By Steven Jonas, author and columnist for USA Triathlon Magazine
Click here for the author’s bio and website
You’re thinking about doing your first triathlon or duathlon. Or perhaps you’ve done a couple on a lark and now want to get more organized in the way you are going about it. But you’ve got some concerns. You know that it takes a lot of time, effort, and energy to train for multisport racing and that the races themselves are invariably challenging. Could it be beyond me, you might say to yourself. Well it is true that some multisport athletes do train a great deal and some races, especially the longer ones, are very challenging. But many of us live quite normal lives and many of the races, while challenging to be sure, are just plain fun. For an “Olympic distance” triathlon, if you set out first get to simply the starting line and then cross the finish line happy and healthy, you can do that training no more than 5-6 hours per week, total in all three sports. You can do the “sprint” triathlons and the short duathlons on 3-4 hours a week.
This USA Triathlon/Ordinary Mortals® Introduction is designed to usher you into the wonderful world of multi-sport racing. It will show you how the “ordinary mortal,” recreational athlete, even someone who has never raced in any sport, can become a triathlete/duathlete in just three to six months. (The principles we follow in this guide will work for the duathlon also. You will be able to find a special introduction to duathlon on usatriathlon.org. Here you will find information on what the sport is, how you go about finding the races, what you need in the way of equipment, and how you can easily access my simple, entry-level training program.
Triathlons range up to the “Ironman” distance, a 2.4-mile swim, 112 on the bike, and then a marathon (and even beyond that). Outside of the Olympic Games, those are the ones you usually see on television. But the vast majority of triathlons are much shorter and much easier to do. The “Olympic” distance consists of a 1.5k (0.93 miles) swim, a 40k (24.8 mile) bike, and a 10k (6.2 mile) run. Increasingly popular and widely available around the country is the Sprint. The distances are not standardized. The swim is usually in the range of a 1/3 to 1/2 mile, the bike usually covers 10 to 15 miles, while the run is anywhere from 2.5 to 4 miles.
The most common duathlon is a race that usually has three segments involving two sports, running and cycling, organized as run-bike-run. The duathlon is a great way to get into multisport racing, especially if you don’t how to swim or don’t like it much. The sprint duathlon distances are a 2-3 mile run, an 8-15 mile bike, and a second run the same as the first.
As for training, some triathletes do work out 10-15 hours per week and even more, almost year-round. If you are fast – and competitive – to stay up with the other fast people out there, you do have to do that kind of training. But if you are simply out to have fun triathloning or duathloning that much training is simply not necessary.
Getting into Triathlon and/or Duathlon
Assuming that you are not starting from absolute scratch and that you’re not out to win your age group, you can do your first sprint tri or du on 3½ hours of training per week, all three sports, for 13 weeks. If you are starting from scratch, you will likely need to spend 3-6 months to establish a reasonable aerobic base before you start specific race-training. Further, once you’ve built up that aerobic base, you can do an Olympic distance triathlon very comfortably on a program in which you average only 5 hours of training per week for that same 13 weeks before the race, total, all three sports. Many triathletes find that they are able to compete and finish happily and healthily on just such programs. And recreational marathoners have been using the equivalent in time of the Ordinary Mortals® Olympic distance program for years. You probably won’t go too fast in the race, but you can certainly have a good time racing. This is the same program that I have been using for my Olympic distance races since I started doing them in 1983. At the end of this guide, you will find how you can find those basic training programs, starting from scratch.
As to skills, as in any race, while you do need to be a good athlete to go fast in a triathlon or duathlon, with very ordinary athletic skills you can finish triathlons, not going very fast at all, and thoroughly enjoy the experience for its own sake. If you can swim in a straight line, keep your bike upright while moving forward, and put one foot in front of the other on the run, you can do a triathlon. The most important skills are the mental ones, the abilities to: set doable, realistic goals that are right for you; maintain your discipline and regular of training schedule, even on those days when you would rather be doing something else; be organized about the races, for there are logistics to deal with that you just don’t encounter in road racing; and get and stay focused during the races.
