A Triathlon Primer

I have been asked many times about how I got started in triathlon, and more importantly, how would I recommend others getting started in this sport. I have written numerous times about what led me to this sport, and my issues with each discipline as the last 4 seasons have unfolded, but it occurred to me that I have never put it all together in one post. I’ll attempt to do so with this one.

Let me start out by saying, emphatically, that I am NOT a coach not do I have any degrees in nutrition or physical performance. I have a Masters in Public Administration and an MBA, along with a BA in Psychology and a certification in Six Sigma (green belt) and Lean Design. Everything I write about is taken from my personal first hand knowledge and experience. If your experience or knowledge differs from mine, more power to you. As you all know I come from a perspective of someone who had cancer, was over 300 pounds at one point, and deals with psoriatic arthritis every day. I am not in this to “win races” and I more than likely will never see a podium, and I am OK with that, but that doesn’t mean you have to be the same way.I don’t even consider triathlons “races” any more. A friend stated recently that he only calls them his “events” because the only person he is competing against is himself. I am trying to adopt that mind-set.

The first thing I would tell you is to read … everything. Magazines, Nutrition Books, first hand accounts like those of Macca and Wellington. anything. Ingest everything about the sport. Then promptly forget everything you read. These are meant for elite levels and professionals. They will have little to no bearing on how you will train, how you will eat, or how you will race. Keep in mind that many of these athletes, especially the pro’s, are paid by companies to promote their products and gear. Have you ever actually seen a pro triathlete drink chocolate milk after a race? Didn’t think so. While the advice they write about is inspiring, they have the time and the paychecks to do the type of training they talk about. It has nothing to do with you. The biggest mistake I made/make and I see others make is trying to gear their workouts to meet those they read in magazines, and this includes routines in magazines like Flex and Muscle & Fitness. They are at best personal workouts the pro’s use, and at worst cookie cutter routines. Don’t do them. Move on.

The Swim

Swimming, by FAR, is the discipline that causes the most anxiety, with veterans and especially newbies. Most triathletes do not come from the swimming discipline (though there are some) and you will find that the best swimmers are not those winning the events. Swimming also comprises only 2% of the total event (in most distances), so it often takes the back seat to biking and running. Do not underestimate it because of this reason.

This is a mistake.

While being a good swimmer will rarely put you on the podium, what it will do is set the tone for the race. Learning to swim efficiently is key to a good race, and learning to deal with the inevitable panic attack is even more important. A good swim, not necessarily a fast swim, will let you enter T1 with a clear head and not have to spend 3:00 of your precious time trying to get your head clear.

My training advice in swimming is to forget about the drills. One armed drills, closed fist, etc. will help you become a better and more efficient swimmer but you, as a beginner, need to swim … just swim. Use a race snorkel of you need to get your breathing down (they are legal in races and I used one my first full season), but concentrate your efforts on being comfortable swimming, especially open water (though never go into open water alone). Practice panic attacks. Learn how to get yourself through them. Have your partner grab you and pull you. It will serve you better than all the 100m kick drills combined. I will also say to become very comfortable in the pool before going to open water. Be able to swim 800m, 1600m, without stopping before going to the lake or beach.

All that being said, the race is always different from practice. Pre-race jitters will take their toll on you at some point, especially in the beginning, so breathe deep and try to stay calm and relaxed. When the race starts, count 30 seconds and then go into the water (if able to depending on the start methods), stay to the outside away from the fray. There will be bumping. People will grab you. Just move away and race your race.

The Bike

The bike is the largest portion of the triathlon. You will be on your bike for HOURS in long course races, so anything you do regarding training should be geared toward that. Forget about speed. Speed will come. Your focus should be on getting your ass used to being on that seat for 4-5 hours. Period.

The other focus is to train like your race. If you are racing Chattanooga, for example, find hills and climb, climb, climb. If you’re race Florida in Panama City, find long flats, get into aero position and stay there. If it is possible try to ride the actual course (easy if you only race close to home). Those of us in Florida have trouble finding hills, but contrary to popular belief, Florida is not flat all over. I would challenge anyone to ride Clermont, for instance, and still claim Florida is flat.

