Getting Started in Triathlon: Part 1

Swim. Bike. Run.

What is this crazy thing called triathlon? Three sports in one event—usually swim, bike, and run, and usually in that order. It’s a great way to expand your skill set and your approach to training. You’ll probably have a background in one of the three sports, and you’ll probably find another is challenging. Good! Challenge is how you grow. I guarantee you’ll learn about yourself and redefine your perceived limits in the sport of triathlon.

Here is part 1 of a three-part getting-started plan to turn you—yes, you—into a triathlete. In this installment, we’ll examine equipment and choosing a race, with a training plan to give you four weeks of base-building in each discipline. In part 2, I’ll explain how to combine workouts and how to make a quick transition from swim to bike and from bike to run, including a look at what to wear. Your second four-week plan will involve some combination (or “brick”) workouts, as well as a focus on speed. Finally, part 3 will prep you for race day, with four weeks of race-specific workouts and a timeline and equipment checklist to get you ready to do your best on race day!


There’s no way around it: you need some gear for triathlon. At the very least, you need a bike in working order. At the upper end, you could get a custom-built titanium bike with carbon aerobars, electronic shifters, an integrated drink system, and race wheels with a power meter. (Got $15,000 rattling around in your pocket?)

Here’s what you’ll need to get started training for your first race. Most items you’ll already own or be able to borrow. You can upgrade later, if you love the sport (you will).


  • Goggles that fit well. You can test fit by opening the case at the store (it’s fine!), pressing the lenses against your eyes, and seeing if they will stick momentarily without use of the strap. If not, keep looking.
  • A wetsuit, if you’ll be swimming in a cold body of water. You can borrow or rent one for the race, or get by without if the water temperature is over 70 or so (depending on your cold tolerance).


  • A bike. Road bikes are great; hybrids and mountain bikes work too, especially if you can put on smooth, more narrow tires. Triathlon bikes come later in your career. (So do clipless pedals, unless you are already comfortable with these, in which case bike shoes and cleats are part of your equipment.) Your bike should be comfortable to ride. If it isn’t, take it to your local bike shop and see if they can tweak the fit. If you are considering buying a new bike, take extra care to choose a frame that fits you. You can change out everything else later on—including the color—but if it doesn’t fit, in the best case it will be uncomfortable to ride for any length of time, and in the worst case it will be unsafe to ride.
  • A helmet. Your helmet should fit snugly and hit mid-brow. Don’t wear it loose, and don’t wear it like an Easter bonnet.
  • A bike pump. Pump your tires before every ride. (Tires have a cheat sheet: they give a range of PSI on the sidewall. Aim for the center of the range.)


Obviously, you’ll also need workout clothes, including a swimsuit, a supportive bra, and sun protection. We’ll discuss race-day clothing in part 2.


Each year, the number of triathlons grows. You probably have many races to choose from in your area. Look for a sprint or super-sprint triathlon. If there are women-only races nearby, you’ll find they are a great way to try out the sport in a warm, super-supportive environment. Women’s race series include Athleta Iron Girl, Trek Women’s Triathlon Series, Danskin Triathlon Series, SheRox and Ramblin’ Rose.

You’ll find races online at,, and USA Triathlon’s website.

If you aren’t comfortable swimming in open water, look for an event with a pool swim. In these races, each athlete has her own individual start time, and the swim distances are shorter. If you feel strong on the bike, look for an event where the bike is proportionally longer (18 miles, say, instead of the 12 or so more common in a super-sprint event). If running is your thing, you might choose a race with a trail run, to let your technical skills shine. Also consider whether you like the heat or would prefer an early- or late-season race, when temperatures are cooler.


Each article in this three-part series will suggest four weeks of training for you. If your race is more than 12 weeks out, you can repeat a block once or twice. Since rest is important to your improvement, the fourth week of each cycle should be easier, to allow for absorption of the progressively harder work in the preceding three weeks.

As you should as you begin any new physical regimen, please check with your health-care practitioner before you start.

