In 2011, I found myself in a fitness rut. I was bored, unchallenged and felt pretty unmotivated. Up to this point I’d run numerous half and full marathons. I liked having a goal race in front of me, and I found I geeked out on having a training plan/calendar I could follow. I needed that goal race, but I didn't want to run another marathon. Running was really what I excelled at in the world of sports, so how could I incorporate that, but differently?
My gym, Pure Austin Fitness, was pretty much the triathlon training headquarters in Austin at the time. Just about everyone at the gym had competed in, or was training for, a triathlon. They had master swim classes, brick workouts, awesome cycling classes, weekend run groups and a quarry where triathletes could practice open water swims.
I’m gonna be honest, I was pretty intimated by these “triathletes.” Deep down though, I really wanted to take a stab at the sport. I tried not to let the intimidation factor get to me, but just being around all these amazing athletes made me want to be one too! There was only one problem, I didn’t know how to swim AT ALL.
While the swim is the shortest leg in a triathlon, it was also the greatest hurdle in my decision to start the sport. Thoughts of drowning during my first race came to mind. Swimming was a big deciding factor for me and I almost gave up, but I didn’t.
I researched adult beginner swim lessons and found a program through the City of Austin. The class was eight sessions at a local pool by my house. So in eight short sessions, I too could be an expert swimmer, right? Wrong! While the sessions were great, they only taught me the very basics of freestyle swimming and they were in a pool, not the open water. As I came to find out later, open water swimming is a totally different experience. But, the class did give me a foundation and the many months of practice gave me the confidence.
So I had done it! I had “learned” how to swim, or at least how to not drown. With the greatest hurdle for me now conquered, I committed to signing up for my first triathlon. Next big decision, what race to choose? In the spring and summertime in Austin, there were no shortage of race options! I needed a beginner friendly race for women, and that’s why I chose The Danskin Women’s Triathlon.
With the Danskin on the horizon, I needed a support system. I recruited two of my girlfriends to train and race with me. This would be their first triathlon as well. With the help of the internet, I came up with a simple sprint-triathlon distance training plan. I spent lots of extra time in the pool, since I was still such a newbie. I was super freaked out about the swim portion of the race and I made practicing the swim a huge focus of my training.
Me and my training buddies decided the weekend before the race we would do a mini race on the actual course. It was a great way to get familiar with the course itself and to practice transitioning. Transitioning can be a little overwhelming for a newbie. How do I go from swimming in that big, gross lake to riding my bike? I don’t get it? Do I dry off? Do I change? Where are the changing rooms? What do I change into? Where the hell is my bike again?? All this stuff comes with practice, and that’s what we did.
First was the swim. We decided we should practice the full 500 meters since it was such a “short” distance (meanwhile, I’m panicking about how FAR that is!) and we all needed open water swim training. This would be my first attempt EVER at an open water swim. I took a deep breath and jumped in, focusing on the freestyle stroke I’d recently learned, but when I started breathing to the side, I COMPLETELY freaked out! I had a total panic attack in the water. There’s no bottom to this lake, or if there is, I can't find it! There’s no end to the lake…it goes on F.O.R.E.V.E.R! Oh my God, OH MY GOD, OHHH MYYY GODDD, I’M GOING TO DROWN. I tried to push through, but I was hyperventilating so bad I couldn’t breathe. That would end my swim. I failed that day. Completely.
We went on to practice the bike course, which went ok, but I was still pretty freaked out by my open water experience. Last was the run, which was my expertise. I started running and I couldn’t believe how wobbly my legs felt. Up to that point, I’d never practiced what they call, in the triathlon world, a “brick” workout, (a bike and run workout back-to-back). I could hardly put one foot in front of the other, but I powered through. I was amazed at how tired I felt and how hard that 5k run was. It was a real eye opener.
After three months of training, it was time to PROVE I COULD do this! I had gone to my gym a couple days before the race and practiced another open water swim in the quarry. Going into the practice swim, I knew what to expect this time and I did OK. I didn’t panic, and that was the important thing. I was going to put the panic attack behind me and power through. Race day finally came.
My training buds and I arrived super early on race day to stage our gear in the transition area. With our transition areas set, we waited for what seemed like an eternity, and all I could think about was the swim. They finally called my age group for the swim and we all marched into the water. I chose to stay in the back, and off to the side, as I had read this was a good position for newbie swimmers. The horn sounded and we were off! I maintained my perfect freestyle form, breathing side to side, while remaining calm. Very calm. Then I got kicked in the face (yeah, that happens). I recovered quickly and got back into my zone. Finally, I could see the final buoy…I was ALMOST to the swim finish! I was really going to do this, and I did it! I got out of the water with such a sigh of relief. I had officially finished my first open water swim and I was off to transition to get on my bike.
