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How to transition from running to a triathlon

If you’ve been running road races for awhile, sooner or later you may feel the itch. The urge for something more. Some of us turn to trail running, others go for longer distances, and several runners consider tackling a new (albeit very related) sport – the triathlon.

Given your base, you’re in a unique situation. You may be a beginner triathlete, but as a runner you’re certainly not a novice when it comes to endurance sports.

Here are some tips to make the jump from running to triathlon easier:

  1. Sign up for a sprint. A sprint distance triathlon – typically about a 750m swim, 12-mile bike, and 5K run – is your best bet for a first race (if you swim or bike as cross-training regularly, you can start with an Olympic distance triathlon which is double the distance of a sprint). The distance may not seem like a lot, but time-wise it will take you as long as a half marathon. So, don’t treat the distance lightly.
  2. Set aside 8 weeks for training. If you’re logging a moderate running mileage each week – say 20+ miles – you can expect to be triathlon ready in about 8 weeks if you train well. Meaning you focus primarily on the swim and bike. Don’t try to be ready for a triathlon in a few weeks. You’ll have a much better experience if you properly train for your new sports.
  3. Consider swim lessons. Swimming is tricky. Even though it’s the shortest event in distance and time, it’s the sport that gives triathletes the most anxiety. Having a proper swimming technique can boost your confidence, though, and improve your race time. Look for classes or private instruction at a local Y or recreation center. (more swimming for runners)
  4. Do an open-water swim. If the swim portion of your triathlon will be in a lake, river, or ocean, practice in that body of water. Swimming in a pool is very different from open water. Only training in a pool for a lake swim is akin to wearing a new model of running shoes on race day – it’s a big mistake. Likewise, if your race is wetsuit legal, swim in your wetsuit a few times before race day. If possible, see if local triathlon clubs in your area host group open water swims so you can do a dress rehearsal for your first mass swim start.
  5. Don’t invest in a pricey bike. Use an old mountain bike or borrow a bike from a friend – just have it tuned at a bike shop prior to race day. Sure, a mountain bike will slow you down, but road and triathlon bikes cost a pretty penny. Make sure the triathlon is for you before making the investment.
  6. Bike on the roads. Indoor cycling classes are a great way to prepare the muscles you’ll rely on while biking during the triathlon. But you’ll need to practice biking outdoors to truly be ready for race day. You need to learn how to bike in cross-winds, lean into turns, change gears when going up and down hills, and clip in and out of your pedals.
  7. Don’t worry too much about the run. As a runner, you have an advantage over those who came into triathlon from swimming and biking backgrounds because your sport is last. When you’re feeling most fatigued, you’ll only have your strongest – and most familiar – event left. Your legs will remember how to run, no matter how hard you pushed it on the bike. Do a few brick workouts (a back-to-back biking and running workout) but don’t devote too much time to running during training.

Who has successfully transitioned from running to triathlon? Share your best tips with the rest of us!

Written by Jen Matz.

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