Time to try a tri: Top tips for beginner triathletes

Triathlon: a word that strikes fear into couch potatoes everywhere. For many, the idea of swimming 1,500 metres, cycling 40k and running 10k back-to-back fills them with dread.

But the image of triathlon as a sport for ‘Ironmen’ is changing, and it’s now more inclusive than ever before.

I am a runner who has recently attempted to turn her hand to this hugely popular multi-discipline event. Last year I did my first sprint distance race, and this weekend I completed a Go Tri event for novices at Roundhay Park in Leeds.

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Most new triathletes are those who feel confident in one area and are developing their endurance in the others. However, some are complete beginners, attracted by the prospect of personal achievement in a rapidly-growing sport.

Open water swimming is for many the most intimidating aspect, and I too felt apprehensive about immersing myself in the cold, dirty water of a British lake. In fact, I’ve found the experience refreshing; in a good wetsuit, you hardly notice the temperature, and I’ve never felt ill after a ‘wild’ swim, despite the various creatures living in the murky depths. If you’re nervous about swimming freestyle, you’ll be relieved to know that not everyone attempts the crawl; at shorter distance events it’s common to see breast stroke, although it’s slower and less efficient. It’s best to learn freestyle if you want to improve your times, but don’t push yourself into it too soon if you don’t feel comfortable.

On the cycle, it’s tempting to envy those riding specialised tri bikes, but an entry level road bike or hybrid will do fine at first. You’re better off learning to pace yourself and work on your handling - you can lose vital seconds by missing gear changes at key moments. Try and improve your uphill speeds, as everyone can descend at a good pace, but a strong climb can set you apart.

Running is most people’s preferred discipline, but be warned that even a 5k will feel very different to a training jog. Your legs have to adapt instantly to the change in motion from pedalling to running, and I’ve found my limbs feeling weak at this point. Luckily, after a few hundred metres you’ll pick up a more regular rhythm, so don’t give up! Taking on an energy gel at this point is prudent.

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Triathletes are captivated to the point of obsession by the variety of kit on offer, but you don’t need anything too advanced. A race belt is useful for enabling you to transfer your number front to back. Wetsuits are expensive to buy but can be hired cheaply via a mail order service. It’s fine to cycle in your running shoes if you’re not used to the mount. Tri suits are versatile but normal sports gear is acceptable too, especially in cooler weather.

The atmosphere at triathlons is always incredibly supportive; you’ll find helpful volunteers and friendly fellow competitors. I only just made my wave time on Saturday thanks to a complete stranger helping to pin my race number onto my top. I saw men and women of all ages and sizes, some with physical disabilities, competing together and having a great time. It really is a sport for all. Triathlon clubs now have a diverse membership with plenty of sessions for beginners as well as the elite stream.

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