Mention the word “triathlon” and most people’s eyes bug out and their heads shake. The usual response is “Oh, that sounds hard,”or “I could never do that!” or the well-worn, “The only time I run is when I’m being chased.” But, having participated in triathlons, a varied distance event that always includes swimming, biking, and running, I can you tell this: anyone can do a triathlon. Yes, anyone.
How can I make such a bold statement? I’ll give you three examples. The first is the time I saw a double below-the-knee amputee crossing the finish line at a triathlon I did in Northern California. He was running on specialized prosthetic legs and was near the back of the pack, but still, no feet, no ankles, no calves—and doing a tri! The second example is the time I was doing a very challenging, high-altitude triathlon with a man who was in eighties. He had been doing this tri for the past twenty consecutive years, which means he started doing it in his sixties and hadn’t stopped since. (I’ve also been passed in a tri by a woman, wearing only her bathing suit, with the age seventy-eight penned on her leg.) Lastly, in one of the first triathlons I did, the Danskin All Women’s Tri, a short, sprint distance event, a severely obese woman was competing. I saw her as she came out of the water and I felt immensely humbled. I’m sure she wasn’t what most expected when they thought of a triathlete.
So there you have it: physically challenged, old, obese. Anyone can do a tri.
Does everyone want to? No. Are there some triathlons that not everyone can do? Yes. But if you want a personal challenge, a way to get in shape, a way to challenge yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically, don’t discount the triathlon. You can do it.
Not All Tris Are Created Equal
Just like a 5K is nowhere near the grueling slog that is the marathon, not all triathlons are created equal. They all consist of swimming, biking, and running—always in that order—but the distances vary hugely. In my experience, people think that all triathlons mean the Ironman, which is an event reserved for the truly masochistic. In general, most triathlons are grouped as one of four distances:
Sprint Distance: 1/2-mile swim, 12-mile bike, 3.1-mile run.
This is your entry-level triathlon, the one I’m talking about when I say anyone can do a tri. A lot of sprint distance events are designed for beginners and are non-competitive. Some, like the Danskin Tri, are for women only; others have the swimming portion in a pool instead of open water.
Olympic or International Distance: 1-mile swim, 25-mile bike, 6.2-mile run
This distance is what most people will gradually aspire to, after completing a sprint distance event but wanting something more. You can happily train for this while holding down a job, taking care of a family, having a social life, etc. I’d say this is the most popular distance because it’s a bit more challenging than the sprint, but doable at any age.
Half-Ironman Distance: 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run
Now we’re talking about a level that I wouldn’t recommend for most “normal” people. Having done this distance myself, I can attest that it takes a lot of training, dedication, and it helps if you actually like to run, swim, and bike. You don’t have to be an “athlete” to do this distance. However, I don’t consider myself fast or even particularly skilled at the events, but I do think determination got me through the five months of morning and evening workouts and the six hours it took me to finish the event.
Ironman: 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run.
This is the ultimate triathlon, the one where you’ll see people decked out in head to toe spandex, talking about reverse splits, hyponatremia, aero bars, and other such nonsense. Training for something like this takes around six months to a year, and that’s assuming you’re already in good condition and have numerous shorter distances already under your belt.
After the Ironman, it becomes the obscure world of ultra-distance triathlons, which includes the double Ironman. But most mortal humans start with a sprint.
Where Do I Start?
Triathlon training programs will start by saying this: check with your doctor to make sure you don’t have a condition that would preclude you from training.
If you’re already exercising, or have swam, run, or biked in the past, then all you need to do is to get back in the saddle. If you’re already exercising two to three times a week, you’ll need around three months to train for a sprint distance. If you are starting from ground zero, you’ll need about four to five months to train for a sprint.
There are numerous free, online sprint triathlon training programs for beginners, and most of them require around two to four hours of training per week. Two to four hours a week—that’s not much! Especially if you already go to the gym or run, this might seem like a decrease in the amount of hours you spend exercising. But the main focus for a first-time sprint triathlon is gaining confidence in the pool, building endurance, and getting comfortable riding a bike. And the point of a first triathlon isn’t speed; it’s about finishing. You can walk during the run, you can breast stroke during the swim, and just cruise on the bike. It’s all about having a good time on your way to the finish line!
Although I’ve trained for short tris by making up my own schedule, for the beginner, a structured training program is immensely useful. Not only does it help you develop a routine, it will help prepare you to the point where the actual event will be pretty painless. And if you’re already swimming, biking, or running, these programs will just add a nice structure to your week and make sure you’ve got your bases covered.
Another good motivator is to find a friend, coworker, or family member to sign up for the event with you. You’ll have someone to vent to and a training partner, which can be helpful when it comes to motivation.
One Step at a Time
The swim is where most people, at least those that haven’t kept up with their pool skills, feel the most uncomfortable. That’s because swimming actually requires some skill, while riding a bike and running are fairly straightforward. However, a sprint distance swim—half a mile—isn’t too intimidating. If you don’t know how to swim, sign up for an adult swim class at your local pool, YMCA, or community college. If you already know how to swim but haven’t been, look for a community pool (often very inexpensive) or check to see if a local college has a pool. Another option is to sign up for United States Masters Swimming, which is a great way to meet other swimmers, get some coaching, and improve your swim time.
Since most people know how to bike and like to do it, this step of the triathlon is often the least stressful. However, the actual bike might be a source of concern—do I need to buy a fancy road bike with clip in shoes to compete? Not at all: if this is your first tri, take the bike you have out of the garage, whether it’s a road bike or a mountain bike or a hybrid, get a $70 tune-up and fitting, a helmet, and some comfortable shoes. You don’t want to invest in an expensive piece of equipment if you’re not sure you’re going to stick with it. Yes, a heavy, old clunker won’t make you the fastest racer out there, but the point is to cross the finish line, not win, right?
Some people love running and others hate it, but suffice it to say that after swimming and biking, running three miles can be a challenge. But the beauty of the sprint is that no points are lost for walking and it won’t take too long to cover three miles with a walk/jog combo. The only investment you’ll need here is a good pair of running shoes so you don’t get injured.
Although picturing yourself competing in something like a triathlon can be daunting, it will probably be one of the more rewarding things you do in your life. You’ll probably discover a newfound love of biking, or that going for a swim after work is actually quite nice. And after three to four months with less than five hours a week training, you can call yourself a triathlete. That wasn’t so hard, was it?