The Need-to-Know Tips for Newbie Triathletes
Triathlons used to be for elite athletes. Not anymore. More than 1 million everyday athletes — more than 38 percent of them women — took the starting line in 2011, according to USA Triathlon. That's up more than 40 percent from 2000.
"Women are getting ballsy," says Alison Kreideweis, cofounder of the Empire Triathlon Club in New York City. "They love its challenge, atmosphere, and enormous fitness gains."
Fitness gains, indeed. A triathlon's swim-bike-run power combo practically guarantees a better body. Plus, the sprint distance (half-mile swim, 12-mile bike, and 3.1-mile run) eliminates some of the intimidation and is popular with tri beginners. It's the best way to ease into your first race, ensure a great experience, and become a lifelong triathlete, Kreideweis says.
Read on for 10 tips to get the most out of your first sprint triathlon.
You don't need to liquidate your savings account to compete in your first tri, so go ahead and back away from the $5,000 bike. While solid equipment is clutch in helping you have the best race possible, pricey gear could very well end up rusting in the garage if you decide your first triathlon will also be your last. For your first go-around, Kreideweis suggests borrowing or buying an entry-level road bike or hybrid. Besides only costing between $100 and $1,000 depending on the model, they are more comfortable and easier to ride. Tri bikes are less stable and cause strain and achy muscles for novice riders.
You'll also need a helmet (safety first!), running shoes, and — if your race allows it — a wetsuit. Available for rent, they actually make you more buoyant and help you stay afloat despite the waves, which will make your swim a little bit easier. And if you're up for a totally worth-it splurge, a tri top and tri shorts or a tri suit (like Zoot Sports Performance Tri Racerback Racesuit, $90, zootsports.com) can be worn under your wetsuit so you don't have to change clothes. If you have a delicate derriere, shorts with a built-in chamois pad can give your bum a bumper, support sit bones, and prevent chafing. But don't worry, it doesn't feel like you're wearing a diaper.
Forget a glass slipper — the perfect fit is all in the laces. To find yours, Kreideweis suggest going to a running store that offers feet analyses. Besides giving recommendations based on where, how often, and for how long you run, shoe specialists can examine your foot strike and form to get you the best shoe for your needs. (You'll actually run on a treadmill in the store, so you can see if the pro's pick is comfortable before you buy.) Make sure to show up in workout clothes so you can jog comfortably. You'll have your feet videotaped as you run for a few minutes which will then be played back in slow motion to determine the right pair for you. Whether you have flat arches, pronate, or just have a wonky gait, finding the right shoe will help you run stronger and, most importantly, will help prevent injury.
Last, even if you are borrowing a bike, take a trip to your local bike shop where they can adjust it to get you your best fit, suggests Gaelyn Rogers, CSCS, a ShiftPT physical therapist in New York. Bonus: They usually do it for free!
Use a Training Plan
Training is not as simple as swim, bike, run, repeat. You need a plan that clearly shows your mileage starting point, ending point, and how you'll build from one week to the next. The good news is that for relatively active women this only takes 12 weeks, according to Kreideweis. Coordinating your workouts to work together for maximum efficiency is key: Four or five days a week your workouts should be 45 minutes to an hour long with a warm up, stretching, workout (usually involving a "brick," a combination of swimming, biking, running, and strength training) and a cool down. It's also important to switch between hard days and easy days so your body can recover.
Sound like a lot to figure out — and potentially go wrong? Customized plans are available online, and they're usually free (try www.trinewbies.com for a 10-week example). If you're nervous about weeding through the Internet for a plan, Kreideweis suggest joining a triathlon club like the Empire Triathlon Club in New York City. They provide programs for beginners specifically tailored to sprint distances. Plus, you'll have a built-in set of workout buddies!
Follow the 10% Rule
When you're excited about a new goal, it's easy to want to push yourself to the limit from the get-go. But proceed carefully in the early stages of your tri training, allowing your body time to adapt. "To prevent injury, you should not increase your intensity (distance or time) by more than 10 percent each week," Rogers says. That means if you're running 1 mile this week, don't try for any more than 1.1 miles next week. If you're not a swimmer, cyclist, or runner by habit going into training, you may need to allow yourself some extra training time so you can start your plan at the correct mileage.
Be sure to maintain that easygoing mentality at the end of your training too, specifically in the week leading up to the race. "Your hardest workouts are not right before your race. During training, your workouts should build up in intensity toward the middle of your plan and then taper before your race so your body will be rested and ready," Kreideweis says.
