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Beginners guide to doing a triathlon

Beginners guide to doing a triathlon

Anyone can do a triathlon. Whether you’re 16 or 66, or haven’t worked out properly in years, you can train for your first one in under  12 weeks. You will lose weight, tone up and get a tremendously  positive mental boost. All you need is trainers, swimsuit and a bike – oh, and a rather large dose of willpower!


You really just need a few basics. Although experienced triathletes may spend hundreds of pounds on advanced wetsuits and aerodynamic bikes, you are able to complete a triathlon with just shorts, t-shirt, swimsuit/trunks, trainers, helmet and that dusty old bike you haven’t ridden in years. Useful extras will be swimming goggles, swimming hat, sunglasses and water bottle.

Types of triathlon

Triathlons comprise of 3 disciplines – swimming, cycling and running. But what distance do you want to do? There are several options:  the standard Olympic is 1500m swim/40km cycle/10km run, the lengthy Ironman a sobering 3.8km/180km/42km, and the Super-Sprint a pleasant 300m/10km/2.5km. Most beginners choose the ‘Sprint’ distance, which is a respectful  750m/20km/10km and will take a newcomer around 1 ½ hours to complete. What many people love about triathlons is that they are a personal challenge, so you can always aim to beat your last time.

Whatever the distance, triathlons all take a lot of dedication and training. For extra support, you can choose to join a local triathlon club which will have its own coach, entitle you to enter competitions and help you find training partners.

How to train

The key to successful training is starting slowly and gradually increasing the intensity. You can’t just go out and suddenly run 5 miles without injuring yourself as you will be exercising muscles and joints which haven’t been used for a while. Remember the 10% rule. Do not increase your training distances or duration by more than 10% each week. Complete beginners could start fast walking, then alternate walk/run until you are able to run without stopping. Finally, remember to stop for a ‘rest’ day each week. Your body needs time to rest in order to get stronger.

Finding the time to train can often be the greatest challenge. For a sprint triathlon, you should put in at least 3 training sessions each week, 30 minutes each. Ideally, these sessions will alternate between swimming, cycling and running but when you are just starting out it is often better to concentrate on just one discipline for a few weeks to get your aerobic capacity up. You also need to build up your strength so include some weight training sessions. Then gradually add in the rest. 

Example training programme for a sprint triathlon.

Swim – start by swimming 10 lengths of a pool and increase by 2 lengths each week.

Bike – start with 15-minute rides on flat terrain and build up speed and distance from there.

Running – build up from 10 minute walk/run sessions until you can run for 30 minutes without stopping.

Where to train

You can train for a triathlon outdoors , in a gym, or both. With busy lifestyles, some people prefer to make their weekday workouts more efficient at the gym. Choose the right gym and you can swim, bike, run, lift weights and shower all before you get home or go to work.  Jiggle it around how you like really - perhaps use the gym pool for your swim, then go to a short spin class or a run in the park.  If the weather is bad there is no reason why you cannot do all your running training on a treadmill and then cycle home. However you fit in the hours, if you are committed your fitness will quickly improve.

The event itself

Triathlons are very professionally organised. Safety is paramount  and you have marshals on site and along the route. However, main roads are not always closed. The number of people participating means the starts are often staggered so you may not start at the same time as a friend. Many races will have free water and energy drinks placed along the course to sustain you.

To assuage the  fears of those worried about sharing their outdoor swimming experiences with fish and eels – many beginner triathlons are held in public swimming pools where there is usually enough chlorine to ensure nothing too small and wriggly could survive for long.

Between each discipline are the ‘transitions’. After swimming you run to your bike and put on your bike gear (T1). Bike ride over, you remove your helmet and run (T2). Practising these ahead of time may save you time, though most beginners aren’t too concerned if they drop a few seconds.

The cycle and run is usually an ‘out and back’ loop so expect to see other competitors on the route at a different stage of the race to you. As you end the run your finish time is recorded and you may be handed a drink and perhaps a race memento like a t-shirt. Enjoy the exhilaration – and start planning for your next triathlon!