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Expert beginner advice for the Clydesdale and Athena athlete

By John Bye | Feb. 12, 2021, 4:10 p.m. (ET)

So, you are a Clydesdale or Athena athlete and you are going to sign up for your first race. Awesome! 

This is an exciting first step for you on route to a wonderful journey up until that first race and, if you so continue, beyond. Whether your decision to do a triathlon is a bucket list item, a way to lose weight and get healthier, to apply competitive energy toward a new goal, or striving to podium and race in the USA Triathlon Clydesdale & Athena National Championships, the bottom line is that you have taken a step forward into the wonderful world of triathlon and are joining the incredible triathlon community.

What I hope to accomplish with this, and subsequent articles is to provide you with the advice I wish I had been given when I signed up for my first race back in the "1900s" (as my 12-year-old son reminds me). 

Triathlon is not just a fitness challenge, it is a strategic, logistical challenge that becomes more complicated as the distances get longer and/or you work to get faster. Regardless of your physical size, “new to the sport” is “new to the sport” and most of the things you need to solve are the same for everyone. However, for, what I’ll refer to throughout this article, a high Body Mass Index (BMI) athlete, there are considerations that require a different way to look at the sport and the training for it.

Through this article I intend to share what I have learned based upon, in addition to interviews with high BMI athletes, my experiences over the past two decades and my journey from back of the pack Clydesdale athlete to the front pack in my age group.

The best thing about your first race is knowing that between now and race day, once you start training, you will get thinner, healthier, see a positive change in your physique, and get faster.

Beyond being new to the sport, what are the considerations high BMI athletes should think about prior to signing up and racing in their first race? Let's take a look.

Which Distance should I do for my first race?

Find a local/regional Sprint or Olympic distance race that will allow you to get more comfortably introduced to the sport.  The, relatively, shorter distances of those races will provide a good way for you to acclimate to the training requirements; and, markedly reduce the wear on your body that you will inflict during that training, most notably for the run (i.e., 5K and 10K. respectively).  Swimming and biking are non-load bearing sports, whereas, running is load bearing and puts a lot of impact upon your joints and requires adequate recovery.  By starting with a, relatively, more reasonable distance for you first race, it will allow you to better manage your introduction to the sport and allow you to, if you so choose, ease into longer distances.  A notable reward, if you have a little bit of weight to lose, is that once you get into a consistent training program you will get faster; and, as you lose weight, you will get additional speed.  There’s an adage in running that for every pound you lose, you knock 3 minutes a mile off of your marathon time.  Therefore, you will get faster through the training itself; but, will shave additional time just from the reduction in weight.  Note that the slender, skinny folks don’t have that opportunity!

Should I race a local/regional race, or should I jump into a larger event run by the bigger race series?

Start with a local/regional event as opposed to an event sponsored by one of the big race series (e.g., IronMan, Challenge).  There are a lot of people participating in the bigger race series events and those events draw the best amateurs in the sport; meaning, there is is a lot of people with that sleek, fit triathlete physique which can be very intimidating for high BMI athletes.  In preparation for this article, I did a series of interviews with high BMI athletes who shared their introduction to the sport.  All of them brought up their anxiety about their size relative to, what they saw as, most of the people competing. Therefore, eliminating the external components that come with the larger races will help you along that path.  For your first race, your focus needs to be about comfortably and confidently completing the race and enjoying every moment of the day.

clydesdale and athena racing

What type of course should I select?

Given the availability of races in the area, you may not have a choice in the matter; but, for your very first race, you should consider one that has a lake swim and a relatively flat bike course.

  • Why a lake swim?
    Unless you have an open water swimming background, there is a lot going on in the swim that is tough for new people to comprehend.  Therefore, swimming the race in a relatively calm lake versus an ocean or river removes some water-specific variables like swallowing salt water, getting knocked around by waves, and/or currents pushing and pulling you everywhere.  These challenges can be amplified for, relatively, bigger bodies with little to no swim background due to the “drag” created through the additional body mass impacting one’s ability to just focus on the swim itself.  Further, and more importantly, that folks with higher BMI’s tend to be more at risk for cardiac problems.  Therefore, further reducing unnecessary strain caused by the introduction of different water-specific variables is a good thing.

  • Why a flat bike course? 
    A good rule of thumb for a flat course is one where the total elevation is around 25’ per mile or less; e.g., 20 mile bike course with 500’ of elevation = 25’ per mile.  Hilly courses require a more technical approach to the bike ride.  Going beyond the reality that the heavier you are, the more relative effort it takes to climb the hills and having to better optimize what gears you are in, more importantly, the heavier you are, the faster you descend.  During descents, gravity is the one time of the race where the high BMI athlete gets free speed; but, handling those speeds on steep descents, with which you may not realize you are uncomfortable with until that day, is a risk that can be avoided by finding a flatter bike course to do your first race. 

