Welcome to the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Academy.
I’m Professor Lacke. You can also call me Professor Newbie, or “Noob” for short. I’ll be guiding you through your learning experience as you transition from runner to triathlete.
You’re probably thinking, “Professor Lacke, I’ve read your articles on this site. You’re a freakin’ schmuck who isn’t qualified to teach a class on triathlon.”
And you would be right.
I’m not an expert on triathlon — far from it. I’m about as graceful as a lobotomized duck in the water, almost always have some form of road rash from crashing on my bike, and the run? Heh…well, the day I do an eight-minute mile is going to be the same day pigs fly, hell freezes over, and Flavor Flav wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
If you want to read up on a good no-meat triathlete, go visit Brendan Brazier’s site. He’s got his shiz together.
What I do know is what it’s like to transition from runner to triathlete.
As a newbie, I’ve learned a lot of very, very valuable lessons as I’ve moved from only running to the swim/bike/run combo. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that triathletes help each other out.
Unless you’re in my age group. Then I’ll throw a stick in front of your bike.
I kid, I kid. Seriously, it’s a friendly sport with friendly people. Triathletes are a lot of fun and will talk to you about the sport for hours if you’ll let them. In the spirit of triathlon friendliness, I’ll be providing you with those lessons I’ve learned in hopes that you’ll take up this sport with the same love and enthusiasm I have.
Here’s what you need to know, NMA tri-noobs:
It’s one thing to be a runner. It’s a totally different thing to be a triathlete.
Running a 5K, 10K, half-marathon, full marathon…that’s one discipline, one start, and one finish. It’s not the same when you run that same race after swimming and cycling. It’s truly a test of skill and endurance, and the run in the triathlon is much harder than what you’re used to as a runner, since you’ve already been exerting yourself in the swim and the bike. Mentally, it can really mess with you.
When you first transition from running to triathlon, it’s best to think of a triathlon as an extended workout. The swim is your warmup, the bike is a good way to dry off from the swim, and THEN you jump into the real race. Trust me on this one.
The swim ain’t your grandma’s lazy lap workout.
I’m annoyed with runners who almost always say “the swim can’t be that hard.” When we think of swimming, we think of the fun splashing around we did as children, and that evokes happy memories.
Your first open-water swim will crush every single one of those happy memories like a bug.
Nothing can truly prepare you for your first open-water mass swim start, especially if all of your training has involved swimming laps in a pool with a blue stripe on the bottom. It is chaos. There’s no blue stripe on the bottom of a lake to keep you on course.
You will get hit. You will get kicked. You will want to give up. Check out this video – it’s humorous, but it’s actually a pretty accurate depiction of what your first open-water start is going to feel like.
I assure you — it gets easier. Eventually, you’ll learn to adapt to the chaos – and if you become a true triathlete, you’ll actually LIKE it. There are people who are actually capable of entering a zen-like state during mass swim starts. It’s amazing, really.
Most runners have a difficult time adapting to the equipment of cycling.
When I went in for my first road bike fitting, I learned that most triathlete newbies (myself included) don’t know how to ride a bike. Rather than use proper cycling form, they instinctively mash the pedals or try to “run” on the bike – no wonder their legs are shot by the time they get to the run!
Instead, it’s important to learn proper form so you use one set of muscles on the bike and another set on the run. Additionally, most runners struggle with the bike leg because they don’t know how to shift, climb, or hold their line on a turn.
The phrase “it’s just like riding a bike” oversimplifies how hard cycling can be. We think it’s supposed to come naturally to us – after all, if a little kid can do it, anyone can, right?
It’s not complicated, but it’s not that simple, either. I’ll be recruiting the help of a bike coach to help me craft some posts with basic cycling info to help you as you begin your triathlon endeavors.
Triathlon doesn’t really give a crap if you qualified for Boston. (Sorry, Matt.)
Triathlon is the great athletic equalizer. A person may be proficient in running OR swimming OR biking, but not too many are skilled in running AND swimming AND biking. The first people out of the water can lose their standing during the bike, and people who are dead last out of the water can sprint past everyone during the run and win it all.
People who are normally strong runners may go out too hard on the bike portion, leaving them exhausted and cramped up in the run. Suddenly, their strong discipline ain’t so strong anymore.
My point? Don’t be cocky. You may have qualified for Boston or placed in the top 10 in your local 5K, but it’s no guarantee that’s going to translate well into triathlon. Don’t set out to prove anything to others – just race against yourself.
At some point, you will fail.
I’ve never taken a DNF as a runner. About a month ago, I was headed up to Deuces Wild, an Olympic-distance race with a friend. While talking about DNFs, I boasted that I may not be fast, but I could pride myself on being persistent. Sure, I’d taken the other acronym, DFL (Dead F*****g Last), in races, but never DNF.
During the race the next day, I felt awesome as I held my own during the swim start, blew through the water, and transitioned out on my bike. A few miles into the bike leg, I was involved in a four-person pileup. My bike and I took our battered selves to the first-aid tent – not the finish line. I hated myself for not finishing.
There are so many variables in triathlon that increase the likelihood that you’ll take a DNF at some point: The water may be extremely cold in the swim, you may get a flat tire on your bike, or you may get a severe cramp during that last mile of your run. I didn’t know this until discussing my DNF with fellow triathletes, but almost every single athlete in this sport, at some time, has had to take a DNF.
When it happens, you’ll be too busy beating yourself up that you won’t believe me then, so listen to me now: I swear – a DNF is normal, and it’s okay.
After you fail, you will bounce back 10 times stronger.
Each race is a learning opportunity. I guarantee you’ll discover something new about yourself and your race strategy each time. Maybe it’ll be a tweak to your nutritional needs, or maybe you’ll make a discovery in the way that you attack a hill on the bike or in the run. But each time you learn something new, you’ll not only become more physically competent during your races, you’ll gain psychological acuity.
Then one day, you’ll have an amazing race where everything just…clicks.
Over the 4th of July weekend, I entered a sprint triathlon – my first race since taking the above-mentioned DNF. It wasn’t a big race, by any means – only about 300 people. I used it as a fun way to change things up from the long rides and runs I’ve been doing in preparation for Ironman Wisconsin. I didn’t even bother paying attention to my watch or my split times during and after the race. I felt good, applied all my lessons learned from past triathlons, and had a lot of fun!
A few days after the race, I checked the race website to get my official results. My jaw dropped when I saw that I placed first in my age group. Suddenly, that DNF didn’t matter. I don’t care how small that race was, it was a total confidence booster. I’m going to Disneyland, people!
You’re gonna be a total badass.
Your status as a No Meat Athlete already places you in the upper echelons of coolness, but triathlon will kick you up a few more notches. This sport isn’t just a hobby. It’s a lifestyle. You’re about to undertake an activity that many people only dream of.
Is it scary? Yes. Is it hard? Certainly. Is it worth it? You bet your sweet triple-sport-lovin’ ass it is.
Don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself. Stay enrolled in the NMA Triathlon Academy. I’ll be back each week with more information and answers to those awesome newbie questions poking holes in your brain.
This post is part of a six-part guide designed to help the beginning triathlete get started (without screwing up too badly). Check out the entire series!