Triathlon 101:

Everything you need to know to do a triathlon

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By Bob Byard
Certified USA-Triathlon Coach and Fitness Trainer

Copyright 2001 -- Runner Triathlete News

I looked up the word "triathlon" in a dictionary that was printed in 1973 and, guess what? It wasn't there! Just in case you have the same outdated edition I do, the following will get you up to speed on what the triathlon sport is all about. Not only will I get a more current dictionary, but I'll update you as well on the background of the multi-sport of triathlon; what it involves as far as equipment and training; some cautions to heed; and information on when and where the events are held in and around the region.

First of all, congratulations on taking the time to read this article. At a minimum you're curious about triathlons or, even better, you're thinking about doing one. Great! Sit back, relax, maybe take some notes (written or mental) as you read along, and we'll go through the next couple of pages together. There have numerous articles about the individual parts and specific aspects to a triathlon and even books about all that is involved in training for and doing one. What I'll be in the next couple of pages is your "Reader's Digest" version; I'll touch on just about every aspect of a triathlon, but make it short enough that you get just the basic information - not a drink with a firehose! That way, you won't be overwhelmed, but can concentrate on "eating small bites of the elephant." Sit back and relax; here we go . . .

Triathlon Defined

When did they start, where? What makes them so popular? The sport of triathlon started in the late '70s in California, with a race in the San Diego area. Over the last 30 years, the sport's popularity has continued to grow on a worldwide scale. Its latest boost was its inclusion as an Olympic event in the 2000 Games in Australia. A triathlon is a three-sport event, done in succession, consisting of a swim at the start, then a bike, and finally a run to the finish line. Although the sequence might change, it's usually in that order (at some events the run is second and the bike is last, and in a handful the swim is last). Between each sport, the individual changes clothes and equipment in a "transition area." Just as it sounds, a competitor transitions (shifts) from swimming to where the bike is prepositioned, along with other items needed for the bike and run (more on the equipment later). After biking, the individual returns to the transition area, drops off the bike and prepares for and goes out on the run. Each part of the triathlon is timed, including the transitions, and the total time from start-to-finish of the race for each individual is used to decide the winner. A person's time is compared to others in specific age groups in respective male and female categories so each individual is competing against others in their particular sex and age bracket.

The best place to watch a triathlon is probably near the transition area since all the athletes will be there at least twice: when they switch from the swim to the bike and again when going from the bike to the run. When I said earlier that athletes can change clothes in the transition area, don't take it literally; you can put on cycling shorts and a shirt for the bike and switch to running shorts for the run, but that's about it - no streakers! Even so, if you have the opportunity, its highly recommended to watch at least one triathlon before doing one - you can learn a lot about doing transitions quickly and you'll see more of the race activities. The start, transition area, and the finish are usually close to each other. It's difficult to pinpoint what makes a triathlon so popular; many things add to its draw - the challenge of doing multiple events, the thrill of success, the mystic of tapping personal effort - perhaps it's just the certainty of uncertainty: the weather, the self-doubt, the equipment, the level of competition or the distance of the race. Some elements of the race you have control over, others you don't. Maybe the attraction is more the opportunity to travel to different places to compete, the camaraderie, and making of new friends.


What are the different distances?
Courses: loops, indoor/outdoor
Just about any place with a lake or pool and a safe area to bike and run has the potential for a triathlon. Shorter distance races may have the swim in an indoor or outdoor pool where you swim laps in designated lanes; longer swims may be in a river, a lake, or even in the ocean. Depending on the location and length of the race, the bike and run portions may be one or more loops or an "out and back" design. The longer distance and more popular races mandate close coordination with local law enforcement - traffic control, volunteer use and course construction will always test any race director's patience, knowledge, and course design imagination. I'd strongly recommend volunteering to help out at a triathlon - race directors need the help, competitors appreciate it, and you'll get first-hand exposure to the excitement of the sport. Hey, everybody wins!