Here’s how your weeks could look:

Run Swim, bike Run Rest or easy swim or bike Run Swim, bike Rest
Run Swim, bike Run Rest or easy swim or bike Run Swim, bike Rest
Run Swim, bike Run Rest or easy swim or bike Run Swim, bike Rest
Run Swim, bike Run Rest or easy swim or bike Run Swim, bike Rest

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Note that, contrary to my running plans here on the chi, this table gives only suggestions of which sport to slot on a given day. All of your workouts should be easy and conversational at this stage, building an aerobic base and giving your body time to adapt to working in three sports at once.

Your personal comfort with swimming, cycling, and running will dictate how long each workout lasts. If you are new to swimming, twenty minutes in the pool, resting on the wall between each length, might be a killer workout. If you swam in high school or college, you might be able to pound out 4,000 yards in an hour and feel great. Similarly, if you are gaining confidence on the bike, you might find that twenty or thirty minutes of tooling around your neighborhood is plenty of work; alternatively, you might be up for a two-hour group ride if cycling is your thing. Ultimately, you’ll do well to have your peak bike ride take as long as your entire race will. That way, you’ll be confident that you have the endurance to go the distance.

The run, however, is where you need to be consistent. Build up to running (or run/walking) 30 minutes easy. If you are already there, you could slowly build that up to 45 minutes or more, in increments of no more than ten minutes added to the longest workout of your week. And since running is an impact sport, you should stay (or become) consistent in the number of times per week you run, so that your body can adapt to the stress. In this case, I suggest three. Swim and bike, however, are nonimpact sports (provided you stay upright on the bike!), so if you would like to add a third, easy workout in either of these sports, that’s fine. If weather doesn’t allow for outside riding, you can substitute riding a gym bike or taking a Spinning class, but remember that nothing compares to being on the bike you’ll race in.

Strength training, including Pilates and yoga, can be part of your plan, too. You might slot these workouts after your runs. For more on combining yoga and endurance-sports training, please see my books The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga and The Athlete’s Pocket Guide to Yoga.

For now, choose a race, get together your equipment, and enjoy your swimming, cycling, and running. In Part 2, we look at how to put them together into combinations that will begin to approximate your race-day experience.

Anne Marie Sebastiani

February 25, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Wow! This is a lot of information. Thank you so much! This is a great template for people to follow

And for any gals who live on the West Coast- in October there’s a Tri Girl Tri put on by Envirosports in in Napa, California. It’s a very friendly, fun, course and a great way to start or end the season;-)

Rachel Coleman

March 03, 2010 at 9:20 pm

This is EXACTLY the info I have been looking for. Seriously I was going to search for a Triathlon 101 training today. I am doing my first triathlon in July (nervous!).

Thanks for the example of the schedule. I am already running on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday since I’m training for a half-marathon (my third in 12 months).

On Tuesday and Thursday I workout at the gym or snow ski. I have been trying to figure out where the running and biking fits in. My race is 21 weeks away, so I’m going to stop stressing and start building my swimming and biking endurance.


March 04, 2010 at 4:57 am


You’re going to love your triathlon in July. It’s good to be nervous–racing gives us a chance to feel productive excitement about challenges, in a voluntary setting. You’re training not just your body but your life-coping skills!

If you have any questions, let me know.


March 04, 2010 at 12:35 pm

I also have been looking for some tri-athlon training. I just started picking my running up to prepare my body for half-marathon. My plan is to get a bike in the next couple of months and start incorporating that into my training. Thanks for this article. Just what I needed for some motivation.


March 06, 2010 at 5:47 am

Great article, Sage! Lots of good information to get started, but not overwhelming for the beginner! Glad to see that you are promoting the “down week” to allow the body to absorb, and recover from, the workouts. That is a key part of any training plan, but often overlooked.
(Sorry we missed you at the USAT Conference in Colorado! I was looking forward to your talk.)


March 10, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Great article. I just started with triathlons last year and look forward to having a better training plan this year. I’m excited for the next installment of your blog.

M'lou Arnett

March 12, 2010 at 12:03 pm

thanks for the article Sage. My first tri is this July. It’s only a sprint, though. The biking and running will be easy (I’m running half marathons at this point) but the swimming . . . scares me a bit. I guess I have time. I figured my survival instinct could get me through a 500M swim, if nothing else. I’m looking forward to more of your help on the transitions. (and swimming training tips!) Can’t wait!


