25 September 2009 1 Comment

How to choose your first triathlon

For many people, signing up for a first triathlon is something they do on a whim. Maybe a poster at your local leisure centre has caught your eye, or you watched a race on the telly early one Sunday morning while your early rising toddler attempted to persuade you that a highly energetic game of hide and seek was just what you needed. Either way, deciding to have a crack at a multisport event is one thing, making the right choice of event is quite another.

This first post will look at the different types of triathlon you could pick. I’ll follow it up shortly with a post on choosing specific races.

What distances are there?

There are 4 basic triathlon distances:

Sprint: .75km swim/20km bike/5km run – around 90 minutes effort

Olympic or standard distance: 1.5km swim/40km bike/10km run  2.5 hours to 3.5 hours effort

Half ironman or middle distance: 1.8km swim/80km bike/21km run 6 – 8 hours effort

Ironman or long distance: 3.6km swim/180km bike/42km run 12 – 15 hours effort

Besides these “official” distances there are “super sprints” which are even shorter, sprints with longer bike legs, and all kinds of variations depending on local courses etc. And if you are one of those weirdos that gets off on fat knobbly tyres, there are offroad triathlons just for you. The length of time suggested is complete guesswork based on what an averagely fit Joe might expect to achieve. There was one guy at Ironman UK whose first triathlon it was who finished in just over ten hours, but then again, he was an Olympic 3000m steeplechaser.

There are also women only events, usually at the shorter distances. Presumably the cost of putting on a triathlon is simply too expensive to consider a women only half or full ironman.

How hard?

Obviously, the longer the race,the harder it will generally be, although you may well find yourself racing at a much higher intensity for the shorter distances. I will try and put it in the context of a marathon run of which I’ve done several. In my opinion, an Olympic distance triathlon is a little bit easier than a marathon in that it doesn’t batter your body as much as a marathon would, and a half-ironman is quite a bit harder than a marathon. I started by doing two sprint distance races as a build up to my first “proper” triathlon – an Olympic distance race (Salford 2003), and I didn’t consider myself a “triathlete” until I had completed an Olympic distance race. That’s pure prejudice on my part, however, and depending upon your current fitness, completing a sprint distance could be a huge achievement.

When deciding on your target distance, be realistic about your existing fitness. It’s my opinion that unless you have a solid background in endurance events (long distance cycle rides or marathon running etc) you should be extremely wary about committing to a half or full ironman as your first event (see my “Could you do an Ironman?” post). The endurance to complete a real long event like an Ironman can take several years to build up. Joe Friel, legendary Ironman coach reckon it takes ten years of solid training for an elite endurance athlete to peak. Now, I’m no elite athlete, but it took a few years of building endurance before I felt able to commit to the “big one.”

My first year in the sport looked like this: two sprint events building up to my target race: the Salford Olympic distance triathlon. I have to say that after the race I felt nauseous, wiped out and my body exhausted – but I’d come in to the sport from years of rockclimbing. I think anyone with a background in marathon running or cycle sportives could, however, reasonably target a half-ironman towards the end of their first season if they felt really able to commit to the training.

Both images from Richard Seipp at qwertyphoto.com

Image from Richard Seipp at qwertyphoto.com

Open water or pool?

This question often comes up, but it never did for me. I didn’t realise you could do swimming pool based triathlons, and I thought they were all open water. Added to that, back in 2003, there were very few reservoirs or lakes that I knew of where you could practice open water swimming. So it was 6:30 on a June morning that I found myself bobbing up and down in the Thames waiting for the hooter to go for my first ever open water swim (snorkelling in the sea as a kid didn’t count). Hyperventilation is a very common occurrence among triathletes on their first open water swims, so, it makes absolute sense to practice open water as often as you can prior to the event. Luckily, that’s a lot easier than it used to be with many lakes around the country opened up for sessions in summer evenings. The hyperventilation issue is another powerful reason for not doing your big target as your first triathlon. Imagine putting in all that training and then being hauled out by the canoe rescue in the first couple of hundred metres – it happens, regularly.

I’ve never done a pool based triathlon, I’m such a bad swimmer that I don’t want anybody close up

Anonymous in black

Anonymous in black

watching my embarrassing stroke – the anonymity of being surrounded by hundreds of black wetsuits and identical swim caps suits me to a tee. And paradoxically I’ve grown to really love open water swimming: I feel under no pressure to race hard in the swim (I can’t), and  just take the opportunity to soak up the atmsophere and surroundings. For me, open water swimming is such an essential part of the triathlon experience that I don’t count a pool based event as a triathlon (but that’s just me being prejudiced again).

Give it a go, give it a real go…

Every season I’ve got to this time of year thinking that maybe I should give it up and  just ride my bike. But I get such a buzz out of the sport of triathlon, that next spring I find myself anticipating my first race of the season wondering how I’ve managed with such a long break between races. Whatever distance you choose, and however ambitious your target, just accept the fact that you are entering a sport that is truly addictive and you’ll never feel quite the same again.

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