How to Get Started in Triathlon


, by Emma-Kate Lidbury

Photography by: Pavel1964

Always wanted to give triathlon a go but not sure where to start? We’re here to help the tri-curious take the first step.

Triathlon is a sport that might seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but we’re here to help the tri-curious feel informed, prepared, and ready to hit their first start line. But before we get into that, what is a triathlon anyway?

Triathlon is, as the name suggests, three sports—swimming, cycling, and running—that are always done in that order, continuously, with transitions between each discipline. The swim-to-bike transition is known as transition one, or T1, while the bike-to-run transition is known as transition two, or T2. The clock starts once the swim is underway and stops once you cross the finish line with the time taken for transitions included in this; there are no scheduled breaks between disciplines. 

Going the Distance

There are various distances of triathlon, the shortest being the Sprint distance, which involves a 750m swim, 12-mile (20K) bike, and 3.1-mile (5K) run. The Olympic (or standard) distance involves a 1500m swim, 25-mile (40K) bike, and a 6.2-mile (10K) run. 

RELATED: Triathlon Distances: From Sprint to Ironman and More

The next step up in distance is half-Ironman or Ironman 70.3, so-called because it covers a total of 70.3 miles across the three disciplines, broken down as a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, and a half-marathon (13.1-mile) run. Beyond that, there’s the full distance, the Ironman, whose iconic world championship race on the Big Island of Hawaii is arguably the event that catapulted the sport into the mainstream. Ironman involves a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a marathon (26.2-mile) run. 

Three-time Ironman World Champion Mirinda Carfrae was one of Ironman's greatest athletes. Photography by: Zuma Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Although Ironman is plenty far enough for most people, there are also ultra-distance races, which can be double or triple the distance of the regular Ironman distance. It is often Ironman that lures newcomers into the sport, although starting with Sprint or Olympic distance and working your way up is typically recommended by coaches and seasoned athletes, not least because it takes time to safely build up the volume of training needed to successfully and comfortably complete an Ironman. 

All the Gear and Some Idea? 

If you’re someone who loves gadgets and gear, enjoys poring over data, is always the first in your friend group to try the latest biohack, and already know your resting heart rate, then the chances are you’re going to love triathlon. It can be an incredibly gear-heavy and data-driven sport, meaning this: once you get into it, your bank balance might never be the same again. 

RELATED: How to Fuel for an Ironman Triathlon

While runners only need a pair of run shoes, shorts, and singlet to get going, triathlon’s shopping list is a little lengthier and will include some big-ticket items such as a wetsuit and bike. That said, you don’t need fancy gear to get started and it’s certainly possible to get all the gear you need on a limited budget. With that in mind, we’ve separated the “must-haves” from the “nice-to-haves” so you can navigate the marketing wizardry with a little more know-how: 

Swimsuit, goggles, swim cap
Tri bike/road bike
Wetsuit (note: renting a suit is a good way to get started)
Road bike
Bike (any bike can be used in a race, including mountain bikes or even a beach cruiser)
Aero bars
Tri suit (this is a one or two-piece suit that can be worn throughout the entire race. While not strictly a must-have, it will make your race experience more comfortable and you’ll save time not needing to change between disciplines)
Power meter
Helmet (a CPSC-certified helmet is a requirement for any USA Triathlon event)
Aero helmet
Run shoes
Race wheels
Race belt (an elastic belt with your race number attached; usually a requirement on the bike and/or run course and put on in T1)
Speed laces
Body lubricant (chafing is a very real thing in triathlon, so investing $10 in body lube will save many parts of your body from being rubbed sore)
Water bottle
Flat/puncture repair kit (necessary if riding outside where punctures are inevitable). You’ll also need a portable pump, replacement inner tube, tire levers.

Of course, if you advance with your training and racing then this list will continue to grow and could include items such as swim paddles, pull buoy, kickboard, fins, snorkel, swim strap/band, speed suit, bib shorts/bike shorts, bike/tri shoes, indoor bike trainer, heart rate monitor, carbon run “super shoes”, foam roller, massage gun, energy gels, drinks, and bars…and the list goes on. 

Training for Your First Triathlon 

While training for three sports instead of one can seem daunting, it can also be the most satisfying part of triathlon. Unlike training for one sport, which can get monotonous, many newcomers to the sport report enjoying the variety that swimming, cycling, and running bring to their weekly workout program. The risk of injury can also be significantly reduced, especially with non-impact sports like swimming and cycling. That said, it is important to keep your training balanced and it is highly recommended to at least seek the advice of a qualified and experienced coach or training group/team before getting started. Having a training plan and/or a coach/training buddy will also help with motivation on the days when getting out of the door is more challenging. 

