After months of training, you did it: you crossed the finish line of your first triathlon. Congratulations! Maybe you went into the race hoping to cross an item off your bucket list or to try a new challenge, but along the way you came to enjoy the sport more than you expected. If the tri bug bit you this summer, you can use your newfound passion to carry you farther, faster or into another race next year.
Preparing to Go Long
If you finished your first triathlon wanting more, you might consider long course racing. Thinking over what went well and what you could improve from your first race can help guide you in choosing what to do next.
“If an athlete wants to go longer, the first thing to do is to pick a good race that fits their schedule, needs and strengths,” Jennifer Harrison, a Chicago-area triathlon coach, says. “I think sometimes athletes do a disservice to themselves by just signing up for what their friends are doing. It needs to be fun, but figure out your strengths and talk to someone experienced in racing who’s been around and knows all the courses.”
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a triathlete can help guide your race decision in multiple ways. While you can pick a course you know will set you up for success, you can also pick a race that will challenge you. Choosing a race that plays to your weaknesses rather than your strengths can motivate you to train through conditions you may normally try to avoid.
“What type of race really gets you going, either out of utter fear or utter excitement? Sometimes those are the same thing,” Nic Ruley, a triathlon coach with Well-Fit Performance, says. “I hate cold water and wind, so I needed to find a race with those things to get me out on those days I didn’t want to get out of bed.”
If you’ve decided to go long, you may want to start bringing others into your training. Joining a group or connecting with a coach can help you step up your preparation by holding you accountable to your workouts and providing valuable insight from those who have done long races before.
“My advice would be to join a group to get expert coaching advice, and/or to get a coach,” Daphne Glover, a triathlon coach with Chicago Endurance Sports, says. “There’s a lot more to learn and understand when you switch over from sprint or Olympic into half and full Ironman distance, and I think [having coaching through a group or individual] would be the greatest benefit.”
Preparing to PR
For triathletes happy sticking to the course distance they already know but interested in improving their performance, attempting to set a personal record at the distance can inject new life into your training. You don’t need to completely overhaul your general approach to training to PR, but changing the specifics of your training can yield great rewards.
“Change. The. Stimuli,” Harrison says. “Add volume, add intensity, add the hills, add the longer runs, add the longer bikes. Stress the body in different ways than it was stressed before. Change the challenge and let the body adjust to the challenge. When the body adapts, add a different challenge.”
When you increase your training volume or intensity, you will want to make sure you do so appropriately to avoid finding yourself sidelined by an injury or burnout.
“I think training load is critical,” Sharone Aharon, founder of Well-Fit Performance, says. “You have to look at that element and see how that affects your training. There is an element of training too hard. Some people get too excited and train nonstop and the absorption level is not really there. They might be training hard, but they’re so tired that they’re just getting themselves more and more fatigued and the body can no longer absorb the training. The other element would be people that didn’t train that much so they need to upgrade their training.”
Preparing for Next Year
Triathlon season wraps up in the Chicago area during September, but your swimming, biking and running doesn’t have to take a hiatus until next summer.
“I always say the best training season is in the winter, because in the winter you are not interrupted with races,” Aharon says. “The biggest gain of fitness will happen in the winter.”
To guide your winter training, reflect on what went well during your race and what could have gone better. Taking time to analyze where you could improve your performance can help you reap the most benefits from offseason training. If the swim gave you trouble, for example, spending time in the pool to develop yourself as a swimmer may give you a leg up when it comes time to get back in open water.
“Walking away from that first season is a good opportunity to develop comfort in the water and most importantly, work on technique,” Glover says. “When we get started in the season, athletes tend to put technique work to the side and just focus on workouts and distance. In the offseason, that’s a good time to work on those things, because they’re not so focused on having to achieve a certain distance in the water.”
To really take your swimming to the next level, Ruley recommends joining a Master’s swim team.
“I was a back-of-the-pack swimmer before I joined my Master’s team,” Ruley says. “Throwing all of that embarrassment and caution to the wind, jumping in the slowest lane of a local Master’s team, building on that camaraderie and pushing to chase somebody in the pool: not only will that maintain your level of swim fitness, but it will blow your current level of swim fitness out of the water.”
If you want to improve your bike, spending time on an indoor trainer can help you log some time in the saddle when the weather keeps you off the roads. Triathletes looking to step up their running game, meanwhile, can use the winter to focus on form and train for a race early in the year, like a January or February races in the South or an April race downstate.
“We do a Miami Half Marathon program for triathletes for the reason of increasing their running fitness and working on their biomechanics,” Aharon says. “In running, it’s very important to develop that element.”
Now that you want to invest more time in triathlon, you may want to invest more in your gear as well. Gillian Fealy of Live Grit and Chris Vassiliades of Element Multisport have some recommendations:
- A wetsuit: “A lot of first timers will rent wetsuits to see if they like the sport, but if they catch the bug, get a wetsuit so you can train with it.” Gillian Fealy
- A bike fitted to you with clipless pedals: “Definitely the number one way to get faster is to have clipless pedals. Getting a bike fit for you will make a huge difference in performance, comfort, and injury prevention.” Gillian Fealy
- A power meter for your bike: “If you’re taking it to another level, especially if you hire a coach, most coaches are asking athletes to get a power meter, whether it’s a SRAM Quarq that’s crank-based or a Garmin [pedal-based Vector], which are a great way to get a power meter without having to have a lot of technical knowledge.” Chris Vassiliades
- Triathlon-enabled GPS watch: “It’s going to give you all of your data, including power if you decide to do a power meter, throughout the swim, bike and run portion of the event.” Chris Vassiliades