Triathlon: Broken down and simplified for the beginner


Triathlon for the unacquainted can seem complex and unachievable. However, with proper preparation it does not have to be. This article aims to break down and simplify the sport of triathlon for the beginner- to get you on your way to completing a triathlon.

As the name suggests, triathlon consists of three disciplines- the swim, bike and run. The distances in a triathlon can vary from a “sprint” triathlon (750m swim, 20km bike and 5km run) to an “Ironman” (3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42km run).  For the first-timer, the sprint distance is the best place to start.

Preparing for your triathlon

The first thing you need to do is to decide on a race to do and commit to it. There are many local triathlons as well as ones that are part of national series. With limited fitness and experience you can do your first triathlon within 12 weeks. Therefore, you should choose a triathlon that is at least 12 weeks away to allow yourself enough time to train.

With this being said though, training for a triathlon is demanding. It is imperative your consult your doctor before you begin training.

There is a common misconception that to take part in triathlon you need to empty your pockets buying fancy, expensive equipment. Certainly you can do this, but it is in no way necessary. You can easily equip yourself to train for a triathlon on a budget.

Here is a list of the essentials for each discipline:

The swim: Togs, goggles, swim cap (if you have longer hair) and optionally, a wetsuit, as New Zealand waters tend to be on the cold side.

The bike: A bike (obviously). It can be your own or borrowed; equally, it can be a road or mountain bike. You will also need a helmet, cycling shoes (whether it is running shoes or bike shoes with clip-in cleats) and cycle clothes. What can be considered as cycle clothing is open for interpretation. It could be the proper “cycle kit” or, if you have an aversion to lycra, whatever training clothing you feel comfortable wearing while on a bike.

The run: Running clothes and shoes. It is important to get a pair of shoes that fit you properly. Running can be very unforgiving, and having a suitable pair of shoes will help you avoid injury.

Training for your triathlon

Once you have chosen an event to do and suitably equipped yourself, it is time to start training. To do so, there are a few key guidelines to follow.

Your first few weeks should be appropriate for your current fitness level and also allow for training to be slowly built into your daily routine. From there you can slowly increase your training.

It is recommended that from week-to-week you increase the amount of training you do by 10 percent. For example, if in the first week you can complete two rides of 20 minutes, then next week you could do one 20 minute ride and one 25 minute ride.

Typically in a triathlon, the swim takes the shortest amount of time to complete (about 20 percent of the total time), the bike the longest (approximately 50 percent), and the run somewhere in the middle (roughly 30 percent). The amount of time you spend training for each discipline should reflect this distribution.

Furthermore, each week you should do a similar number of training sessions for each discipline. This could be two sessions each of swimming, biking and running.

Below is an indication of the necessary peak volume of training you should slowly build towards, to comfortably and confidently complete a sprint triathlon. It is an example of how the previous two guidelines can be combined.

Monday: Swim 30 minutes
Tuesday: Run 45 minutes
Wednesday: Bike 60 minutes
Thursday: Swim 30 minutes
Friday: Run 45 minutes
Saturday: Bike 75 minutes
Sunday: Rest day

As you will see above, each week you should have at least one rest day. This is important to not only allow you to recover from your training, but also, to adapt to your training, which is how you get fitter.

Another misconception about triathlons is that the swim is the scariest thing ever, and therefore, impossible to complete. With the appropriate preparation and training, there is no reason for this to be true.

If you have never had any proper swim coaching, it is recommended you find a masters’ swim group or triathlon club. The coach will be able to teach you the correct swim technique. Also, once you have improved your fitness you will be able to join the group for training sessions.

Doing your first triathlon

There are a few things to consider when doing your first triathlon.

The first of these is your race day nutrition. What to eat before the triathlon and when? Similarly, what will you drink or eat during the triathlon? It is best to trial what you intend to eat and drink in training. This way you know whether or not it will upset your stomach.

The process of going from the swim-to-bike, and the bike-to-run is known as a “transition”. If you have not done a triathlon before, this requires some thought and planning. You need to think about what gear you will need in transition; how best to put your gear out; and what the “flow” of transition is – for example, where do you come in from the swim and where do you go out for the bike? It is worth practising this before the race.

This leads to the next point- know and familiarise yourself with the course. This is something many people overlook, but by doing so, you can avoid making a wrong turn or going around in circles in transition.

With any luck, this article has uncomplicated the sport of triathlon for you and armed you with the know-how to do a triathlon. By doing so you stand to gain personal fitness, a sense of achievement, a chance to meet you new people, and hopefully one day you will agree, enjoyment and excitement.

It is now up to you to jump on to the triathlon bandwagon.

The following website is an useful source for those interested in doing their first triathlon:


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