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Give it a ‘tri': triathlon basics for runners


I’d been a competitive runner for a while. I’d run everything from a 5k to a marathon and was yearning for a new challenge, and I found inspiration while cheering on my husband to finish his first half Ironman — a triathlon consisting of a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and half marathon.

Before this, I never considered doing a triathlon. My feet belonged on the ground. I didn’t know how to swim well and hadn’t been on a bike in more than a decade.

But when I saw the athletes compete, I realized they were just like me. They had to start somewhere, too. My husband, a competitive cyclist, picked up swimming and running for fun and fell in love with triathlons. Maybe I could ‘tri’ too?

Triathlon basics

A triathlon is a race consisting of three events: swimming, biking, and running in that order.

If you think triathlons are only for hardcore athletes, think again. Most triathlons cater to beginners. These types of triathlons are usually called “sprint” triathlons. These events involve a 200 to 500 yard swim, an 8 to 12 mile bike ride, and a 2 to 3.1 mile run.

If you can exercise for 15 minutes, you can be ready to do a sprint triathlon in 3 months. Many runners are in better shape than that and may be able to complete a triathlon sooner, but it’s still a good idea to take your time and train right.

What you’ll need
As with running, there are a lot of things people say you “need” to do a triathlon. But resist the urge to buy a tri-specific equipment and apparel until you’ve done a few races. Here is what you really need to do a triathlon:

  • Wetsuit. Though some races aren’t wetsuit legal. The race’s website will tell you if a wetsuit is allowed.
  • Swim goggles.
  • Towel to dry off between the swim and the bike.
  • Bike. A mountain or road bike will do.
  • Bike helmet.
  • Running shoes. You can use them for both the bike and the run.
  • Tight-fitting workout clothes. Wearing spandex shorts and a top would be ideal because the material would dry quickly after the swim. Padded spandex shorts would be an even better option for comfort on the bike.

Training tips
These tips can help you prepare for your first tri:

  1. Find a good training plan. Tri training plans are just like running training plans, but they outline swimming, biking, and running workout specifics. If you’re new to swimming or biking, it may be more beneficial to train with a group — you may pick up swimming techniques, for instance. Many YMCA’s and races offer group training programs.
  2. Focus on your weakness. Chances are you can already run 3.1 miles confidently. Dedicate more training time to swimming and biking and you’ll be stronger and more confident during the race.
  3. Do “bricks.” A brick workout is a back-to-back bike and running workout. It may seem tempting to skip bricks if you’re a seasoned runner, but don’t. Running after biking is a whole new feeling. Bricks are designed to simulate a triathlon, and they literally make your legs feel as heavy as bricks.
  4. Don’t forget about transitions. In a triathlon, there are two transition times: transition 1 (T1) and transition 2 (T2). T1 is the time between the swim and the bike, and T2 is the transition from the bike to the run. Transition times are factored into your overall race time. Practicing transitions can save valuable minutes on race day.

Are there any other runner turned triathletes out there? Did you enjoy your first triathlon? I did! I think we have an advantage since our sport is last. I looked forward to it the entire race.

Related: Cross-training for runners | Find a triathlon in your area

Written by Jen Matz