How Runners Can Become Multisport Athletes

By Von Collins | Feb. 21, 2019, 10:58 a.m. (ET)

USA Triathlon Duathlon National Championships

More than 50 million Americans consider themselves runners, and according to Runners World there are about 17,000 5k races and nearly 3,000 10k races in the USA per year.  

You might be one of those runners, and if so you would not be the first to be intrigued by the idea of using your fitness to explore the world of triathlon. After all, a triathlon offers many benefits beyond running alone. 

Training for a triathlon gives you a balanced workout in your upper body, lower body, and core. Because a swim-bike-run combo provides built-in cross-training, you are less likely to experience an overuse injury than with running alone. And the camaraderie of triathlon race day is like no other endurance sport, in our opinion.

How, then, best to get started in making the transition from being a pure runner to a triathlete? It is not hard, especially considering you already have a strong running base.

The run can still be your area of strength — you just need to layer in swimming, cycling, and transitions around it. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.  

Don’t stress about the swim

Surveys and anecdotes have both suggested that people consider the swim to be the most intimidating part of a triathlon, but it doesn’t have to be. Anyone can complete the swim leg of a shorter triathlon, even if they have never been a swimmer before. You will be surprised how quickly you can become a capable swimmer if you practice consistently.

Start swimming in a local lap pool, with perhaps a weekly swim. Start small, and work your way up to a longer distance that is similar to the race you plan to do.

If your race will be in open water, get at least a couple open water swims as the race day gets closer, so you get the feel of it. Swimming in open water is different than swimming laps in a pool, although all of your pool swimming will directly help your conditioning and endurance.

If your swim is open water, consider a good triathlon wetsuit. A wetsuit helps your buoyancy, and provides a bit of a safety blanket during the swim leg. It also helps keep you warm if the water happens to be cold.

Think about your bike strategy

The good news is that there are many right answers when it comes to the bike.  Sure, you can spend a few thousand dollars on cycling, but you sure don’t have to. 

At any sprint triathlon, you will see a wide range of bikes in every style and price point.  Most dedicated triathletes will be riding a tri or time trial bike.  Lots of racers will be on standard road bikes.  And you will see several athletes on mountain or hybrid bikes.  The great news is that they will all finish.

If you want to be highly-competitive and turn in a good time, you may want to go the route of a triathlon or at least a road bike.  But if your goal is to finish and have fun, don’t worry about how much you spent on your bike, or what it looks like.  Just select one, make sure it is in good condition, fits you well, and practice on it until you feel comfortable with the race distance.

Find a good training plan

A good triathlon training plan is key. You can either adopt one that has been published by professional triathlon coaches, or create your own customized plan. Either way, you want to gradually work up to the race distances just as you would with your run training, and mix-in both endurance with more intense speed workouts.

We like the training plans that focus on a weekly tempo. Each week features a new level of endurance or intensity, gradually culminating in a peak period just before or around your race.  We like a week-by-week plan, because it allows you to adapt your training to factors such as your work schedule or the weather. Having a prescribed day-by-day plan might prove to be too rigid to blend with life.

Be sure that the plan is aligned with your current fitness level. Most plans specify a starting point to choose from – perhaps beginner, moderate, or advanced.  If you are already a runner, you probably have a base fitness level and just need to incorporate the bike and swim over time. 

For most people with a strong fitness base, a focused triathlon training period of three to four months or so can get them in good shape for a sprint or olympic triathlon.

Von Collins is part of the Complete Tri team, focused on providing guidance and education for triathletes of all levels. He is the author of several fitness and training-related books, including Your First Triathlon Guide: Do Your First Triathlon in 100 Days or Less.


The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.