Are you someone who is already serious about running or swimming and wants to give triathlon a try as a new challenge? If so, read on to get the expert insight into how best to prepare for your first triathlon with insider tips and advice from ex-professional triathlete Matt Leeman and experienced triathlon coach Jon Goodege.
How to choose a triathlon race
Once you’ve decided you want to take on a triathlon, the first thing you’ll need to do is choose your race. Unlike running races, triathlons can vary a lot and there are multiple factors to consider. Would you prefer open water or a swimming pool? Would a hilly run help you to distance yourself from your competitors?
For beginners to triathlon, there are three distances that will be most suitable: super sprint, sprint, and standard. It’s unadvisable to try and push for a half Iron or full Iron distance on your first try.
Super Sprint is the shortest triathlon distance available. It consists of a 400m swim, 10km bike, and 2.5km run. This distance is well suited to people coming from a running background who are good at sprinting, and those who really don’t enjoy the swim leg.
Sprint Distance is one of the most popular triathlon distances for beginners, as it allows you to sink your teeth into the challenge more than a Super Sprint, without being too taxing for your first try. Sprint Distance triathlons are usually 750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run.
Standard Distance, also known as Olympic Distance, is the most challenging with a 1500m swim, 40km bike, 10km run. This distance will be more suited for those coming from an accomplished swim background or who prefer longer distance racing in general.
What sort of route suits you best?
Depending on your sporting background, different types of triathlon courses will play to your strengths. If you are a swimmer, you will be able to shine with an open water swim and get an advantage over your competitors who are less accomplished in the water.
If you’re a runner, you may prefer a fast, flat run which allows you to sprint past the competition, or you may prefer a hilly run if that’s what suits you best.
One of the most important factors will be the bike course, as this is generally the longest leg of any triathlon. Some triathlon bike courses are completely flat and lapped, while some are on hilly, open roads. Think about where you are with your bike handling skills and which type of racing you would excel in most.
Which month is best for a triathlon race?
Due to the open water swimming element, triathlon enjoys a season from April to September and you will rarely find races outside of that window. Matt tells us his favourite time of year to race: “Although it can be a bit nippy, you cannot beat the first race of the season. It's an exciting opportunity to put your winter training into practice and get the season underway. The pressure is off and time to have fun and race which is what it is all about.”
Coach Jon suggests May as a good month for your first triathlon, as it means there is still time later in the season to have another go if you wish. When choosing your race, consider the time of year and how this could impact your enjoyment of the race. The shoulder season will be colder, whereas the height of summer could affect your performance due to the heat.
How to train for triathlon
How many hours a week should you train for a triathlon?
The million dollar question when training for any race is how many hours a week should you train? Matt has the following insight, “I think it’s very subjective, as it depends on your performance aspirations, training history, work and family life etc. I would generally opt for quality over quantity, especially in the winter months when long rides outside can potentially be reductive. The training volume should be something you can maintain for 3-4 weeks before taking an easier week to absorb the training block and re-assess. If I had to quantify with a number, 10 hours a week (give or take) would be a good amount to aim for, including one rest day per week.”
Brick sessions are unique to multi-sport training and are the backbone of any good training plan. Matt explains, “A brick session is used to emulate race conditions rather than training each discipline separately. Traditionally, this takes the form of bike and run as this is what challenges people the most. I generally used to do multiple bike to run intervals within one session but I definitely benefited from a single run effort after a bike or turbo session. My favourite winter session is an indoor turbo session to get nice and warmed up then smashing it out the door for a 30 minute hard run. It really helps your confidence on race day knowing you've run on legs that you've freshly pounded on the bike. Brick sessions also give you some of the buzz in training that a real triathlon provides.”
Coach Jon adds, “Race day success comes down to quality brick sessions. Before competing in IRONMAN Lanzarote, I did 31 brick sessions in training and this conditioning led to me achieving a PB.”
Another unique aspect of multi-sport racing is transition. This is when you change from swim to bike and bike to run, in a triathlon. For duathlon, this is run to bike and then bike to run.
Matt explains how to practise transitions ready for race day: “Watch professional athletes and those more experienced than yourself and practise what they do. Mentally rehearsing the process is also worthwhile. A lot of time is lost when getting out of the wetsuit, so at the end of your open water sessions, hop out and get the suit off as quickly as you can. Bike mounting is also very important for both safety and speed. No one wants to end their race before it's properly started.”
What kit do you need for a triathlon?
Being a multisport event, triathlon requires more kit than your average running or swimming race. Two key pieces of kit you’ll need specifically for a triathlon will be a trisuit and a wetsuit.
A trisuit is a one-piece suit worn for the duration of a triathlon so that you don’t have to change clothes between disciplines. A good trisuit will have a seat pad to keep you comfortable on the bike without getting in the way of your run. Coach Jon says, “a good trisuit will have storage for nutrition, fit well, and be easy to take off and put back on for toilet stops. It cost me a Team GB slot at the Outlaw Triathlon in 2017 trying to get a full tri suit back on after a portaloo stop.”
Wearing a wetsuit has advantages in an open water swim, especially if you are new to swimming and/or triathlon. Wearing a wetsuit adds buoyancy and can improve your efficiency in the water. Matt says, “Everyone can benefit from a wetsuit with good flexibility, especially in the shoulders. However weaker swimmers may benefit from greater buoyancy around the hips to achieve the best position they can when swimming.”
If you’re competing in your first triathlon, make sure you check the British Triathlon rules before you compete. Wearing a wetsuit is mandatory if the water temperature is below 14 degrees Celsius for any swim distance up to 1500m, and mandatory if the temperature is below 16 degrees for any swim distance over 1500m. Wetsuits are forbidden if the water temperature is above 22 degrees celsius.
If you’re not sure whether to wear a wetsuit or not, take Matt’s advice: “Wetsuits make us faster thanks to increased buoyancy, hydrodynamics and confidence in the water. Weaker swimmers will benefit from these factors more proportionally, but I'd definitely recommend getting a good wetsuit and practising in it.”
About the author: Alex Parren is a Freelance Health & Fitness writer as well as a qualified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist.