Tri Coaching: 9 Step Plan For Beginners

Written by  Wade Praeger
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New triathletes sometimes just need to know how to get started. I’m not talking about tips on how to train or how to make transitions simpler; newbies need to learn to prioritize. I went riding with a runner once, and he showed up in a cool new bike jersey but his old running shorts. No one had told him that he should spend his money on the “contact points” (shorts, saddle, shoes, pedals) and not on a flashy jersey like he saw riders wearing on TV.

Do you need a new bike or just a tune-up? Should you first train long or build strength and speed? Which comes first, open water swims or brick workouts?

As your trusty triathlon tutor, I’m here with the answers.

  1. Get permission. Make sure your spouse is okay with you parking your bike in the corner of the living room between the ficus tree and the big screen. Make sure the kids are okay with your skipping their soccer games because you have long rides on Saturdays. And make sure the boss is okay with your not being available on the third weekend in June because you are racing in Oregon.
  2. Set realistic goals. If swimming and cycling are new for you, then you should definitely start with a sprint. But if you run a marathon every year, a 100-mile bike ride doesn’t scare you, and you used to be on your high school swim team, then a half iron is a great choice. But remember, don’t base your decision on the athlete you want to be; base it on the athlete you have been the last six months. That is true for picking interval times on the track as well as picking races for the summer.
  3. Learn to swim. Start early because it takes a long time to become proficient. After a few trips to the pool, you may decide that you need lessons, and that will take time to set up and schedule. There are, of course, no shortcuts in sports, and that is especially true for swimming. A coach will certainly help, but there is no substitute for productive time in the pool.
  4. Once you have found that you don’t sink in the pool, make the commitment and drop that $100 on your race entry fee. Take advantage of the early-bird rates many races offer. The fact that you are signed up and financially committed to a tri will serve as motivation — even more than in running races — to stay on track with your training and other preparations.
  5. Save your money for a new bike next year while you learn to ride the one you have now. There’s lots of stuff to learn, and there are ways to improve on an older bike that will make the transition next season to a real racing machine easier. Figure out how to shift without grinding the gears, get comfortable going downhill without riding the brakes, and pay the bike shop to tune it up and replace the cables and chain. The only thing worse than riding an old steel bike, however, is having a new carbon model and not knowing how to ride or care for it. Also, before going into debt on a new bike, get some nice bike shorts, a good saddle, clip-in pedals and shoes to match. These will set you back at least $300, but will likely make your riding more enjoyable than a $2,000 bike. Of course, if you don’t have an old bike lying around, you will have to fork over some cash now to get started. Don’t buy the cheapest bike you can. It will be junk in a year or so, and you will be right back at the bike shop for an upgrade. If a friend wanted to try running, you wouldn’t tell them to get some cheap shoes just in case they didn’t like it. That would just guarantee they wouldn’t like it. The same is true with cycling.
  6. Don’t be intimidated by people in transition areas who look like they know what they’re doing. You’ll get there.
  7. Once all these preliminaries are out of the way, it’s time to get training. Train to do the distances first, then add intervals, hills, speedwork, etc. Be realistic and acknowledge that you will be out on the course for two to eight hours. All triathlons are endurance events, so you will need lots of long, steady workouts in order to finish near your best. In general, learn to swim slow with a beautiful stroke before you try swimming fast, learn to spin your pedals at 85 rpm before you try riding hard, and learn to hold good running form even when you are dead tired.
  8. There is no need to rush into multidiscipline workouts, or “bricks.” Early on in your training, do your best to stay fresh for every workout so you will get the most physiological bang for the buck. Then, as your race approaches, do some combined workouts (in any order!) so you feel confident and prepared for the race transitions.
  9. Go watch a race! Race morning for a triathlon is nothing like race morning for a 10K. There is so much gear to lug around and so much to do, most people arrive two hours before the race starts. Learn about wave starts and transition area logistics, and see what everyone is wearing. There is no way to describe the circus that is a triathlon. You have to see it for yourself.
  10. Open water swim practice is a must, but save it till last. The triathlon shops in town all rent wetsuits for $50 or $60 for a weekend — and maybe at a discount if you keep it a couple of weeks. It pays to rent first, see if you like sleeveless or full-sleeve suits, and then possibly apply the rental fee to the purchase later. You will remember from my previous articles that it takes three or four open water swims to get used to the cold, dark, scary lake. Don’t wait till the day before the race to learn some open water skills, but also don’t waste your time freezing in the lake in early May.

Now it’s time to do your first triathlon! No matter the distance, it will be a huge challenge and accomplishment. You will be embarrassed and humbled and congratulated a hundred times each. And it will provide you with stories you will tell your friends for years.

After your first triathlon season, it will be time to think about aero bars or a time-trial bike; then you can look for a coach and join a team. Everything in its time.

Photo: Wade Praeger


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