Preparing and Training for Your First Triathlon

Preparing and training for your first triathlonPreparing and training for your first triathlon

You can do it! Let that be my first bit of advice when preparing and training for your first triathlon.  All you’ve got to do is cross the finish line and you will be awarded the title of triathlete.  For most of us the reasons for signing up for a triathlon are peer pressure, looking for another challenge, or a combination of both.  That is exactly what you need to have in preparing for your first triathlon, support and the excitement of challenging yourself.  I have been inspired by so many who have been doing triathlons for years but never really considered myself a candidate because I am a terrible runner.  Everyone comes into the sport with a weak spot.  I suspect that for most it’s swimming, that’s very understandable since most of us haven’t spent time in the pool outside of the irregular hotel stay or pool party during the summer months.  Overcoming your weakness isn’t an overnight deal.  It takes serious commitment, but you can do it.  One of my favorite books that I’ve never read, but am completely in love with is “Slow, Fat, Triathlete.”   Yep, I’ve never read it, but I love the sentiment.  You don’t have to be quick, slim, and super fit to be a triathlete, you just have to participate and finish.  OK, so here’s how I would approach preparing and training for your first triathlon.

Determine Your Goals

Determine how long your first triathlon will be. Starting your training for your first triathlon will all depend upon what your current aerobic levels are and what your goals are. What distance do you want to do? 1/2 sprint, sprint or olympic? A sprint length – 15miles total is a great first choice. Training will allow you to build up endurance, shed some extra pounds, improve your health immensely AND will not take a lot of time out of your busy schedule. If you are starting from scratch, I would recommend triathlons with total mileage between 15 to 20 miles. This will allow you to ‘test’ yourself. You will be able to get familiar with your technique in the two transition areas – T1 and T2, it will allow you to test your equipment PLUS you will have a good time since you will not be concerned with placing your first time.

I will focus on getting you through your first sprint program – 15 miles.

Building A Base (2-6 Months)

Very important first step. We can not just go out and run 5 miles or swim a 1/2 mile to start with? Our joints will fall apart! We need to get our joints used to these new stresses that we will be putting on them. Joints take longer to build up than aerobic stamina. So we build a base. A simple walk/run routine is best. Overweight beginners may find that their knees hurt when starting a conservative running program. NOT TO WORRY! You may be better off starting with biking and shedding off some extra pounds before running. Brisk walking for a few weeks will really help your body transition to jogging and then to running. Your joints will thank you. Everyone has varying degrees of fitness, some are active, but just not used to doing the particular sport.  Listen to your body and be patient. You don’t need to be able to run 3 miles, bike 14, and swim 500-800 meters tomorrow.  Use each week to slowly advance and by race day you’ll be mentally and physically prepared.

Rule#1: The most important rule is to follow the 10% rule. Never go up in training distance or duration by more than 10% the following week. If you do, you will be sorry.

Rule#2: Always schedule a ‘rest’ week once a month. One of the most important aspects to training is REST! You can’t keep going up by 10% every week – you will burn out. You need a 30-50% decrease in duration/distance AND intensity for a whole week at least once a month. Not to worry, you will not lose your base but will come back stronger.

With these rules, you can easily come up with a routine in the run, bike, or swim.

When building a base, try to do your single event training 3-4 times/week.

If you are new to training, focus on just either the run or the bike for 2-6 months – yes months – to build up your aerobic base. You may find that starting all three sports at once will be too much. Once you have focused on one event for 2-6 months, then you may add the next/other one or two in with your training while ALWAYS following rules 1 and 2.

Swim, Bike and Run Training Plan

Once you have built a base, you can start training for all three sports. Typically for a sprint triathlon, you only need to train twice a week in each of the three sports. That is 6 days with one rest day. OR you can have one day where you do two events, say a swim then a run. Then four others days where you just do one training session per day. That will give you two days off per week (my favorite).

To make your training schedule, follow the Rules (1 and 2), and make a plan where you swim, bike and run two times/week.