First to the bike. Although there are fancy triathlon-specific bikes, they are costly, they don’t really do much for you until you can average close to 20 miles-per-hour, and riding a “tri” bike takes some practice. It is actually best to start out with an ordinary road or mountain or “hybrid” bike. For some folks, like me, the road bike is the on-going bike of choice. A good road bike has a comfortable, stable frame, usually made of carbon fiber or aluminum alloy, and alloy wheels. You may well find a suitable “first-time-or-three” bike in your garage or storage room, or that of a friend. However, if you do decide to buy, while you don’t want to over-spend, buying something cheap doesn’t make sense (which means, don’t buy in a department store or retail warehouse). For if you do, once you are into the sport, you will find yourself trading up very quickly.
As for clothing, for your first few races you will need nothing more than: a nylon or polyester swimsuit that you will keep on for the whole race; bike or running shorts that you will put on over it after you get out of the water; a comfortable top for the bike and the run (a T-shirt or a running singlet will do just fine). For the bike, you could put on a bike jersey over what you will be wearing on the run. Once you get in the sport, you might buy one of the one- or matching two-piece tri/bi “skin suits” that you will wear in the swim and for the rest of the race as well.
For the swim, you will need a pair of goggles, and you may want to use earplugs. Virtually all of the races supply you with a swim cap. Many triathletes wear a wetsuit. It protects you against the cold in cold-water swims. By increasing buoyancy and reducing friction, it also increases your speed and makes the swim easier in any conditions. However, this item is costly ($200 to $700) and for most folks it is not essential as long as the water temperature is above about 68 degrees. Once you become a committed triathlete, however, you will most likely consider adding one to your wardrobe for the listed benefits. In certain locales, one or more bike/tri/pro shops have wetsuits available for rent.
For the bike you will need an approved bike helmet. USAT rules require you to have the helmet on with the strap buckled before you go out on the course. Just make sure that you buy your helmet from a bike shop. For their own insurance requirements, they will not sell you one that is not approved. You can use your running shoes on the bike if it has pedals that can accommodate them (and most entry-level bikes do). But as you become a more experienced cyclist, you will probably want to get bike shoes with cleats, and racing pedals. Combined, these pieces of equipment increase your mechanical advantage significantly. As for the bike-specific clothing, bike shorts provide padding for your seat and protection against bike-seat rub for your thighs. Bike gloves provide cushioning for long rides. Bike jerseys look good and have handy back pockets for carrying stuff. You should carry a frame-fit pump with a spare tube and flat-changing tools, as well as at least one water bottle in its “cage” (holder). A bike computer, which at a minimum tells you your speed, distance, elapsed time, and average speed, is a useful – but not essential – accessory.
For the run, you will need running shoes, shorts (if you don’t wear your skin suit or bike shorts), and a T-shirt or singlet. You might want to add a sweatband, a cap if it is very sunny, and sunglasses.
In summary, it may look like you have a lot to buy, but you really don’t. Only a few of the items, bike, bike helmet, running shoes, are necessary purchases if you do not already own them. To get started, you can probably find in your closet, dresser drawers, and storage area most of the rest of what you need in good enough condition to use for your first few races.
Finally, in the race you will change from one set of equipment to the next in the “transition area.” This is a flat, usually closed-off location, reasonably convenient to the swim, customarily set up on a parking lot or a grass field. There, provision is made for you to keep your bike, with either the brake handles or the seat-horn hooked over a rack provided by the race organizers. You rack your bike and lay out your “stuff” on the ground next to it. You do all of your equipment changing there. By the way, stripping to the buff in the transition area between race segments is not permitted. That’s why whatever your clothing plans may be, for the triathlon you will wear your swimsuit under whatever you put on for the bike and run.
Your First Race
There are many sources of information about available races. USA Triathlon’s website includes an event calendar of over 4,000 sanctioned events. Visit usatriathlon.org/eventcalendar to view the Sanctioned Events website.
Magazines such as USA Triathlon Magazine and Triathlete publish race calendars and/or information about upcoming races. Independent websites also publish race calendars. You can find them, for example, at:
For your first race, choose one that’s reasonably close to home. Most events prefer that you register on the web or through the mail before the race. Many also require that you check in the day before the race to pick up your race numbers, swim cap, timing chip, and the customary “goodie bag.” However, some races do have morning of the race registration and/or check-in. Most races now have a website on which you can find all such details.
Most folks nowadays start with a sprint triathlon or duathlon. If you like the sport, there will be plenty of opportunities to do longer races in the future. And please, don’t think that you have to do an Olympic distance race for it to be “a real triathlon.” Every triathlon, regardless of length, is real for those who do them.
