My First Triathlon: The Journey of a First Time Triathlete
Everyone Needs a Project
After stopping competitive swimming in 2009 I went 10 years without any cardio based training. I became obsessed with weight training and put on around 75 pounds. At the start of 2019 I was bigger and stronger than I had ever been before, but really struggled with anything over five minutes of continuous cardio. My training had become stagnant and I was looking for a new goal. At this level of fitness, going for a run was completely out of the question, never mind a competing in a Triathlon!
Planting The Seed
In 2019 I was living in Canada and I met a guy in a bar, as you do. He told me that he had just signed up for his first ever Ironman and he was really worried about the swimming part. I said “No way, I work as a professional swimming coach. I’ll happily help you out with some sessions.” Mike jumped at the chance and a few weeks later we started working together on some 1-1 swimming lessons.
Mike made big improvements very quickly, he was an ex Ice Hockey player you see, so he had excellent endurance levels already and he understood the hours of training required to excel in high performance sport. We became great friends and a few months later the accommodation he was living in was being sold. Every now and then you meet someone in life that you just click with, it seemed like the right thing to do to invite Mike to come and live with me and my girlfriend, he took up the offer and moved into our spare bedroom.
Over the next few months I watched Mike transition from someone who was a decent runner into somebody who mastered all 3 disciplines of the triathlon. He would come in from his 4 hour bike workouts and I would just think “Wow, how do you find the mental strength to sit on a bike for 4 hours.”
During the time Mike lived with us, I saw a shift in my own training from mainly weights to a more crossfit style, with elements of cardio mixed into my sessions. I think the change was my subconscious trying to suss out whether or not I could in fact manage the cardio required for a triathlon. Me and Mike became training partners and I got in the water 2 or 3 times a week to swim with him. Before I knew it, I was genuinely contemplating the idea of entering a triathlon.
Just Give it A Go!
A few Months later I was texting a parent of one of my junior swimmers, Peter. He was a triathlete and he had been in my ear for a few weeks to start training for a triathlon and I remember him saying “Just give it a go”. Peter’s a real advocate of the sport, he’s seen the positive impact of his own training and I think he wanted me to experience the same. He asked me “Laurence, why don’t you look at doing an Olympic distance race in June next year.” It was the beginning of November and I remember working out how long that would give me to train for it.
“32 weeks” I thought, that’s plenty of time. I figured I could take the time between now and Christmas to trim a few pounds and test out a few short runs and see how things go. Looking back I can assure you that is not how things played out. I text Peter back and said “Peter, I’m in.”
After committing to the event I spent the next few hours texting as many people as I could. I told them that I had signed up to do a triathlon. I knew that if I told enough people I simply couldn’t back out – it made me accountable. That’s the first step for anybody wanting to try any endurance event whether it be a marathon, a Toughmudder or a triathlon. Nothing can prepare you physical and mental roller coaster and from time to time it’s tempting to waiver from your goal. If you tell enough people about your goal, you become more invested. The thought of having your whole family, their work colleagues and even your local butcher right there on the side-lines, cheering you on, makes you dig that little bit deeper in training when the going gets tough.
It was the end of November and the weather in Canada was awfully cold, probably minus 15 degrees on an average day. This weather made training outside almost impossible, but I was lucky enough to be lent an indoor trainer to get me started with the bike sessions. The cold weather continued for around 5 months until early April when I could finally train outdoors.
The Olympic distance triathlon has a 40 kilometre bike. I knew this would be the discipline where I could make the most improvements and pick up the most amount of time, so in the early stages of my training I worked on the bike, a lot!
From my swimming background I had an understanding of planning and periodisation of a training program but my knowledge of the other 2 triathlon disciplines (bike and run) was minimal. I was unsure of the amount of training hours to put into each area. A friend advised to pay for a subscription to the App TrainerRoad. It’s a great piece of software that costs around £20 per month. If you type in the details of your event and the distance of your triathlon it gives you a detailed weekly training programme right up to the day of the competition. There are a number of apps and programmes like this and I would strongly advise paying for the extra guidance. The app links to your indoor trainer (bike) tracking your power output and your distance.
Even if you are training in a climate that allows you to get outside on your bike all year round, I would still invest in an indoor trainer and an app like TrainerRoad as it helps you develop your cycling to new levels. The app gives you different workouts that challenge each energy system. To give you an example, your week might include one long ride at 60-70% effort. An anaerobic threshold workout and a power workout, consisting of 20-30 all out sprints of 30 seconds, with a recovery after each one.
It’s important when you’re training for a triathlon to learn about the body’s different energy systems and how they recover. Using TrainerRoad would give me all the information I needed based on the hours I wanted to dedicate to training. I was willing to start with 12 hours of training per week, this consisted of 3 swims, 3 bikes and 3 runs. It’s in my nature to be over-prepared and I wanted to leave no stone unturned. If I was going to put my body through 32 weeks of hell, then damn sure, I wanted a positive result at the end of it!