Where should I get my initial guidance?

There are a ton of great resources available to you; e.g., on-line articles, books, magazines, podcast series, videos.  Initially, do a bit of your own research and read about what to expect about the sport.  Although you will find an endless amount of information on the internet and the bookstore; and, yes, it can be overwhelming, just pick a few things to read or watch.  Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what you are drawing from as there is all kinds of great information at your fingertips on the internet, so just pick a few things.  Although one can argue “you don’t know what you don’t know”, doing your own initial research to help you get your own basic understanding of what will likely be required and start shaping, in your mind, questions that you have and you’d like addressed.  Look for information written up by other Clydesdale/Athena racers or coaches who have worked with them.  They are very open about their trials and tribulations with training and racing and can be a great resource to gain some perspective that you can’t get from the general triathlete population or coaches who don’t have those experiences. 

Should I get involved with the local athletic community?

After you have done your baseline research, the absolute best thing that you can do for yourself is to connect into the local athletic community around you.  As soon as you start to look, you will quickly find open groups excited to welcome you.  There are Master’s swim programs run out of the local fitness centers, there are local running groups that are often affiliated with the local running shops, and there are local rides that are often led by the local bike shops.  And, oh yeah, there are triathlon clubs!  Beyond the general anxiety about meeting new people, it can be intimidating, to show up to a social gathering, ride, run, or swim and meet all the sleek, fit, fast athletes.  Fortunately, every one of these clubs/groups will have people who are or were just like you.  Once you connect in, you will find everyone to be very welcoming; and, will quickly find someone or multiple people in that club or group who will have gone down a very similar road as you and will be more than happy to meet you, talk to you, answer your questions, and provide the advice and guidance you are looking for.  Further, when you join, every club/group will have someone in charge of managing new folks; so, tell them your background and what you are looking for and they will triage you to the type of people who you are most like.  Just ask.  Finally, one way to ease into a club/group is to join the Virtual training that they often offer and/or tap into the availability of virtual training apps, like Zwift and Peloton.

Should I get a Road Bike or a Tri-Bike?

When you first get into racing, buy a road bike.  A road bike is safer to ride as they are much easier to handle, easier to get a bike fit as you don’t have to deal with the aero-bar setup; and, notably, you can go on group rides with other folks.  Using tri-bikes during group rides is usually not allowed; and, even if they do say it is OK, it is highly discouraged.  Tri-bikes just do not handle as well as road bikes making them difficult to abruptly stop and maneuver quickly which is a requirement of group riding.  Further, tri-bikes also ride, relatively, faster on flats and descents; but, slower on hills, so disrupt the pace of the rides.   When you go to purchase your new bike, go to, and build a relationship with a local bike shop and their mechanics, and buy it there.  Big bodies put a lot of strain on bikes and require multiple trips to the bike shop to deal with issues that arise.  Therefore, having an accountable, caring partner from a local shop that can help make necessary modifications to make your bike run smoothly is invaluable.  Further, some components have weight restrictions, like pedals and wheels; and, riding 25mm tires at the higher end of the recommended pressure better suits bigger bodies.  The local bike shops will have a people who are ready to help you figure out what is the best set-up for you.  

What running shoes should I get?

Your local running store can be your very best friend as they will be very knowledgeable about shoes appropriate for your size and the mechanics of your foot.  Getting stable, well cushioned shoes that allow your toes to spread out will do wonders for your comfort with running.  Build a relationship with your local running stores as they always stay on top of new models and enhancements and will share that information with you when you show up.

“New to the sport” is “new to the sport” and there are a lot of things that one needs to understand prior to their first race; but, high BMI athletes have additional things to consider.  Further, once you get your first race under your belt and want to race longer distances and/or get faster, the list gets much longer.  

For you and right now.  There is one truth.  Once you start training and racing, you will get thinner, healthier, see a positive change in your physique, and get faster.  Enjoy the beginning of your journey!

John Bye

John Bye is a USA Triathlon Certified Level I coach who, at 200+ pounds, is a relative giant in the sport, and finds the challenges of simply being big, requiring a different approach to training and racing. Therefore, he focuses on working with highly motivated Clydesdale/Athena and High BMI athletes (175+lbs) who want racing to be more than getting a finisher medal and T-shirt, but, to race in front to reach their personal bests and/or to get on the podium. John has competed in, well over, 125 triathlons and has been successful at all distance. Over the past decade alone, he has: qualified and competed as a member of Team USA in 2016 (Cozumel), 2019 (Switzerland), and 2021 (Canada), competed in five IronMan 70.3 World Championships, and notably, competed in the IronMan World Championships in Kona in 2019. He is the Founder of Bring Your Everyday Beast Coaching (BYE-BEAST LLC). Visit his website at www.bye-beastcoaching.com and you can contact him at johnbye@bye-beastcoaching.com.