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How to Become a Triathlete & Race Your 1st Sprint Triathlon

Taren Gesell

A question you might have if you are interested in training for a sprint triathlon and becoming a triathlete: Do you have it in you? Are you truly born to run?

As famed Harvard paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman explained in the bestseller by Chris McDougall, Born to Run, we humans are built for endurance. 

Thanks to our hunter-gatherer evolution, each of us has the genetic potential to exercise for long periods of time.

We may not be the best sprinters in the animal kingdom. But we are the best endurance athletes, bar none. 

Which means, regardless of your current fitness level and background, you have within you the machinery to live the triathlon lifestyle — to be fit, have more energy, be healthier, and enjoy chasing all the kinds of goals open to you in the multisport world.

You just need to wake this potential up.

A good place to start is by preparing for a sprint triathlon. What follows are answers to the most commonly asked by those interested in becoming a triathlete.

What is a triathlon physique?

What is a triathlon physique? Many, as it turns out. In the years since the 1970s when triathlon became a participation sport(1), millions of triathletes have crossed finished lines around the world. 

One thing is evident about what constitutes a “triathlon physique” or body type: 

Any physique is a triathlon physique.

However, at the top end of the sport you begin to see specific variations in body type. 

Those racing at the elite level in short-course triathlon, like triathletes competing in the Olympic Games, tend to be ectomorphs: athletes that are skinny, long, and light.

In longer triathlon events, like half-Ironman and full-Ironman triathlons, you see endomorphic physiques: stronger, more muscular triathletes. 

But at a typical triathlon attended by a multitude of age-groupers, you’ll see just about any body type you can imagine.

Does triathlon training burn fat?

If you’re looking into triathlon with an intent of shredding excess fat from your body, a study(2) published in the Journal of Applied Physiology declares “that AT (aerobic training) is the optimal mode of exercise for reducing fat mass and body mass.”

Resistance training, like lifting weights, increases muscle mass and may stimulate your overall metabolism and the speed that you use calories every day. But this metabolic boost from lifting weights peaks within a small range —approximately 5-to-10%.

Endurance training, on the other hand, can burn upwards of 1000 calories per hour.

So if you’re training for a triathlon and spending most of your time exercising at a low intensity, the majority of those calories are coming from fat.

During high-intensity exercise, or HIIT Workouts, the effort is mostly being fueled by accessing carbohydrates from stored muscle glycogen. But following this type of workout you will burn more fat (and more calories overall) in the following 48 hours through what’s called post-exercise oxygen consumption(3)

A proper triathlon training program integrates both low-intensity exercise, measured bouts of high-intensity exercise, and even time lifting weights. This is why for most folks taking up and sticking with triathlon leads to being leaner, resulting in better overall body composition.

Can you build muscle with triathlon training? 

Past thinking assumed that endurance training was counter to the goal of building muscle.

The thinking was you can either build muscle or you could become an endurance athlete, but you couldn't do both.

However, more recent studies have shown that endurance training (aka aerobic exercise) builds muscle(4)

Will triathlon help my mental health?

Yes — the aerobic exercise that constitutes the bulk of triathlon can improve both physical health and mental health. 

One potent way aerobic exercise can boost mental health is by alleviating stress. 

An ACSM review(5) of the research exercise and stress suggests that even short bouts of low-intensity cardiovascular exercise can give you a break from the stressors of life. 

Additionally, exercise helps the body handle stress in ways that improve overall health. The stress hormone, cortisol, is reduced through regular well-managed exercise.  Feel good neurotransmitters, like serotonin, are stimulated through exercise.

Considering that the American Institute of Stress reports that more than three out of every four visits to primary care physicians are due to stress-related illnesses, taking up triathlon can be an effective component of a stress management program. 

How do I become a triathlete?

For those who are out of shape and feeling intimidated by the journey necessary to become a triathlete, there is one must-have psychological tool to become a triathlete.

It’s called “segmenting, ” a key technique recommended by human performance expert Dr. Eric Potterat, PhD, former Force Psychologist for the U.S. Navy SEALs and current advisor to the 2020 MLB world champion Los Angeles Dodgers.

“If you’re thrust into a seemingly overwhelming, stressful situation, the best thing you can do is just kind of manage one step at a time and focus on what’s controllable,” Dr. Potterat said.

If your goal is to go from being an overweight couch potato to a fit, healthy triathlete, break the goal down into small, manageable tasks and take them on one step at a time.

A great rule of thumb to use with whatever endurance exercise you undertake is to make the level of difficulty feel like a 7/10; just hard enough to feel challenging but not so difficult that you’re smashed or don’t want to do it again.

How much time do I need to train for a sprint triathlon?

