Once you have decided to compete in your first marathon or triathlon, you have already changed your life for the better. Unlike so many other sports, marathons and triathlons do not revolve around winning to determine success. Since the sport offers such a profound test of your physical abilities, mental toughness and personal determination, finishing a race provides you with a feeling that can only be understood through experience. No baseball or football player has ever walked off a field feeling good for simply finishing a game, yet triathletes who train for months cross the finish line overwhelmed by accomplishment, and return home stronger and more confident than ever before.
Preparing for your first marathon or triathlon not only requires you to get your body ready for an extreme test of physical endurance and strength, but also requires you to train your mind to help your body hurdle the obstacles it will encounter in both your daily workouts and on race day. The sheer beauty of these events is that they push you to your very limits. Having a clear vision at the beginning, one that is realistic and exciting, will encourage you to stay motivated, feel good, and squeeze every ounce of fun and enjoyment out of your first race.
Once You Have Committed Yourself
Do not allow yourself a way to back out. Plenty of people have great intentions, but most leave the door open to escape when it gets tough. Lock yourself into the commitment by finding a race, registering and paying for it, and generating a training plan. Realize that you should probably take part in a sprint triathlon, which is the shortest version and involves a 500-700-meter swim, a 15-mile bike ride and a 5k run. These races are generally more local and attract all types of people. Therefore you should not feel intimidated. Most triathlons have a broad range of people, from the experienced athlete who trains incessantly to the couch potato who is up to try something new.
Set a realistic goal. Goal setting, which is more of a positive life skill than just an athletic concept, gives you something for which to strive. It also serves as a reminder for you to keep working hard. For your first marathon or triathlon, do not become obsessed with times or splits. The clock is never important; in fact, leave your watch at home. The real battle happens within your mind, so set your goals to reflect the mental challenges you will face. Rather than hoping to finish the race or a certain leg of the race in a given time, focus your mental goals on pushing through the moments where you want to quit, where your arms hurt too much to take another stroke or your legs refuse to run one more step. Sharpen your mind to reject that desire to give in. Remember that your body will always want to quit, but you must condition your mind to rule your body. This is what will make you become a stronger athlete and a better person.
Get Your Equipment
Do not break the bank on your first marathon or triathlon, running out to buy the best road bike, the coolest aerodynamic helmet and the priciest running shoes on the market. Instead, be logical and comfortable. For the swim portion, you will need a good, slim-fitting swimsuit and quality goggles that you have already worn and know do not leak. If you anticipate cold water, for example an ocean swim, you may want to invest in or rent a wetsuit. Not only will the wetsuit keep you warm, but also it will add buoyancy to your swim and permit you to be more “slippery” in the water. As part of your race packet, you will receive a swim cap, which is mandatory to enter the water. The colors, normally very bright to increase the lifeguard’s ability to spot you, signify your wave-the group of people, normally broken down by age and gender, with whom you enter the water.
For the cycling section, you can use any type of bike. While the most common and advantageous is a road bike, many first-timers use mountain bikes, hybrids or touring bikes. Whichever you choose, before you begin training, take it to your local bike shop for a tune-up. You will want to have everything working smoothly, both during your weekly rides and on race day. Also, you will need to wear a certified helmet. Not only is this a USA Triathlon rule, but also it’s just common sense. Cycling in a large group of people, with competitors racing at varying speeds, can be challenging, so placing safety first is a good idea. At the race you will see people with bikes that look like rocket ships. Do not get intimidated by equipment. You are there to prove something to yourself, not to show off your latest purchase. Finally, a pair of sunglasses is a good idea to reduce sun glare and to block the wind.
On the final portion, the run, your equipment is simple: a good pair of Nike running shoes. Treat your feet well and they will return the favor. Have a comfortable pair of thin, moisture-wicking socks underneath your shoes that fit your feet well. You will do best to go to a local shoe store that has knowledgeable people who can find the sneaker that works best for your body and running style. Take the time to do this right and you will feel much more productive in training and during the competition.
Aside from the major pieces of equipment, you should also get a stick or two of body glide, a lubricant put on like deodorant that will keep parts of your body from chaffing. Apply it to any parts that will rub together or have tighter clothing rub against it during the race. Have several bottles of water, a few on your bike, and another with your equipment bag, as hydration is a critical element in keeping your body prepared. You might also want to have an additional pair of goggles in case your first pair fails. Overall, you want to have used all of your equipment during training. Try never to use something new and untested on race day.
Devise a Training Plan
Begin training nine weeks prior to your sprint distance race, and plan on completing a total of six to nine sessions a week: two or three each for swimming, cycling and running. You must dedicate one session for each discipline to technique development while the other one or two sessions should have an endurance base. To draw your plan out, print three months of blank calendars. Start by giving one day to complete rest, as your body needs rest to properly recover and grow. Then begin to plot out which days you will run, bike and swim. Make these decisions considering the demands in your life, and try to establish a logical approach that will offer you little reason to skip a training session. A sample week could look like this:
- Monday: Off
- Tuesday: Swim (technique)
- Wednesday: Short run
- Thursday: Bike
- Friday: Swim (endurance)
- Saturday: Long run (a.m.); long bike (p.m.)
