can't even run a full mile yet? Give yourself another month or two. Did you notice that I didn't say that last person shouldn't try? That's because if you are healthy and really train, anyone will finish. That last person may come in toward the back, but they'll finish. Find a good (free) training plan online and stick to it. I'd plan on training at least four days a week and I'd make sure to combine sessions on the days you're not doing a long day for one of the disciplines. For example, I did a 20-minute swim session followed by a 3-mile run yesterday. It's also a good idea to work in at least one bike/run brick each week. That means you'll ride the bike, usually the distance of your planned race, followed by a quick change to run. I usually do a short run on these bricks. Normally, I don't bother running less than three miles, but on these days, I'll just get in two. The goal isn't to entirely replicate the race day but to build the muscle memory for how to transition from the pedaling motion to the running motion. You'll be surprised if you don't do this how hard it is to start running after the bike on race day.
On special piece of advice on the swim: If you aren't used to swimming, make sure to focus your training on this part. If you can run 3 miles, you can bike 16 no problem. You'll be faster if you train at both, but being able to do one means you're fit enough to do the other. Swimming, on the other hand, uses lots of different muscles and requires you to be able to be comfortable in the water. Make sure to give yourself time to get the feel for it and get a little form down. Form will help. Take a masters swim class at the local pool. Spend some time on Youtube looking up video tips from various people. Finally, have a plan (and one you practice regularly) for what to do if you panic. For me, I know I have a tendency to panic if I get water up my nose. It's a phobia I've had my entire life. However, I know I'm really comfortable and confident at the breast stroke. If I get tired or panicked, I simply switch to the breast stroke until I regain my breath or composure. It's slower, but I feel more in control.
So, you still thinking of doing a triathlon? Go for it. You can do it relatively cheaply, especially if you already have the bike and stay away from the pricier events where the extra money largely goes to pay for the logo, but make sure to train. Results in triathlon, like most things in life, are entirely tied to the amount of effort put into to getting ready for it. I just wish I had learned that last part earlier in life.