60-Second Guide: Triathlon

There’s no denying it: triathlon is the sport of the moment. Statistics show more than 100,000 Brits raced the triple last year, turning out at 400 different UK events.

Single-sport athletes looking for their next fitness challenge, those fending off injury and time on the bench, exercise first-timers looking to shed excess pounds once and for all – more and more people are succumbing to the tri fever currently sweeping the nation.

Going For Goals

The UK tri season runs from April to October, and events vary significantly in terms of length and location. Don’t fancy swimming in the choppy, open seas? Then start with a pool-based time trial. Worried your bike-handling skills won’t hold up on hills? No problem, choose a pancake-flat course.

Most events fall into one of three racing distances (see below), though some fixtures also offer a super-sprint (shorter than sprint) or middle-distance (between Olympic and Ironman) option.

Triathlon Race Distances
Sprint 750m swim, 20K bike ride, 5K run
Olympic 1.5K swim, 40K bike ride, 10K run
Ironman 3.8K swim, 180K bike ride, 42K run (marathon)

Between each leg is a stage known as transition, giving you time to prepare for the next discipline (for example, removing your wetsuit or parking your bike). Don’t relax too much though – every minute you spend in transition will be included in your official finish time.

If you’re just starting out, a sprint event can be ideal for finding your feet, but don’t rule out the possibility of toeing the line at an Ironman after as little as nine months hard training. Just look to our resident tri team, the Pirate Ship of Fools, for proof.

Scrimp, Save or Splurge?

Hang on a minute, won’t you need to remortgage to fund this new pursuit? Actually, no. Set yourself a reasonable budget and you’ll soon discover it’s easier than you think to make cost-effective kit choices.

First things first, a basic suit, cap and goggles are essential for the swim leg. Of course, if you’re planning to race in open water, you’ll also need a wetsuit. This needn’t set you back a small fortune - most major triathlon shops (such as triandrun or TriUK) offer a suit rental service with the option to purchase further down the line, ideal for triathlon first-timers.

Next, head to your local bike shop and get fitted for a set of wheels. Try not to be distracted by the look and feel of the high-end racers - a reasonably-priced road model should suffice for your first few events. Fixing up an old bike can save a few pounds too, but make sure it’s road-worthy before climbing in the saddle. Helmets are also compulsory - look for an officially-recognised safety certificate first and foremost, suave aerodynamic styling second.

A good pair of running shoes (and a sports bra for the ladies) should be the final items on your must-have kit list.

Of course, if you're coming to the sport from scratch, you might want to consider opting for a triathlon 'start-up' package. Most triathlon retailers offer special deals which include a wetsuit, bike, helmet, running shoes - as well as other race day essentials - for as little as £500. Try TriUK or Total Fitness for starters.

Variety is the spice of life

How you choose to structure your training week will depend on your current fitness levels and sporting background, as well as work and family commitments. Here are five handy tips to bear in mind before taking the plunge:

  1. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. Most triathletes admit to favouring one sport over the others but unless you put the hours in across all three disciplines, you’ll struggle on race day.

  2. Build up slowly. If you’re coming straight from the couch, then start by training just three times a week. Those who already possess a solid base fitness level can afford to clock up more frequent sessions, but remember your body will still need time to adapt to new training demands.

  3. Rid yourself of the myth that cutting back on your favourite sport will have a negative impact on your performance. Time spent pursuing different disciplines can actually improve your success in a particular sport.

  4. Don’t underestimate the importance of rest days. True, high levels of cross-training will lessen your risk of injury, but working too hard across three different sports can still lead to overtraining and exhaustion.

  5. Back-to-back workouts – known as brick sessions – can be hugely beneficial in the latter stages of your training, not only in terms of preparing your muscles for race-day but also for practising the logistics of transition.

Bikes, boats and bungees

Triathlon isn’t the only multi-sport event to be enjoying a nationwide boom at present. Both duathlons (run-bike-run) and aquathlons (swim-run) are increasingly popping up on the UK racing calendar, as are more ambitious adventure races, including sports as diverse as orienteering, kayaking and abseiling.

Still after more advice? Here are five longer reads to pore over later...
(RW+ indicates magazine subscriber only)
  • BIG Triathlon Index
    Training programmes, gear ideas, nutrition guides and race-day etiquette – everything you need to know about three-legged racing.
  • The Swim Leg RW+
    Jump in at the deep end with our lowdown on swim training.
  • The Bike Leg RW+
    Why two wheels are better than none when it comes to cross-training.
  • The Run Leg RW+
    Your running needn't suffer from adding cycling and swimming to your training schedule.
  • The Pirate Ship Of Fools
    Introducing our unofficial forum tri club.