I finished the 12-mile bike course without any problems, and I felt pretty good on the run, but noticed I felt so tired afterward. I was good at running, but running after swimming and biking was so much more challenging. Finally, I’d crossed that finish line! I’d done it. I had completed my first triathlon, and y’all, I felt so good! I was so proud of myself, and I was hooked. That race in 2011 would be a huge fitness milestone for me and would start a whole new journey for me.
For my first triathlon, my key takeaway’s were:
Training for a triathlon requires dedication and consistency, but there is a point when the typical athlete doesn’t have any more hours in the week to train. Between work, family, and personal commitments, not to mention trying to not overtrain, most aspiring or active triathletes have a lid on their possible training time. How can you get faster or build endurance without adding more training time? One way is to add more intensity to your training time, and the other is to add more precision. I am going to provide a few ideas on how you can make your training more precise and take it to the next level.
Here are three ways to make your training more precise, and maximize your workout time.
Measure Your Power.
Understanding your power output while training is a surefire way to be more intentional about each and every workout. We have all had runs or bike rides when we go out and seem to just get in a rut. We go through the motions, but really have no idea if it was a quality workout or not.
One way to change that is by measuring power. On a bike, the most common ways to measure power output are by using a power meter, or if cycling indoors, by measuring wattage on a smart trainer or wired bike. Using either device allows you to keep yourself honest on your rides, making sure you are pushing it hard enough on the days when you want to train above your functional power threshold, but also helping you to not push too hard on the days that are meant to be more base-building and recovery-minded.
A power meter is a component that goes on your bike, and can measure your overall wattage output during a ride. There are several ways to install a power meter, but our favorites tend to be the ones that come in the form of a crank arm, a pedal, or a wheel hub. We did an entire piece on power meters here, where we go into depth on the pros and cons of various meters. Note, they are not inexpensive devices —they often cost $500 and up.
A smart trainer is like a traditional indoor bike trainer, but with more advanced technology to measure your power, speed equivalent, and simulate riding conditions like hills. For those who mainly want to measure power while riding indoors, a smart trainer can be a great way to accomplish this without modifying your bike. You usually use a smart trainer with an app like Zwift or Sufferfest. The difference between a smart trainer and the popular Peloton service that you see advertised is that you use your own bike on a smart trainer, and connect to whichever app you like best. It is a topic that can be pretty involved, so we profiled power meters and apps in depth for you, here.
You can also measure estimated power on runs, with more advanced running and multisport watches. We expect that technology to evolve rapidly in coming years.
Customize a Training Plan.
It might seem obvious, but having a plan to follow helps your training be much more intentional and precise. We still see lots of triathletes who are “winging it” when it comes to their training plan. They know which race they want to do, and give themselves a few months to train, but beyond that they just meander their way through training.
While you can pull any number of training plans off the web, we like the ones that have some level of customization for three things: Your base level of fitness, your goals, and your available time. One person may be doing their first-ever triathlon, hoping to finish, and trying to train with 4 hours per week. Another may be a seasoned athlete, looking for a podium finish, and able to devote 10–12 hours a week to training. Those two triathletes would be silly to use the same training plan.
If you have the budget for it, consulting with a local coach can be a great way to customize a training plan. The plans we like best tend to be the ones with a weekly prescribed tempo, rather than a rigid daily plan. Life happens, and you might have a kids’ activity on the day that calls for your intense brick workout, or it might be raining on the day that calls for a 2-hour bike ride. A week-by-week plan will give you the flexibility you need.
Keep a Log.
The workout log is one of the most underrated, least expensive, and simplest tools available to your training. Logging your workout, distance, speed, effort or output, and how you felt can be very powerful. It can also be a useful tool to correlate certain workouts with injuries or soreness, allowing you to adjust in the future.
You can use an online app or site to log your workouts, but you can be just as effective by simply keeping a notebook log. I use a small notebook, and on the left I have a day-by-day summary of the workout I did (and just as importantly, a big dash when I did not workout), and on the right I make notes about how I felt. Was I fast? Was my hamstring tight? Was my knee sore? Was I nursing a cold? I also note my weight about once every 2–3 weeks, so I can monitor a longer-term trend.
This type of log will not only help you spot injury trends and keep yourself honest in your training plan, but it can be very useful if you decide to consult a coach to amp up your training to the next level.
Thank you to Paul from completetri.com for helping out as a guest writer for this blog post. Complete Tri has a wealth of resources including gear reviews, tips, and advice for triathletes of all abilities. All of their information is free, and a portion of their revenues goes back to community triathlon clubs like ours.
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