What Every Runner Should Know Before Becoming a Triathlete

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.

Class dismissed.

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!



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  1. This is great! I will definitely be looking for the next posts. Tackling my first triathlon come September and canNOT get over how difficult swimming (compared to running) is for me! Have to give to ol’ M. Phelps 🙂

  2. Great post! I was running for a few years and then one afternoon my husband and I each had one extra glass of wine with lunch — and suddenly we were at a bike store buying bikes and I was in a triathlon three months later. NUTTY! I could have used some of this sage advice! 🙂

  3. So glad to see this here! As a noobie, NoMeat Triathlete it is always great to get the word out there. Lifestyle is a good word. It’s kind of crazy but it’s exhilarating to train that hard for so many different things.

    I originally started it out of a need to cross train and allow some running injuries to really heal. Now, I can’t see how I’d ever be only a runner anymore.

    My first sprint triathlon is this Sunday and I can’t wait. Even though I’m training for a half marathon after this, I’ll be biking and swimming the whole while too.

    Looking forward to some great insight from a less new noobie.

  4. Slowest Man says:

    He-he… nice writing… 🙂 Be careful with bike coaching. Like many things triathlon, biking for Ironman (and triathlon in general) require different skills and fitness than those needed for road-bike racing. For example, Ironman athletes never have to “bridge a gap”, “attack”, “escape a peolton”, “sprint” to the finish line, or earn points by being the first to climb a hill.

    • I would never steer my precious NMAs wrong. The coach I’ve gotten on board is used to working with triathletes of all levels.
      And triathletes do too “attack” a hill — just differently than cyclists. Cyclists attack hills with a strong right-hook to the jaws. Triathletes are more like stroking a cheek really hard with the palm of their hand.


  5. I found your blog from a tweet. Quick question: Am I allowed to comment if I eat meat?
    I hope so because I really loved your tips and since I’m thinking about doing a tri next year, it could be really helpful.
    You’ve got yourself a new follower. 🙂

    • Just because we happen to like vegetables doesn’t mean we can’t share the sandbox with the carnivores. We play nice. Promise. 🙂 I’m so glad to have you join us!

  6. Thank you for posting this!! I find it quite humorous when runners around the blog world decide to do a half ironman for their first triathlon. They may be able to survive it (IF, IF they make it through), but don’t get a time they are happy with.

    The swimming in definitely not a walk in the park!

  7. I was just introduced to your blog today by a friend. I am doing my first tri in September and am gobbling up all new knowledge voraciously. And this blog is a HOOT and a half! I’m having a ball training, reading, eating, not to mention buying new stuff! And for a 51 year old who has never done such a feat, i am feeling pretty good about finishing within a day of everyone else!!

    Thanks for this great boost of fun into what I have already seen as a positive sport!

  8. I can totally ‘get’ your post. I did my first tri two years ago with the goal to just finish, and everything you said is true! I was smart and waited for the mass people in the swim to get out before me, my friend freaked out during the swim because she’d never been in open water before (outside of the Carribean, she’s from Jamaica. She thought she would at least be able to see her hands in front of her. My sister and I laughed about it later as we had raced in a river in MD) The bike part left me cramped and barely able to walk. AND it was a short tri! Love the video clip too!

    • I know EXACTLY what you mean about what your friend said. I do most of my open-water swims in a dark and murky lake…I can’t see my hand in front of my face when I’m swimming. Freaks me the heck out. It gets easier, though — I’m sure your friend learned that. 🙂

  9. haha this is awesome. I never thought about the accidents biking would include. That would seriously suck. I can’t imagine not finishing a race. I suppose you can’t help it though. I thought about doing a triathlon last year but never did. This year I’m pregnant so that half marathon went out the window for the fall. I still am running but not too much since I’m in my eighth month. I got myself a jogging stroller so I can back to it once I get done with the whole recovery thing!

  10. I am still laughing at you referring to yourself as a “freakin’ schmuck”… Great post though, Susan. Actually, I like all of your posts 🙂

  11. Um, like Allie, I must confess to eating meat. I’m trying to quit, but…

    Anyway, thanks for the great post! It’s good to know that a DNF is a normal thing and that it would not make me a schmuck! 😉

    • I like how you make it sound like something to be ashamed of. “I’m trying to quit, but…” I have visions of you scarfing cheeseburgers in the stairwell behind the office. 🙂

      And you are not a schmuck for any reason (DNF, meat-eating, anything) — I take on that role for you guys. My gift to you. 🙂

  12. hehe, good stuff! definitely agree about the swimming. i’m looking at my first dnf this weekend as i can’t (shouldn’t) do the run… better things for later this summer? i hope!

    congrats on your sprint!

    • Don’t push it…if you shouldn’t do the run, don’t do the run. Better to skip that run for one race than be out for the rest of the season with an injury. Keep us posted on how your summer races go! 🙂 LOVE your blog, by the way!

  13. I’m a new bite triathlete this year – I’ve done two races so far and I love it. Everything you said above is so true and so wonderful to hear. Thanks for making me feel like my experience is what others have had too. It’s an exciting and scary transition to a new challenge, so having this support will be great. Can’t wait to read more posts!!! And if anyone is interested in how another newbie triathlete is doing, please come check out my blog at mymagicbean.blogspot.com!

  14. been there done that. what i found to be the most humbling was that i could wake up and run 15 miles no problem any given day. but yet i couldnt swim more than one lap in the pool without almost dying.

  15. …and new bite = newbie. Damn keyboard.

