The Simplest-Ever Guide to Your First Triathlon

bicycle waiting at triathlon

It’s hard enough to master one sport. But three? No way.

Making the leap from running to triathlon, which consists of a swim, bike, and run, sounds complicated. More often than not, the complexities of multisport hold people back:

“I don’t have enough time to train for three sports!”

“Don’t you need a lot of gear for triathlon?”

“All I have is a crappy commuter bike.”

“No way could I learn to swim.”

Complicated, right? Except it’s really not.

If you can do a 5K, you can do a triathlon.

The sprint triathlon, which consists of a 750-meter swim, 12.4-mile bike, and 3.1-mile run, is well within reach for most people, especially those who are already reasonably fit.

Of course, you should ease into this type of training — just like any other athletic endeavor. If there are health issues, talk with your doctor before embarking on any sort of fitness journey. But if you’re well, your basic fitness most likely allows you to ride a bike for 30 minutes and run/walk for 30 minutes. If you can swim, you can probably make it from one end of the pool to the other.

That’s where you start … taking small steps to gradually work your way up.

If you’re already running on a regular basis, it’s easy to adjust your training to incorporate time swimming and cycling.

Important Note: I said “incorporate,” not “add.” Most people can prepare for a triathlon with the same amount of training hours as they would a 5K, believe it or not.

How to Adjust Your Training for Triathlon

Ready to get started? Here’s your five-point checklist to becoming a triathlete:

1. Find the Gear

Chances are, you already have most of what you need to do a triathlon — or can find it pretty easily:

  • Goggles
  • Bike
  • Helmet
  • Sunglasses
  • Running Shoes

Seriously, that’s it. Yes, you can get fancy triathlon gear and all the bells and whistles, but the bare-bones equipment is just those five things. Many newbies do their entire race in a swimsuit; some put a pair of shorts on over the suit once out of the water. If you wish to splurge, you can upgrade to clothing specially designed for triathlon (known as “kits”), but it’s not necessary.

As for the bike, anything goes: mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, road bikes, even single-speeds are perfectly fine for your first race. There’s no need to buy a new bike for your first triathlon if you have one in your garage. You can also borrow one from a friend or rent one from a local bike shop. After that first race, decide if you want to do another one and spend the money on a new bike then.

Here are some resources to help you get started:

2. Get in the Water

The swim is what scares a lot of people away from triathlon — they see these massive swim starts with 2,000 people in a lake, and the idea of entering a human washing machine sounds more terrifying than fun.

But that’s not how most triathlons operate these days. There are many triathlons where you can do the swim in a pool, and the ones that take place in lakes often break the competition up into smaller groups to start at staggered times. Some even have a “newbie only” wave where extra support is given for nervous first-timers.

Not so terrifying now, is it?

The more comfortable you become with swimming, the more fun it becomes. Swim lessons are a good place to start. If you’re already familiar with the basics of swimming, then simply building up your endurance (just like you would with running) becomes your task.

Bonus reading, for the swim-curious:

3. Rotate Your Workouts

Instead of running six days per week, a beginner multisport schedule looks more like this:

  • Swim 2 times per week (approximately 30 minutes)
  • Bike 2 times per week (30 minutes to 1 hour)
  • Run 2 times per week (approximately 30 minutes)

Quick tips for multisport workouts:

  • Swim: Start with shorter segments in the pool. Swim from one end to the other, then take a break. Swim back to the other end, then take a break. Eventually, build up to one full lap (down and back) before taking a break, then 1 and a half laps, and so on.
  • Bike: It’s more efficient to spin than to mash the pedals. If you ride in a smaller, easier gear, you’ll last longer and still have legs for running. An ideal cadence is about 90 RPM or so, (sing Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” in your head, and you’ve got it).
  • Run: Don’t hesitate to start out by run/walking. Each week, aim to increase your running time and decrease your walk.
  • You don’t need to practice all three disciplines in one day — it all comes together on race day (I promise!). However, you may want to incorporate a few 5-minute runs immediately after some of your bike rides, just to get used to the feeling of transitioning from one discipline to the next.

4. Perfect Your Nutrition

Though the duration of a triathlon is longer than a 5K, the nutritional needs aren’t much different. Most people can get through a sprint triathlon without needing to take in any calories; for those that do, a bottle on the bike filled with electrolyte drink (HEED and Tailwind are popular vegan options) is more than sufficient. Play around with different options during your training so you know what works best for you.

However, the absence of nutrition during the race means the pre- and post-race meals and snacks become even more important.

For more details, check out:

5. Pick a race and go!

Of course, you could just swim and bike for the cross-training benefits. Plenty of people do, and their running is better for it.

But let’s be real: you’re just delaying the inevitable. Most triathletes will tell you they got into the sport because of a running injury — after swimming to rehab a stress fracture or cycling to fix an IT band issue, signing up for a triathlon just made sense.

Might as well train with purpose. Pick a race, get yourself a training plan (like the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap!), and go.

It really is that simple.

About the Author: In addition to serving as our Resident Triathlete and author of the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap, Susan Lacke is a featured contributor for Triathlete magazine. She loves riding bikes and eating cookies – ideally, simultaneously.



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  1. Thanks for this! I am a runner that just started swimming about a month ago. I am so glad I started because I love it! Just need to work on endurance. Can’t wait for my first tri!

  2. OrcStompRunner says:

    All true!

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