First, let’s talk equipment. There are some basics I recommend for every new triathlete – first, a road bike, either aluminum or carbon fiber in good working condition that fits correctly is, in my opinion, essential for a beginner. Road bikes are generally faster and more efficient, creating a more enjoyable workout experience for you, the athlete, without the more aggressive geometry of a time trial or “tri” bike, which can be uncomfortable for newer athletes who have not had the opportunity to build the strength and flexibility a time trial bike demands. Your bike should be accompanied by clipless bike shoes and pedals – avoid hand-me-downs if possible, and make sure the shoes are a proper fit – and, of course, a comfortable road bike helmet (ventilation is a must!) with no cracks or crashes to its name.
Second, when it comes to the swim, get a “real” training suit (tight with no extra material), and a good pair of goggles that won’t leak and create frustration or interrupted laps. I also have my athletes purchase a swim snorkel (front-loaded) for kicking and drills in the pool – in my opinion, if you only own one swim aid, this is the one to have.
Third, make sure you get a pair of running shoes that are right for your run form and body type – I recommend visiting a running store where the employees can evaluate your stride and recommend a comparable shoe.
The most important piece of equipment? A heart rate monitor, accompanied with heart rate zones (many field tests exist to determine these, and some USA Triathlon performance centers, such as Playtri, offer the option of blood lactate testing for an even more accurate determination of zones). Knowing your body’s limits and abilities will make your training healthier and more effective.
Once you’ve got the gear, it’s time to talk training. First of all, having a plan, any plan is always better than having no plan at all. If actual coaching is in the budget, this is always the first choice (USA Triathlon offers a list of certified coaches all over the country on the website), but if not, a group training program or online training plan or program is definitely a good place to start. The less interaction you have with an actual coach, the more conservative your plan should be. While online plans can be great, they do not necessarily adjust for injuries, sick days, family emergencies and other obstacles and interruptions. Always err on the side of caution when making choices regarding training to avoid injury and over-training or under-recovering – you’ll never be the fastest if you don’t make it to the start line. Want to take some risks? Invest in an actual coach.
The number one aspect of training most age-group athletes ignore? Recovery. Training hard is only great when it is paired with proper recovery. Never forget that fitness occurs during recovery.
So what about that Ironman? Again, you need a plan based on your athletic foundation and personal strengths and weaknesses. Some triathletes might be ready to tackle this goal their first year in the sport, but generally speaking a more moderate progression is recommended to build a solid foundation for the endeavor. Get some more sprint triathlons in that first year, then next year focus on the Olympic-distance, then maybe a half Iron distance the next year, and so on. A coach will also be handy here for evaluating your current fitness level in the context of their knowledge and experience of the sport.
Always remember that the goal is not just to complete the race, but to finish healthy and wanting more.
Best of luck in your new favorite sport! You have a huge, friendly community of fellow athletes and coaches ready and willing to help you have the best possible experience, so never be afraid to ask questions and ask for help.
Morgan Johnson is a USA Triathlon Level I and Youth and Juniors certified coach and a USA Cycling Level III coach. She coaches Team Playtri Elite, a USA Triathlon High Performance Team, at the Playtri Performance Center in Dallas, Texas. For more information, visit her bio at www.playtri.com/morgan.