Go for the Glycogen
Forget the "carbs are the enemy" diet talk your friends dish out during Sunday brunch. Athletes — especially endurance ones — run primarily on glycogen, stored energy that's converted from carbohydrates. Zero carbs results in zero energy. Fiber-rich fruit, veggies, and whole grains (not the white stuff) are great sources of healthy carbs that should be part of any triathlete's diet, says Kim Mueller, RD, owner of Fuel Factor athletic nutrition coaching in San Diego and a triathlete.
When it comes to the night before the race, give yourself a pass to enjoy some white grains, potatoes, or your favorite bowl of pasta, Mueller says. Carbo-loading — a time-honored tradition of endurance athletes everywhere — packs your body full of glycogen so you'll avoid running out of energy reserves during the race. But remember: chowing down on a huge, cheesy pizza might be fun in the moment, but you're setting yourself up to feel sluggish and probably pretty terrible the next day, too. So think before you fuel up. A bowl of spaghetti and meatballs with marinara sauce is a typical triathlete staple.
For your pre-race eats on race day, opt for carbohydrates that are low in fiber. They are easier to digest and will help keep you from suffering from any digestive distress halfway through the race. Bananas, mango, papaya, and cantaloupe are safe choices for your tummy since they don't have gnarly seeds or tough, edible skins.
Feed Your Immune System
Hard workouts do the body good. But without the right nutrients, they can actually wear down your immune system by creating oxidative damage throughout the body, making you more prone to get sick and/or injured, Mueller says. Protect yourself by eating plenty of antioxidants to fight the free radicals associated with oxidative damage. Try this: Every time you fill your plate, include an assortment of colors and produce. The colors of fruits and veggies are a clue to the types of antioxidants they pack. Hit them all and you'll get the widest and most beneficial dose of the good stuff to keep you healthy.
If you're tired and feel run down, up your defenses with a multivitamin that includes Coenzyme Q10, Mueller says. It can help speed up post-workout recovery. And no matter how busy your schedule is, you need to pen (not pencil!) in eight hours of sleep of night to get the most recovery time and halt exercise fatigue.
Eye Candy Images
This seems like a no-brainer, but slacking on water is the first nutrition mistake triathletes make, Mueller says. During any workout and even during the race, you should sweat no more than 3 percent of your total body weight. Lose any more fluids and you'll notice a significant drop in performance.
As with glycogen, you can and should start hoarding water well before race day. Drink extra water — between 64 and 96 ounces a day based on your activity level — throughout your training. (Unless you're going exercise crazy, you can stick to the lower end of that scale.) Carry a reusable water bottle with you wherever you go and you'll be surprised how quickly you can hit your water goal.
Scout Out the Course
Signing up for a race in your city gives you a definite advantage in terms of practicing on the day-of course. Visiting your race spot before you take your mark can help you feel out the path, terrain, climate, and even how much travel time you need to budget into your schedule, Kreideweis says. Keep in mind that if you're competing in a triathlon at a higher elevation, you'll want to head out there a couple days early so your body can acclimate. But hey, sounds like a good excuse to book a vacation!
If you can't squeeze in any extra days beforehand, see if the triathlon has a website listing course information, elevation profile, and tips on what to bring with you on the big day. "The more you know about the course, the better. You don't want there to be any surprises," Kreideweis says.
Practice Race-Like Conditions
If you are training by swimming in a pool (which in most cases, may be your only option), cycling on a stationary bike, and running on a treadmill, you are going to have a rough race day. During your training it's important to train outside as much as possible to be physically, technically, and mentally prepared, Kreideweis says. Even if it's rainy and less than favorable to be out there, that may just be the weather come race day — so you'll have to learn to nix the bad-weather excuses. Other perks to practicing in race-like conditions are learning how to swim in a straight line in open water without a lane or line to follow, figuring out how to drink from your water bottle while shifting bike gears, and running on less-than-ideal surfaces. "Training is more than working out, it's understanding how to use equipment and be smart during the race."
As a training rule of thumb, whenever you get ready to head out for a bike ride, pump your tires. On the side of your bike's tires, look for the letters PSI followed by a range of numbers. This shows how many pounds of air per square inch should be in the tires. Insert the pin into the tire and pump until the gauge is where you want it to be. Stop by a bike shop first for a free demo if you're unsure how to do it.
A triathlon isn't a "go big or go home" type of event. If you go big at the start line you could fizzle out before you finish — or worse, not finish at all. So start slow and increase your pace as you go. Listen to your body. "You want to enjoy your first tri experience, because if you don't enjoy this race, there is a good chance you won't sign up for another one," Kreideweis says. Start your first tri with the expectation of having fun — not winning the race. You can always improve your time in subsequent races and tri, tri again!
Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, April 2013.