Triathlon for Runners 101

English: Triathlon photographs from the Chinoo...
Triathlon photographs from the Chinook-Half-Ironman Calgary Alberta Canada, June 23 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’ve been running (or hanging around runners) for more than a few months, chances are good that one of the following things has already happened:

  • Someone you know has talked about a triathlon
  • Someone you know has done a triathlon
  • Someone has suggested that you do a triathlon
  • You’ve told someone who has suggested that you do a triathlon that you can’t because you can’t swim, you don’t have a bike, you barely have time to run or you are too slow.

There are a million reasons you can give yourself for why you shouldn’t attempt a triathlon, some of which might actually have some merit to them at the time. However, as the Official Salty Running Multisport Enabler, I’m here to tell you why those excuses are no good here. I’m here to tell you that you, yes YOU, can and should train for a triathlon.

Excuse #1: I can’t swim. This is one of those “valid excuses,” since if you can’t swim you’re certainly going to have some trouble with the first leg of a tri. However, just because you can’t swim today doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to swim 2, 4, or 6 months from now. Check your gym, YMCA, or local triathlon club or shop for information on lessons. You don’t have to be a great swimmer to do your first tri – you just have to be able to cover 400-800 yards somehow. (Doggy paddle and, in shallow water, walking, are 100% acceptable.)

Excuse #2: I don’t have a bike/Tri bikes are too expensive. Maybe you do all your cycling in spin class and haven’t owned an actual bike in 10 or 20 years. Perhaps you thought about buying a new bike, but then just wept when you saw the price (especially if you went directly to looking at triathlon bikes). Here’s the thing: unless you know for a fact that you enjoy cycling and will get a significant amount of use out of a road or triathlon bike, it’s not worth buying a new one. Ask around to see if anyone you know has a bike you can borrow, or check Craigslist for a screamin’ deal on an old beater bike. It doesn’t need to be fancy – it just needs to have two wheels. That means mountain bikes, hybrids, cruisers, and commuters are all perfectly fine. I promise, you will not be the only person there who doesn’t have a fancy triathlon bike with the carbon fiber and aerobars.

My mom just finished a triathlon
This could be you after YOUR triathlon (Photo credit: smohundro)

Excuse #3: I don’t have time to train for a triathlon. How much time do you spend running? Odds are good that if you run most days of the week, you have time to train for a sprint triathlon. Replace one run day with a bike ride and another one with a swim and you’re there. Really, if you have a passing familiarity with how to swim and ride a bike, you just might be able to get through a sprint event without any specific training.

Excuse #4: I’m too slow. Much like running, triathlon has become an everyman sport. The community is incredibly welcoming of beginners and if you’ve done more than a few 5ks, you probably won’t finish last. Even if you do, the wave start of most tris will make it impossible to tell, since there may be people faster than you who finish after you do, because they started long after you did. If you’re really concerned, pick a race aimed at beginners for your first one to give yourself a bit of an edge. As an example, Danskin sponsors women’s triathlons across the country that consist largely of first-timers.

Excuse #5: Don’t those things take like 15 hours? I could never do that! You’re thinking of an Iron-distance triathlon, which is the Big Daddy Race of the sport. Yes, those races can take 12 or 15 or 18 hours, but you don’t have to start there. There are plenty of shorter distance events, like sprints and super-sprints, that you’ll be able to finish in less than 2 hours.

Have you thought about doing a triathlon? What’s stopping you from giving it a shot?

In a previous life, I worked on computers and spent all day sitting. Thanks to running, I've rebooted my career and am now a running and triathlon coach and soon-to-be physical therapist. I've also got the mind and spirit of an elite trapped in the body of a back-of-the-packer.

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  1. My excuses are always time and money. I used to also have the excuse of hating swimming and biking. I thought they were too high-maintenance. The idea of needing a bike, a pool, etc. turned me off. I love the simplicity of running. But when I was injured last winter, I spent a lot of time biking and took a swim class and enjoyed it more than I thought I would and getting the workouts in were as much of a PITA as I thought they’d be. With three kids now is definitely not the time for me to venture into multisport, but I’ll definitely give it a “tri” sometime down the line!

  2. My excuse is definitely #1. I won’t say I can’t swim, but I can’t stand it. I hate the feeling of not being able to breathe freely (claustrophobia to a degree I guess). I know I could overcome it and I’ve thought about taking a master’s swim class, but at the end of the day, I’d rather devote my time to more running rather than picking up a new sport. I do like to live vicariously through my kids and friends who do them though!

    1. I have that same feeling swimming, but learned in my class that it’s because I swim “like a runner.” Apparently my instinct is to go too fast and kick my feet like a maniac, so I’m doing the equivalent of jumping on the treadmill and sprinting. I get myself into oxygen debt fast and then feel like I can’t get enough air. Slowing down and working on arm form and kicking less helped me enjoy it more. But I still can’t say I love it. We’ll have to have Licorice write a post on how runners can learn to like swimming ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I swam and played water polo in high school (to avoid running). So #1 is bunk for me. I recently acquired a mountain bike from my parents’ basement with the idea or cross training. However, the thought of near daily doubles blows my mind. In addition, I agree with Salty. Too much gear and any travel time to a workout location (e.g. pool or gym) generally means I’m not too interested.

    A local intermediate distance triathlon has my eye for next summer. I adore fall marathons, but despise summer training. So hopefully an alternative race will keep me occupied.