Training for your First Triathlon


What You Need to Know to Complete Your First Triathlon

Plenty of people know how to swim, bike, and run, but not many have completed a race involving all three. While you might think you have to be Ironman material to compete in a triathlon, this isn’t true at all – you can start with these basic skills and build from there. Many experts estimate that you can train for your first triathlon in about three months; whether you follow a pre-set training guide or design your own workout plan, you’ll be ready to go by the time race day arrives.

Signing Up: Pick Your Race

If you are local the Chicago Triathlon makes for a great first race. Or you can do a search on TriFind for other nearby triathlons.

Triathlons come in an array of distances, but for your first one, you’re going to want to a sprint. In general, a sprint triathlon involves a swim of around 400-500 meters, a bike of about 12 miles, and a 5k run. However, “super sprint” or “mini sprint” triathlons will have even shorter distances. The Chicago Triathlon offers both the sprint and super sprint distances, as well as longer race options for more experienced triathletes.

It’s a good idea to sign up for a triathlon a few months out. That way, you’ll know what you’re training for. Read about the course (you can visit if it’s nearby and you have time). Take note of whether the swim is in open water or in a pool, as this will affect how you train. Read about the bike and run terrain: are they hilly? Flat? Paved? Once you know your race, you can start planning your training.

The Swim

Many shorter triathlons have pool swims. To train most effectively, look at the race distance and then swim multiple sets of that distance in a workout. For instance, if your race involves a 500 meter swim, then you would swim 500 meters, take a few minutes’ rest, then swim again. By doing this, you’ll get your body used to the distance, and when it comes to race day, it’ll feel easier to do just one set instead of three or four.

If your swim will be in open water, practice swimming in a lake or river. Many new open-water swimmers have trouble sighting, or looking up periodically to make sure you’re on the right track. There are no lanes in open water, so it’s very easy to get off course and waste time and energy.

For the Chicago Triathlon the swim takes place outside, in Lake Michigan at the Monroe Harbor. Many triathletes and triathletes-in-training choose to train at the Oak Street Beach in Chicago because they are able to swim along the shore under the watchful eye of lifeguards. There are even many groups who get together to train at Oak Street Beach on a regular basis.


The Bike

Plenty of people ride bicycles, but riding with the correct form is a different story. We highly suggest any triathlete-in-training stop by Village Cycle Center to make sure their bike is properly fitted. You want your leg to be the most extended at the bottom of each pedal stroke, your back arched and your elbows somewhat bent out. We’re more than happy to make sure you have everything you need for when race day comes!

Be sure to investigate whether or not the course is hilly – biking hills when you’re racing can get tiring, and you want to be prepared. For Chicago’s sprint distance triathlon you’ll be riding along the Lake Shore Path and throughout the loop; making the course fairly flat and easy to ride on before race day.

While training you’ll want to biking further than the race distance to make sure you’re prepared when race day comes.  Early morning rides along the Lake Shore Path, before it becomes congested with people, is a great way to prepare for the big day. For other bike trails you can use to train on in the Chicago area read our article on fun bike trails around Chicago.

The Run

Running intervals of the race distance is a good training method – you don’t want to end up burned out on the last leg of your race. When you first start training if you aren’t able to run the entire race distance without walking that’s okay you have time to work up to it. The main thing when training for a run is to go the distance and if you have to walk some that’s okay.

The running portion of the Chicago Triathlon heads south on the Lake Shore Path from Madison to the south end of Soldier Field. You’ll want to shoot for early morning runs if you’re training on the actual course since that area gets fairly congested with tourists.

Transitions and Bricks

Transitions may seem like a small part of the triathlon, but they’re crucial (especially in a shorter race, where they take up a larger percentage of total race time). If you aren’t yet familiar with what a transition is during a triathlon it is where you switch from on activity to the next and oftentimes will need to swap out gear and equipment.

Practicing transitions at home before the race will save you time and worry. It’s helpful to figure out how you want all your items organized on race day and practice swapping everything out again and again until you can do it without thinking. Losing five minutes because you can’t remember in which pocket of your bag you put your socks isn’t fun.

The most effective way to practice transitions is during a brick workout, or a workout involving two or more phases back-to-back. Brick workouts are key to becoming a triathlete – it can be an abrupt and difficult change to get out of the pool and start biking, and the bike-to-run transition is an exhausting one because many people experience legs that feel like jelly as soon as they get off the bike. While training it’s best to schedule two brick workouts per week to get prepared for switching from phase to phase.

Essentially, triathlons are much more doable than many people believe. Completing your first one opens the window to one of the nation’s fastest-growing sports. Many people find themselves hooked after finishing their first triathlon and sign up for longer distances even.

At Village Cycle Center we have everything you need to prepare you for your first triathlon. Many of us are triathletes and we also have a few who have participated in the different distances of the Chicago Triathlon.  We’re always happy to share advise and insider tips.

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