7 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Triathlon

I started triathlon at the age of 34. As a single lady living in London, it seemed like a good idea at the time to put my sporting ability to good use and join the relatively fledgling sport of triathlon. (And yes, I hoped to meet my eventual life partner!) (Download my Ebook, ‘Try a Tri’ to find out more about my triathlon career)

I had no help, very little advice and no idea about gear, training, nutrition …. about any of it really. I was an ex University 400m runner so couldn’t really run 10km, swim or cycle but I dove in, joined my local tri club and got started. The Tri club was extremely supportive (can’t say that about every Tri club unfortunately) and immediately I found some like-minded cyclists who helped me figure out how not to freeze my toes off during winter cycled rides and eventually how to get a bike that did not have a granny cog.

I pretty much made the rest up (including swimming which I could not do) and learnt some valuable lessons along the way. I wrote this article to help anyone else who is finding the whole thing quite daunting. It really does not have to be so scary and the end result is always very rewarding – you can be, and are, a triathlete.

Here are the 7 things I wish I’d known When I Started Triathlon:

  1. Spend more time training on the bike and less time in the pool
  2. Eat right to train right to compete right
  3. Practise transitions BEFORE your race
  4. Don’t wear new gear in your race
  5. Look after your whole body
  6. Don’t put pressure on yourself
  7. Smile at EVERYONE you see

1.      Spend more time training on the bike and less time in the pool

Why? Simple maths. Let’s take a Standard distance triathlon – 1.5km in the water, 40km on the bike and 10km on the run. If you start as a swimmer of average ability and can swim around 2 min per 100m then on the day your swim is going to take you roughly 30 mins. Factors like the swell in an open water race and sighting around the buoys should certainly be practised so that your time comes as close to this as you can. You naturally need to spend enough time in the pool to ensure you have the endurance to maintain this pace over the entire 1500m. If you were to improve by 10% then your time per 100m would decrease to 1 min 48 sec and your overall 1500m swim time to 27 mins – an improvement of 3 mins. But at what cost? Those of us who have been swimming for years know just how tricky it will be to get this 10% improvement – my guess is you may have to be in the pool daily with a technique coach for 10-12 weeks to get this improvement.

If you start as a cyclist of average ability you can be confident in cycling 40km on relatively flat race on closed roads at around 25kmh. At this speed your 40km bike leg will take you 1 hour and 36 mins. If you were to train a bit more on the bike (simply increasing your number of bike sessions per week from 1 to 2) then a 10% improvement is very likely. Your average speed would increase to 27.5kmh and the full 40km leg would be completed within 1 hour and 27.25 minutes – a whopping saving of 8.75 mins. And yet, how easy was it? Just an additional 1.5 hours per week. (More tips on how to improve your cycling)

2.      Eat right to train right to compete right

Diet or nutrition is often mentioned now as a fundamental part of any exercise plan. It wasn’t always this way. When I first started triathlon we barely discussed it – I thought I was just meant to eat more pasta! Despite its popularity these days, nutrition for performance is still not understood properly. There are some basic rules that you should incorporate in your training plan:

  1. Eat sufficient protein to ensure your exercising muscles can repair and build. I recommend a MINIMUM of 1.5 times the ideal body weight (in kg) of an athlete in grams of protein per day. This can be as high as 1.8 – 2 times depending on the amount of exercise you are undertaking. (Calculate your protein requirements and find out more about how to satisfy them)
  2. Get most of your carbohydrate requirements from vegetables and fruit. This minimises the effect of processed sugars on your body and also ensures you are taking on loads of fibre keeping you regular and satiated throughout the day. (Top 10 Ways to reduce Sugar in Your Diet)
  3. Don’t use your training programme as an excuse to increase the amount of starchy or sugary things you eat per day (Like pasta with every evening meal or a muffin after a bike ride). You will be surprised just how much exercise you have to do to burn off these processed treats. You may have swum for an hour in the pool but you may have only burnt off about 400 calories. (Five things NOT to do after finishing your bike ride)
  4. Supplement your diet with nutrients like Omega 3s, Vitamin D3, Magnesium and loads of anti-oxidants. These will all help to build a layer of immunity ensuring you can keep exercising whilst others are forced to take days off. However good you think your diet is I hazard a guess that you will not be taking in sufficient of these nutrients to support your enhanced body performance. (More on the need for supplementation)