DID YOU READ? How To Get Into Running

Going the Distance

Of course, the training you need to undertake for your first triathlon will largely be determined by the distance of the race you’ve entered. As previously mentioned, diving in at the deep end and starting with a full Ironman is not recommended, but plenty of people have done it and lived to tell the tale! This approach outlined below, however, assumes you’ll start with shorter-course racing (Sprint or Olympic) and progress over time (if desired). Many people come into triathlon with experience of one (or more) of the disciplines. When that’s the case, it obviously makes sense to focus more on the sports that are new(er) to you, but we’ll address that more fully below. 

Triathlon races take place all over the world, attracting athletes of all backgrounds and abilities. Photography by: Alex Bogatyrev

Triathlon training Phases

While there is no magic formula for training, generally speaking the more time you have to prepare for your race, the more fit and ready you should be come race day. Many coaches like to set 12- or 16-week training programs that are broken down as follows: 

  • Phase 1 - Preparation/Adaptation: For a beginner, this phase might be two weeks in duration and will simply get you accustomed to regular exercise across the three disciplines.

  • Phase 2 - Base Training: As the name suggests, this is where you’re laying the base/foundation of your training. It’s largely aerobic (steady) in nature and has higher volume; this phase typically lasts six weeks. 

  • Phase 3 - Build: With a solid block of base training banked, you should now be ready to increase the intensity too, while volume stays high. This phase lasts four to six weeks. 

  • Phase 4 - Peak: with your race approaching the volume of training starts to drop in this phase while some of the intensity remains to help keep you sharp. This phase will typically last 10-14 days.

RELATED: A Brief History of the Women's Ironman World Championship

How Many Hours Should You Train for Triathlon Each Week?

The easy answer here is: It depends. And it depends on many factors, the most important of which is how many hours you have available (as obvious as it sounds).

While many amateur triathletes would love to bank 30 hours a week of training like some of their favorite pros, the most successful amateur athletes are actually those who balance training with work, family, social commitments, and sleep. Trying to cram in more sessions every week but only getting six hours of sleep each night will not make you a happy triathlete (or human, for that matter).

Many coaches will ask new athletes to take an inventory of an average week and realistically assess how much time they’ll have available for training. From there you can map how best to allocate that time for training across the three disciplines.

As a general rule of thumb for the beginner, if you spend approximately 50% of your time cycling, 30% of your time running, and 20% of your time swimming then you’re in a good place.

Be aware that it’s entirely possible to successfully train for triathlons on eight- to 10-hours a week, especially shorter-course races. As a general rule of thumb for the beginner, if you spend approximately 50% of your time cycling, 30% of your time running, and 20% of your time swimming then you’re in a good place. However, if you’re a seasoned cyclist or runner who is new to the pool then that formula will need to be adjusted. Let’s look at how: 

For the seasoned cyclist: The greatest challenge for the established cyclist with little to no swim background will almost certainly be mastering swim technique. Although you’ll have the cardiovascular fitness from cycling, it could all feel in vain until you make a breakthrough with swim stroke mechanics. You will also need to be careful with increasing run volume too drastically as the impact on lower limbs can be felt more acutely by cyclists.

Suggested weekly training breakdown: Swim 30%, bike 40%, run 30%. 

The transition from bike to run can take a little getting used to. Photography by: Carbonell

For the seasoned runner: Like the seasoned cyclist, the seasoned runner new to swimming will also need to spend time in the water mastering the basics. Cycling is significantly easier to pick up, especially if you have a group of experienced riders you can join and learn from.

Suggested weekly training breakdown: Swim 35%, bike 40%, run 25%. 

For the seasoned swimmer: Enjoy gloating during triathlon swim training because those who learned to swim well during childhood have a significant advantage over those doing so as adults. That said, getting into running can be harder for established swimmers, many of whom are often plagued with lower limb run injuries unless they progress training carefully and seek expert advice when starting out (investing in the right run shoes is important).

Suggested weekly training breakdown: Swim 20%, bike 50%, run 30%. 

Race Day Realities

The biggest challenge with your first triathlon can often be getting to the start line feeling fit, fresh, and ready. Have a training plan and stick to it—even when the panic sets in and you think you need to do more training than the plan calls for! Ahead of race day be sure to prepare all of the gear you’ll need, do your homework so you know what to expect from the course, and enjoy your first race.

Triathlon is typically a warm and welcoming sport that can prove to be addictive—the ongoing pursuit of trying to get better at three sports in one has lured many in—so don’t be surprised if you find yourself signing up for another race within moments of finishing your first.