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Stephanie Ede, training for a triathlon

Triathlon for beginners: A guide to entering your first triathlon event

When it comes to endurance sports, you’ll struggle to find anything more intense, empowering and impressive than a triathlon. Triathlons use almost every muscle in your body and push you to the very limit. So, you’ll need serious strength, stamina and motivation to get yourself across that finish line.

As a triathlete, I know how overwhelming the thought of signing up to your first triathlon can be. Triathlons are daunting not just because of the exercise, but also because of the process. How does a triathlon work? What are the distances? Where do they take place?

When combining different sports in one race, there are lots of common concerns that might cause hesitations about signing up. However, as someone who regularly competes in triathlons, I’m here to answer all your questions and show you that a beginner triathlon is worth the effort.

What is a triathlon?

The popularity of triathlons have been buoyed in recent times, especially off the success of the Brownlee brothers. But, what actually is a triathlon?

A triathlon is a multidisciplinary sport that combines swimming, running and cycling in sequence. So, in a way, it’s like three difference races mashed into one. Each section has its own challenges and, while competitors need to be strong in all three areas, most competitors will have a favourite. Mine is definitely out on the bike.

Triathlons are awesome because they inspire you to work your entire body and combine different skills. They are also all very different. Some take place in the centre of cities, using man-made lakes for swimming, whereas countryside triathlons see competitors splashing in the sea, cycling off road and running into the hills. 

Triathlon distances

Triathlons come in various distances meaning they can be accessible to all abilities. And, while you might be a strong runner, swimmer and cyclist, it’s best to start with a beginner triathlon and build your way up. This is so you can get used to doing all three exercises back to back and accustom yourself to the process. 

Generally, beginner triathlon’s are Sprint Distance, which involves a 750m swim, a 20km cycle and a 5km run.

The next stage is an Olympic Triathlon. This is a 1.5km swim, 40km cycle and 10km run.

After that, there’s the ITU Long, which is a 3km swim, 80km cycle and 20km run.

Then, there’s the Half-Ironman. This is a 1.9km swim, 90km cycle and 21.1km run.

And, finally, we have the Ironman: a whopping 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42.2km run.

Ironman World Champs, Nice, 2019

How to train for a triathlon

Triathletes tend to be strong, agile and great at multitasking. This is because they use all areas of their body and train in swimming, cycling and running. You can’t afford to be weak in one of the three sports, so you’ll need to train each equally.

The thought of training for a triathlon can be a tad overwhelming considering you need to run, cycle and swim regularly. You’ll need to have time and dedication. But don’t stress. Training for your first triathlon is easier than you’d think. Like training for a half marathon, you’ll need to give yourself about 12 weeks to prepare. Ideally, you should train five days per week, with an equal balance of swimming, running and cycling.

So, how do you get the right balance? My advice would be do shorter sessions during the week, and get those miles in on weekends. For the week, 30-45 minutes per day is plenty. You should aim to swim twice a week and balance running and cycling between the other three days, swapping weekly to reduce risk of injury. 

As with any sport, don’t push yourself too hard too fast. Doing so can increase your likelihood of getting an injury, which will restrict your training and could have long-term consequences. A triathlon training plan will help to build up strength and endurance gradually, while allowing plenty of time for rest and recovery.

And, considering there are different types of triathlons, my advice would be to train the type you’re doing. So, if you’re open water swimming, make sure you’re not just training in a pool, and if your cycle route has hills you’ve got to practise inclines.

Stephanie Ede training for her first triathlon in an open water pool
Triathlon training in an open water pool

What kit do I need?

You don’t need to break the bank to do a triathlon. High-tech equipment certainly isn’t necessary, especially for beginners. However, there are certain essential pieces of kit that you’ll need for training and race day.

While experienced triathletes tend to invest in a tri suit which is worn during the swim, run and bike ride, this isn’t necessary for beginners. Don’t worry about changing – all triathlons have designated transition areas where participants change gear or clothing before moving onto the next stage.

Swim

For the swim, you’ll need:

  • A wetsuit or swimming costume: Open water swims tend to require a wetsuit, although some races don’t allow them so you’ll need to check it out.
  • Goggles: These should fit well without letting in water, feel comfortable and not fog or scratch.
  • A swim cap: If you have long hair, a swim cap will make you more streamlined and keep your hair out of harm’s way.

Cycle

For the cycle, you’ll need:

  • A good quality bike: While you don’t need a professional bike, you’ll need something light, fast and reliable. Do your research and find the right fit (this guide from Tri Uk will help).
  • A helmet: Stay safe and protected on the roads at all times with good quality head protection.
  • Cycling shoes: These will connect with your bike’s pedals and provide greater efficiency on the cycle.  

Run

For the run, you’ll need:

  • Running trainers: These are all you really need to run, so make sure they fit well and support your feet. A gait analysis will help in ensuring you get the right pair.

Other kit

Some other things you’ll probably need for your triathlon include:

  • Chafe balm: When transitioning to wet and dry environments, your body can chafe and become sore and painful. Chafe balm will help to prevent it and provide comfort.
  • Transition bag: This will help to keep all your kit in one place and make for a smoother transition.  
  • Race belt: A race belt will help keep everything you need in one place with toggles and clips. Use it to hang onto your water bottles, gels and even your phone and keys.
  • Waterproof fitness tracker: This will accompany you during your training and adapt to all three sports.
Stephanie Ede, training on her bike
Cycling during a triathlon

My top 3 tips for triathlon success

#1 – Do yoga. Triathlon training works most of your key muscles, so you’ll probably find that you get pretty achey. Yoga is great not only before and after a workout, but also on rest days to tune into your body and stay present.

#2 – Eat well. Your body probably won’t be used to this level of exercise, so you’ll need to fuel it accordingly. Most triathletes also use sports drinks or gels to get an extra boost on race day. 

#3 – Have fun! Triathlons are designed to test you, but they’re also joyous races with an amazing community spirit. Enjoy yourself and try to avoid any unnecessary pressure.


Inspired to enter your first triathlon? Check out what’s on near you.

Share the excitement!

Back in 2016, Steph swapped her skis for the bicycle and hasn't looked back since. She then joined a triathlon club in Edinburgh, and only a couple of years later came 21st in 2019 Ironman 70.3 World Champs. Since then, she's taken on a number of ultra running and cycling challenges, most notably the infamous 'everesting' cycling challenge. Steph is currently sponsored by Le Col, 2XU, and SunGod.

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