How To Become A Triathlete

September 1, 2021by Fiona O'Donnell

I never set out to become a triathlete. I was living my best life in Dublin. Drinking all the wine, eating all the food, gaining all the poundage and really enjoying every minute of it. However, I wasn’t all that impressed with the fact that my dress size was becoming less and less comfortable and god forbid [unnecessary internal monologue] I actually buy a size larger! So, I started running.

In those days, triathlon didn’t even enter my sphere of awareness. 3 sports at once was just so far beyond what I found acceptable and as it was, I was struggling with running. It wasn’t until I moved to Clonakilty and started spending time with swimmers, cyclists and triathletes that I began to consider the sport. As Jim Rohn said, “You are the sum of the 5 people you surround yourself with most”. This leads me to Step 1 of becoming a triathlete.

#1 Meet Other Triathletes

You will find yourself slowly taking part in social outings related to triathlon and little by little you will learn more about the sport. Attend triathlons and offer to marshal. This will offer you a prime vantage point to learn about the sport before you ever take part.

pre swim at lough hyne
Surrounded on all sides

# 2 Start With What You Know

I started with running. I’m not a particularly amazing or fast runner, but I enjoy it and I am comfortable . Before I ever joined the triathlon club, I would run with individuals who were involved in the sport. This meant that I started to weave my social circle further into the triathlon scene and I gradually became more comfortable with the idea of the sport.

# 3 Join A Relay Team

The confidence you get from smashing your discipline within a team is huge. You could be a member of a triathlon club and never do a full triathlon yourself if that is what you wanted. Doing triathlon as a relay also gives you the option to let an injury recover. For example, a shoulder injury might stop you from swimming, but you may be able to run and cycle comfortably.

Triathlete recovery system and ice bath
Ice Bath After A Triathlon

# 4 Improve In Your Weak Areas

No matter how experienced a triathlete you may be, you will always have an area you excel in and one that is your least favourite or your weakest. In order of experience and strength, I would say running is my best, swimming is my second favourite and cycling is my weakest.

The Run

There is a notion that the run is the easy part of triathlon. You would be foolish to underestimate the feeling of trying to run easy after bursting yourself on a 20km cycle. If you have not run before, or indeed if you have run but you want to improve, check out my #justonemile programme. You can either do every single step of the programme or jump ahead if you feel able. It is aimed at getting you to 1 mile, but you can quite easily repeat the process until you reach 3 miles (sprint triathlon distance).

4mile Road Race
Running whilst on dialysis

Once you are run fit (you can run easily at a comfortable pace for 30 minutes) its time to start branching out and improving on the other disciplines.

The Cycle

If you are new to cycling, you should check out my post on Cycling Etiquette for Beginners. You don’t need a brand new carbon fibre road bike to start cycling. In fact, if you get out on the road and just start with 30 minutes on a mountain bike, you will be sure to build great strength and cardiovascular fitness in no time at all. A good triathlete will build a strong engine before buying the expensive bike. After all, a Maserati can’t run without an engine!

When formation is not tight
Cycling 2 abreast can often look like 4 or 5 abreast

If you are waiting and saving up for that perfect bike, get yourself to a spinning class. This will help build strength and cardiovascular endurance before you get out on the road. Just know that cycling a bike indoors and out on the road will feel enormously different. While you may feel strong and be at the top of the class in spinning, knowing how to save the legs on the hills and when to push for the sprint will always come with road experience.

The Swim

I think that this is the discipline that everyone fears most. It was certainly a huge barrier to me as I couldn’t put my face in the water and was afraid to go to the deep end of the swimming pool.

triathletes open water swimming
Open Water Swimming In Mallorca

The best thing I ever did was to go to technique coaching sessions. It wasn’t like a masters session where you have to get the lengths in and just drive on. This was very measured. One length of a certain drill – stop, breathe, recover, go again. There was no pressure to get things right first time round and slowly but surely, I became desensitised to the water and my fear of tiny splashes in my face. Afterwards I progressed to the open water – but that deserves a post all for itself.

#5 Get The Essential Kit

For the Run

Essentials; Runners and a high vis vest. Cost €50-€200 depending on your choice. I wear Sketchers GoRun6 as I feel they are light and they suit my running style. They are suitable for the triathlete because hands can sometimes be numb or stiff after the swim and cycle so the sock cuff means no need to be fiddling with laces in transition

Non Essentials: Calf socks for recovery, running watch,

Ideal stretch sock top for triathletes

For the Cycle

Essentials – Bike – ideally a road bike (aluminium frame or carbon fibre). Helmet – non negotiable. Rear and front lights – I have these on even in the summer as a flashing light provides even more visibility. A puncture repair kit and knowledge on how to use it is also advisable. While not completely essential, a good pair of gloves can be advantageous to prevent hand soreness and cold fingers.

