Starting out in Triathlon

The very basics

Triathlon is a multi-discipline sport consisting of a swim, followed by cycle course and ending in a run. Of course, you knew that. Triathlon is raced by men and women of all ages, children, juniors and athletes with disabilities. Elite triathletes race under slightly different rules, which allow drafting on the bike, and so it is rare that amateur, or age group, triathletes find themselves up against the professionals. Instead, we have the age group system in which athletes compete against others of the same sex and in 5-year age bands.

To race in the vast majority of races in the UK membership of the British Triathlon Association is required for insurance purposes. You can buy a day membership for each race, but if you intend to do more than 6 races it’s more economical to become a full member of BTA.

Conventional triathlon events vary in distance ranging from what is known as a ‘sprint’ triathlon through to long course, or Ironman, which covers a total of  140.5 miles and culminates in a full marathon.

Types of Triathlon

Sprint Distance

Only in triathlon would a race that will take on average 90 mins to complete be referred to as a sprint! This is how most of us experienced our first taste of triathlon – the swim, which is usually in a pool can be anything from 400 to 750m, the cycle course is usually about 12 miles and the run almost always 5km. Sprint events tend to be low-key and local affairs, organised by local triathlon clubs from a sports centre or school and for this reason the length of the courses can vary from one event to another. With the shorter swim it is feasible to hold that part of the race indoors and hence sprints tend to be held early in the season, and serve well as warm up or refresher events for the upcoming longer races of the summer. Many of the main events of the calendar will host a sprint distance race alongside the full distance. Races such as the Eton sprint series and the national sprint triathlon championships draw a bigger crowd, have open water swims and are raced over exactly half of the standard Olympic distance.

Olympic distance

This is the most commonly raced triathlon distance; a 1500m swim, either in a lake or ocean, a 40km (25mile) cycle and a 10km run. Between the end of may and mid September in the UK it is possible to find at least one of these races every weekend, so obviously some consideration is required as to which races you plan to target as your ‘key’ events. It generally takes 2 weeks to fully recover from an Olympic distance race sufficiently to race well again, and at least 3 weeks off should be allowed before a key race.

Calendars which announce the important races (leagues or series races, qualifying events for the World championships, and the national age group championships) of the upcoming season are usually available by January, and it can certainly pay to get entries in early for the more popular races.

Middle distance

More commonly known as half-Ironman distance races, cover a total of 70.3miles. That’s a 1.9km swim, 50 miles on the bike and a half marathon. There are fewer of these events on the calendar, for obvious reasons, but the races are well attended and supported. Some would say that, if you have been racing Olympic standard races for a year or so, you would be able to complete a race of this length with minimal additional training.

Ironman

And top of the heap is the long course or better known after the trademark Ironman. These races are a serious business. You will not wing this and for many, simply to complete the course is the main goal. Usually to race Ironman you will travel broad, and of course it will be the whole focus of your season. There is a world Ironman championship, held in Hawaii, which one can qualify in any other Ironman branded race. These places are highly sought after.

Racing

Hopefully the information above will be of use to you in deciding the type of race that you want to do, so it’s just a question of picking an event. Tri London members favour certain races, and will generally announce the races that they have entered for inclusion in the ‘race calendar’, and you may wish to consider these for the sake of some moral support from team-mates and arranging transport. Members often write reports on races, which can be found through the website – this might help you to decide, and can provide some useful information about the course that you have chosen too. During the year there are a number events which call for teams – please do take part if you can, as apart from being great fun and social events, you will be helping to raise the profile of your club and supporting you colleagues of all abilities.

Training

How to approach training for triathlon varies much according to the individual. Some people will pick up a prescribed training plan designed around a particular race and rigidly adhere to it, whilst others will plan their training on a week by week basis according to a continual monitoring of perceived progress and energy levels; some will attend regular coached sessions or classes, whilst others may need to train during unsociable hours to fit with their schedule. As a member of a triathlon club you have considerable resources at your disposal, so talk to your colleagues – both the more experienced triathletes and those new to the sport like your self. Find out about any training sessions that are offered by the club, or of any one who may live near to you or be following a similar training plan to yourself for some company and a little motivation.

You will need to be economical with the time available for training – and realistic about how much you can do. Remember that recovery is as important as the training, and allow adequate time for this too. If its general fitness that you need to improve, a 30 minute run will be far more beneficial than a 30 min ride, for example. If it’s your swimming that needs attention, then get yourself to the pool as frequently as possible- even if its just 20 minutes at a time in your lunch break. Try combining a bit of training with your commute to work – perhaps redesign your direct bike route to take in a few hills, or try running in or home a few times a week. Most weekends club members will organise a long ride and this is a great opportunity to get to know new faces and get some miles under your belt.

You should aim for at least one training session for each of the 3 sports each week, and possibly one extra for what you consider to be your weakest discipline. Most people find it useful to keep a training diary to record the session: length, distance, intensity and any other remarks that will be of use when reviewing it in the future. This will enable you to plan ahead, gradually increase the distance, intensity or duration of your sessions, include periodic ‘light’ weeks and can also help with motivation.

