The complete beginners guide to training for an Olympic triathlon : Escape drowning, survive 35 MPH hills, and outrun a Yetti

If you want to compete in a Triathlon, then now is the time. Anyone can do it. That means you!

When I was a kid, I idolized triathletes as the most complete athletes. I specifically remember asking my dad what a triathlete was. He told me that they were some of the most physically and mentally tough guys. He said they trained a lot, and made them out to be some sort of select, highly elite type of being that only a few could aspire to.

That was the very moment that I knew I wanted to compete in a triathlon. If these were the toughest guys out there, then I wanted to be one.

Flash Forward 21 years.

I had just gotten out of surgery, I had been in there for something called a “Fistula”, which is crazy, and it is rare that someone of my age and state of health could even have one without some other underlying condition.

I had been living with this “Fistula” for the past 6 months, but it had reached a point that it needed to be fixed. This was something that had put me out of exercising for about 6 weeks.

I did what most people would do after getting surgery…I decided I wanted to do a triathlon. I had recently read an article about a young guy like myself, with little to no experience, winning a triathlon, and beating the pros in Kona. I commented on the article, saying that “It just goes to show that anyone with determination and drive can do anything.” Then I got called out. Another man (Thanks John!), told me that I should do one because I was “anyone”.

So, I signed up for the 2016, Rev3 Olympic Triathlon in Knoxville Tennessee. I didn’t have a bike, I had no training plan, and I had never swam longer than 500 meters. I wasn’t too worried about the run, it was only a 6.2 miles, right?


 
                                     My RESULTS oF THE OLYMPIC TRIATHLON

                                   My RESULTS oF THE OLYMPIC TRIATHLON

 

 Where do I start?

When I committed to the triathlon, there were a lot of questions that I had.

  1. What is a triathlon? Where did it come from?
  2. What distance do I want to do?
  3. How do I sign up? How much does it cost?
  4. What gear would I need? What gear couldn’t I use?
  5. I wanted to find a training plan/books specific to this distance
  6. I Read articles of people who had done that specific triathlon before (If applicable)
  7. I wanted to research the course information (Was I swimming in a river, lake, pool? What was the bike and run elevation gain?)
  8. What is the water temp, and outside air temp typically at that time of the year?
  9. What was the transition area like?
  10. Was I going to die?

These are just a few of the questions that were racing around in my head. There were probably a hundred more. Maybe you are having the same questions.

As you can see, I was completely unprepared. In fact, on race day, I was unprepared. You won’t be.

So I have a message for you, if you are worried. Frankie Called, and he wanted me to tell you to RELAX!

I am going to walk you through everything you need to know, and what to be prepared for.

 

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 What is a triathlon? Where did it come from?

Triathlons are relatively new, they began in France. (Something we can thank the French for). They were originally called “Les Trois Sports”, “La Course des Debrouillards”, and “La course des Touche a tout.” There were similar sports earlier on that involved running, cycling and canoeing.

In 1920, the French newspaper L´Auto reported on a competition called "Les Trois Sports" with a 3 km (1.9 mi) run, 12 km (7.5 mi) bike, and a swim across the channel Marne.

 

The first modern (or what we know of today) triathlon took place in Mission Bay, San Diego in 1974. The Olympics only recently (within the last 20 years) added Triathlon’s as a sport. It was in 2000 over the Olympic Distance. (I wonder why they picked the Olympic Distance. Hmmm...)

 

 What Distance do I want to do?

There are five types of Triathlons. Sprint, Olympic, ITU Long, Half (Half-Ironman), and Full (Ironman).