3.      Practise transitions BEFORE your race

If nutrition is your fourth discipline in a triathlon then transition is your fifth. Why? Because we have proven in our first point how much you have to do to shave a few minutes off your bike or swim leg so we don’t want to go and blow our gains by messing up transition. Pulling on a bike jersey over a wet body from the swim will COST you valuable minutes. Un-racking your bike without doing your helmet up might lead to you being sent back by a race marshall. Struggling to get your wet suit over your feet will look ridiculous AND cost you extra minutes. Leaving your sunnies or race cap at home might not cost you time but may cause you sun burn issues.
The main message – practise transitions a few times before the race, envision the order you will do things, visualize the things you need and make yourself a packing list for every race. (The Ironmums Guide to Triathlon Transitions)

4.      Don’t wear new gear in your race

It’s very easy to leave purchasing a few vital items until race day. Many races come complete with excellent expos these days at which we feel obligated to spend lots of cash. But leaving a purchase as trivial as a race belt until race day may cost you time (it might be too baggy and you have to stop to tighten it) and worst case, may cause you considerable discomfort. That brand new tri suit may well chafe in all the wrong places and that go-faster wet suit may not slip easily over your feet. Purchase everything you need for race day well ahead of time (and include in this the gels and electrolyte drinks you are going to use) and practise with everything for several weeks ensuring its comfort and fit (and effect on your body).

5.      Look after your WHOLE body

I was very competitive in my younger triathlon years and achieved some great results. I trained hard and did not always do the right things to look after my body for the long term. We have mentioned the nutrition issues already but I also did not look holistically at my body and do things such as rolling, pilates, yoga or strength training that might have had a longer term positive impact on my body. Fast forward 15 years and look at me now. I have osteo-athritis in both knees which severely reduces my ability to run. I was forced to walk/run the marathon in my ironman event and can only run less than 10km twice per week in training.

Nowadays I have to train smart and I also know that I must substitute at least one session per week with something like yoga or pilates to ensure I stretch my body out sufficiently to ease the pains and maximise the effect of all the other training.

I recommend rolling as frequently as possible and certainly after every bike ride to ease out aching glutes and tight ITBs. And for many, finding a sensible weight training coach who understands cycling and running and can build you a programme to build muscular strength for both disciplines is also worth its weight (pardon the pun) in your weekly schedule.

6.      Don’t put pressure on yourself

Triathlon is a fun sport and a good family outing. My son has helped out several times handing out drinks in the finish zone and helping athletes remove their timing bands. My daughter cheers Mum and Dad on from the sidelines whilst playing with the other kids whose Mums and Dads are also taking part. Putting pressure on yourself for results can spoil this family atmosphere because your stress affects other people. Going into an event with a time goal can also cause issues. Every triathlon course is different, the transitions might be long or short or the organisers may have mis-calculated the swim course. A time goal is irrelevant when there are so many factors outside of your control. Try to relax about your results and enjoy the atmosphere. At the end of the race you want to feel the simple accomplishment of having taken part, done something amazing and better than all the couch potatoes still in bed. AND, you want to go and celebrate with the biggest breakfast for a job well done.

7.      Smile at EVERYONE you see

Most races are only made possible by the hundreds of volunteers. They deserve a smile as gratitude for giving up their time enabling you to achieve something amazing. Being nice to fellow competitors is also important. Growling at someone for being too far out on the road on the bike leg may mean a few less seconds for your bike split but may ruin the confidence of the novice cyclist you chose to growl at. And you will get some super cool race photos if you smile!

In Conclusion

There you go – hope this helps. I speak from experience and often times, bad experiences because I screwed something up. I have flunked races because I did not drink enough, I have not enjoyed key events because I expected to win and did not, I have stressed out so much before-hand that I have had a panic attack in the swim. I have a battered body after 16 years in the sport and I’m still a rubbish swimmer even after all these years.

I now coach other people to achieve remarkable results for themselves and the joy of passing on my wisdom and experience far outweighs any of my own results. The sport is rewarding for all those taking part and I want you to have as much fun in each event as I now do. I would like everyone to just ‘have a go’ – after all, Anything is Possible.

Liz has also produced an Ebook entitled ‘Try a Tri’ which delves into some of the issues raised above in greater depth and is a fabulous starter book for the novice triathlete or as a training guide to someone trying to raise their triathlon game. Liz also offers a personalised training plan for triathletes at all levels with as much FB, email, SMS and phone support as you require to successfully complete a triathlon, run or bike event.

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