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Getting to the starting line of your first tri
Women run into the surf at the start of the 2012 Mooloolaba ITU Triathlon World Cup on March 25 in Australia.
March 30th, 2012
07:37 AM ET

Getting to the starting line of your first tri

We could fill every inch of a year’s worth of Triathlete issues with training advice - there’s that much information and that many approaches to triathlon training.

But you don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport to get a successful start. We compiled some of the most common training questions we hear and had veteran coach and successful former pro Jimmy Riccitello weigh in with his expert opinion.

How many months/weeks of training will I need?

“If you’re a reasonably fit person who can swim a bit, you could do a sprint triathlon tomorrow,” says Riccitello. Recommended? No. But doable? Yes.

“If you break it down into individual parts - a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride and a 3-mile run - it’s not such a daunting event,” he says, “unless you don’t know how to swim.”

The swim is typically the biggest hurdle for newbies, says Riccitello, and “if the ‘sink or swim’ saying has a literal meaning to you, you’ll need to get some lessons.”

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However, if you are comfortable in the water and have a bike that’s in good working order, an athlete with decent base fitness should be able to pedal through 12 miles and run 3, he says. A caveat, though: “Having said that, the more time you dedicate to training for your first triathlon, the more prepared you will be.”

How many times a week do I swim, bike and run?

For most of his first-time triathletes, Riccitello recommends 1 to 2 swims per week, 1 to 2 rides per week and 3 to 5 runs per week.

“These are general recommendations that would change depending on individual circumstances,” he notes.

For example, if you don’t know how to swim or are uncomfortable in the water, you should spend more time per week in the pool under the guidance of a good swim instructor or coach. Riccitello says the above guidelines assume a hectic work and family schedule and that it’s simply easier to fit in a few more runs than it is to find the time to swim and ride.

“Considering the goal is to finish a sprint triathlon, you’ll get more bang for your buck by running more often, relative to riding and swimming,” he says.

Triathlete: Running workouts for the treadmill

Do I need a coach?

If your goal is to finish a sprint triathlon, Riccitello says you don’t need to hire a coach. However, “a simple training plan that you can pick up online for free, or for a small fee, will help give your training some direction.”

He also notes that “a good training plan should help you zero in on the work necessary to help you realize your goal - to finish a sprint triathlon, not to win a gold medal in the Olympics or crush Chrissie Wellington in the Ironman.”

Can I do triathlon even if I’m not a good swimmer?

In a word, yes. “You do not have to be a ‘good’ swimmer, but you do have to be able to swim,” says Riccitello, adding that you should be able to swim the length of a 50-meter pool without the aid of a flotation device, including (but not limited to) floaties, a life raft, a wetsuit or those noodle thingies that they use in water aerobics class.

He notes that learning how to swim later in life is much easier than many think, and that taking lessons or hiring a swim coach will speed up the process.

“And once you learn how to swim, you should take some time to get comfortable in the open water versus a pool. I know I’ve said that a sprint triathlon is a welcoming distance, but I’ve seen more safety issues in the swim than the bike and run combined. So be sure to do your homework with regard to the swim - then jump in with both feet!”

Triathlete: Embarrassing lessons from the pros

Any tips for a fast transition?

You’ll want to use a colorful towel or triathlon mat to clearly mark your spot in the crowded transition area. For the swim-bike transition (T1), start pulling down your wetsuit and remove your cap and goggles as you run to transition. Before the race, unbuckle your helmet strap and prop it on top of your bike handlebars with your sunglasses inside; also make sure that the Velcro straps to your cycling shoes are free.

For the bike-run transition (T2), have your running shoes (with race laces), racing belt, any nutritional drinks, gels or blocks and a hat (if you use one) laid out on the towel for a quick grab-and-go. Put on the belt as you run out of transition (or before the bike leg if the race requires it).


soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. paul patterson

    Isn't Dr. Sanjay Gupta uncomonly slow for a triathlete?

    March 30, 2012 at 12:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Syringa

    Swimming was my downfall. Even with the lessons that took up so much of my time. But I found that I loved, loved, loved the cycling so it was worth the effort to learn to do Tri races. Now I participate in cycling events. So much fun.

    March 30, 2012 at 14:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. TrashyChick

    Tri's can be FUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    March 30, 2012 at 21:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Metallironi

    Don't underestimate the difference between an open water swim and a pool swim...TOTALLY different animals...as in no animals in the pool, ANIMALS in the water with you in an OWS...(and when I say animals, I'm mostly talking about the other participants!)

    I was swimming 800 in a relatively-slow-but-still-respectable-for-a-first-sprint-Tri 15:30 in the pool, and had my worst case scenario mapped out at 20 minutes in the water, 40 minutes on the bike and 40 minutes (I'm an old offensive lineman) on the run...with a healthy 6 minutes of total transition time, I had a finishing time of 1:46 in mind and had "just don't finish in the bottom 25%" as a so-called reasonable goal, hoping for better...

    Long story longer, I FREAKED OUT in the water...heart rate jacked, hyperventilation set in, and I elementary backstroked my way from buoy to buoy with 2-5 minute stops at each buoy to TRY and catch my breath...33 minutes after I went into the water I came out!!! I was gassed for the bike and 40 turned into 51 ...

    DON'T underestimate the OWS if you've never done one...get a damn good wetsuit (full body life jacket) and get at LEAST. 3 OWS's in before your event...preferably with a class of several others so you get used to elbows and hands and feet smacking ya in the face and creating a gnarly chop in the water...you'll be glad you did...nothing more upsetting to your "chi" in the water than a big ole tomahawk of a forearm splashing right next to your attempt to breathe...

    Also...don't be surprised when you become addicted to the sport...

    March 31, 2012 at 05:49 | Report abuse | Reply
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    March 31, 2012 at 18:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Rick morris

    Great post, Julia. Very informative and appreciate the tips and advice. I'm one of the Lucky 7 that will be participating in the Spring Triathlon with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and have been training for the past couple months. Swimming, by far was the most difficult part for me. But, I'm now feeling more comfortable in the water. Now that the weather is warming, it's almost time to hit open water. Swam in the local river all my life, but never swam across a small lake. Should be interesting.

    April 1, 2012 at 14:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Deb G

      Way to go Rick! I'll be one of many reading about you and your fellow Tri-mates as you work towards this awesome goal. Best of luck and have FUN!

      April 2, 2012 at 12:40 | Report abuse |
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.