Kit and equipment

So, you’ve made up your mind to have a go, picked a race, and designed a training plan. But what about kit?? One of the first things that you’ll notice is that there seems to be an awful lot of it, and none of it is cheap. Well, don’t be put off by this, or fooled into thinking that once you’ve bought it all, you’re a triathlete! Frankly a lot of it is unnecessary, and certainly, if you are new to the sport, it’s worth giving yourself a season to be sure that its something you’ll be sticking with. With a little experience you’ll be better able to prioritise the wish list for the year(s) ahead.

However, there are a few items that you do absolutely need:

Wetsuit

Sadly, the climate that we have means that, except perhaps for the occasional race at the height of summer, a wetsuit will be compulsory in any triathlon with an open water (out doors) swim. If you have a surf wetsuit, or a ‘shorty’ you will be allowed to race in it, however it wont offer the full buoyant benefit of a wetsuit with full legs, and may be uncomfortable or restrictive to swim in. The hire of a triathlon specific wetsuit can be arranged through triathlon stores or the event organiser, and it is common for them to offer good deal on purchase of any rented suit. After 3 races it generally works out more economical to buy your own, which you can pick up from about £150 with the ex-rental option. Expect to see prices starting at £200 for a new suit in the shops. Tri London has 2 club wetsuits which can be borrowed at a very good rate, although one size most certainly does not fit all!

Goggles

Optional, but pretty crucial in most peoples opinion! Go for clear lenses that curve around the corners of the eye slightly for better vision when swimming in open water. Protect the lenses from scratching as much as possible and replace regularly to maintain a clear view.

Bike

Even if you plan only to take part in races with a pool swim, or in a country with a more agreeable climate, you are still defiantly going to need a bike! There are no rules about what sort of bike (though recumbrants, tandems, unicycles are probably not allowed), although since this aspect of the race accounts for about 50%, there is a clear advantage to having a bike designed for speed on the road rather than a mountain bike. If you do intend to use your mountain bike or hybrid to race on, it’s worth making a few inexpensive modifications to save your energy and make it go faster. Start by taking off all the equipment and fittings such as mudguards, reflectors, and lock brackets. Replace the tyres with the thinnest ‘slicks’ available for the size of wheel that you have. Lock any suspension out of the shocks. Fit toe clips to your pedals (if you do not use spd or other type of clipless pedal) and you can fit clip-on aero/tri bars to give you a more aerodynamic and powerful riding position.

If you intend to purchase a new road bike for competing triathlon, it’s worth looking out for second hand offers, and you may find great deals in sales that are within your price range. All of the best-known brands make what is known as entry-level bikes –retailing at under £500, these are alloy frames, sometimes with carbon fibre forks for a softer ride, and will be fitted with the cheapest components. Its worth bearing in mind that you can win races on an ‘entry level’ road bike, and that with a year’ s good racing experience, you will be in a far better position to make a judgement as to how to upgrade. And you’ll still have that trusty old bike for all your winter training.

Bike helmet

You won’t race without one. If you are going to buy a new one for racing in, pay attention to the clasp and choose one that you can secure and undo very easily.

And few items that can really help:

Bike shoes

Most people that ride road bikes will already be using bike shoes – these are shoes with a plastic cleat fixed to the sole, which clips into special pedals fitted to the bike. The foot is then secured to the pedal through the whole pedal stroke, and a lot more power can be delivered than by using downward force alone. Having the foot attached to the pedal does take some getting used to, however, so it’s best not to try this for the first time in a race! Toe clips (or cages) also allow you to use a fuller pedal stroke to some extent, are easier to get in and out of and have the added advantage that they can be ridden in with running shoes, so that’s less to do in transition.

Tri suit

This is either a one piece or two piece out fit designed for all three disciplines of triathlon. It’s tight enough to swim in without dragging, and has sufficient padding in the shorts to see you through 40km in the saddle without being uncomfortable to run in. Of course it’s not necessary to have one for your first few triathlons, but bare torsos are not allowed in triathlon, and a tri suit will save the boys from having to put on a t-shirt on transition and the girls from having to ride in a swimsuit!

Elastic laces

Another non-essential, but a very cheap way of saving time in transition. Replace your ordinary shoelaces with elastic, and turn your trainers into ‘slip-ons’! Of course you can buy the laces ready made from any triathlon shop, good sports shop, and retailers at events, but any elastic will do.

Number belt

This is a useful item for those triathlons that do not require a wet suit, especially if you are racing in a tri suit and don’t intend to don a vest after the swim. It allows you to attach your number (remember on the back for the bike, on the front for the run) in one swift movement, and can be swivelled around the body to ensure that you are correctly marked in each discipline of the race. Again, for about a fiver you can pick one of these up in a triathlon sports shop, but a homemade one works just as well.