Nutrition is also important during this phase, as you will be, like I said, on the bike a long time. I personally cannot handle solid food while training long and hard. My stomach cannot handle it. When you are in full training mode the blood in your body is being routed to your muscles, leaving very little, if any, available for such little things like digestion. Ever hear triathletes, and especially runners, complain about GI issues while training? Now you know why. But everyone is different. I cannot handle sugar so I don’t eat it. I would argue your body really doesn’t need sugar (especially those downing multiple packets of Gel during a sprint race or a 5K), but I recognize some think they need it so I will leave it at that. I have resorted to Coke during a grueling session where I bonked, and it does work, but once you start throwing sugar in your body you have to keep feeding it. It’s like a fire. If you want a fire to burned fast and hot you throw pine needles on it, and you keep throwing pine needles on it to keep it going. If you want the fire to burn not as hot, but last a long time, you throw on a log. If you just MUST have carbs, try a product like UCAN in your water bottle. It’s a super starch (a lot like corn starch) that gives you the bump you need but doesn’t spike your insulin, so doesn’t affect you like the sugar does. Not the best tasting stuff in the world (flavor it with sports drink) but I have found it works and works well. Plus Meb likes it so it HAS to be good right??

And one last thing … learn how to change a flat … the back tire too. Seriously.

The Run

By reading my blog, I am going to assume that most of you are heavy, or at least used to be heavy, so you will all know this one simple truth: the run hurts more than any other discipline. Light people look at me like I have three heads when I say this to them. They LOVE the run. The run to them is the best part of the triathlon. But for the heavy triathlete, the run can be deflating, and painful. My most recent race was a good example. I killed the swim, did well on the bike, but because I hammered my hardest on the bike the run was done. My HR was pegged in Zone 5 and would not come down until mile 1.5. In a sprint, where the run is only 3.1 miles, the race that looked promising was one of my slowest.

The thing is this, the run is an evil that must be done, and must be practiced, but nothing ravages the body like running … even if you’re a little rubber person. It jams the feet, ankles, and knees, all of which is multiplied 10 fold if you’re over weight, and the kicker is this; nothing will make you lose weight faster than running. The trick is finding the method that works for you and sticking with it. I have found from trial and many errors that pushing through a run when feeling pain is not the right way to go. I have also been accused of not pushing hard enough on my runs, and there is some truth to that. I have a fear of injury, because I know an injury in running will affect everything else, so I plan ahead a run/walk pace and I stick to it, even if I feel I can push harder (until the very end, of course. Once I see the finish line I move as fast as I can).

My training advice goes along with George Sheehan’s advice, that training should be done by time and not miles. Sheehan never ran more than 15 miles to train for a marathon. There have been a few recent articles written stating that a 20 mile training run actually does more harm than good for the majority of runners, the basis being that the laws of diminishing returns hits at around 2.5 to 3 hours (meaning the risk of injury after that outweighs the increase in strength, which is minimal). This was, of course, met with great discussion on boards and social media because, well, how DARE someone challenge conventional wisdom.

So that’s my view on getting started. Let me leave you, though, with a few of my extra thoughts:

  • Focusing on your weakness in training is fine, but where people (myself included) go wrong is that they don’t adjust the rest of their training to met the new need. If you do 2 hours of swimming, 5 hours of running, and 7 hours of biking a week for a total of 14 hours, and decide that your swimming needs work so you add another 2 hours, now your total training is 16. Your body can only handle so much stress and will become overworked. Focusing on one discipline is fine, but adjust accordingly.
  • Race … as much as you can afford to. Training is fine but nothing prepares you better than actually racing.
  • Find easier races to start. If you’re in Florida a great sprint triathlon to try is in Crystal River (400m/15miles/3miles). The course is flat and fast. For more of a challenge in the sprint category try Clermont Summer Series (400m/10miles/3.1miles). The hills will get ya!! As far as a 70.3 I would recommend Ironman Augusta (even though it’s a branded race) if you can get to it, just because the swim is current aided, or the HITS series in Ocala or Naples. I have also heard good things about REV3 (which is now Challenge Family).

I hope this post was helpful. As I stated in the beginning, it is only my point of view. I am certain there will be disagreements (especially about the sugar thing … people seem to really get upset about that for some reason) but I have found, as a Fat Slow Triathlete, these things seem to hold true. Please share your thoughts (as long as they are constructive).

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