The four primary distances for a triathlon are called Sprint, Olympic, Half Ironman, and Ironman. The "Olympic" distance race is a 1.5K (kilometer) swim, 40K bike, and 10K run. Why these specific distances? Not sure, except that one source thinks it's because 1500 meters (1.5K) is the standard long swim race, the standard bike time trial race is usually 40K, and the 10K run is the most popular road run. One could conclude that a "Sprint" distance was started as a compromise to the Olympic distance - it's half (or less) of the Olympic distance at about 750 meter for the swim, 20K for the bike, and a 5K run. During the racing season that starts around May and lasts through October, there are Sprint and Olympic races scheduled every weekend. The Ironman (IM) triathlon originated in Hawaii and seems to be the best-known triathlon because of the publicity it receives. The swim, bike, and run are 2.4 miles, 112 miles, and 26.2 miles, respectively. And yes, you do it consecutively and all on the same day. As with the Sprint being half the distance of the Olympic distance, so the Half Ironman is just that: half the distance of a full Ironman. There are not as many IM and Half IM races as there are the shorter distances, but they are held all over the world. Regardless of the race distance, tables are set up for competitors to get water or sports drink during the run; many races have water bottles available on the bike course at specific locations that the cyclists know about where they can trade off an empty bottle for a full one. For the Half and full IM, energy-replacement food is also available on the run and bike course - the longer the race, the more important is the need to stay hydrated and have access to nourishment. The cost of entering one of these races depends on several factors, but the primary one is usually it's distance - the longer the race (and more popular it is), the more expensive it is. A Sprint race may be about $25 and an Olympic somewhere around $45; the Half IM can be $100+ and the full IM over $300.

Motivation to Do One

  • Set priorities
  • Time management
  • Personal challenge

I previously touched on possible reasons why people do a triathlon. Although it's a difficult concept or reason to pinpoint, each individual needs to identify his or her own reason for training and competing. We each need to know why we put ourselves and those close to us through all the aspects of triathlon training and racing. The personal challenges set, mental and physical challenges faced, the satisfaction of meeting goals, and sense of accomplishment are individual - what's important to one person is different for another. The sport of triathlon dictates, however, that each individual set priorities and balances them with training, work, family, and friends. Also, time management is crucial; without it, time, energy, and efficiency are misdirected and unfocused. You need to know your goals, what it will take to achieve them, how and when to gauge progress, and what adjustments are needed and when. The result of proper mental and physical preparation and race performance is difficult to describe, but will be extremely satisfying if the goals were realistic, prepared for properly, and have tapped new personal performance levels.

Start Small and Build

  • Relay, sprint, olympic, etc.
  • Develop skills and ambition together

Someone once said that the longest journey starts with the first step - and so it is with attempting the first triathlon. Besides a suggestion to watch at least one triathlon before doing one, it's recommended to start with the shorter distance races before getting too ambitious. An athlete needs to gain experience from each race and use what's learned to race smarter at the next one. Even spending a whole season at the shorter, smaller races pays big dividends in avoiding injuries, getting wiser, and pacing your competitiveness. Developing skills, garnering experience, and setting structured, well thought out goals will go a long way towards preventing frustration and ill-spent effort.

Race Schedule

Plan your season; A, B, C races
I'll talk more later about planning your training for a race, but first things first: you need to select a race or a couple of races in the upcoming season. Once you've done that, build your training plan to peak for that race or a select number of races. It helps to categorize your races as either an "A", "B", or "C" race. From least significant to "the" race of the season, "C" races are ones you want to do, but don't have to - they're the kind of races you plan, but you can skip and not be behind in your training or your overall plan for the season. The "B" race(s) are important and should be thought of as such; they are the ones that are your gauge as to where you are in your training and in your preparation for the most important race(s) of the year: the "A" race. This is the one you aim for all year and have picked as your focus and goal. In figuring out which races are scheduled when and where, there are a number of magazines and websites that outline them from a few months to a full year. Distances, locations, points of contact, entry forms, etc. are available for all events in this part of the country in Runner Triathlete News and Inside Triathlon and Triathlete magazines also list limited information by parts of the country, plus international races. Sit down with the computer or one on these magazines and a calendar and sketch out your "nice to do, should do, and will do" races. This is the first part of planning your training (more on that later.)