One of the hardest parts of the training for the triathlon was training with aches and pains. When you have 9 workouts a week it’s not very often you set off on a run or a bike feeling fresh and pain free. This was tough to get used too. For the first 3 months of training I battled continuously with IT band syndrome and shin splints. I was able to resolve the ITBS reasonably quickly by warming up more before running, but the shin splints just wouldn’t shift.
Struggling to complete more than 5 kilometres of running per week due to the pain, I did a bit of research online about dealing with shin splits. Lots of advice suggested that the pain would subside eventually, but I just couldn’t figure out one specific thing that would get rid of my shin splints. I also read online that if I continued to run through the pain I could end up with a stress fracture – that was the last thing I wanted to hear. For the first time It crossed my mind that if i couldn’t run, I wouldn’t be able to compete in the event.
Trial and Error
I tried a number of different methods to get rid of the shin splints. I was determined that something that started out so trivial would not be my downfall. Deep tissue massages, icing before and after training, compression socks, ultrasound, changing my warm up routine, I tried everything. Even an old Chinese device that was effectively a round board with spikes on that I would walk on bare foot every morning to try and wake up the muscles in my feet. Though these remedies all made some small impact, the bottom line was, they didn’t shift my shin splints. If I ran twice in 7 days, I could barely walk for 5 days afterwards.
Eventually I decided to invest in a different pair of running shoes and it was the best decision I made during the whole triathlon experience. I bought a pair of Hoka running shoes which basically have a big marshmallow on the bottom of them to absorb impact. In the space of 10 days I went from being a hobbling buffoon, to being able to run around 25 km a week, pain free! “Why didn’t I think of this earlier” I was just happy to be back on track with a spring in my step, literally.
Spring In Canada
By the time April came around the weather changed, Spring had officially arrived in Markham and it was beautiful. At last I could start training outside and see some of the countryside.
In the months leading up to Spring I’d made a few friends that were also training for the same event as me, so I had some company for my workouts. Training for a triathlon can be very lonely at times, just having somebody cycling behind you on a 2 hour bike workout can make a huge difference to moral. Not that your chatting as you ride, but some small talk every few miles just gives you a little boost. It also means there is someone there to laugh at you when you forget to unclip from your pedals at traffic lights and slowly tip sideways onto the tarmac.
Going to the Next Level
Through mutual friends I met a guy called Justin, we trained at a similar pace, both our work schedules were flexible and he’s hilarious! Justin was the perfect training partner. We figured out that we could get a couple of swims and a long bike together every week.
Justin made me more accountable. If I had a long run to do on my own or a hard swim I would procrastinate delay the inevitable pain. I would sometimes push back the start time of my workouts by an hour because I knew it was going to hurt. This never happened if I was meeting Justin at the pool or outside the town hall for a bike workout.
Justin and I had our strengths and weaknesses. He struggled with swimming, so when we were planning his training sessions we prioritised the swim sessions, making sure that I was on hand for guidance, and vice versa. As we entered ‘crunch time’ which was around 3-4 months out from the triathlon, I was far more focused. I had a swim session organised with Peter on a Monday morning and a Thursday Evening, a swim with Justin on a Wednesday afternoon and a long bike on a weekend with whoever was available. This gave me company for my hardest bike of the week and kept me attending the swims, which I might have neglected without the support.
I organised as many of my workouts as I could with other people, I just knew it would be a good session if I was training with a partner. That’s just my competitive nature I guess, from my swimming days. It’s not always easy to find someone of a similar standard who’s available at the same time as you, but I’ve learned that cycle groups and running clubs can be a great place to meet people with similar goals.
When training for an endurance race like a marathon the advice is not to train the full distance at race pace, it’s actually detrimental to your body and it takes a while to fully recover. With triathlon however that’s a little different, the variety of the disciplines is not so taxing on the joints and muscles, so you can actually cover the triathlon distances in training.
The hardest part about triathlon is not the individual parts but being able to perform the 3 disciplines back to back, this would prove to be very challenging for me. Remember, before starting my triathlon training I’d barely done any cardio, all my training had been focused on power or strength. To try and wrap my head around competing for 2 and half hours without stopping was really daunting. I decided to break it up into a 3 steps so I could cope better mentally.
My 3 Step Process
Step one was all about completing each of the individual distances. In the first month of training I slowly worked my way up to a 1500 meter swim, a 40 kilometre bike ride and a 10 kilometre run. I wasn’t too concerned about the pace, or putting the disciplines back to back. I knew my fitness levels would slowly improve over the coming months and my body weight would surely drop with all the cardio. As long as I could cover the distance I’d be making a good start. I also aimed to maintain some gym strength so my power to weight ratio would improve and I would feel both fit and strong on race day.
