Fitness Programs | So you want to be a triathlete?

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So you want to be a triathlete?

Triathlon Photo So you want to be a triathlete? Well, you’re in good company.

Never before has the participation in the swim-bike-run sport attracted so many newcomers. According to Tim Yount, senior vice president of marketing for USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, USAT membership has grown 23 percent since 2005 to 101,000 members as of December 2007, noting that the actual number of multi-sport enthusiasts is much higher.

Of all novices, people in their 40s represent the fastest-growing segment in the sport with the sprint (0.5-mile swim, 12.4 mile bike ride and 3.1 mile run) being the fastest-growing race distance. First-time finishers often catch the “triathlon bug” and can’t wait to conquer the next challenge. But many triathletes also stay with the sprint and Olympic distance (0.93-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run) races before graduating to the more demanding long course: That is the Half Ironman (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, 13.1-mile run) or Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run) distance.

While it’s true that triathletes often migrate from one of the three sports to all three, the notion of burning calories with like-minded people also increasingly draws non-competitive athletes in pursuit of an overall healthier lifestyle.

In this article two veteran coaches–Terry Martin, a former professional triathlete, elite age-grouper and head coach at the University of California, San Diego Masters Triathlon Program and Tom Piszkin, assistant triathlon coach at UCSD and a certified bike mechanic–offer first-timers a road map to the finish line: From buying basic gear that won’t break the bank, and setting up a basic training plan to hiring a qualified trainer to final race day advice.

Becoming a Triathlete on Any Budget

The bike: “Any bike that you can ride on the road is sufficient (to train for a first triathlon race),” says Piszkin. Spending $300 will buy you an entry-level bike. “This bike would be inexpensive and can always be converted to a training bike as you progress in the sport,” he says.

Helmet: Never get on your bicycle without putting on a helmet first. Even a slow-speed fall can cause traumatic head injury. Prices for helmets range from $30 to $140, but all offer the same protection. Costlier models may translate into lighter weight or more ventilation to keep heads cooler in warmer temperatures. But all helmets sold in the United States should comply with government safety standards, which are indicated by the CPSC sticker on the inside. A good fit is the most important aspect to helmet safety. It should fit level on your head, touching all around, comfortably snug, but not tight. The helmet should not move more than about an inch in any direction, and must not pull off no matter how hard you try.

Saddle: When it comes to picking a saddle, looks can be deceiving: A skinny, tough leather saddle may look uncomfortable at first sight, but they often provide more comfort on the road than a big, soft looking saddle.

Apparel and Extras: Probably the best investment you can make, according to Piszkin, is spending $60 to $80 for a quality pair of cycling shorts. It will last you years while providing comfort and protection from chafing. Combine that with a good bike jersey ($25) that wicks perspiration away from the body, has pockets in the back to store cell phones, identification, and an energy snack. Optional, but recommended items include a pair of gloves ($10), a saddle bag ($15) for storing a patch kit, an inner tube and a hand pump, because flats will happen.

Road safety: Piszkin says 90 percent of flats can be avoided by cycling around debris and glass on the roads. In most states, the law states that bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as other vehicles on the road. Visit your local bike coalition to read up on road safety and commuting to work, which is a great way for triathletes to train and save money on gasoline.

Buying a quality pair of running shoes is also important to provide comfort and protect you from common running-related injuries. “In today’s economy such a shoe retails for about $60 (on the lower end of the price continuum),” Piszkin says. “Don’t buy the $29.99 sneaker,” he adds. Best places to buy: A specialty running store or retailer that specializes in athletic footwear. Their trained sales associates can recommend a brand, type of shoe (stability or comfort or both), and best fit to meet your individual needs. Breathable running jerseys, shorts and socks provide extra comfort.

Swim suits, goggles and swim caps are relatively easy and inexpensive to purchase. A good wetsuit may be harder to find. Piszkin’s advice: “Try to rent one or go to a second-tier manufacturer, if you’re just starting out.” Many triathletes also sell used wetsuits at places like or through their local triathlon clubs. And remember, a perfect fit is hard to find. As a general rule, a snugger fit is better.

How To Get Started with Training

The best introduction to the sport is by joining a local triathlon club. If you feel like you need help with your running, biking or swimming, try to find a qualified coach in your area who can watch your technique and help you improve.