Set Your Objective

Be realistic; challenging, but achievable
Both in your selection of races and in planning what and how much training you're planning, be realistic - know you capabilities, what your goal(s) are for the season, how much time you have to prepare, and the degree of commitment you can and will make. As with any objective, the race you want to prepare for should be challenging and achievable - give it careful thought; what you want to do shouldn't be too easy, nor unrealistic. You'll find out as you're training progress whether or not your efforts and plan is on track.

Plan Your Time to Reach It

Don't rush, be patient
Know your time limitations
As I mentioned earlier about starting out with the shorter distance races and building up, the same applies to how much time and effort you spend at the beginning of your training and as you build in distance and intensity. Patience is a virtue and very applicable to triathlons. Don't rush into your initial training with mega-amount of workouts: 1) you're asking for injuries (which you'll get), 2) you'll get stressed out and discouraged, and 3) you'll be pushing the envelope on a healthy balance between exercising, resting, family, and friends - neglect of one will adversely effect (physically or mentally) another. Know your time and physical limitations; plan incrementally, be patient, avoid injuries, have a life outside of sports, and enjoy yourself.

Know Your Physical Situation

Don't kid yourself, know your physical conditioning
Almost every injury is due to poor preparation for a workout, insufficient rest, excessive increases in distances or intensities, and/or not listening to your body. You can avoid injuries if you're smart; you will get injured if you don't have a well thought-out plan with a focus on the right mix of intensity, variety, and rest based on race dates. Do some initial testing of your speed, strength, and distance capabilities before you develop a training plan. If you don't know when you last had a physical exam or if it's been over a year, get another one. Have an ECG (electrocardiogram) done; have tests done to check the status of your heath. Be aware of your family's medical history and you're potential to have similar maladies. Basically, know you body and it's strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities before you stress it. If you haven't done your homework, your body will get even. Every time.

Limits: Knowledge, Ability, Money

Patience can overcome it all
The next sections on swimming, biking, and running contain the same tone and cautions: to plan on getting from where you are today to performing well on race day, you must identify your present ability level and what it will take to improve to a certain fitness level. For most triathletes, swimming is their curse - few have a swimming background and don't enjoy the sport. Conversely, most triathletes who do well have been swimming a while and feel relatively comfortable in the water. As with biking and running, there are tomes on the subject and would take far too much space than is available to cover in detail here: many books and several magazines are specific on how to swim (or bike or run) correctly and what workouts are best to correct a technique problem or make you go faster or farther. To perform at your best, you need knowledge and experience rather than luck; to get those you need to listen, question, compare, consider, and decide: on equipment, commitment, and spending limits. So I'll give it to you short and sweet on these three sports; it's what I've learned the hard and easy way over a number of years. There are several individuals and stores in and around Texas and the surrounding states that can expand on what I'm about to give you in the "abridged version" of getting prepared to compete.

Be Objective in Your Swimming Ability

Get into a Master's program, get a coach, build on your capabilities
If you're not in one yet, join a master's swimming program; there are excellent coaches, programs and facilities all around the region. It's impossible to learn swimming from a book or magazine - you need instruction, critique, encouragement and the right variety and structure in you swim workouts. Equipment-wise, a swimsuit is mandatory, and a good pair of goggles is optional. Most triathlons allow you to wear a wetsuit during the swim; you've seen them - most surfers wear them. Triathlon wetsuits are specifically made for the sport and help physically (and psychologically) during the race: you're swimming position is more correct, there is less drag in the water, speed is increased, and effort is reduced. Do most of your training without using a wetsuit; the "A" race you've picked may not let you use one. But if it's allowed, practice with it before you race in it. In either case, there are swimsuits specifically for triathletes that have a pad in the seat that helps the swimmer "transition" into a cyclist without adding clothing in the transition area. As for goggles, you don't have to wear them, but they're a great help during the swim to see better; you can even get them with a prescription if you need glasses. If you want to use goggles, check out several pair to see which ones are best for you - it's most important that they fit properly and provide a seal around the eyes so that they don't leak. With the right goggles, you can swim with confidence even if you wear contact lenses (I do). The secrets of the proper swim technique, distance, speed, and rest are elusive and not easily or quickly mastered. If you can afford one, get a swim coach. And a master's swim program may be just the ticket. Members vary in skill and experience; it's a very enjoyable, non-intimidating way to start swimming or to improve your abilities. An excellent magazine that deals specifically with swimming is Swimmer.

