A Beginner’s Guide to Triathlon Training

Posted: July 9, 2010 in Training, Triathlon

Triathlon is a physically demanding, highly rewarding sport that has gained popularity in recent years. For those who wish to complete a triathlon for the first time, it is important to understand the basics of the sport. The following is a basic beginner’s guide to preparing for one’s first triathlon.

Getting Started
Triathlons involve three separate events: running, swimming, and cycling. There are three different types of triathlon, each with different distances for the three events. Sprint distance triathlons are shorter and well-suited for beginners. Olympic distance races are the most common triathlon type and are popular with elite-level athletes. Ironman triathlons are the ultimate physical test and are not recommended for novice athletes.

Once an individual has chosen the appropriate type of triathlon, it is important to equip for the race properly. Triathletes must supply their own gear: running shoes, swimsuit and goggles, helmet and a bicycle. The basics will do for most sprint distance triathlons; Olympic distances may require more high-end equipment. A reputable sporting goods store will be able to help equip most novice triathletes sufficiently. Another important consideration when gearing up for one’s first triathlon is the course. Will the swim take place in the ocean, where salt water and waves will be a factor? Is the cycling route hilly or full of sharp curves? It is wise to select a triathlon to participate in first and then plan equipment purchases and training accordingly.

Motivation is a key element in successful triathlon training. Every triathlete needs something to sustain the long hours of training and to help push through the final miles on race day. Whatever the reason for embarking on this journey, hold on to that inspiration and accomplishment is sure to follow. Setting and reaching goals is also crucial. Goals should be substantial enough to encourage perseverance – those who enter a triathlon simply as a way to lose weight may find that they quickly burn out and never make it to race day. Putting forth smaller goals along the way, such as improving on a training best time or making it through a run without stopping, will also generate confidence that will carry over to the actual race.

Training Tips
Specific triathlon training tips can be found all over the internet and in running publications. The following are some very basic considerations to keep in mind as one begins a training regimen.

*Train specific. Each triathlon distance requires a different level of training. Swimming miles and miles in preparation for a sprint race will only increase risk of injury and the chance that one will become disenchanted with training. Figure out exactly what needs to be done to get the body in shape for the desired event.

*Progress for success. Even the most inexperienced athlete can train effectively for a triathlon. The secret is to vary intensity and challenge the body frequently. This will help overcome plateaus and will ensure that one’s system is growing stronger and more durable with each workout.

*Reign in training. There is always the risk that new triathletes, inspired and full of excitement, will over train. This causes undue stress on the body, increases fatigue, and makes injuries and setbacks more likely. Rest is an essential part of training, and taking a day off each week will not unravel all the progress made to that point.

*Conquer boredom. Unlike other endurance sports, the very nature of the triathlon makes it far less likely that tedium will set in to sabotage training. However, it is still important to alternate programs – do not try to run, swim, and bike every single session – and create some variety in workouts to prevent boredom.

The possibilities are endless.

Transitioning Effectively
Many inexperienced triathletes fail to prepare for the most unique aspect of triathlon racing: the transition. Going from the water to the road to a bicycle can be taxing, can cost precious minutes of lost time, and requires a certain amount of practice and planning in order to work out logistics. Do not overlook this important part of triathlon training. As training progresses, try a few transitions if possible. Ignore speed or seamlessness; simply try to get the feel of what it might be like to put on dry socks and running shoes over wet feet or to hop off a bicycle while still in motion. Practice putting on and taking off special equipment like a wetsuit, goggles, or a helmet. Even a few minutes each week dedicated to practicing smooth transitions can make a significant difference on race day.

Proper Nutrition and Hydration
There is no better way to derail training than to inadequately fuel the body. Proper nutrition and hydration are absolutely essential not only to sustaining long sessions in training, but also to getting one through to the finish on race day without serious injury. Prior to training, consume a small meal full of balanced nutrition at least an hour before the workout. Aim to incorporate lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and fats. Drink plenty of water, as well. As race day approaches, boost daily intake of complex carbohydrates; these are stored in the body and released more slowly than simple sugars, thus providing sustained energy. Many athletes also practice carbohydrate loading in the few days leading up to a triathlon. During this practice, the majority of an individual’s daily caloric intake comes from complex carbohydrates like pasta, rice, beans, and whole grains.

Some consideration should also be given to race day nutrition. Sprint triathlons rarely require more than water or a sports beverage, but longer triathlons may warrant some sort of meal replacement product like an energy bar or gel. This is a highly personal choice, but still important nonetheless. Some energy gels or food and drink combinations can upset the digestive system; this is definitely not a situation one wishes to find him or herself in during the middle of a five mile run. Test out various combinations until the most desirable result is achieved. The goal should be to replace lost calories and replenish electrolytes, giving a feeling of renewed energy.

Following a training session, adequate re-fueling is crucial to repair muscles and ease the body into recovery. Eat another small meal approximately 30 minutes after a workout, as this is the optimum time to replenish glycogen energy stores in the body. A high protein snack immediately following a session may also help prevent muscle breakdown. Measure weight before and after training and consume 24 ounces of fluid for every pound lost during exercise. This simple formula will guarantee the body is adequately rehydrated and ready for the next day’s training.

It can be tempting to train hard every single day in preparation for a major athletic contest like a triathlon. In fact, resting or taking a day off may seem counterproductive. However, the recovery phase is every bit as important as training. Without sufficient time to rest, the muscles become overworked and more prone to injury. When muscles perform work they tear microscopically. As these tears heal following exercise, the muscles are rebuilt stronger and more developed. If muscles are not given a chance to heal then tearing becomes more pronounced and very little improvement in strength is achieved.

A sensible training regimen must include scheduled rest and recovery days. On these days, no physical activity should be performed. Some longer training programs may even incorporate entire rest weeks, where intensity is dramatically lowered and only moderate physical activity is allowed. During rest periods, commit to doing something to nurture the body that has been working so hard throughout the week. Get a massage, sit in a Jacuzzi tub, take a nap, or indulge in some other light activity that encourages relaxation. Consider rest days a reward for a job well done and a chance to recharge for the next bout of training.

Finishing a triathlon is an empowering, exciting achievement. Taking the time to prepare fully, to train properly, to fuel the body adequately, and to rest regularly will ensure a successful outcome.

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