Step two was about getting comfortable with the 2 and a half hour total race time. For this I focused on long bike rides, because lets face it, I wasn’t going to run for that length of time. The more time I spent out on the bike the less concerned I was about being able to complete the race. I remember how long my first one hour ride felt, it seemed to last an eternity. As the weeks and months went by an hour became easy, I was out on my bike for longer and longer until 2 and a half hours felt comfortable.
Step three was getting used to the ‘jelly legs’ I would experience after getting off the bike. Not only are your legs beaten up from the bike but you also start running at a much quicker pace than you think due to the high cadence of your bike. The only way to combat the problem is practice a ‘Brick’ (Bike, Run, It Can Kill). This consists of a long bike workout followed immediately by a 10-15 minute run, to get used to the tired legs and manage your pacing through the first kilometre of the run. You still experience the jelly legs, but at least you will have a better understanding of how to deal with them.
Over Distance Training
Around 2 months out from the event I was trying to organise my weekly ride with Peter. I text him and said “How far are you riding today?” Peter is an experienced Iron man and he was in the thick of his preparations for Ironman Texas. He text me back and said “I’ve got a long one today, four and a half hours at around 30km/hour pace”. (My longest ride at this point had been around 55km at 27km/hr pace). I said “Ok enjoy!” After a few minutes, Peter texted me back and said “Well if you’re looking to do 60km you can do the first 30km with me and then turn round and come back, I’ll carry on”. So I thought, “Okay, what’s the worst that can happen?”
We set off on the ride and I felt great through the first 15 km, I was tucked in right behind peter and the adrenaline was pumping, I knew I was keeping a good pace. At around the 25 km mark we hit some big hills. Cycling uphill is an area I really struggle with, due to being slightly heavier than your average person. Peter got up out the saddle and to my amazement I was able to keep pace with him. I knew in the back of my mind he was probably cruising, but surprisingly I didn’t feel out of my depth. As we got to the 30 km mark Peter turned around and said “We’re at 30 km, are you heading back now?” Without hesitation I replied, “No I’m good, I’ll push on a bit further!” My confidence was high, the weather was great and I plucked up the courage to take a section at the front. Before I knew it we were 65 km into the ride, the only problem was we were also 65 km from home. I was really starting to worry about what my body was about to endure over the next few hours.
Peter had such a calm demeanour, it just seemed like another day in the office for him, this made me relax a little bit. I kept thinking how easy the 40 km in the triathlon was going to be once I had completed this. The whole way back was a real struggle, my back was in agony, just through holding that position on the bike for so long. What made things worse, Peter looked as fresh as a daisy. About 20 km from home he pulled alongside me and said “At the next intersection I’m going to speed up to race pace for about 10 km, you can come with me if you want!” Within a few minutes he was completely out of sight and I was on my own, just alone with a broken body and the thoughts in my head.
When we got back to Peter’s house he said to me “You’re a crazy man, great ride”. It was a tough day, 4 hours and 40 minutes, double what I’d ever done before. The day helped break down so many mental barriers, I knew I’d be able to call on this particular experience when things got difficult in the race.
On the day of the race I headed down to the waterfront with Peter in plenty of time, he was talking me through the swim telling me to stay out wide, keep out of trouble and to keep lifting my head to make sure I was going in the right direction. However, nothing he could of said to me pre-race could have fully prepared me for the carnage that ensued when the starting klaxon sounded.
The morning of the race was extremely windy (32km/hr). The event organisers had to change the swim section to 2x750m loops instead of 1x1500m loop, to keep everybody safe in the choppy water. There were only a small number of canoes and 700 competitors.
The Dreaded Swim
Being a former swimmer you would think that I felt confident about the swim section. However, due to the sheer amount of weight training I’d done over the last 10 years, I was getting lots of muscle tightness and lactate acid in my legs and shoulders whenever I swam. This was worrying me, as although I knew I would complete the swim I didn’t know what physical state I’d be in when I got out the water. My experience of swimming outdoors was limited and I had never swum in a wetsuit before. There were lots of question marks over what was supposed to be my strongest discipline. “Would the tightness of the wetsuit across my chest would restrict my breathing?”
My approach should have been to sprint the first 200 metres and break away from the pack then swim the rest of the race in open space. Instead I made a huge error, I decided I was going to slowly build into my swim to try and keep my heart rate down to avoid any lactate acid build up. Within seconds I was swallowed up by the wave of swimmers behind me. The lake was like a washing machine, swimmers everywhere. My heart rate was through the roof and I couldn’t see where I was going, I completely panicked. I took a kick to the shoulder and kept having to stop and tread water for swimmers across me.