  16. hilarious post! just did my first tri a few weeks ago and have another planned for august. so true on everything you wrote. one of my favorite motivators while biking (as I continually got passed) was to see all the women’s ages on their calves. like “holy crap, she’s 20 yrs older than me and kicking my butt – damn it”! My legs were lead after the bike – I’m sure I was jamming on those cranks just like I run – so I’m really looking forward to your “bike coach” post. could really use some tips before my next tri!

  17. Hi Susan, great post! I felt I had to jump in and add my two cents since I am runner who does triathlons every now and then. A couple of things I’d like to note about my own experience having completed 2 half-ironmans, about ~12-15? Olympic distance tris, several duathlons, and 4 marathons (one was Boston, the next will be Boston since I’m deferring):

    – hey, some triathletes DO think Boston is cool. A vast majority stink at running and Boston is beyond their capabilities! They admire my ability to do tris AND go to Boston! 😉
    – a half-ironman at normal (non-racing) pace *feels* easier on my body than racing a marathon and sometimes even a half-marathon or long run. No lie! I get warmed up with the swim (which is never fun, you are 100% right on that one) and usually take the bike at an enjoyable pace. Then I hammer the run 😀 I pass a LOT of people on the run.
    – The main reason I switched back to mostly running (I do about 1-2 tris MAX per year) is cost $$ and time cost issues. Running easily fits into any day, anywhere you happen to be, with a pair of shoes, shorts, and a tee. It’s practically free—no need to drop large amounts of money on a bike or all the associated equipment that goes with it, or paying to visit/join a swimming pool. Finally, whereas the average running race never comes close to $100 (ok, some halves and marathons with big names are over $100), it’s rare that a triathlon costs LESS than a $100. When I did my first half-IM in 2004 it was “only” $175. Ironmans are $425-550 these days. The typical sprint or Olympic distance tri averages $90-150. Anyways, I just think this is something all people considering triathlon should be told ahead of time: it’s really expensive!

    All that said, the training for triathlon CAN be way more fun, particularly if you’re a bit burnt out on running. The people tend to be a bit more hardcore (i.e. 5AM is not an unusual time to work out for a lot of triathletes), but you’re likely to be in fantastic shape all year round with these people because few triathletes take many days off from training (i.e. a short swim or 1.5 hours of yoga is a “day off”).

    • You bring up some excellent points, and I’m actually working on a post about the money factor of triathlon (including how we can save money). It doesn’t have to be as costly as one would think! 🙂

  18. Oh yes, and I forgot to add: duathlons have been by far the most difficult multi-sport event I’ve ever done. They’re usually cheaper than triathlon, and most runners can quickly adapt to biking before than can with swimming, but WOW they are much more difficult on the body than triathlon! There’s nothing like running TWICE in the same event with some biking in between!

  19. I was never a fabulous runner — I’m slow and willing to run only about 5K — but I got into triathlon just over a year ago and love it! (Now I’m a slow triathlete 🙂 ) All my races have been in the same lake, so it’s unsettling but not as much as it would be if I was changing locations. Will do one somewhere else one of these days…

  20. I love this! I’m a triathlete, and this totally made me feel good about myself. Sometimes I think runners get all the glory. Which really, they should get a ton of credit because running is killer. But don’t assume we do triathlons because we CAN’T run. 🙂

  21. Ann-Drea says:

    As a newbie myself, I’m nervous about a DNF. I’m glad I read both this and your other post about it. I’ve always been a dust myself off person after something crazy happens, but sometimes things can get to me!

  22. Carrie Berg says:

    “You bet your sweet triple-sport-lovin’ ass it is!” I almost snorted my coffee! My DNF was at IM Wisconsin 2010. I was diagnosed with a femoral neck stress fracture 6 wks before the race. I did the swim, walking to the lake on my crutches and crutched up the helix. Then I turned in my race chip. (So sad.) But I am signed up again for this year and so far, training is going better and smarter. Thanks for writing this–everyone who races will DNF at some point.

  23. Funny you should post this about Tri’s. I just did my first Tri, the Women’s only Y Tri in York. I signed up only 2 days ago! Crazy huh? I started training a month ago with swimming and my great coach Heather Johnson from GoMamaGo Team. I wasn’t planning to do a tri until next year and here I was. What an awesome feeling it was to finish. It was a 500 meter pool swim,15 mile hilly bike and flat 5K. The 5K was the hardest for me and I am a runner turned Triathlete. I ended up 6th in my age group out of 22. I have signed up for another one in August. I think I found my new sport.

  24. So I am a week out from my first triathlon- a sprint with an open water ocean swim- I’m a runner, transitioning to tri, and haven’t been able to do nearly as much training as I wanted to get my swim and ride up to a solid level for my first event, so I’m nervous! And then I happened across your post. THANK YOU. I am really nervous about the mad dash of the open water start, and you just said it how it is, and I’m feeling better about it now- I’m gonna get picked and hit and I’m going to surrender to the whole thing, ha! SO thank you.
    Yesterday I did my own mini-tri. I took myself to the pool for a 400m swim, jumped straight into an on-road 12km bike, and a 3km run. It was exhilarating and I felt like bloody superwoman. When I read your comment about becoming a bad ass?? Yep. I felt like it yesterday, and my body was just teeming with energy and blood pumping—it was incredible. And exhausting. And I ate so much for dinner. I’m a vegan and I’m really happy I came across your site. We’re at the end of our tri season in Australia, so I’m getting a tiny taste and then have winter to work on the elements ready for the next season to start in October-ish. Thanks again- this post felt like an inititation!


  1. […] version of fast is really quite slow). As endurance athlete Susan Lacke points out in a post for No Meat Athlete, ‘most runners struggle with the bike leg because they don’t know how to shift, climb, or […]

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