  • Sprint – ½ mi swim (750m), 12.4 mi bike (20k), 3.1 mi run (5k) – Total = 16 mi (25.75k)
  • Olympic - .93 mi swim (1.5k), 24.8 mi bike (40k), 6.2 mi run (10k) – Total = 31.93 mi (51.5k)
  • ITU Long – 1.86 mi swim (3k), 49.6 mi bike (80k), 12.4 mi run (20k) – Total = 63.86 mi (103k)
  • Half– 1.2 mi swim (1.9k), 56 mi bike (90k), 13.1 mi run (21.09k) – Total = 70.3 mi (113k)
  • Full – 2.4 mi swim (3.8k), 112 mi bike (180k), 26.2 mi run (42.195k) – Total = 140.6 mi (226k)

I have not done an ITU Long, or a Full. I have done a Sprint, Olympic and an unofficial Half before (on my own). The rest of this article will be more focused on those specific distances. However, the training plan that I will give you will, covers all of the distances. You will be well equipped.

 

 How do I sign up? How much does it cost?

Once you have decided on which triathlon distance you want to train for, the next step is to find one.

For this, the best website to use is TriFind. There is a calendar for you to search for triathlons by type, State, distance, and date.

Triathlons vary in cost, they can be as little as $40 up to $600, not including travel costs etc. Most sprint triathlons are around $50, about the same price as running a half-marathon or a 5K in some cases. I would start with a Sprint Triathlon to make sure that it is something that you want to do more of or pursue before doing any others.

The other cost associated with Triathlons is getting a USAT membership. These are $50 and you can buy one at USAT.com, if you buy one towards the end of the year you can get a discount and get one for around $45. You will need this to compete in most races. You can usually buy a one day USAT membership for around $15 if you want too. I would just go all in and pay the $50, there are other benefits such as discounts on lodging and gear that come along with having the membership.

Once you find the triathlon you want to compete in, and you have your USAT.com membership, then you can sign up, and follow the links at TriFind, to secure a spot.

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 What gear would I need? What gear couldn’t I use?

Essentially, you will need the following equipment:

  • Goggles (Tinted)
  • Swim shorts (You can use bike shorts or a tri-suit too). I use bike shorts, it makes transitions easier.
  • Bike
  • Running Shoes
  • Water Bottle

Optional Equipment (You really don’t need this for your first couple triathlons unless you are in really cold water. 62 and below):

  • Wet-suit – Can’t use in temperature over 84 degrees.
  • Bike Shoes
  • Clip in pedals for bike shoes
  • Watch
  • Bike Computer
  • Aero Bars

Your first triathlon should be to get accustomed to doing one. I wouldn't recommend going all out and spending thousands of dollars ($$$$) on nice equipment. 

I did my first triathlon on a $200 bike that my Dad got me at a Pawn Shop. I used these Swedish swim goggles that cost about $8 , and I swam in my bike shorts so I didn't have to change. I bought a pair of running shoes on sale at Amazon for $39. Most of the equipment you will really need, you can probably find laying around your house, or someone else might be willing to let you borrow.

There are some things you can't use though. Read the Complete Triathlon Rules for more Details.

  • No headphones or phones
  • No snorkels or breathing apparatus
  • No fins


find training plans/books specific to this distance

There are a lot of books out there on training plans, etc... The trick is to pick one that is best for you. I found that training so many days a week and running too much was really taking a toll on my body. 

I am not alone. I found a book called Primal Endurance and it saved my life. These guys felt the same way I did, and they had been doing triathlons and endurance events their whole life.

Here is a glimpse:

Primal Endurance shakes up the status quo and challenges the overly stressful, ineffective conventional approach to endurance training.  While marathons and triathlons are wildly popular and bring much gratification and camaraderie to the participants, the majority of athletes are too slow, continually tired, and carry too much body fat respective to the time they devote to training. The prevailing “chronic cardio” approach promotes carbohydrate dependency, overly stressful lifestyle patterns, and ultimately burnout.

There are several other books/websites that I would recommend.

Read articles of people who had done that specific triathlon before (If applicable)

I found some great blogs/articles about a couple of guys who had done the course in Tennessee. I also had some tips from a real triathleteAll I did was a little Google research.

Also, depending on who is sponsoring the event, you can go to their website to see all the details about upcoming races. Mine was with Rev3 and they were excellent with keeping you up to date, and aware of everything that was going one. They had practice swims and runs to get you acquainted with the course.

