Triathlon Training: Why ANYONE Can Tri and Succeed

I’m a triathlete.


Do you feel the pride in those words? I earned ’em. And I throw them around whenever possible. I mean, how many people in the world can say they’ve completed this trifecta (ha) of sports?

(OK, recently? Meghann, Caitlin, Ashley, Kelly, Megan, Steve, Michelle, Shosh, Frayed Layes and a few more!)

But there’s something special about conquering the swim, bike and run at any distance — super sprint, sprint, Olympic, Half Ironman, Ironman or otherwise. And if you’re thinking you might be interested, I’m here to tell you you CAN and you SHOULD.

Actually — I’ve made both of those arguments before. Here here here here and here.


But that’s been the philosophical stuff…I’ve left you totally unprepared on the nitty gritty. So when Sabrina asked me for some first-timer tips, I knew it was time to drop some knowledge.

**One quick note — if you are looking for official, researched and legit information? Look elsewhere. These are my experiences as an under-trained, overwhelmed, amateur and non-elite athlete. I made a lot of mistakes, and can’t promise that any of the advice below will help you get a PR. But it will help you survive.

The Gear

AKA — What to Wear. There are lots of expensive, super-sleek triathlon suits, wetsuits and more out there. I blow most of them off. Here’s what I wear:

  • A good sports bra — sometimes two, one on top of the other. Remember, it’s a LONG workout and you don’t want any issues.
  • Over the bra(s), I wear a one piece swim suit. I wear a 10-year-old TYR because it won’t bother me if it gets dirty or ripped on the race.
  • Over the suit, I wear a pair of padded cycling shorts. INVEST.IN.THESE. I’ve had the same pair for three years and wear them for every race and spin class twice a week. You will develop butt calluses (seriously) through training, but without some padding you’re going to be VERY sore. I wear Pearl Izumi Sugar Shorts but recommend checking out your local bike shop for the best selection. Oh, and since I promised nitty gritty — I don’t wear underwear under these shorts (they have a built-in chamois).

Olympic Triathlon 10

  • Good running/cycling socks. Another wise investment — they help wick away the sweat, and if you’re going to be on a bike then on a run, you’ll thank me. I like the Belega brand.
  • Cycling shoes — BUT PLEASE READ THIS. I invested in my shoes after completing two triathlons. They’re not worth an early investment, in case you do one triathlon and hate it. Plus, there’s a transition period for getting used to clipping in for rides. Your sneakers are just fine. I promise. If you like triathlons, consider the shoes (I also wear them to spin classes) later.
  • Helmet. I could go on and on about why this is so important, but the bottom line is, you won’t be able to compete without it.
  • Bike. Maybe the most-often-asked question is “do I need a triathlon bike?” GOD. NO. I have a road bike — an expensive one. I saved my pennies and begged Santa Lucas and we decided to get me one. But you should beg and borrow a bike — any kind, including mountain — for your first race. Most triathlons aren’t picky about what you ride, as long as it has two wheels (no joke — I saw a unicyclist at one race).
    • Bonus stuff that I use but is not necessary: Garmin/Heart Rate Monitor, Body Glide (to prevent chafing), Cyclometer, Sunglasses


I’m a swimmer by nature — I competed as a kid, am a lifeguard and still consider swimming my strongest leg of the triathlon. Most people that I have talked to about training for triathlon name swimming as their biggest fear.

If you have an opportunity to do an open water swim, DO IT. It’s the only way to get used to a frenzied start. But if you don’t, do what you can in a pool and just know that no matter what, you will make it through the swim.

  • Expect to get kicked, punched, pulled and splashed. No matter how organized the event is, there will be chaos at the beginning. If you’re a first-timer and are nervous, I highly recommend that you let the first wave go before you dive in yourself. At the maximum, you’ll start 10 seconds behind the crowd but you’ll save yourself a lot of stress. Also, try swimming on the outside of the pack. If you’re in dark or murky water, there’s nothing wrong with treading water to get your bearings or floating on your back if you start to panic. (Even as a strong swimmer, I often pick my head up every 20-30 strokes to make sure I’m not off in the weeds.)

