How to succeed on your first triathlon try

Experts recommend starting with shorter sprint competitions




Want to try a tri? If so, you are not alone. Triathlons — the triple-threat endurance events that combine swimming, bicycling and running — are growing rapidly in number and size every year, according to USA Triathlon, the organization that governs the nation's triathlon races.

Tri tips: Gear and nutrition

Debi Bernardes, a longtime Washington-area triathlete and tri coach, suggests not spending a lot of money on the first race or two. Borrow a friend’s bike, or even ride a non-road bike as long as it’s been serviced and doesn’t have toe cages that your feet might get stuck in, she says.

“But I’ve seen everything,” Bernardes says. “One guy running a 10K in his basketball shoes. Others riding their mountain bikes.” Here are the bare-bones essentials you’ll need for your first triathlon:

• A bike (any kind, even a borrowed one), without toe cages.

• A helmet.

• Running shoes.

• Swimsuit (worn alone or with shorts for the ride and run) or tri-suit.

• Swim goggles.

• Water bottle.

• Race instructions and race bib.

In the mid-Atlantic area, the next few weekends feature several races, including the naturally gorgeous Luray Triathlon in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and the jam-packed Nation's Triathlon, during which you can see thousands swim down the Potomac, ride up Rock Creek Parkway and run by the Jefferson Memorial in the District of Columbia.

But what if you want to do one rather than see one?

"I think just about anyone can do a sprint triathlon with the right preparation," says Debi Bernardes, a longtime Washington-area triathlete and tri coach.

A sprint triathlon is much different from, say, an Ironman (a triathlon made up of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run — all done in succession).

Instead the sprint features shorter distances per discipline. There is some variation in these sprint distances, but the Luray Sprint Triathlon in Virginia, for example, features a 750-meter (just short of a half a mile) swim, a 27-kilometer (just short of 17 miles) bike ride and a five-kilometer (just over three miles) run.

Bernardes says most people are wise enough not to make Ironman their first triathlon experience, but there are exceptions.

"You'd be surprised," says Bernardes, who always advises that taking "baby steps is very important" to avoid injuries.

In this case, "baby steps" means a focused swim, ride and run program that includes at least four hours of training per week for at least three months (shorter if you are already fit and trained in the disciplines, she says).

"It's great if you can cross the finish line feeling good and saying to yourself, 'That was so much fun, I want to do another one,' " Bernardes adds.

That's what happened for Jenni Lancaster of Washington, who did her first triathlon — a sprint — a year ago at Luray.

"I loved it. It's a beautiful triathlon, and I felt ready," says Lancaster, who ended up winning her novice division. Getting ready meant swimming, cycling and running for at least an hour, five times a week, for several months, she says.

"The potential for injury is the greatest in running," says Friel, who recommends that novices spend as little as 20 minutes, three times a week on running.

"The bike is the key to performing well," Friel says. After all, remember Luray: bike 17 miles, run three miles, swim less than half a mile.

If there is time left over in the week, Friel recommends including some strength training such as push-ups, squats and rows — exercises that target triathlon muscles.

In terms of the intensity of the workouts, Bernardes says not to worry too much for your first triathlon. But be consistent with the frequency and length of your workouts.

"Basically, if you are huffing and puffing, you are working too hard," Bernardes says.

One thing, though, that you don't want to skimp on, says Lancaster, is swim training in open water, if that's what your race calls for (most do).

"There are no lanes or walls, obviously, and you might get kicked," Lancaster says. "It's very different from swimming in a pool. I highly recommend an open-water swim before the race," says Lancaster, who plans on competing in Luray.

She is also doing the Nation's Tri, and possibly the SavageMan Triathlon in Western Maryland's Deep Creek Lake State Park, both in September.

"It's good to have a goal," Lancaster says. "It gives everything you do a purpose. Signing up for a race gives me that purpose."