At MOTTIV, we instruct our athletes to execute a minimum of four workouts per week are a bare minimum. 

This would consist of the following:

  1. One long bike ride
  2. Long long run
  3. One swim
  4. One strength training session

This roughly equates to four hours of training per week. Performing four hours of week of triathlon training, consistently over time, we prepare you to finish a short triathlon.

If this is your goal — finishing a triathlon — then weaving four hours per week into your schedule will get you to where you want to go.

If you have a performance goal in mind beyond simply finishing, our experience with our athletes suggests that logging close to 7 hours per week will enable you to finish a triathlon feeling strong.

For longer races like half-Ironman and Ironman, training to compete — or both — the time demands begin to go upward beyond ten hours as well as the number of weeks you’ll need to train in preparation.

You can get a calculator for how many weeks you'll need to train depending on your different triathlon goals here.

Can I get away without swimming in a pool before my first triathlon?

Not swimming in a pool before your first triathlon is far from ideal. This is particularly true if you don’t have a solid swim background.

There is no quality substitute for swimming besides swimming. You may hear about dry-land exercises, using a VASA Trainer, or visualizing swimming on deck and using Stretchcordz, but these tools are more suited to supplementing a proper swim training program. 

The best way to build the skill and confidence you need for a triathlon swim is by swimming.

If you're looking for a guide on how to become comfortable and confident in the water, check out the book I've written here.

Can you train on a stationary bike?

Yes. In fact, as you train for your first triathlon, you can use a stationary bike for nearly all your bike training.

It is important to do at least a small portion of your training on a bike. You want to make sure you’re comfortable — that your bike fits you well — and you feel safe while riding on the road. 

You also want to have confidence that you can get on and off the bike.

Is it OK to use a mountain bike?

It’s OK to use a mountain bike in a sprint triathlon. In fact, it’s not an uncommon site. You may even see mountain bikes in Olympic-distance triathlons. 

You’ll sacrifice speed, but if your goal is simply to finish and enjoy the day, there’s no reason you can’t use a mountain bike.

The wheels and tires will have considerably more drag than you’d have on a road bike or triathlon bike. Your position on a mountain bike will also be much more upright, another drag factor that will cost you speed and efficiency.

If you’re doing a triathlon on a mountain bike, you can improve your efficiency by using aero bars on your mountain bike to reduce drag. The aero bars will make a vast difference.

But again, if your goal has little to do with speed, a mountain bike will work just fine.

What about strength training?

Training with weights has historically been taboo for endurance athletes, especially in the distance running and cycling worlds.

Endurance athletes feared that weight lifting would put on extra weight in the form of muscle that would debilitate performance.

A Tour De France cyclist, for example, would strive to be as lightweight as humanly possible to better ride through the Alps. Marathoners in the early decades of the running boom were similar – the skinnier the better they thought. Lifting a barbell was not part of their routine.

This thinking has changed, especially for older endurance athletes who are beginning to face the consequences of age-related muscle loss and struggles with hormones.

But it’s not just the older Masters crowd. Studies(6) show that strength training boosts efficiency in long-distance swimming, biking, and running.

Better efficiency translates into this: being able to hold a faster pace with the same level of effort.

The upshot of this principle is that resistance training helps your body to become stronger in a way that your body and your core muscle groups are not leaking energy as you move. Rather, your body channels more energy into forward movement.

How do I prepare for an open-water swim?

Your first step in preparing for open-water swimming is to buy a wetsuit.

Why is a wetsuit crucial for beginners heading to a tri with open-water swim? 

To ease the stress — stress that, unchecked, can make for a miserable experience.

A wetsuit will help you de-stress the most nerve-wracking aspect of triathlon: the disorientation and cold of open water swimming in a river, lake, or ocean. 

Not to mention the chaos involved when you’re swimming in a large group of adrenalin-charged age-groupers.

A wetsuit provides buoyancy. Should you freak out during the swim, the wetsuit will help you float. You can just lie on your back and catch your breath. Once you calm down, you can continue with the race.

A triathlon wetsuit also provides warmth. Warmth is also important to feel confident in open water. Being cold when you’re feeling fear can result in a shaking response. A wetsuit can help you keep this in check.

Besides using a wetsuit, it’s essential to practice open-water swimming. Ideally, you’ll do this in a controlled environment where you can see the shore and touch the bottom.

Simply doing laps in a shallow section of open water is an excellent starting point.

From there you can gradually go further and further out as you build up confidence.

What kind of events are beginner-friendly triathlons? 

Traditionally, a sprint triathlon is what’s advised as a first event for those new to multisport. But there are other beginner-friendly triathlons, often called a Try-A-Tri, that may be a better fit in consideration of your background and goals.

For beginners, we suggest seeking out a Try-a-Tri event as your first foray into the sport. 