What You Need For a Bicycle

Speed costs, but smart is cheaper. Fit is paramount; components are next
Biking can be a very confusing sport when it comes to equipment, the variety of bicycles and components can be very intimidating. My best advice is to read up on bikes, talk to friends, and visit one or more of the excellent bike stores in the region. Probably the first thing you need to decide on when purchasing a bike is the amount you can spend - that should drive your selection and narrow your buying options. Two words of wisdom: Speed costs, but smart is cheaper. You can spend a lot of money, but there's a "diminishing rate of return" on the amount you spend; just because you spend more, doesn't always provide an constantly increasing benefit in speed or comfort. For example, a bike for $1100 over another for $800 may have improvements worth the $300, but a bike $1100 may not have $300 worth of benefit in one costing $1400. My point is this: there comes a point when what you can afford may be more than what you want to pay - set a spending limit, stick to it, and get the best buy for your money. And that leads to my second "pearl": Fit is paramount, components are next. Even over price, the most important concern when buying a bike is that the frame has to be the right size for you. Visit a bike store and tell them you want to know what size frame is right for you - it they look at you, squint, and say "oh, about a 50-54 cm ought to be pretty close," walk out and go to another store; a store that will take some specific body measurement of you, check you out on a frame or two, and tell you why a specific cm (centimeter) size frame is right for you. Now that you know what size frame you need and you have a firm, set spending limit in mind (remember?), your next concern is components, what hanging on, attached to, or drives the size bike you want. Components include the gearing, shifting, brakes, handlebars, aerobars, pedals, and wheels - just about everything on or connected to the frame. If a bike store wants your business, they'll patiently explain all about the benefits, costs (remember your budget) and the need for various "bells and whistle" components. One piece of cycling gear that isn't optional is a good helmet, not only is it good sense, but a properly constructed and tested helmet that's been certified as such is mandatory in any triathlon. Properly fitting cycling shirts and pants are highly recommended. Sunglasses will protect your eyes from the sun, bugs, and drying out - good reason to get and use a pair. To recap: set a spending limit, find out your frame size, shop around, and ask lots of questions. A good triathlon bike doesn't have to cost a lot if you're patient and smart. Conversely, the right bike must be set up to perform dependably, optimize your ability to conserve energy and effort, and fit to you so as to enhance your strength and size. And don't forget the helmet, pants and shirt, and sunglasses.

When riding, mix your workouts as to distance, location and intensity; also, ride with a group or a friend. This keeps the workouts interesting, challenging, and productive. Try to ride with others of similar ability; unfortunately, you'll probably find out the hard way who's faster or slower, but this too is an experience we all go through and learn from.

Assess Your Running Level

Get good shoes; join a club or group
Running is the hardest sport on you body and the importance of the right shoes can't be over emphasized. Forget about the latest style and color; fit and type shoes are more important (really). Again, go to the experts at a reputable running shoe store and get a shoe evaluation. You should be asked for your old running shoes to see how they've worn; old shoes tell a lot about your foot strike, how and where you need cushioning or stability, etc. After answering some specific questions like running objectives, possible mileage, where you'll be running, past injuries, and so on, several different pairs of shoes may be recommended - try them all on. Wear them for more than just a minute or two; you should be allowed to jog a little in them, too, to get the feel for them and to initially let your feet adjust to them. There should be about a thumb's width of space between your big toe and the end of the shoe, the arch support should be comfortable, the heel snug, and the lacings not so tight that they cut off circulation on the top of the foot. You only have one pair of feet so treat them right and get them the right shoes. Runner Triathlete News provides comprehensive shoe reviews twice a year - in March and September - and these reviews give you great insights into the latest footwear on the market. And while you're at it, get shorts and tops that help keep you cool in the heat and caps, jackets, and pants that keep you warm when needed. Advances in materials allow runners (and cyclists) to dress appropriately for the weather so be smart and make the elements one less thing to worry about.