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research the course information (Are you swimming in a river, lake, pool? What is the bike and run elevation gain?)

Try and find out as much as you can about the course. If you are swimming in a river, you might have to swim against the current, or maybe it's working for you, maybe it's both. For me it was half and half. I swam against the current the first half, and then it helped me on the second half. The current wasn't bad, but it was noticeable. 

Also, elevation gain is a big issue, because you don't want to expel too much energy on the bike portion going like a bat out of hell on the uphill, when you have a lot of uphill running to do. 

Once again, find articles of someone who has done it before, or read about what to expect from the organization that is putting it on.

What is the water temp, and outside air temp typically at that time of the year?

To check water temperature of the previous years, just do a Google search. 

You can also review last years information on water temperature from someones article or from the organization who is putting on the event.

Swimming and Water Temp Swimming Safety

If you are curious about whether you need to use a wet-suit or not, see the table below. It is taken from the Navy SEAL Fitness Guide Application. If anyone knows cold water and swimming, it's these guys.



What was the transition area like?

One of the biggest questions I had was what the transition area was like. 

This was the place where you would come after the swim to jump on the bike, then from the bike to the run. This is where you could really hurt or help your overall race time. The faster the transition, the better.

You will need to have your bike, helmet, running shoes, race number, bike shoes (optional) and towel at this transition point. I would also have something to drink or eat here. A couple of Gatorade's and GU energy gels would be your best bet. 

Set the area up so that you can transition very fast.

When coming out the water, if you have a wet-suit on, begin taking it off as soon as you get out of the water. If not, don't worry about it, your transition will be faster. 

Remember, your feet will be wet, so use the towel if you are putting on socks. Slide your bike shoes on, throw on the shirt, if you need one. For my Sprint Triathlon, I didn't wear a shirt at all, my transitions were about 30 seconds each.

After you have done that,put your helmet on, jump on your bike, and take off. (before the race, make sure you ask the volunteers to add air to your tires).

After the bike, you will have to walk it into the transition area. Immediately change your shoes, grab your water bottle, and take off running, this should be your fastest transition time.

If you are nervous at all about the transitions, make sure you practice them at home before the race to get more proficient at them. Besides, after biking your legs will feel weird when starting to run. It is good to get a good grip on that feeling.

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Am I going to die?

Probably not. Most likely no.

I will tell you my story of Not drowning, 35 MPH hills, and when I had to outrun a Yetti.

I jumped in the water, I was wearing my wet-suit, but the temperature of the water was about 66 degrees, I probably didn't need it.

I tread water for a couple minutes while they counted us down. They gave us a 30 second warning and everyone lined up in the water.

The horn went off and it was like a bunch of piranha at a meat buffet. I must have been kicked about 10 times. I even went for a ride on one guys shoulders at one point. (Free whale ride, way better than Sea World!!)

After a couple minutes everything died down, and I got into a rhythm. I was swimming against the current and could feel the resistance. I couldn't see very well because my goggles were not tinted and the sun was shining right into my eyes. 

I would swim about 10 strokes and then try to spot where I was going. What I didn't realize though was that I was heading for the wrong turn around buoy. This actually happened twice. I got turned around and the volunteers in the kayaks had to yell at me and redirect my path. I lost about 3-5 minutes doing all of this, which by the way is huge in the triathlon world.

Finally, I rounded the right buoy and head back down the river, this time the current was with me, and I made up some lost time. I finished the swim with no problem and began to take my wet-suit off as soon as I climbed out of the water. As soon as I got to the transition area, I had to put my shoes, shirt ,socks , and helmet on. This transition was tough, it took me almost four minutes to complete. Ouch!

I hopped on the bike and headed out for the 25 mile ride.

 

Don't forget the FREE Sprint Triathlon Training Plan

What are your triathlon experiences?

Is there any advice that you would add to this?

If you have any questions feel free to contact me.

- Stephen