Lessons Learned from my Rookie Year

I’ve heard of a few people now who want to get into triathlon as one of their first (or the first in a long time) athletic endeavours. Part of me thinks it’s more sensible to get some other kind of endurance event (or several) such as a 5k or 10k running race before diving into the complexities of multisport, but the other part of me wants to just have them get involved in this great sport as soon as possible; I mean, why wait?

Looking back at my first season, I try to think what the bigger lessons and philosophies I took away were. Some were based on research I had done on my own, others are more rooted in my own choices and personality. They should apply to a rookie/newbie going into a try-a-tri, sprint or short (750m/30km/7.5km) event. Here are the top ten lessons I learned from my first year of doing triathlons.

1.) Make sure your lane swimming training distance exceeds your race distance. Open water swimming is harder than pool swimming. Waves and wind slow you down (or interfere with your breathing), without the pool lines to keep you straight you end up swimming a zig-zag for extra distance, and of course the traffic of other racers makes for added difficulty too. Stopping at the end of the lane to turn around may not seem like much of a rest while training, but compared to simply stroking continuously through, it’s like a nano-vacation every 25m. Being able to exceed the required distance by about 10% or so ought to do it.

2.) Train your race, race your training. I keep a very conservative pace while racing; I learned this while running. It doesn’t guarantee your best time or optimal performance, but it’s your best chance to finish and finish strong. Make sure your race pace is as close to your training pace as possible; don’t let the excitement of the race get to you. This is especially important in the swim. At my first event (the highly recommended Milton triathlon) my fiancée/ roadie observed a swimmer who made it as far as the first buoy (about 50m) before having to hang on to it and call for help. While it’s possible this guy simply had showed up to this event without proving to himself he could swim 2 lengths of a pool, I think it’s more likely he got so keyed up that he went like a wild man for 30 seconds and found himself completely gassed. I’d rather keep my head, and when the end is in (figurative) sight, I can use any extra energy (some of which might have been supplied by race-excitement-adrenaline) to sprint to the transition zone/finish line. A heart-rate monitor and/or GPS can help you know how hard you’re going during training and the race (I use the Garmin Forerunner 305 though I used to have the 301).

3.) During the race, take the outside lane in the swim. I probably did more than 750m of swimming in my races thanks to widening the loop, but I was able to swim at the pace I wanted (see lesson #2) and got a lot less interference from other swimmers. I figure I made up the time I lost swimming extra distance by not having to get untangled from other people.

4.) Have a roadie. You’ll be carrying a fair bit of gear: bike, helmet, towel, shoes, water bottles/gels, etc. It ought to be possible for one body to manage all that, but I sure appreciated the extra pair of hands. If you don’t have a significant other to rely on, ask a friend to help you as a favour. In a triathlon you get to watch the athletes go by at least 3 times (unlike other kinds of races), so it can be exciting for spectators. In that vein (though from a shallower perspective), a lot of the athletes have really good bodies.

5.) Spend some time and mental effort on orientation and visualization. The race kit pickup for Milton was actually the day before the event at Kelso conservation area, so I had a good idea of where I’d be entering/exiting the water, how to get my bike in/out of the transition area, and that I’d be starting my run going uphill. When setting up in the transition area, visualize how you want to change your equipment; e.g. do you want to towel off before putting on shoes? Keep in mind that athletes get disqualified for taking their bike off the rack before putting on a helmet. I like to set it up so that putting on the helmet is one of the first things I do.

6.) Take spinning classes. Getting geared up for bike rides is time consuming, and it’s hard to find the time to get long training rides in. When you do, you spend time at red lights or negotiating traffic that you wish you were devoting to turning the pedals and getting in shape. I was really worried about my cycling ability and endurance, and lasting for an hour in those classes without stopping, while simulating hills and other challenges made all the difference in having a successful season. It gave me bike training during the week, regardless of the weather, which isn’t easy in Canada. Having said all that, you need to get on your real bike sometimes to learn how to deal with the real life issues, and how to use the gears effectively.

7.) Get speed laces. While there are special triathlon shoes which offer quick entry to minimize the transition time from bike to run, I found a product much like these can be attached to normal running shoes. Not only do you save time on race day, but once you’ve got them on your shoes for training, you’re never bothered about tying a really good knot that won’t come undone while running ever again.

8.) Beginner/semi-out-of-shape triathletes have an advantage over the elites. More advance triathletes spend big bucks on wet suits to provide buoyancy and insulation against the cold water, then have to learn to get out of them in a hurry while wet, but in my first season I had a natural solution that the rest of them didn’t seem to have access to: body fat. I’m lucky in that I’m used to swimming in fresh (and open) water which isn’t always as warm as a pool, but I do think the body fat I was carrying helped me stay warm enough in the water for the May and June races. I think the water at Milton was 18 degrees Celsius or so, which is too cold for flopping around in the water, but considering I was swimming a race, I generated enough body heat to stay warm during the swim, and was able to transition to the bike without fussing around in a wetsuit. I am buying one this year as I’ve lost a little weight and I’m serious enough about the sport now to merit the expense, but last year was a different story.

9.) Have water bottles and gels, but don’t bother carrying them on the run. From running half (and one full) marathons, I used to carry a water bottle on a belt so I could hydrate whenever I wanted, instead of the crowded water stations. While a short/sprint triathlon is comparable to a half-marathon in terms of overall endurance, the run is short enough that carrying the bottle was just extra weight, and the stations were more than adequate. I did like having water on the bike ride and I was using gel mid-way through the ride and at the bike-to-run transition.

10.) Look forward to more. Body marking means everyone can see your age. The few times I’d pass someone, I’d feel proud until I got close enough to see that they were in their upper 40s, 50s or 60s and I was surprised every time, because not only were they performing as younger, they looked it. This sport is so incredibly healthy as it uses muscles throughout your whole body, increases your cardio-vascular endurance, and is quite safe.

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