Your First Sprint Triathlon

Triathlon SwimCredit: wikipedia commons public domain - US Navy/Mass Communication Splst 3rd class Charles Oki

If you are a triathlon novice, and a Clydesdale sized competitor, training for your first sprint triathlon is an adventure.  I had a great time getting ready for my first race a few years ago.  The actual racing wasn’t quite as fun, but I still went back and entered a few more with more pleasant results.  I’ll give you some tips on how to make your first sprint triathlon doable and fun.

What is a Sprint Triathlon?

Sprint is something of a misnomer.  It’s not that short!  No two sprint triathlons are the same.  In general, you swim approximately one quarter mile, then bike for eight to twelve miles and finish with a five kilometer run (or other similar distance).[1]  Depending on your speed, you’ll likely finish the whole thing with a time ranging from about an hour and a quarter to two hours.  The order is always the same, swim, bike and then run.

In a triathlon, everything revolves around the transition area, which is located adjacent to the Getting out of the water after the swim legCredit: wikipedia commons - US Navy/Petty Officer 1st class Michael Moriatisstart/finish line.  Generally, folks in the same entry category are grouped together for placement of your bikes and shoes.  You’ll likely see all the other Clydesdales storing their bikes, helmets and shoes next to you.  Be sure to bring a towel to wipe your feet after you exit the swim leg of the race.  It’s more difficult to get your shoes on with wet feet.

Dividing Your Training Time

Training for a triathlon is trickier than training for only a running event.  You have to be decent at all three portions of the race.  One way to decide your training load for each portion is to consider how long it takes most folks to do each.  Generally, the least time is spent in the water, running time is in the middle and the most time elapsed during the race is spent on the bike.  You likely get more bang for your buck spending a bit more time on the bike than you will running.

Swim Training Considerations

A consideration in favor of logging more time on swimming is that the swim portion is first and you don’t want to be tired getting out of the water with two more legs of the race ahead of you.  I’m a very poor swimmer and always worry about being too fatigued after the swim phase.  I have no illusions about going fast, I only want to avoid running out of gas in the water.  An additional consideration is that you are swimming with others and can be run over, plus there is very little help if you start to flounder in the swim phase.  Even though you are probably in the water for less than 10 minutes in comparison to maybe 40 minutes on the bike, being fatigued right after the swim portion makes the rest of the race total misery.

Consider Total Race Time on Each Segment

The moral is to know your abilities, recognize that bike training most positively impacts your race time and make sure you can swim well enough to avoid excessive fatigue from the start of the race.  As long as you aren’t too tired after swimming, you can make up a slow swim time with a good bike or running leg of the race.

Polar Bear Swimming

My Daughter the Coach

While training for my first sprint, I was somewhat excited to be able to use my swimmer daughter as a resource.  She taught swim lessons at the YMCA and was darn good at instruction.  Unfortunately, my excitement was unfounded.  I thought she could give some insight into swimming better and all she really did was tell me “you swim like a polar bear.”  Yes, I already knew that.  I wanted to be a faster polar bear!  Alas, I remained a slow and sluggish swimming polar bear.

Open Water Swimming

Two significant matters to consider when training are the open water nature of this leg of the race and the fact that you are swimming with others.  Laps swimming for a given distance is not as difficult as open water swimming.  When you’re swimming laps in a pool you hit the wall and turn around every 25 or 50 yards.  Even 50 yard or 50 meter completion pools are Open water triathlon swimmingCredit: wikipedia commons public domain - configured to with the lane lines going sideways for 25 yard laps to allow more swimmers to use the pool at any given time.  You use less swim strokes when you complete your turns, particularly when you don’t do competition style flip turns.   Accordingly, if your training is all lap swimming, you should train as if the actual race is longer than it is.  If you train for a quarter mile pool race you will likely be out of gas towards the end of a quarter mile open water swim.

Having other swimmers around you in an open water race can be disturbing.  What’s even worse is others making contact with you or even swimming over you.  It happens.  While contact is hard to incorporate into your training, you can incorporate the idea of contact into your actual race strategy.  Triathlons swims typically have “wave” starts.  The race field is divided into waves based on entry category.  Generally, the more elite athletes go first and then age groups and Clydesdales.  If you’re not the best of swimmers, don’t run into the water at the head of the pack.  Let the others go ahead of you and swim from the back.  You won’t have any swim contact with others unless someone from the next wave catches you.  If that does happen it will occur close to the end of the swim portion of the race.


Sexy Bikes

If you’re entering your first sprint triathlon, when you get to the race you’ll notice that many folks have some sexy, faster looking bikes.  They have been participating in the sport for a whileTriathlon CyclingCredit: wikipedia commons public domain - US Marine Corps and want equipment to match their work and effort.  Nevertheless, for your first triathlon you should use whatever bike you’ve got.  The best bikes are expensive and not worth it if you do one or two races and decide it’s not your cup of tea.  Maybe you’ll have a slower cycling time than if you had a better road bike, but it really doesn’t matter for your first race or two.


When training for the bike leg, make sure you know how many hills are going to be on the race course.  For my first sprint triathlon, I trained for cycling by doing the stationary bike and spin classes at the YMCA.  Training almost entirely in doors was a big mistake.  I’m in Florida and was not anticipating many hills; however, the race course was located in one of the hilliest parts of our area and I was totally sucking wind on the hills.  My legs were screaming at me nearly the whole cycling portion of the race.


Training for Running is Familiar

Most people who participate in triathlons have previously run 5k or 10k races and are familiar A triathlon runnerCredit: wikipedia commons public domain - US Marine Corpswith training for running.  If the sprint triathlon run leg is a 5k the training for running that length race is very familiar.  What is not familiar is the feeling of running after you’ve just been on a bike for 45 minutes or an hour.  The first half mile or mile feel somewhat odd.  Your legs are rubbery and don’t feel like they want to run.  Eventually, your legs lose the bike after burn feeling, but it takes a while.

Try Running after Cycle Training

I would suggest doing some run training after you’ve been on the bike for a while.  Get to know the feel of running after cycling.  Don’t let that be a mystery until race day.  You might panic if you start to run in the triathlon and you’ve never experienced the post bike heavy legs.  Also, similar to the cycling leg of the race, try to know the race course and be aware of hills.  You need to save enough energy to be able to run the hills without gassing yourself or causing you to stop and walk.  Resuming running after slowing to a walk never works for me.

Your first Clydesdale sprint triathlon can be a fun experience.  Try one sometime!

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