- Sunday: Swim and bike (brick)
This sample week has three swims, three bikes and two runs. Saturday splits the workout into morning and evening sessions, and Sunday’s training is in the form of a brick, which is the term for performing a race-like simulation of events back to back. You should feel free to manipulate the week to fit your schedule and strengths. For example, if you are a strong runner and a weak swimmer, spend more time developing your swim abilities.
Whatever setup you devise, stick to it and you will see results in a short period of time. Considering that the increase in your training load from week to week should be small to avoid injury and fatigue, only raise your volume by approximately 10 percent each week. Do not try to do it all at once. Your body needs to recuperate following stressful training sessions, so plan and use the nine weeks wisely. See the sample plans below for moderate first sessions. Add to them on an individual basis as needed or modify them to fit your current ability level.
Swim session (400 meters)
- Warm-up: 4 x 25 (one length of the pool)
- Technique drills: 2 x 25 (select one to focus on each day)
- Ladder set: 25, 25, 50, 50, 25, 25
- Cool down: 2 x 25 at a slow, even pace
- 10-minute warm-up of moderate pedaling
- 20-minute ride, working for consistent pedal strokes and body position
- 5-minute easy pedal cool down followed by a post stretch
- 5-minute walk or jog
- 5 minutes of active stretching
- 20-30 minutes of running or walking/running
No rules exist in a triathlon as to what stroke to use while swimming. You can freestyle, which is the most efficient and common, or you may elect to backstroke, side-stroke, breaststroke, or do any number of these together. During your training sessions, work on a few different strokes to get comfortable and confident. This will let you make adjustments during the race without panicking.
Regardless of the strokes you use, the key to swimming successfully is to breathe well. When you stress your body, you will have the natural tendency to breathe fast to compensate and keep up with the demands your body is experiencing. However, the right decision is to breathe slower and deeper. If you can keep your breath slow and consistent, you will ease your mind and swim smoother.
Also, realize that while most of your training will take place in a pool, try to get in ocean or lake swims if you can; you will have to make adjustments to competing in open water. Practice picking your head up every 10 strokes to spot your target. Since most people tend to stray left or right when they swim-a problem worsened in open water that does not have lane lines to guide you-picking a spot in the distance and sighting it every 10 seconds or so will let you readjust and keep a straight line to the finish.
Having a training partner with the same goals as you can certainly help with your motivation, but it can also become increasingly more important if you want to train in the open water. Without the safety on a pool’s bottom only a few feet away, the open water can be a challenge, as currents, chop and poor vision can not only hinder you physically but can also scare you mentally. Practice in the open water so that race day is not a brand new experience, but have a person with you to insure safety.
While not as technical as the swim, the bike leg has a few elements that you should practice before heading into competition. First, when you train, work on maintaining a consistent cadence or pedal stroke. Pushing your legs to the brink and then resting is an illogical way to ride, and it will create early fatigue. Instead, pedal cleanly and steadily, making sure you understand the various gears your bike offers and when to use them correctly. Second, knowing that you will be traveling in a group, keep a straight line as you ride. Weaving back and forth becomes dangerous for both you and the other riders. Get your body into an aero position-a lower, more compact alignment-avoiding the desire to sit completely upright, which increases wind resistance and will make you work twice as hard for the same result. Finally, sit in the seat as much as possible, even on small up-hills, as getting up off the saddle to pedal too often taxes your legs and steals critical energy that you will need later in the run. If trained well, the bike can actually serve as a place for your body to recover from the swim and prepare for the run.
Use caution when starting your run training, especially if you are not a big runner now. Trying to do too much too soon will result in injuries, most likely shin splints or runner’s knee. Begin modestly, even if that means briskly walking and mixing in some short jogging intervals.Gradually make the jogging portions longer, and eventually you will have full running sessions.
As you grow stronger, you can begin to focus on your form. Work to create a comfortable stride that is not too short, allows you to have minimal contact with the ground, and permits a high kick at the back of the stride. Relax your upper body as much as possible; too much tension makes the muscles contract and actually steals the energy that should be reserved for your legs. Also, seek balance in your form. Do the same fluid motion with your left leg as you do with your right.
Many runners choose to train on sidewalks and streets, but too much road running can cause problems. Instead, do the bulk of your training off-road on trails, grassy areas or even a rubberized track. The softer landing will decrease the stress on your feet, ankles and legs, which will let you train more consistently and enjoyably. If your particular race will be run on pavement, make the transition to road running as the race gets closer, but do the bulk of your work on more forgiving surfaces.
Keep a Training Journal
Throughout the process, take the time each day to record what you did, what you ate, how you felt, what worked, what did not work and any other relevant thoughts to your experience. It helps to organize yourself mentally and express what you have done. Putting your training reflections on paper can serve as an additional source of motivation, a place to recognize mistakes or patterns, and an area to literally see your development.
In the end, training for your first marathon or triathlon has less to do with bodily endurance and more to do with mental fortitude. While the process will make you a physically stronger person capable of doing much more than you could only a few short months before, you will find the true growth within your character and will. Completing training sessions, as grueling as they may be, and eventually crossing that finish line, will inject you with a lifelong sense of confidence, and you will emerge from the journey a person who believes that anything is possible.