Picking your first triathlon (or biathlon) should be kept as simple as possible. If you are new to the sport, you have enough to worry about other than choosing the prefect race.
Before you make a choice, let’s first review the distances associated with each standard race. There are other distances out there, but these are the most common:
~12 Mile Bike
5K (3.1 mile) run
Olympic Distance Triathlon:
1500m (~0.9 mile) Swim
40K (~24.8 mile) Bike
10K (~6.2 mile) Run
Half Ironman Distance (i.e., 70.3)
1.2 Mile Swim
56 Mile Bike
13.1 Mike Run
Ironman Distance (i.e., 140.6)
2.4 Mile Swim
112 Mile Bike
26.2 Mile Run
You should choose the race based off your current athletic background. Going from off the couch straight to a Half Ironman or Ironman would not be recommended. Though if you have been running for a long time, maybe doing the occasional marathon and enjoy half marathons, then maybe a Half Ironman (i.e., 70.3) isn’t unrealistic. Below are more details on how to choose the distance:
Generally, most people do a sprint triathlon as their first triathlon…myself included. Some of the reasons to do a sprint first are:
Your background should play a large part of your decision. If you are new to any leg of the sport (swimming, biking or running), you should seriously consider doing a sprint first. Prior to my first race, I had been swimming and running for years but not biking.
Olympic Distance Triathlon
This distance is totally possible for someone new to the sport, and you will get a little taste of the longer distance. It may be more difficult to go from “off the couch”, but you could with the right motivation and time. It has many of the same positives for a first race as a sprint:
Some of the negatives for newbies include:
Half Ironman Distance
I would only consider this distance as your first race if you are in considerable shape. You must have a strong background in biking or running, and are a decent swimmer. Having your first race be a 5-7 hour long event may not be the best introduction into the sport, but it is a great goal. One of the more difficult aspects of a longer race like a Half Ironman distance is the nutrition (often referred to as the 4th leg of a triathlon). You need to worry about nutrition in all aspects of training and in all race distances, but it become more important as the distances increase.
I remember my first Half Ironman distance race (see the above picture), and how much the nutrition affected me. First to provide a little background, I was an avid runner and swimmer before I started triathlons. I ran 3-4 times a week and swam at least 2 times a week before I got into the sport. In 3 months I went from a Sprint at my local YMCA ( a pool swim btw), to an Olympic Distance the next month, and then a Half Ironman distance race called SOMA in Tempe, Arizona. The most interesting part of the race to me was the nutrition. I had done several 50+ mile bike rides by then, but the nutrition was still new to me. During the race I had a bar, Cliff Blocks, gels, peanut butter rollup, and pretzels. Every time I had a gel, bar or Cliff block, I had this sudden boost of energy which would only last a few minutes, which is a sign of poor nutrition management. Looking back on the race, my nutrition in the preceding weeks could have been better, and I probably needed more calories and salt. Salt tablets are another topic, which is highly debated.
I will not get into a lot of detail on the Ironman in this article. A person new to the sport should have a minimum of a year in the sport, and this should not be there first race. For a seasoned athlete, Ironman training will take 6-9 months of focused training.
It is important to understand how much training you need to determine which race is possible. Here are my general rules of thumb for a first time triathlete, but everyone is different:
Sprint Triathlon: 6 weeks minimum, 12 weeks is optimal
Olympic Triathlon: 8 weeks minimum, 12+ weeks is optimal
Half Ironman: 12 weeks minimum, 20 weeks is optimal
Ironman: Contact me and we will talk
You now know what distance you want to race, how much training you will need, and now you just need to choose one. Some people like the big race as their first (e.g., the New York City Triathlon, Chicago Triathlon), but I prefer the local one as your first…personal preference. They are all fun. The most important decision is to just make one and move on. Some good resources for finding races are trifind.com, coolrunnings.com, ironman.com, and active.com.
Next: First Triathlon Series Part 2 – The Equipment