Training Programs, from the Start
I first developed what I call the “Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals Training Program” back in the 1980s when I was learning how to be a triathlete and planning the first edition of my book, Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals (New York: WW Norton) published in 1986. (The 2nd ed., Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals®: and Doing the Duathlon Too, came out in 2006. Sales have totaled over 46,000 copies. 101 Tips for Triathlon Training and Racing [Healthy Learning/Coaches Choice publishers] was published in 2011. The Ordinary Mortals(R) Guide to Duathlon: Getting Started and Staying with It [FalconGuides/Globe Pequot Press] is published in March, 2012. I also write the regular “Ordinary Mortals(R)” column for USA Triathlon Magazine.) In my 30th season in the sport in 2012, I still use essentially the same program that I developed for myself when I started out, and put in my first book. It has worked for me for all of these years and for many thousands of other multisport racers over this period of time.
However, planning your training program does not begin with determining how many hours or how many miles you are going to do or how fast you would like to go. Rather it begins with goal setting, both general and specific.. This is the key to success. If you are going to get to the starting line with the best chance you can have of crossing the finish line happily and healthily you need first to know just why you are setting out to be a multi-sport racer. What do you expect to get out of the experience? What are the give-ups in time and money that you will need to make in order to be successful and are you prepared to make them? Once you know the “why,” then you can look at the “what” in terms of speeds and distances. For your goals to work for you, they should take into account your experience, your natural athletic ability and speed-potential, and the intensity with which you expect to train. First and foremost, they should be reasonable and realistic, for you. Once you have set your general goal(s), I suggest that for your first race at least, your specific goal should be simply to finish, happily and healthily. After you finish that first one, or two, just to add some spice you can think about setting some slightly faster time goal, but one that is still reasonable for you,. Any time goal that you do set should be achievable by concentrating and maintaining a steady pace, without knocking yourself out.
And now to the training programs. Let’s say that you are becoming interested in getting started but are not yet in “reasonably good aerobic shape,” so you will have to start from scratch. Or let’s say that you feel that you are ready to tackle a sprint tri or du now. OK, what to do? I have a set of programs that will help you do either one of the above. They are all laid out in minutes, not miles, so that you can go at your own pace whether you are just starting out or are ready for race-training.
First I have a program (available through the URL in the summary, below) that the beginning regular exerciser can use to work up to training three hours per week, over 13 weeks (or fewer if you feel comfortable). That’s the launch-point for entry-level race training. In this program, you can use any of the aerobic sports you currently do. The primary objective of the “Starting from Scratch” program is to enable you to build up your endurance, so that you can be out on the course for the 1½ to 2½ hours (depending upon the race length) that it will take you to finish a sprint tri or du.
Second, if you are already at or close to doing three hours a week (or more, but still consider yourself a beginner in multi-sport racing) at the same URL you will find access to easy-to-do programs for preparing for the sprint tri or the standard-distance duathlon that average 3.5 hours per week for 13 weeks, all two or three sports. Obviously, the faster you go in your training, the more miles you will cover and the faster you will be able to go in the race. But it is the time spent, with consistency and regularity, that is the key to success with my approach to training. And as I have said above, I define success first as finishing, happily and healthily.
That’s all there is to it. You don’t have to turn your life upside down. You don’t have to work out endlessly. In fact, if you are already a regular exerciser, you will probably find that on the average you are already spending close to the recommended amount of time. My Introductory by-the-minute Training Programs, from “Starting from Scratch” through doing the sprint, are available for a modest cost in a .pdf download of a more detailed version of this Introduction. You will find them on my website, www.ordinarymortals.net. The link to the programs is on the left side of the website’s homepage. You can find the full range of the recreational multi-sport athletes’ training programs from Getting Started, through the sprint tri and du, and the Olympic-distance triathlon, all the way to the Ironman distance, in my books, mentioned above: Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals®: And Doing the Duathlon Too (New York: WW Norton, 2nd ed., 2006), 101 Ideas and Insights for Triathletes and Duathletes (Monterey Bay, CA: Healthy Learning/Coaches Choice, 2011), and Duathlon Training and Racing for Ordinary Mortals ®: Getting Started and Staying with It (Guilford, CT: Flacon Guides/Globe Pequot Press, 2012. The books are available through my website as well as the standard sources.
Welcome to the wonderful world of multisport racing. I look forward to meeting you at the races in the not-too-distant future. If you see me, be sure to come over to say hello. This is one habit you can easily get into just for the health of it.