How to prepare for your first sprint triathlon

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect distances for the Nation’s Sprint Triathlon. They are: 750-meter swim, 16.6-mile bike, 5K run. This version has been corrected.

Want to try a tri? If so, you are not alone. Triathlons — the triple-threat endurance events that combine swimming, bicycling and running — are growing rapidly in number and size every year, according to USA Triathlon, the organization that governs the nation’s triathlon races.

The Washington area is no exception. In fact, the next few weekends feature several races, including the naturally gorgeous Luray Triathlon in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and the jam-packed Nation’s Triathlon, during which you can see thousands swim down the Potomac, ride up Rock Creek Parkway and run by the Jefferson Memorial.

But what if you want to do one rather than see one?

“I think just about anyone can do a sprint triathlon with the right preparation,” says Debi Bernardes, a longtime Washington-area triathlete and tri coach.

A sprint triathlon is much different from, say, an Ironman (a triathlon made up of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run — all done in succession).


Krista Schultz takes on the bike course at last year's Luray Sprint Triathlon. (Jenny Ruley Photography)

Instead the sprint features shorter distances per discipline. There is some variation in these sprint distances, but the Luray Sprint Triathlon in Virginia, for example, features a 750-meter (just short of a half a mile) swim, a 27-kilometer (just short of 17 miles) bike ride and a five-kilometer (just over three miles) run.

Bernardes says most people are wise enough not to make Ironman their first triathlon experience, but there are exceptions.

“You’d be surprised,” says Bernardes, who always advises that taking “baby steps is very important” to avoid injuries.

In this case, “baby steps” means a focused swim, ride and run program that includes at least four hours of training per week for at least three months (shorter if you are already fit and trained in the disciplines, she says.

“It’s great if you can cross the finish line feeling good and saying to yourself, ‘That was so much fun, I want to do another one,’ ” Bernardes adds.

That’s what happened for Jenni Lancaster of Washington, who did her first triathlon — a sprint — a year ago at Luray.

“I loved it. It’s a beautiful triathlon, and I felt ready,” says Lancaster, who ended up winning her novice division. Getting ready meant swimming, cycling and running for at least an hour, five times a week, for several months, she says.

The training equation

How those training hours are split up is important, says Joe Friel, author of several books on endurance training, including “Your First Triathlon.” Most of the training — about half — should be devoted to cycling because that’s the biggest chunk of the race. Then comes swimming, the most skill-intensive of the three disciplines, and last is running.

“The potential for injury is the greatest in running,” says Friel, who recommends that novices spend as little as 20 minutes, three times a week on running.

“The bike is the key to performing well,” Friel says. After all, remember Luray: bike 17 miles, run three miles, swim less than half a mile.

If there is time left over in the week, Friel recommends including some strength training such as push-ups, squats and rows — exercises that target triathlon muscles.

In terms of the intensity of the workouts, Bernardes says not to worry too much for your first triathlon. But be consistent with the frequency and length of your workouts.

“Basically, if you are huffing and puffing, you are working too hard,” Bernardes says.

One thing, though, that you don’t want to skimp on, says Lancaster, is swim training in open water, if that’s what your race calls for (most do).

“There are no lanes or walls, obviously, and you might get kicked,” Lancaster says. “It’s very different from swimming in a pool. I highly recommend an open-water swim before the race,” says Lancaster, who plans on competing in Luray this weekend.

She is also doing the Nation’s Tri, and possibly the SavageMan Triathlon in Western Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake State Park both in September.

“It’s good to have a goal,” Lancaster says. “It gives everything you do a purpose. Signing up for a race gives me that purpose.”

Beyond the big race-day goal, some triathletes find the social aspect of joining a tri group or club is crucial to training motivation. Others benefit from having a coach.

If all else fails on particularly low-motivation days, Friel recommends using the five-minute deal.

“It’s when you make a deal with yourself that you will do at least five minutes and then if you want to, you can quit,” Friel says.

Five minutes? Sounds like baby steps.

Except most people, Friel says, won’t stop after five minutes but will keep going with their scheduled training program — taking those baby steps to an Ironman and beyond.

Gear and nutrition

Bernardes suggests not spending a lot of money on the first race or two. Borrow a friend’s bike, or even ride a non-road bike as long as it’s been serviced and doesn’t have toe cages that your feet might get stuck in, she says. “But I’ve seen everything,” Bernardes says. “One guy running a 10K in his basketball shoes. Others riding their mountain bikes.” Here are the bare-bones essentials you’ll need for your first triathlon:

- A bike (any kind, even a borrowed one), without toe cages

- A helmet

- Running shoes

- Swimsuit (worn alone or with shorts for the ride and run) or tri-suit

- Swim goggles

- Water bottle

- Race instructions and race bib

Upcoming races

If you’re completely new to triathlon, you might want to check out a race as a spectator; several are coming up in the next couple of months. If you need more training time, winter triathlons migrate south and southwest to places such as Florida, Texas and California. Or you can just wait for the spring season to start. Check out these Web sites for more information: www.usatriathlon.org, www.triathlon.competitor.com, www.trifind.com.

- Luray Sprint Triathlon

750-meter swim, 27K bike, 5K run

Aug. 17, www.luraytriathlon.com

- Nation’s Sprint Triathlon

Washington; 750-meter swim, 16.6-mile bike, 5K run

Sept. 7, www.nationstri.com

- Giant Acorn Sprint Triathlon

Lake Anna State Park, Spotsylvania, Va.

750-meter swim, 16-mile bike, 5K run

Sept. 27, www.sestupevents.com/vts

- Richmond Sprint Triathlon

400-meter (men)/400-yard (women) swim,
12-mile bike, 5K run

Oct. 5, www.richmondmultisports.com

- Waterman’s Sprint Triathlon

Rock Hall Harbor, Rock Hall, Md.

750-meter swim, 15-mile bike, 5K run

Oct. 5, www.setupevents.com/mts

Boston is a fitness trainer and freelance writer. She can be found at www.gabriellaboston.com.

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