I did my first triathlon September 2016. It was an Olympic distance in upstate New York in the town I grew up in. Aside from a decent level of general fitness, I was totally unprepared. I mix-matched borrowed apparel and made every newbie mistake under the sun. I looked like a huge nerd but smiled through every minute of that first race. From then on, I was hooked. In my first year of racing, (with help from my coach) I dropped half an hour off my Olympic time from that first race, completed my first 70.3 and even picked up a few podium finishes along the way.
I’m still far (far, far, far) from being an expert—But I did learn a bunch this year…mostly through making a ton of mistakes. Here are some lessons learned from one tri-newbie to the next.
- Buy a heart rate monitor and know your zones. Prior to starting triathlon, my “normal” run pace was at my threshold HR range and I was doing that pace for 95% of my runs! Training with heart rate helped me shave over 5 minutes from my 10K time and avoid injuries from over training. Heart rate monitors are relatively inexpensive (comparatively, for the sport that’s annoyingly expensive) and probably the best bang for your buck in terms of training value.
- Practice swimming even if you hate it. True, swimming is “the shortest leg of the race” but that’s actually a pretty silly excuse to not try to get better at it. Swim workouts used to make my skin crawl so I procrastinated the crap out of them. When I stopped being a baby and started putting in the time, my form and pace started to improve and the entire experience became less terrible.
- Learn to love your bike trainer. Yes, riding outside is more way fun but the trainer is so much more efficient if you only have an hour or two to train. You can consistently hit heart rate or power targets without having to worry about traffic, stoplights, weather, etc. It can be a little rough at first but movies, playlists and fun cycling apps make trainer rides way more enjoyable, so does having a good bike fit. Which reminds me…
- Get a good bike fit. Especially if you’re on a tri bike! Riding “in aero” has a very different feel than a regular road bike. And no matter what bike you’re on, you’re going to be putting some serious hours on it so you want to be as comfortable as possible. I was lucky enough to get a really great bike fit using the Retül fit technology at Patriot Multisport in upstate New York. In my inexpert opinion, a good bike fit falls into the “not cheap but necessary” category.
- Bike maintenance matters. Learn how to do the fundamentals: change a tube; clean your chain; etc. For minor adjustments, get an Allen wrench set and watch some YouTube videos. It may be a little intimidating at first, but knowing how to do the basic stuff goes a long way. Also, you should clean your bike and all of its components pretty often. This may seems obvious but I neglected to do so most of the winter on my new fancy tri bike and ended up with a stuck brake on my first outdoor ride of the season. (Did I mentioned I sweat a lot? Like… kind of a freaky amount). Clean that shit off!
- Don’t forget chamois cream. Enough said. Especially on the long rides.
- Remember you’re not a pro. This is was tough lesson to learn. There are days I would be super pumped to train but just couldn’t swing it between other responsibilities (work, family, etc.). It’s okay to want to be a badass triathlete that competes to the best of your abilities… and also has a life outside of triathlon.
Race day lessons
- Make a pack list and check it twice. Go through each discipline and transition to cross of what you’ll need. Don’t forget the little things like sunscreen and hair ties. *Two* races in a row I forgot my race belt, which wasn’t a huge deal but did cost me an extra minute or two pinning on my bib and added stress I didn’t need.
- Be prepared for any weather. As the saying goes, “hope for the best but prepare for the worse”. My race at the end of this summer was 47 degree and pouring rain. I froze my spandex-covered ass off on the bike when I opted to wear just my race kit. Better to pack layers and not need them then not have them at all.
- Know that the swim might be a little crazy. Until you’ve experienced it, there’s no real way to prepare for the chaos of the race swim. Particularly with mass starts, the crazy amount bodies in the water, kicking and splashing around you, can definitely be overwhelming. Unless you’re a super strong swimmer, it’s probably not a terrible idea to stick closer to the back or outside of the pack for your first few races.
- Swimming straight is better than swimming fast. In my first race of the year I swam a great pace (for me) but swam an extra 500 yards, which tacked an extra 8-10 minutes onto my swim time. Practice sighting and, especially during the chaos of a race, be prepare to sight more frequently if you need to.
- Practice transition. My T1 in my first race was laughably horrible. I couldn’t get my wetsuit off; I forgot to untie my shoes ahead of time (I use no-tie laces now); I couldn’t find my sunglasses; I left my bike in too high of a gear to get moving. It was just ugly. Practice ahead of time so you can layout your transition area the way you need before the race starts.
- Pacing is a real thing: Respect it. Two races in a row (nope, didn’t learn the first time) I took off at my normal 10K race pace, not respecting the fact that I’ve ridden my bike 25-56 miles already. The results? A really miserable second-half of the run. Be smarter than me and hopefully you won’t hate yourself with just a few miles to go.
- Have fun. I know, I know! This is the most cliché… but it’s legitimate advice! As many coaches say, the race is just the celebration of the work you’ve put in until that point. Take it all in. Give high fives when offered. Smile. Drink the beer afterwards. You’ve earned this celebration!
In addition to complete my first full Ironman, my main goal for 2018 is to have as much fun in every race as I did in my very first one. Be serious but not too serious. Drink beer after every race (okay, fine… I should choose a more ambitious goal.)
…to be continued…
For more experienced triathletes, do you remember your rookie season? What classic mistakes from your first season of racing did I miss?