When doing your running workout by yourself, one of the benefits is setting and holding your own pace, or varying it when you want. Conversely, with a group, there's the slight competitiveness that may be what you need to run farther or faster (happens in biking, too). Your running workouts, like those in swimming and cycling too, need variety in distances and intensity. There are numerous running clubs and groups throughout the region; most running shoe stores can give you more information on what groups run where, how far, and when. Training alone has its advantages, but remember you'll be competing with many other people - sometimes it good to practice that.

Develop a Training Plan

Be smart with your time and effort; periodization = success
You wouldn't be smart to drive from San Antonio to Duluth, Minnesota without a map; you'd waste time, gas, wear and tear on your vehicle, and get frustrated with delays, etc. - those are exactly the same problems you'd encounter when training without a plan. You have to "map out" your travel from where you are physically and mentally now to pass through your "C" and "B" races to your destination: the "A" race. You can avoid wasted time, energy, injuries, and disappointments by planning you training strategically. Very simply stated, 1) you need to build your distances incrementally with rest and recovery build into the plan, 2) vary the intensity (be it level of exertion or speed) of workouts, do combination workouts called "bricks) to simulate racing, and 4) plan to peak and be at you best just prior to competing. Patience, forethought, and ongoing reassessment of progress will enable you to check where you are in you training, if you're on track, and whether or not you need to make adjustments to the plan. This type of training plan incorporates a concept called "periodization" - logically, methodically, and realistically planning and pursuing optimum performance.

Two other parts of an effective training plan are time management and quality of life. Training in three sports, holding a job, keeping friends and having a family aren't possible without juggling your priorities and interests and using your time wisely. Quality of life is mentioned in that you do not want to be consumed by the sport of triathlon; you training and competing should be enjoyable and personally rewarding. If you lose sight of the benefits and positive reasons for training and competing, you will start overtraining, "mis-training", and disappointed with the results -- a counter-productive cycle will begin. A philosophy to "train smart and be safe" points to a need for a structured, yet flexible training plan. Be logical, realistic, and challenging when you construct the plan, don't be a slave to it, and continuously evaluate its effectiveness and need for modification. Be smart and have a plan, but be sure the plan is a smart one.


Eat, drink, and supplement smart
What you eat and drink will show in how you perform. Period. If you don't eat properly and don't hydrate sufficiently, you're not fueling the engine that you are asking to perform more intensely, longer and more frequently. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are all necessary in a well-balanced diet. Carbohydrates are you primary source of energy, with protein next, and then fat. Water and energy replacement drinks are critical to performance too, particularly during the heat and longer workouts or races. A specific diet isn't needed so much as smart eating habits. Eating small meals or snacks four or five times a day rather than three big meals provide better energy sources to a triathlete at specific times. Plan you meals as the energy sources needed to fuel certain parts of your day; you need to eat differently before a workout, after a workout, in a sedentary day, before going to bed, and so on. It's a simple fact that to lose weight, you need to "burn" more calories than you consume. Just as with needing the right mix of swimming, biking, and running to be in the best shape, you need the right mix of carbos, protein, and fat to have the best combination of energy sources. Another reality is that you burn more calories if you have more muscle mass and less body fat. That will happen with triathlon training; another way to increase muscle, reduce fat, and burn calories is with strength training.

Strenght and Stretching

One is the "fourth sport" the other is just as critical to stay healthy
Sometimes referred to as the "fourth sport," strength training is an excellent adjunct to the other three activities. If isn't absolutely necessary to a triathlete's training, but to maximize your performance it's highly recommended. Notice that I didn't use the term "weight" training. Strength training can be done with barbells, stationary weight machines, or free weights. But it can also consist of using your own weight and resistance to it. Stretch cords, isometric exercises, and some small exercise machines are just as effective as "pumping iron." In conjunction with strength training is the need for stretching. Stretching promotes full range of motion, optimum use of muscles, and strengthening the connection of bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles to each other. Stretching should be done before and after every workout; other than its obvious benefits, it also helps you get into a workout mentally and to "come down" afterwards; it's plain therapeutic and should be done everyday.

