Triathlon Tips for Beginners!

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Check out my video interview with Wiehan about the race here!

For 6.5 years, I've been an undercover triathlete. When I first met Wiehan, he was training for a 70.3 Ironman in South Africa. At the time, his training inspired me to get a membership to a gym with a pool, and begin to learn how to swim laps. For some reason, despite having grown up with a pool in the backyard, I've always had a fear of water. I wrote a blog post all about it here. Because of this, whenever I'd attempted in the past to swim from one side of a lap pool to the other, my heart rate would sky rocket, not from lack of fitness, but because of an underlying anxiety that I couldn't reach the other side. Over time and with practice, I managed to allow myself to relax into the rhythm of swimming. A year later, while living in Helsinki, Finland, I could comfortably make it from one end of a crowded 50 meter lane to the other, to the point that I could swim 1500m continuously.

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Soon after, I moved to South Africa and Wiehan and I got married. As a spinning instructor, he had a free membership to the Virgin Active Health Club, and I was able to get a membership at next to no cost through the Discovery Rewards program. We swam at the club pool on a weekly basis, and I attended his spinning classes each Tuesday evening. Wiehan bought me a bike, with dual pedals, so that I had the option to either ride clipped in with cycling cleats or more casually with sneakers. I began to build up my cycling strength and road confidence, going out for 15-25mi / 24-40km rides all on my own. Just before moving to the US, we did a triathlon simulation at our gym. I was fit and ready to take on a real triathlon race. The only problem? That pesky fear of open water. Wiehan competed in the Trinity Sports Lake Germiston Olympic Distance Triathlon in Johannesburg, which put him into qualifications for Nationals, and ultimately for 2016 Worlds in Cozumel. It was thrilling to watch him compete, but also incredibly intimidating to consider participating myself, particularly because of the murky lake. But it was also intimidating because triathlon seems like such an intense race, with so many moving parts and critical details. I always felt so relieved that he was the one racing, and I had the relaxed role as spectator.

Ever since I've known Wiehan, without actually racing, I've essentially been training for triathlons, rotating out running, swimming and cycling activities from one day to the next. But something changed last year and I made the decision to finally compete in a triathlon, picking a local sprint distance tri, with a pool swim rather than open water. The decision to finally participate in a race was ultimately a way for me to create a goal not only for myself, but also for Wiehan. Since living in the US, his race participation dropped off, partly because we don't have road cycling races in our region, and partly from sports injury, and difficulty juggling a busy schedule. He was also feeling a strong need for community. We'd heard about a local triathlon team when we moved to the states, and he'd actually joined the team for a brief period, but he felt guilty going off to the team training and social events without me. This led me to the idea that we should both join, which would give him the access to a much-needed community, and it would give me a big motivational boost to try something new, while building up my fitness abilities. By prioritizing fitness together, we both could see great health benefits, while working toward individual goals.

We joined the tri team in January, and it has been an absolute blast! Everyone is so friendly and what could be better than getting together with the common interest of health, fitness and fun competition? It's so great for Wiehan to have a community of people with whom he can talk tirelessly about bikes and tri. And it really has been such a great confidence booster for my fitness levels and abilities. As an example, I started off the year still wearing sneakers while out on my road bike. Over the last 6 months, I've built up my confidence with clip-in cleats tremendously! For the sprint triathlon, my training wasn't too intense. I just made sure to put in a good workout at least 5 times per week, alternating swimming, biking and running from one day to the next. I hadn't been swimming since we moved to the US, but Wiehan added me to his gym membership, and we got into a rhythm of swimming twice per week. Wiehan also purchased an indoor trainer, along with a Wahoo speed and cadence sensor, and set me up with a Zwift account so that I could ride my bike indoors through the cold season. In the early winter this year, we joined our teammates for early morning weekend indoor training rides, usually in someone's garage or basement. We also had a larger meetup at Old Ox Brewery. As the weather warmed up, we moved outside and onto the pavement. Planned group rides could go for 40-70+mi / ~64-113km. But group riding of that distance as well as pace, is out of my league for now. Instead, I stuck to the W&OD Trail, where I usually rode about 20 miles total. The morning rides have been such a great way to get in a ride and then be able to enjoy the rest of the weekend. They're pretty fun in and of themselves too. I've particularly enjoyed my time out on the quiet trail in the early morning hours, spotting turtles, rabbits and deer, and hearing friendly greetings from fellow riders.

I chose the Reston Sprint Triathlon, which is absolutely perfect for a first time triathlon racer. They offer monthly meetups from February through May, with information targeted specifically for the beginner triathlete. Wiehan and I attended the first one, and even I, through all my experiences attending Wiehan's races, found that my triathlon knowledge exceeded the content that was covered. But the newbies in attendance definitely seemed to get a lot out of the session.

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The swim happens in a 50m lap pool, which means that the swim distance is shorter than your typical sprint triathlon, at 400m / 437yd instead of the usual 750m / 820 yd. Participants are lined up according to their average 100m swimming pace and then released one by one, every 5 seconds into the first lane of the swim. The lanes are divided by the usual floating ropes and swimmers must snake up and down the pool, going under the rope into the next lane after the completion of the previous lane. The most difficult part of the race was navigating fellow participants, both in the swim and on the bike. There are all levels of swimmers competing and faster swimmers sometimes had difficulty passing a large group of slower swimmers ahead. Fortunately the lanes were pretty clear during my swim and I managed to pass 2 or 3 people in the pool.