March 12, 2010 at 3:18 pm

M’lou, the secret to the swim is balance and breathing. You can practice your breathing on dry land; consider how you will time your breath with your stroke and practice. This teaches you to take in a quick inhalation and to full exhale ALL your air slowly. For learning balance in the water, a few lessons are really worth the cost.

Good luck!


March 14, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Awesome info! I have just started to toy with the idea of becoming involved in triathlons, and this is the perfect info to get me started. Thanks!


March 16, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Great information! I’m looking to start training for my first tri in the fall and now I’m even more excited!


March 18, 2010 at 8:40 am

Don’t forget to check out for a listing of triathlon events around the world. The site also categorizes Women’s Triathlon events.

Lisa Racine

March 31, 2010 at 2:31 am

Hey Ladies on the East Coast! The Hagerstown Sprint Triathlon is a great beginner tri. It takes place in Hagerstown, Maryland on July 25th. It is a pool swim and the run in within the park. Check out for more information.


April 04, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Sage, I’m doing my first tri in August – in the Ramblin’ Rose series. I didn’t know how to swim, so I started taking lessons in November and can now do 25+ laps of front crawl. Woo hoo! Because of the location of my pool, it’s dangerous to do a swim/bike combo, but I have done some swim/run combos, and will add bike/run combos. Will it mess me up to not to be able to practice swim/bike together? I could use the stationary bikes at the gym but they are a completely different animal from my road bike.

Note to Athleta – why don’t they make a swimsuit that is chlorine resistant and has a real sports bra built in? I love Athleta’s styles for the beach but they fall apart in chlorine, even after meticulous rinsing. I finally had to order a swimsuit from England (!) that was chlorine resistant and has an integrated heavy duty sports bra that even a well-endowed woman can run in. I do however love Athleta’s Oceanside shorts to pull on over the swimsuit for running!


April 05, 2010 at 5:49 am

Congrats, Martha! You’re going to love the Ramblin’ Rose.

Here’s a way to simulate swim-to-bike without swimming. It’s fun, to boot. Set up your bike stuff as you’ll have it, then, in bare feet, do a few spins (like kids do, turning circles in place) and a few quick pushups. Jump up, run in your bare feet over to your bike, make a quick transition, and ride.

For an even more realistic effect, dump some water on yourself before you start, so you’re dripping wet. It’s tough to get clothes on when you’ve got beads of water rolling down your arms and legs. Better to learn how to handle that in practice than on race day!

Let me know how it goes!

Chris Weinkauff

April 05, 2010 at 7:46 am

Great information! I am a runner, having done my last marathon in October of last year. I run 5/6 days a week, my long run each week is between 12-15 miles typically. I love to run but decided being a lifelong runner meant cross training, so I began swimming and biking. Now I love the combination and have signed up to do the Malibu Sprint Tri in September. This week will be the first week of combination workouts for me, but I’m more than ready (other than getting my wetsuit in the ocean….haven’t done that yet). No new equipment, just some tweak to my mountain bike until I know for sure if tri’s are for me in the long run. Thanks for the input; I have been searching the web for just the right training plan and have yet to find it.

Team Athleta

April 05, 2010 at 11:31 am

Martha, thanks for the feedback. I’ve passed it along to our swim merchants.

Have you tried our Inspire Tank? It’s a favorite with our in-house triathletes for swim, bike and run. We have limited stock right now, but will be getting more later this month.


Catherine Dickson

April 06, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Yes, Michelle! The black paisley tank is especially nice, love the design!

Tara Pearcy

April 08, 2010 at 7:16 am

Thanks for the great training schedule. Triathlon is very intimidating for me. I am not very athletic, but I am thin and my husband is a Ironman triathlete so peopl just assume that I should be able to do a sprint easily. I am not sure I can even finish one. I am terrible runner. Any tips on improving my running and getting up the courage to actually enter a race?



April 08, 2010 at 7:40 am

Tara, I’ve written some pieces on running for the Chi; you can find them at

For the courage, how about enlisting a friend to train and race with you? And then take a deep breath and go for it. It’s so worthwhile. And your Ironman hubby can pay you back with support through training and cheering on race day!

Let me know how it goes!