For comparison’s sake, here is an overview of the standard triathlon distances you’ll see as you search for an event:

  • Try-a-Tri: 300m swim, 13km cycle, 3km run
  • Sprint : 750m swim, 20km cycle, 5km run
  • Olympic: 1500m swim, 40km cycle, 10km run
  • Half-Ironman: 1900m swim, 90km cycle, 21.1km run
  • Full Ironman: 3800m swim, 180km cycle, 42.2k run

The World Triathlon Corporation (owner of the Ironman brand), studied the optimal path into the sport for newcomers. 

They found that for the most part, those who entered a full-Ironman for their first event tend to leave the sport behind after a less than enjoyable experience.

But those who work their way up the ladder from a Try-a-Try or sprint, to an Olympic distance and so on to an Ironman — picking up myriad skills along the way — have a more satisfying experience and are more likely to stay in the sport longer.

This makes sense when you consider that the longer the triathlon the more variables we are confronted with. 

As you progress up to long-distance triathlon the number of variables — associated with gear, nutrition, body regulation, fatigue — increases by a factor of two or three. 

A newcomer to the sport who starts off small and gradually builds up fitness, knowledge, and advanced skills will be more prepared for the many challenges that long-distance triathlon inevitably brings.

How do I find a triathlon that’s a good fit for me?

The best place to start is a local triathlon association or club, located in your city, your state, or your province. 

If you’re near a store that caters to triathletes, they can also be an excellent source of information. If you can’t find a triathlon-specific store, be sure to check running shoe stores and bike shops.

Reach out to the organization, club, or store and ask if they can point you toward any local events that are a good match for beginners. In particular, sprint-distance races without too much wind or too many hills, or a rough-water swim.

Do I change clothes during a sprint triathlon?

They do not provide changing tents for the transitions in a sprint triathlon. 

Sprint triathlons are fairly simple with transitions. 

You wear the triathlon shorts from start to finish, and the cycling top from the start of the bike to the end of the race.

If it’s a wetsuit-legal triathlon, you can put on all your triathlon kit under your wetsuit, wearing your tri shorts and cycling top the entire time.  If it’s a non-wetsuit triathlon you should put your top on after you get out of the water to reduce drag.

For women, a sports bra will work well in a wetsuit swim.

How do you train for triathlon transitions?

One of the most valuable skills you can develop in your preparation for your first triathlon is your ability to transition from swimming to biking and biking to running.

A key target of training your swim-to-bike transition is teaching your body to handle the shift from exercising in a horizontal position (swimming) to an upright position (biking). 

You want your physiology to reroute the blood flow quickly. This will allow you to avoid a massive heart rate spike when you get out of the water — a heart rate spike that demands over 10 minutes of biking before you cool down and stabilize.

A similar crossover takes place in transitioning from riding a bike to running on the road. 

On the bike your body weight is held up by pedals, the seat, and the handlebars. Hopping off the bike onto the run requires a drastic switch from this situation to you carrying the body weight and absorbing the additional force of pounding the pavement.

To practice the swim-to-bike transition, there’s no need to set your fancy bike up on a pool deck and splash it with chlorinated water. 

Rather, do this: perform a swim where you intermittently pull yourself on deck, put on your running shoes, and jog or run in place for 10 to 15 seconds. 

This will train your body to make the blood flow changeover smoother.

To prep your bike-to-run transition for a sprint triathlon, work in about six practice sessions. Put in some riding, then change over to your running shoes and run.

If your race is longer (and you’re on the bike longer), like an Olympic distance triathlon, shoot for about 12 to 15 bike-to-run practice sessions. For a half-Ironman, make that 20 to 30. For a full Ironman, well, the more you can do the better.

What is the “triathlete diet”? 

A triathlon diet can be any diet. Individual variation and personal preferences have crucial impacts on whether your diet helps or hurts your training and race performance.

That said, we can use any diet to finish a triathlon.Vegan, carnivore, Zone, keto, high-carb, low-carb. Even a typical Western diet. 

Whatever you choose, your diet will not stop you from finishing a triathlon.

When you set your sights on improving your triathlon race performance, that’s when you’ll find there’s much to gain in experimenting and tweaking your diet.

Diet also plays a more crucial role if you go up in distance into long-course triathlon events. The longer you’re out on a course swimming, biking, and running, the more you’ll want your body efficient in burning fat for fuel.

As a 2016 study conducted at Ironman Copenhagen showed, one of the factors an ultra-endurance athlete’s performance hinges on is the ability to burn fat for fuel.

As you progress in your triathlon career and take on more and more challenging goals, your diet can become a highly effective weapon you can use toward improving performance.

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Taren Gesell
Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MOTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.

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