Eventually things calmed down and I was able to get in a rhythm and find some space. This put doubts in my head for the rest of the race, I remember thinking “this is meant to be the easy part.” After I finished the swim I took my time getting my wet suit off and I was able to bring my heart rate back down. Looking back, the big mistake I made was not practising enough in my wetsuit and not practising enough swimming outdoors. If I was a weaker swimmer, I can’t help thinking I may have had to throw in the towel early.
The race was being held in Geulph around 100 km west of Toronto in a conservation area about 5 km off the main road. The first section of the bike was on a really bumpy track, it seriously needed tarmacking. Things would smooth out once we got onto the main road for a 15 km straight ride, a turn in the road, then we followed the same route back. I knew the route ahead of time as i’d visited the venue the weekend before and worked out the course for the bike and run. This really helped me prepare and definitely calmed my nerves.
I figured if I started the bike leg too hard I’d lose a lot of time over the last 10 km, so with that in mind I planned to build my way into it and finish it strong. Again the weather conditions had other ideas. The wind was blowing hard right into our faces for the first 20 km. To make matters worse, the bumpy road rattled the speed gauge on my bike and disconnected it from my spokes. With blowing the bike felt really slow and I just couldn’t figure out how far I was off the pace. “Here we go again” I thought.
I had come out the water in the top 20 with a lot of strong cyclists behind me, which meant I was going to be overtaken…a lot! If the speed gauge was working I could of held my own pace and ignored the better cyclists, as it was, it started to get into my head.
Throughout my training rides I’d really been paying attention to my pace, relative to the conditions and gradient. I knew what pace to attack the hills and what pace to maintain on the flat. But here i am right in the thick of the race and I have no data to work with. I just had to guess.
The first half of the bike ended up being a real struggle, I just had to grit my teeth and push as hard as I could. I kept thinking back to the long training rides I’d done with Justin and Peter and saying to myself “This is nothing, come on, dig deep!” The early pace really took it out of my legs, I was just praying that we were going to get the benefit of the wind on the way back.
As i made the turn it felt like somebody had put rocket launchers on the back of my bike. What a relief, but I knew how much work I had to do to make up for the slow first 20 km. At the end of the bike I saw the big race clock above the transition area, surprisingly I was only a few minutes off my target time, but my legs were a mess, how was I going to get through the 10k run?
The run was such an emotional roller coaster!
If you plan to enter your first triathlon, be prepared for how drastically and how often your outlook of the race changes. One minute you feel dreadful, all you want to do is stop, you can’t see how you are going to make it to the end. A few minutes later things start to feel easier, you start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Then before you know it, the smallest incline in the course puts you right back to square one. I think this is just the nature of you being in a race, your obviously pushing as hard as you can, when things start to get easier you just increase your effort, so you almost play cat and mouse with your aerobic boundaries!
I managed the ‘jelly legs’ really well through the first kilometre of the run and was able to hold a steady pace. I was 15 seconds or so slower than I thought I was going to be at the 1km mark, but this helped me conserve some much needed energy for later in the race.
It was probably around the 8km mark where I felt like the end of the race was in sight. By this point I was just mentally breaking the run down into 500 metre blocks, whilst trying to control my breathing.
Advice From A First Timer
Looking back on my first triathlon race, I did a lot of things right, but there were also a few things I would do differently next time.
Know the route – if you get chance, get out there an actually walk the route, so you know the terrain. You don’t have to complete the full course, but at least go to the area and see what your dealing with.
Transitions – such a vital part of an Olympic distance triathlon. You can lose 3 or 4 minutes just swapping over your equipment if you don’t practice taking it on and off. An experienced triathlete has the hindsight of previous races to know what to expect, but when it’s your first time, it all comes at you so quickly. Before you know it you’re in the transition area, the clock is ticking and you’re struggling to find the strap on your wetsuit with a heart rate of 180bpm!
Conserve energy – Don’t go out too fast in the swim as you’ll pay for it later in the race. At the same time, don’t go out too slowly or you’ll get swallowed up by the pack. It’s all about knowing your ability and managing your pace accordingly. I strongly advise paying for private swimming lessons, that’s not just because I’m a swimming coach. Swimming is just one of those things where slight improvements can make a huge difference come race day.
Find people of a similar pace – The small bits of chat you have with competitors out on the course really help take your mind off the overall distance. If you can find somebody that’s keeping a similar pace to you, it’s great to latch on to them to keep your pace consistent.
All things considered, the triathlon training was a fantastic experience. Extremely challenging but even more rewarding. Looking back I made some great friends along the way and was in the best physical shape of my life, I truly grew as a person throughout the whole experience.
For anyone looking into a first triathlon, “Just give it a go” commit to a date or event, invest in technology, find a mentor and a training partner, work hard on your strong areas, work harder on your weak areas and leave no stone unturned.