    Post-Run Pool 1

  • Your heart will most likely be beating VERY fast during your first race — take deep breaths and warm up in the water if the lifeguards allow you to. Have a mantra in your head that helps you stay in control. Panic is the worst thing that can happen to you in the water. So say something like “one stroke at a time” as you’re pulling to take your mind off the rest of it.
  • You may be able to touch while still a ways out from the shore. I swim and pull as long as I possibly can, only standing up when my knees hit the ground. It’s a lot less taxing if you stay horizontal instead of trying to run through the water at the end.
  • IMG_1094


    (Transition details are later in this post!)

    • Once you’re on the bike, pedal pedal pedal. This is a great chance to make up some time if you had difficulty in the swim. If you use a cyclometer, you may want to try and keep your speed at about 15MPH or up. I get bored easily on the bike, so I like to check out the legs of the people who are ahead of me. In many races, the director will write your age on your calf, so it’s fun to ride down people and see how you compare.
    • If you’re in a long race and are worried about the turns, you can print out a cheat sheet and tape it to your bike, between your handlebars. Just include the names of the streets and which direction you need to go (example: Right on Oak, Left on Elm, Left on Cedar). Most races will have people stationed along the route, but I’ve done small events where it’s just been me and I haven’t had anyone to follow!

    Olympic Triathlon 11



    • When training, I highly recommend doing at least one brick before your race day. A brick is when you do more than one leg back-to-back…so ride your bike for 10 miles then hop off for a 3 mile run. Or swim 500 yards followed by a 20-mile bike. I don’t care how good you are at one of the events — you won’t believe how weird your body can be. I have jelly legs for at least a mile in the run, no matter how much I’ve trained.

    Olympic Triathlon 15

    • It is totally OK to walk some or all of the run leg of the triathlon. Depending on the course, you may see people stopping for water or aid, tying their shoes, playing with their iPods, etc. At this point in the event, you’re sure to be questioning your sanity, so if you’re miserable or hurting, take a walk break.


    This is where you can make or break your total time — and there are some easy tricks to carving off some time, if you care. If not, enjoy the cheering from supporters and the short-lived break from competing!

    • Hopefully, you’ve set your stuff up ahead of time in a way that makes it easy to get from one leg to another (details below). This is the most important thing you can do.
    • As soon as you finish one event, start thinking about the next. When I have about 20 strokes left in the swim, I start mentally preparing for the bike. What do I need to put on? What should I be thinking? How fast do I want to go out? That way, I’ve started the transition mentally before I have to deal with it physically. On the bike, when I have a mile left, I start thinking about the run.
    • Don’t worry about the mess you make. Just try and keep your stuff near your station and respect others. You’ll have plenty of time to collect your junk after the race.
    • If you need water or food, grab it and take it with you. I tuck GU or Shot Blocks in my bra and wait to get to the first water station for a drink.

    Race Day

    Below is a general list of what I do for a 7am race…this can be tweaked!

    • Night before: Pack bag and put bike and helmet in car. In my bag, I have the gear I need PLUS:
      • Extra safety pins
      • Extra towels
      • Extra socks
      • Extra bathing cap
      • Extra goggles
      • Sunscreen
      • Lotion
      • Change of clothes
      • Underwear
    • 4am: Wake up and immediately chug a glass of water and eat my breakfast. I usually go for a Z bar or something small because my stomach does not tolerate a lot of food well when I’m running.
    • 4:30am: Stretch. I do a lot of very gentle yoga on race mornings. It loosens up my muscles and forces me to calm my mind.
    • 4:45am: Put on copious amounts of sunscreen and Body Glide.
    • 5am: Get dressed. I wear everything except my socks and shoes — those, I put on when I arrive.
    • 5:30am: Head to venue.
    • 5:45: Get marked with age and event.
    • 6am: Arrive at venue. Go to the bathroom. Lay out my gear EXACTLY as I’ll need it for transitions — so:
      • Rack my bike (there’s usually a big metal rack and you can put your bike on it so it’s secured by your handlebars, hanging off the ground)
      • Put helmet on top of bike handlebars (so I can’t leave without it)
      • Lay out a big towel on the ground
      • Put a bucket or Tupperware box out with water (for rinsing my feet after the swim)
      • Lay out my sneakers
      • Untie sneaker laces
      • Put running hat on top of running shoes
      • Put iPod on top of running hat
      • Put GU or bar on top of iPod
      • Put cycling shoes next to running gear
      • Put cycling socks INSIDE shoes, ready to put on
      • Put SpiBelt on top of socks (has my bib — you can also use safety pins to put these on your shorts)
      • Put small towel in front of the cycling shoes (to help dry my feet after rinsing in the bucket)
      • Bathing cap (usually issued by the event director)
      • Goggles
    • 6:30am: Bathroom
    • 6:45am: Go to beach for pre-race instructions and last-minute information from race director
    • 6:50am: Warm up in water and start to focus on the swim

