Training for Your First Triathlon is No Joke

The author prepares for her training swim. Photo by Phil Hospod.

When my good friend Tania, who helped cheer and pace me to a personal best in the 2009 Chicago Marathon, suggested we do a triathlon together, I figured now was as good a time as any. I could swim, bike and run, right?

The Peterborough Sprint Triathlon, part of the Subaru Triathlon Series in Ontario, Canada, was the appointed race: 750-meter swim, 20K bike and 5K run. I put myself to the test on Sunday, not entirely sure what to expect. I’d set out with the best of intentions, but my training had been less than stellar largely because training for a triathlon takes a lot of time—a lot of time.

The Bike

I spent much of my winter months banished to physical therapy as I tried to ease the pain of my newly diagnosed arthritic knee. My PT sat me on the bike and told me to pedal.

Um, biking is not exactly my forte. Let’s just say that wheels and I don’t get along. I dreaded the endless string of roller-skating birthday parties that seemed all the rage in the ‘80s when I was in grade school. Around the same time, my best friend and I argued about whether we’d bike or walk to summer swim practice. We compromised; she’d bike really slowly and I’d jog beside her. As I grew older, I added hating driving to the list, and gleefully sold the only car I’d ever owned when I moved to New York City as an adult. My hatred for wheels is well documented.

So the prospect of getting on an actual bicycle—which I hadn’t ridden in over a decade if not closer to 15 years—was slightly terrifying. So I didn’t. I rode the spin bike at the gym about twice a week, followed by mini brick runs.

Come race day, I’d gone on exactly two real rides: one on my boyfriend’s bike that I quickly bagged because his bike was just too big, and one 20K ride in Central Park on a road bike that I rented for the hour. The ride left my seat so sore that I didn’t do another ride—gym or road—until the race.

Thus my strategy for the bike portion of the race was simple: just survive.

The Swim

Swimming on the other hand is, well, like riding a bicycle to me. I was a competitive swimmer as a child and teenager with my fair share of blue ribbons, Chicago district championships and Illinois state medals to my name. Though I haven’t swum competitively in 18 years, getting in the water felt like coming home. To me, water is like a warm blanket that just envelops you.

My boyfriend surprised me at Christmas with a new pair of goggles and a pool membership after listening to me mumble for three years about how I should really start swimming again. Thanks to him, I finally got back in the pool after countless years away. I swam about once a week from January through March, until I started running more again.

Come April, my swim training was even less consistent than my bike training. Between April and race day, I swam exactly once. I just couldn’t find the time or the energy to get myself to the pool. I kept opting to run instead. Perhaps I was a little cocky about the swim—750 meters seemed like nothing. Earlier in the winter I’d been swimming more than double that in the pool in a half-hour’s time. Still, the tri would be in a murky lake, not a clear pool. I’d have no wall to rest on and lots of other flailing limbs mucking about.

I knew better than to take the swim for granted. But I was secretly counting on my confidence and comfort in the water to carry me through.

The Run

This part would be cake, I told myself. I’m a runner. That’s what I do, albeit not too fast. And yet, I spent most of my training running, since I was itching to hit the pavement again and get back to where I left off in November when arthritis struck. I recognized that I probably should have been sacrificing a few runs to sneak in some more swims and bikes, but I just really, really wanted to run. So I did

I slowly eased back into running after a few months away. After a while, I started attending speed workouts with my running team again. I even snuck in three races: a 4-miler, 10K and 5K, where I managed to run my fastest 3.1 miles ever.

Tania prepares to plunge. Photo by Phil Hospod.

The No-So-Dry Run

The week before the race, Tania and I hatched a plan. We mapped out a 650 meter out and back swim at a lake in rural Quebec, where we would both be for the 4th of July weekend, along with a 3.5 mile run.

It was the perfect mental preparation for the race. The lake was cold and dark, much like we expected in Ontario. We got to practice “sighting” while we swam, looking up from time to time to see where we were actually going. And we got the feel of open water and the distance under our arms and legs.

Freshly wet from the swim, we powered through an unbelievably hilly run. It felt like a 3-mile uphill slog punctuated by a few flats in the 85-degree sun. With that behind us, we’d done two segments of the tri we’d face the following weekend.

I felt strong and capable. Only the bike still made me quiver. So what if my training had been minimal at best? I could finish a triathlon, right?

Read on to find out.

Karla Bruning is an award-winning journalist and running nerd. She has completed four marathons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.

Karla Bruning

About 

Karla Bruning is a race announcer at the TCS New York City Marathon + other major events, TV host for the New York City Triathlon + contributor to Shape, Redbook, Runner's World + other publications. She used to report for Newsweek but spent her free time squeezing in workouts. Now it's her job. She's run 8 marathons, 30 halves, 10 triathlons + open water swims. When she's not running, talking about running or writing about running, she's snuggling her baby, spoiling her dog + compulsively traveling.

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07 2011

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