Read, Question and Listen for Knowledge

Go to knowledgeable resources, human and otherwise; get smarter
Nobody was born "smart" about triathlon and all it entails. Anyone who's trained for and done a triathlon has learned things the easy and the hard way. There are three ways to avoid "maintaining a vertical learning curve." You can learn from buying books, subscribing to magazines, and visiting websites - the written word; you'll remember some of what you read and that will lead you to a second source of information - other triathletes. Ask questions, get clarifications, solicit their opinions, and put that with what you've read. I suggested earlier that you watch a triathlon to get smarter on what to do (and not do); stick around the transition area and watch the competitors - it's a very educational experience. This leads to the last and best source of information and knowledge - your own experience. As you train and race, you'll hopefully learn from what you did right and, more importantly, what you did wrong. Don't forget it; put the experience into your "computer" so you'll be smarter the next time. Every experience should be a learning one, whether it's a workout, a conversation, or something you remember seeing. Don't be reluctant to ask for help; triathletes are pretty good about that.

Make a Commitment

Mental focus goes with the physical tuning
Sooner or later you'll realize that the race you selected wasn't the hardest goal you set: making the commitment to train for and do it was. Not only do you have to get your priorities balanced and your time planned, you have to make a physical and mental decision to do it. You'll need to focus your desire and enthusiasm towards achieving the goal race. It'll be important when you have a 6:00 a.m. swim, or a rainy run, or cold and windy bikes to do; make your mind up that you're going to "just do it." Here are a couple of suggestions on helping you mentally prepare for your race. First, sign up early; maybe the financial commitment will reinforce the mental one. If you don't sign up right away, at least tape the race application to your bathroom mirror so you see it every day; you'll see the reason for the commitment every morning. Second suggestion: tell everyone you know that you're doing the race; that way they'll keep asking how your training is going and you'll have to prepare for it! Seriously, the time it will take and the energy it will require also requires the mental toughness to do what's needed to get to the start (and finish) line.

Strategies and Game Plans

Visualization, transitions, patience, course orientation, knowing limitations/strengths
Other than doing the swimming, biking, running, weight training, stretching, and eating right, this is some other "mental gymnastics" that will prepare you better to step up to the starting line and have a satisfying race. Getting to the race course before race day and orienting yourself to how the course is laid out, where the hills are, etc. will let you do something else - visualizing yourself on the course and doing the race in your mind. Coupling this with realizing what your strengths are from your training enables you to experience the race before it even begins. In this pre-race "workout," you mentally go through all the aspects of the race: "visualize" entering the swim area, where you want to be amongst the other swimmers, and where you exit the swim at the transition area; going to you bike, putting on your gear, and exiting for the bike; knowing where the hills and flat portions of the bike course are and the gearing you'll use to maximize your speed and energy use, when/where you want to be sure you drink or take in nourishment, and preparing to enter the transition area again for the run; putting on your running shoes, not wasting time leaving for the run, and the pace you want to do up and down the hills and on the flats, and catching and passing other runners and coming across the finish line, strong and satisfied with your performance. Whew, great race! This whole paragraph is just one sentence and that's what visualization is - one continuous string of events and activities put together from start to finish. And it works - visualization of the course, measuring the course against your capabilities, your transitions, and your performance potential allows you to deal with any competition anxiety or self doubt. You get to "practice" and adapt or correct your actions before the gun goes off. You're more relaxed and less stressed. Your strategy is to compete and reap the benefits of doing a triathlon; visualization and pre-race course orientation is the best game plan. Trust me, it works.

Make it a Life-Changing Experience

Use the challenges, the people you meet, what you learn about yourself to grow
I jokingly sometimes say that doing an extremely grueling, long-distance race is what I can only imagine is comparable to natural childbirth: it's impossible to adequately explain the experience unless you've been through it! Having only done the triathlon portion of the comparison, I can assure you that the euphoria you feel in accomplishing a triathlon, regardless of the distance, is very satisfying and rewarding. When you've properly trained physically and mentally, put your life in balance and order, and done the best you could, the feelings of accomplishment in meeting a new and difficult challenge are strong, long lasting, and difficult to put into words. You know you gave the race your best effort; winning isn't the gauge you should go by, but the achievement of competing and completing the race.

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When you've properly trained physically and mentally, put your life in balance and order, and done the best you could, the feelings of accomplishment in meeting a new and difficult challenge are strong, long lasting, and difficult to put into words...winning isn't the gauge you should go by, but the achievement of competing and completing the race.

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