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Triathlife: Jesse Thomas’ Advice For First-Time Triathletes

  • By Jesse Thomas
  • Published Mar 15, 2016
Illustration by Matt Collins.

Reclaiming the fun and enjoyment of being a new triathlete.

I checked my phone—1:15 a.m. I should probably go to bed, I thought. “Guys, I’m out! I’m doing a triathlon tomorrow!” “A what?” “Good luck!” “Later, man.” “I don’t give two sh**s about your decathlon!”

The chorus of bar-buddy support had spoken, so I took off, walked home and crashed hard. The 5:30 a.m. alarm felt like a buzzsaw in my brain, but for some magical and fateful reason, I didn’t turn it off, roll over and go to back to sleep. I swung my feet onto the floor, rubbed my eyes and slowly stood up.

Fifteen minutes later I was in the car cruising down the traffic-less 101 toward Pleasantville, where I would do my first triathlon, appropriately named Tri For Fun. As the sun rose, my zombie-mode exhaustion morphed into a nervous excitement about the unknown.

When I pulled into the parking lot and saw people scampering around in anticipation, unloading their bikes, getting body-marked and waiting in the Porta-Potty line, I was taken back to my high school days of Saturday morning cross-country and road races. Yeah, I was nervous, it would hurt, but the positive energy was overwhelming. In that instant, I knew it would all be worth it, and that I’d want to do it again.

The race itself reflected my beginner status. It took me about 12 minutes to swim 500 yards, and when I got out of the water, a guy asked me if I could help him take off his wetsuit, so I spent another minute or so doing that. I rode hard on the rural roads, and almost missed a couple of the turns. The run was, as all runs are, a sufferfest, but I kept at it, and 5K later, I was officially a triathlete.

Seeing others finishing, cheering and celebrating with post-race muffins, cookies and battle stories, I remember thinking, this is what I miss, this is what it’s all about. My last competition, five years prior, had been the U.S. Track and Field Championships, not quite the laid-back Saturday morning experience. Most of the time, my collegiate racing experience felt more like business than fun. But the low-pressure, inviting and lively atmosphere of this day brought the pure enjoyment of competition, exercise and challenging myself right back.

Clearly, my interaction with the sport has changed in the eight years since that Saturday morning—I’m a pro now, so there has to be a bit more “business” involved—but it also feels like the sport itself, even at the beginner level, has become more “business” as well. My hunch is that feeling is intimidating potential triathlon newbies, and maybe keeping some of them from entering the sport.

When I asked my readers what I should write about for Triathlete’s annual Beginner’s Issue, the majority of questions and ideas surrounded the intimidation factor. People talked about avoiding “tri jerks,” people at races with elitist, over-competitive and unfriendly attitudes. They mentioned feeling like they had to spend thousands of dollars on equipment just to cross the finish line. They were worried about the expensive entry fees and feeling adequate doing a sprint instead of a full Ironman.

RELATED – Triathlife With Jesse Thomas: Why Coaching Is A Smart Investment

In order to decrease that perceived intimidation factor, I cut away as much of the hype, pressure and over-information many beginners feel and gathered the few important takeaways from my first triathlon experience. My goal is to make your first crack at the sport as simple, friendly and inviting as possible. Here you go:

Pick a local, small, short, inexpensive and fun race. Tri For Fun was right up my alley, but there are lots of other local races that can serve as a less intimidating, affordable race for beginners. Ideally, you should start with a sprint-distance event. Some sprint races have pool swims, which is great for newbies as well. Find something that’s ideally 6–10 weeks out so it’s soon enough that you have to start training for it, but enough time that you can build a little fitness and familiarity.

Tell your family and friends—or don’t. There are two trains of thought on this one. If you think having family, friends and/or bar buddies involved will help you reach your goal, then involve them in the process. They can be supportive and encouraging and may also get inspired! If you think having them know about it will add more pressure, then just sign up stealth mode and then tell them about it afterward to their amazement and surprise!

Get a basic bike and simple gear. You don’t need a brand-new carbon, aerodynamic, lightweight, super crazy and expensive bike with a jetpack to do a triathlon. My first race was on a cheap, used aluminum road bike with clip-on aerobars, and I think jet packs are illegal. It’s worth it to get some basic clip-in shoes and pedals—get SPD brand because even if you decide you hate this triathlon thing, you can at least use them at most fitness studios on spin bikes. I think I spent about $500 on my first bike, $40 on pedals and $50 on shoes. That’s plenty to get you started!

Start exercising once a day, six days a week. OK, I am not a coach, but if you’re training for your first tri, keep it simple and you’ll be fine. Swim one day, then bike the next day, then run the next day, then repeat. Take Sunday or Monday off depending on your work/family/life schedule. Start very slow, short and conservative, then work your way up in duration as you feel your body adapt. When you feel you’ve got the hang of it, throw in a “hard” workout every 2–3 days, keeping the other days easy. If you do 20 to 60 minutes of exercise, six days a week for 4–6 weeks, you’ll be ready to do a sprint. Oh my god I should start a coaching company.

Relax and have fun (don’t overthink it). A lot of the questions I got from beginners were how to nail transitions (it doesn’t matter), specific eating and hydration strategies (just drink and eat a little bit) or technical bike questions they read about in some crazy forum (don’t do it!). Here’s the thing: Triathletes tend to be overly technical and type-A people, and there is a ton of information out there that dissects every piece of the sport down to a quantum level. But the majority of that stuff just gets beginners (and a lot of non-beginners, to be honest) thinking way too much about stuff that makes little to no big-picture difference, and only slows you down if it becomes a burden or crack of doubt in your confidence. Just relax and have fun. Work hard, and don’t sweat all the other stuff. Clear your mind and enjoy the day with as little pressure and detailed thinking as possible. Ultimately, if you like it, you’ll have plenty of time to digest ways to improve during your post-race muffin chat. Good luck!

RELATED – Triathlife With Jesse Thomas: Things To Know Before Turning Pro

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a five-time Wildflower Long Course champion, Ironman winner and the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com).

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