“Hiring a coach for $50 an hour to watch you run or swim and offer personal guidance is money well spent,” Piszkin says.

Martin has found that swimming, which is the most technical sport of the three, can be intimidating for beginners. Here is where the watchful eye of a knowledgeable coach is critical to help you improve your overall form and stroke technique. This will allow you to get more comfortable in the water, which is vital during racing. For those wanting to gain greater insight into the sport, the coaches recommend the following educational materials: The Triathlete’s Training Bible and Your First Triathlon, the Triathlete’s Training Diary by Joe Friel. Check out these Web sites for training tips and much more:;,,,, and

The Commitment Factor

Before you start training, it may be a good idea to get a clean bill of health from your physician, Piszkin says. People with a known health condition should always get a physician’s clearance and recommendations for safe training guidelines.

In triathlon, the key to success is consistency. “Pick a goal and be realistic about your goal, then create a systematic plan to get there and try to stick to it,” Martin says. When life gets in the way, don’t give up, but resume your training plan as soon as possible. For beginners, both coaches find that experiencing a sprint or Olympic-distance race is a great way to determine if you enjoy the sport.

Newcomers should give themselves at least 12 weeks to develop a good fitness base for a sprint race. A weekly training plan of five to eight hours should get you to the finish line. Piszkin recommends training an hour a day, at least five days a week. Incorporate one day a week of complete rest or a “light” training day, focusing on stretching and flexibility training, such as yoga or Pilates.

As human nature has it, most people like to spend most of their training hours on their strongest and favorite sport and the least amount of time on their weakest sport. Few triathletes love all three sports equally or excel in all three.

Granted, “Focusing on your weakest sport takes discipline,” Piszkin says. But every triathlete who wants to get better will put in the time. His advice: In a five-hour training week, spend 40 percent to 50 percent of your training time in your weakest sport, and divide the rest between the other two disciplines.

“If swimming is your weakness, you need to be comfortable swimming the distance and may be a bit further before your race,” Martin says. “Then you’re more likely to have a good experience.” The same goes for the other two sports.

Most Common Rookie Mistakes

While coaches appreciate the new-found enthusiasm of many beginners, building a solid foundation to get your body used to training in three sports is important to prevent burn-out and injuries.

“You need to develop aerobic fitness first,” Martin says. Triathletes often confuse intensity with frequency. Says Piszkin, “It’s better to be consistent than to be intense, which can result in overuse injuries. Triathlon is a lifestyle that people can enjoy well into older adulthood, and even into retirement. Get there by training smarter, not harder.

About Online Coaching

The rising popularity of the sport presents a great opportunity for highly qualified and certified triathlon coaches. It has also given rise to more virtual coaching. Some coaches are more qualified than others to offer training plans and advice. For the right price, even world-class athletes are for hire: Multisports, was founded by eight-time Ironman Hawaii Champion Paula Newby-Fraser. Martin is one of several coaches creating training plans on behalf of Multisports. Their fees vary. Martin charges $350 a month for personal coaching while Roch Frey, founder of the UCSD Master Triathlon Training Club, charges each individual $595 a month and asks for a six-month commitment.

Martin’s advice: It’s best to do your homework before singing up with an online coach.
“No. 1 is to see if they have a personality that fits you. (Ask yourself) are you comfortable talking to them?” she says. You also want to ask about their certifications (both Martin and Piszkin are certified through USAT), expected time commitments, fee structures and own athletic backgrounds (not all great coaches are world-class athletes), and how much communication they are willing to provide. Word-of-mouth referrals are best.

Race Day Tips

Lastly, some tips for race day morning:

  • • Get to the event at least one hour before the race is scheduled to start. This gives you ample time to find parking, set up your transition area, get marked and warm up your muscles with an easy run or bike ride, and get an easy swim in, if possible.
  • • Read any written instructions, the course map and USAT rules or other regulations before you get to the race to avoid penalties or getting in the way of other participants on the race course.
  • • Listen carefully to the final race brief from the race director on race day.
  • • If swimming isn’t your strength, place yourself toward the back and to the side of the field to give yourself more space in the water and prevent faster swimmers from possibly swimming over the top of you.
  • • Pace yourself and find a comfortable rhythm, and enjoy a good race

Marion Webb is the managing editor for the American Council on Exercise and an ACE-certified Personal Trainer. For specific fitness-related story ideas or comments, please e-mail her directly at