For weak events, you may slip in a third day of training per week for that specific event to help.

Tips for running, if you are like me and running is not your fun sport, start by walking/jogging for one mile, do this every-other day for a week – possibly two.  Then advance to jogging the whole mile 3x a week.  After this point you can begin to increase your distance and you’ll find that your pace will naturally increase as your body becomes accustomed to the journey.

Tips for biking, similar to running start off with casual rides, short distances at a conversational pace, but frequently.  Everyday or if possible twice a day, this gets your bottom used to the saddle and your legs and knees ready to add some distance.  After a week or two, take a longer bike ride, 7 miles or so, and take a nice rest day afterward.  Make time for a long bike rides every week and increase your milage each time.  It won’t take very long before your doing 20 or 30 mile rides.  These make great Facebook posts.

Tips for swimming, do not be surprised that you find yourself unbelievably out of breath and out of your comfort zone your first couple times in the pool.  Swimming is not something our bodies do naturally, using arms instead of legs, being vertical instead of horizontal, and breathing out face down in the water and breathing in on your side. Give yourself a at least two weeks of swim time before making any rash decisions.  Most people believe they are bad swimmers, until they realize they just need a little coaching and some time in the water.  Ask for help while at the pool.  I am seriously grateful for an older gentalman 70+ who gave me some pointers and a lot of encouragement when I first got in the water.  Go easy and push yourself when you feel you are ready.  Watch youtube videos on swimming, practice your stroke outside of the pool, and do push-ups to increase arm strength. After you can swim one mile, its all downhill from there. If you can float on your back, you’ll never drown.

Here is an example:











Run-20 min

Off Bike-X Run-20 min Swim-X Off Bike-X



Run-22 min

Off Bike-X+10% Run-22 min Swim-X+10% Off Bike-X+10%

Pre-Race Training – Final 13 weeks

For the final 13 week leading up to your sprint triathlon, go to Sprint Program

I recommend only one book to start your training whatever your current level is. The book is Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals by Steven Jonas, M.D. This is the best book for starting from scratch. Steven Jonas does triathlons for fun, not professionally, so it is very easy to relate to.

Besides learning how to run or to train for a triathlon, I also have The Next Level (weight-lifting). From having the experience of doing both at the same time, I would encourage you to check out both sites. BUT if your just starting any exercise routine after a long hiatus then pick your favorite. Contrary to popular belief, you actually can lose weight on a lifting routine if you are serious and don’t go to the gym for social hour. This would consist of a routine with lots of reps – so as not to build a lot of muscle (lots of muscle is counter-productive for the serious triathlete) combined with a walk/jog routine (Starting from Scratch). This might be a smarter way to start-up than starting training for all three of the triathlon events at once.

Starting with a weight training program with the walk/jog routine will build up your bone density, strengthening your joints, getting your muscles awakened from their long sleep. It will take a couple of months for your metabolism to ‘reorganize’ itself. Your cells will take this period to reconfigure its bio-machinery: enzymatic pathways, energy systems, different metabolic pathways, etc…this is a big step to get used to – your body has probably been in hibernation for quite a while. During this period you will feel sore, maybe worn out at times…you will probably not want to go back to the gym most of the time BUT if you can hold out for 2-3 months you will start feeling better, a lot less sore and you will start having confidence – getting that mental edge. Once this happens, you will start gaining momentum in your workout and how you feel. This feeling will auto-accelerate so you will want to go to the gym now! If you don’t go then you will feel ‘drowsy’ from doing nothing since doing nothing is allowing your metabolism to slow.

In preparing and training for your first triathlon – always remember, you can do this!  Start of easy and slow, and keep at it.  Post your accomplishments on Facebook, this will give you the encouragement and maybe a training partner or two to help you along your journey to becoming a triathlete.

Your thoughts on training for your first triathlon:

  • Who inspired you to begin training for your first triathlon?
  • What steps would you suggest for something thinking about preparing and training for a triathlon
  • How do you train and prepare for a triathlon during the winter?

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