    Other Stuff You Should Know

    • Nobody gets into triathlon without a story — so meet as many people as you can and get inspired by THEM.
    • Have fun. Race day is the LAST time to be scared — you’ll just tense up. Enjoy every minute that your body allows you the privilege of competing.
    • Take lots of pictures and SMILE when you cross the finish line.
    • You’ll want to change clothes for the ride home. I don’t usually shower, but I do get my stinky, wet suit and shorts off as quickly as I can.
    • You’ll be spent for the rest of the day — short of a big pancake breakfast, try not to plan anything for after your event. Yes, this is do as I say, not as I do, but…

    Have other questions? I’d love to answer them so PLEASE leave me a comment! And if you do a triathlon, please let me know!

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    1. says

      THANK YOU! :-) I’m saving this for my first tri :-) I want to do one so badly! Like you, I’m a strong swimmer and it’s never been an issue for me. I think the issue will be the running. I am a runner but I know I’ll be exhausted after the first two events! :-)

      • says

        If you’re a strong swimmer, you’ll be fine…so many people end up walking the last leg, so if you can even maintain a jogging pace, you’ll do really well. Honestly, by the time I’m running, I’m so glad that it’s almost over that I just muscle through it!

    2. says

      Thank you soooo much for the tips! I’m going to train for a tri. My goal is to do one early in 2011 (the first one I can do) and I have no idea on what GEAR I need to make the transitions easier. Thanks for the tips!

      • says


        You can ABSOLUTELY do a tri…start small (I did a super-sprint as my first event, and it lasted about 45 minutes). Let me know what other questions you have and I’ll be happy to help. But buy CAREFULLY — you really don’t need any fancy gear, despite what tri nerds will tell you :)

    3. says

      AWESOME post! I am hoping to do my first tri next year! I actually JUST bought my first road bike (but it’s a really cheap one) a couple of days ago!! I just got a really cheap, older model for now and if I like it, I plan on saving for a better one! I’m good on the swimming and running front, the biking part is what I’m most nervous for! Haha

      • says

        Amber — I’d love to hear how you do! Don’t worry about the biking…you get so much support from other cyclists on the course.

    4. Caitlin says

      Thanks so much for the tips! I’m training for my first tri on July 3rd, and this post is some of the BEST advice I’ve gotten so far!

    5. says

      it took me awhile to embrace the term “triathlete”, too :) but it’s awesome now!

      i’d recommend tri shorts instead of cycling shorts, as they’re quick-drying… and my biggest tip is to check discount sites online. that’s where i’ve bought all my tri stuff, last years models, marked down significantly!

      i like an extra water bottle for squirting off your feet, i’ve seen buckets get knocked over, etc and it takes up less space (just another idea!). definitely agree about the bike and pedals! and swimming as long as you can, it’s much easier than running through water, and you’ll be doing plenty of running later :)

    6. says

      Great Great post!! I can’t believe you can go 20-30 strokes without looking up. I start to go off course if I go more than 4 or 6. My favorite trick in the swim is to hook onto someone that I know is sighting and who is swimming the same speed as me and then I just tail them. I don’t know that it’s actually any easier of a swim (ie: drafting) but it’s much easier than sighting all the time and I don’t worry about getting off course.

      A great tip for longer rides where you’ll need more than one GU is to tape them to the crossbar of your bike with duct tape. Then you can just rip them right off and slurp away without worrying about dropping the ripped off top and DQing for littering. So easy to open one handed!

    7. says

      Thank you for the real advice. Training for my first Iron Girl Tri in Portland OR 6/26/11. Yikes! Can’t wait. Good to hear no worries on what kind of bike for the first event. I still have no idea what I’m going to ride and it’s 2 months away.

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