April 10, 2010 at 4:43 am

Team Athleta – thanks for the response. However, I’m a full D cup and not the perky kind – in other words, I need maximum support! I think the Inspire tank is very pretty, but from the description it wouldn’t work for me. Judging from the clothing for triathletes (across all brands) most triathletes are sticks and not hourglasses. The Shock Absorber (available in tankini or one piece) I finally found works great for both pool and run. That said, I adore Athleta for casual swimsuits and have a drawerful!

Janet Smith

April 20, 2010 at 5:36 am

Thanks for the great advice for tri training. I am an avid runner, fairly good biker, and just getting back into swimming. My sprint tri is on Memorial Day. I NEED your other advide/tidbits before then so HURRY and post them! 🙂 THANKS!!!


April 23, 2010 at 9:17 pm

I’m so pleased to find this site as I train for my first triathlon. I would like to second Martha’s request for swimming/running clothing options for the full figure. I’m a DD and sadly the clothing option is a big concern as I try to find a top that will work for swimming and support me for running. I love Athleta’s swimsuits for casual usage, but want a two piece for competition.


April 24, 2010 at 9:21 am

Thanks for the information! I am considering doing my first triathlon this year. How many weeks should I budget for training to be able to do a sprint distance? I mostly run now, about 5-7 miles runs a few times a week. Not much experience in swimming or biking. Thanks!


April 25, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Hi, Stephanie,

The answer is: it depends. The first step is to get moderately comfortable with the swim, ideally under the guidance of a swim coach or a masters group. Once you can swim relaxed, you’ll have a lot more energy for the bike and run. Second step is to get a good-fitting bike to ride, and start riding. Depending on your swim skills, you could be ready to finish OK in a month, or it might take much longer.

Your body takes 6-8 weeks to adapt to training, especially in a new sport, so that’s a good rule of thumb. More is, obviously, better, but don’t hesitate to sign up just because the race is soon!

Hope that helps!


April 27, 2010 at 5:19 am

I am 49 and doing my first sprint-tri in Sept. I am giving myself plenty of time to train.I am very active. I was hiking and showshoeing all winter up the local mountain, snowboarding and strength training. P90X program, I highly recommend it. Anyway, I have been biking as soon as the roads were dry and I love that.I am good at that, running however is a real challenge. I have hurt my IT band already. It kills where it connects to my hip! What can I do? I am taking a week off, is there anything I can do to speed recovery or training I can do that won’t make it worse?


April 27, 2010 at 7:11 am

Terri, you should be sure your hip strength is on par with your leg strength. Pilates is very good for building hip and glute strength. You might also try my IT Band yoga routine. You can find the video here:

Sometimes foam rolling helps the ITB. But that’s palliative care—get to the root of the problem by getting a PT to check your hip strength. Good luck!



May 15, 2010 at 11:39 am

Hi Sage,
I’m 20 and plan on participating in my first “mini” triathlon (500 yd swim, 16 mi bike, and 5k run) in mid July. I’ve been running and am fairly comfortable on a bike. My only concern is the swim (its in a lake) and preparing for it because I don’t have easy access to a pool or lake. First of all, is it too late to start my training now? The race is about 8 weeks off. I’d appreciate your advice!


May 16, 2010 at 5:35 am

Hi, Meghan! Eight weeks is plenty of time, but you’ll need to get in the water, ideally a few times a week, and build to swim 500 continuously. Comfort in the water–and the endurance to get through the distance–is way more important than speed. And that comfort and endurance come with practice. See what you can find for swim options, or make a trip to a nice lake a good day trip (you’ll need to bring a friend).

Good luck!


February 25, 2012 at 10:12 pm

Hi Sage,
Thank you for all the great info! My first sprint triathalon (750m swim, 13 mi bike, 3.1 mi run) is mid April. I’ve been training for a month and focused mainly on the swim and run. Cycling is my strongest event of the 3. I can swim a mile comfortably and feel pretty confident and the run will be my least favorite. I have a recurring calf strain which flaired up 2 weeks ago after a 3.0 mile. I have been swimming mainly and cycling on a recumbant bike for the last 2 weeks. Iced initially, lots of foam rolling, massaging and stretches. Any suggestions for my training and building endurance while also healing the calf with less than 8 weeks to go? Thank you for the advice and all the tips here!!

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