Non essentials – Cycling shoes and cleats. This is the ‘click in/click out’ system that most road cyclists would use. It takes a little getting used to but once you do, it is fantastic and really contributes to your cycling. Cycle shorts – ok, some might call these essential straight away, but if you are only cycling for short periods, you will be ok without them. Don’t put off buying them for too long though – they are a life saver for the longer rides.

Fully loaded triathlete
Don’t forget high vis gear

For the Swim

Essentials – Swimsuit, goggles, swim hat. Wetsuit for open water, swim buoy. Obviously this is not a ‘cant swim without it’ device….but it comes highly recommended.

Non essentials – pull buoy, flippers, snorkel, hand paddles – all handy for pool training sessions.

Specifically for triathlon, you can invest in a triathlon suit. However, this is really not necessary once you have a comfortable pair of shorts and a top to run in. For your first triathlon, it is always a good idea to borrow one to wear underneath your wetsuit.

triathletes enter the water at schull triathlon
Schull Triathlon 2018

#6 Triathlete in Training

Once you have decided which discipline is your favourite or most comfortable, ensure you can complete it to the shortest race distance. In triathlon, this is sprint distance (unless you are doing a ‘Try a Tri” event which is much shorter). In a sprint, the swim is 750m, cycle is 20km and run is 5km. Try a Tri races vary considerably and swims can be anywhere from 300m with a 10k cycle and a 2km run all the way up to sprint distance.

Start Small

With any new sport or skill, start small. Beginner cyclists can usually cover a flat 20km route in and around 1 hour (+/- 15 minutes either side). If you are running a 10minute mile (nice easy pacing) the 5km run should take about 30 minutes. The swim really depends on weather conditions – I have swam everything from a 16 minute 750 to a 21 minute swim when the water was flat calm and utterly wild respectively.

Begin your run training with 10 minutes of non stop running and build this up to 30 minutes. If you are not at 10 minutes yet, start with 10 minutes of run/walk intervals. For the cycle, just remember to cycle easy, keep your heart rate level and head out for 30 minutes to start. Build your time up to 1 hour and then start working on your speed.

Triathlete open water swimming in the sea
Open Water Swimming

It is always a good idea to train for a longer distance in the swim. In the event that you don’t swim straight in the open water (with no lane markers to guide you) you want to have trained up to about a kilometer to feel confident (that did it for me anyway). This equates to 40 lengths in a 25m pool or 50 lengths in a 20m pool.

Moving to the Open Water

When you decide to graduate to the open water, begin by staying within your depth and swim alongside the shore. I highly recommend purchasing a swim buoy. Don’t take off the second you get into the water. Splash your face, let the water trickle down the back of your wetsuit and do a few strokes. Start off at an easy pace and allow yourself to warm up slowly. Don’t over hydrate before your swim. Taking this advice can lead you to having a comfortable and enjoyable swim. These precautions can also help to reduce your risks of developing SIPE (Swim or Immersion induced pulmonary oedema). I have written an article on this phenomenon and interviewed an Ironman athlete regarding his experience of SIPE. If you would like more information, just click here.

Brik Sessions To Improve Your Triathlon Game

These are bike – run interval sessions. It is really important to get these in with your training. Again, start small with these. Head to your local sport pitch and lay out your runners and a bottle of water under a railing where you can park your bike. Cycle for 15 minutes in a loop and come back to your runners. Swap shoes (if you had cycle shoes on) and run an easy lap of the pitch. Jump back on your bike and cycle for 15 minutes, come back and run 2 laps. Build your distance over a few weeks so that eventually you can cycle for an hour and run for 30 minutes off the bike.

Cycling up hills in Majorca and running off the bike - perfect training for the triathlete
Cycle & Run

Above all else, enjoy yourself. Before you get swept up in the drama of competing as a triathlete, allow yourself to enjoy your first event. Even at that, remember that you can just enjoy the social aspect of being a part of a tri club and if you don’t want to, you never need to enter an event (but trust me, you will catch the bug and be competing all over the country within your first 2 years).

If you have any questions, please feel free to post them below and as always, if you can contribute and drop some more tips, please do.

Fi x

Fiona O'Donnell

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Copyright by Fiona O’Donell. All rights reserved.

Copyright by Fiona O’Donell. All rights reserved.