Upon finishing the swim, I ran to my transition station, put on my helmet, quickly dried my feet with a towel, slipped on socks and my cycling cleats, drank some water, ate a grapefruit slice and pulled on UV protection sleeves. Then I grabbed my bike, the gears already set low, and ran with it to the mounting line, where I slowly mounted, with encouragement from Wiehan and teammates to take my time. Then I was off on the bike leg of the race! The bike course is mostly rolling hills, which, along with navigating the other cyclists around me, was the most difficult part of the race. But it was a lot of fun as well, made even more enjoyable with cheers from teammates along the way!

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Having competed on my high school track and cross country team, the run was a lot more difficult than I was anticipating. It was a hilly course, and after swimming and biking, I was feeling pretty fatigued. I'd been so nervous about the swim and the ride leading up to the race, so it was a relief to have those two disciplines out of the way and just a 5k run standing between me and the finish line. The enthusiasm from the volunteers at the water points along the way really helped lift my spirits, with smiles, encouragement, and even a boombox with energizing pop music! I made my way up the last hill and through the finish line, out of breath, full of smiles, and happy to have finally completed my first triathlon!

Post-race care is just as important as pre-race preparation. I'd been so nervous prior to the race, that it really started to wear on me. I started feeling a sore throat the day before the race, and by the day after the race, I had a full on head cold and spent several days recovering in bed. Now that I've done my first triathlon, I think I'll be much more excited and eager for the next one, rather than full of anxiety over all the details. I haven't planned the next one yet. I'm still not ready for an open water swim, but I'll continue to work on building confidence there. Additionally, I'll continue to work on building speed and miles on the bike, and I'll do a few running races as well. But all in all, between following the AIP diet, all the healthy lifestyle routines I've been implementing and all the exercise, I'm truly feeling better than ever! The beauty of triathlon is that people from all experience levels can come together in a very supportive community, for a sport that can be enjoyed at any age. If you're considering triathlon, I'd encourage you to find a group to plug into that will motivate, encourage and uplift you along the way, as Team FeXY does for Wiehan and me. And wherever you are in your abilities, fitness level and time constraints, be sure to take some time each day to get outside to breath in fresh air, feel the sunshine on your skin, and enjoy movement in your body!

Here’s my checklist of items that I made certain to prepare and pack in the car on race day:

Triathlon Checklist:

  • Breakfast: I’m on the AIP diet and for breakfast, I eat dinner leftovers, with plenty of protein, healthy fat and starchy vegetables. One of my favorite pre-workout meals is sausage and sweet potato fries.

  • BPA free cycling water bottles x 2: one on bike with electrolytes - here’s what I drink; one at transition spot with ice water.

  • Glass water bottle x 1: with water, for before and after race.

  • Race snacks: I packed a few slices of grapefruit in a compostable ziplock baggie and a slice both times I was at the transition. It was amazingly refreshing in those moments!

  • Swim Cap x 2: 1 is usually provided for open water swims, but it’s a good idea to have a backup, just in case! Since I raced in a pool, swim caps weren’t required.

  • Goggles x 2: also a good idea to bring a backup! I love my responsibly-made Friendly Swede goggles, and two come in a pack.

  • Hand Towel that you don't mind getting dirty at the transition.

  • Full-sized towel for after the race.

  • Cycling shoes

  • Bike

  • Helmet

  • Tire Pump

  • Spare Tube & tools

  • Race belt

  • Racing Chip (provided)

  • Safety pin & electric tape: for securing racing chip around ankle.

  • Race number

  • Sunglasses

  • Hat or Visor

  • Your choice of sun protection, if necessary. I don’t like wearing sunscreen, but with my fair skin, I have to be very careful about prolonged sun exposure. I allow myself have some sun exposure on any given day for the health benefits. But for prolonged time spent outdoors, I usually hang out in the shade or opt to cover up with long sleeves and a hat, when possible. But on a race day, that’s not possible. I wore sunscreen on my face, neck and shoulders, and wore UV protection sleeves after the swim. But I later found that with an early morning start to the race and a lot of shade on the course, I didn’t really need any sun protection until after the race, when the strength of the sun was more powerful. This will of course vary from person to person.

  • Plastic shopping bags x 2

  • Fitness watch

  • Socks x 2

  • Triathlon suit

  • Wetsuit: depending on the race / water temperature, as well as personal preference.

  • Running shoes with no-tie laces.

  • Flip-flops

  • Post-race food

  • Full change of clothes

  • Soap / hair comb: sometimes showers are available at the race location. This was the case with the Reston Tri and it was so nice to get cleaned up right away.

  • Track suit, if the weather is chilly.

  • And in the event of a rainy race, check out Wiehan’s rainy race blog post for tips!

- Christin

Tell us! If you’ve done a few triathlons, what’s your advice to a newbie?