Skip to main content
Beginner TriathleteTriathlon Training

A Guide to Starting Out in Triathlon

By February 18, 2011No Comments

 Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Brett Cornwright of

Many people consider triathlons to be one of the great tests of human endurance. A lot of sports-minded folks have seen or heard about the Ironman World Championships in Kona through the tape-delayed broadcast shown around the first week of December on NBC (the race is actually in held in October).

The Ironman, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run, is certainly a distance that most people can’t relate to, at least not at first. 🙂 However, the good news is that there are several different distances of triathlons that the average person can enter and comfortably complete with only a few months of training. Read on to learn more about the sport of triathlon and the things you should know before you sign up for your first race.

Distances and terrain vary from race to race, however, there are generally four different distances of triathlons:


  • 500-800 yards of swimming (pool, lake or River)
  • 12-15 miles of biking
  • 5K, or 3.1 miles of running

International (Olympic) Distance

  • 1650 yards of swimming (lake, ocean or River)
  • 25-30 miles of biking
  • 10K, or 6.2 miles of running

Half Ironman

  • 1.2 miles (2,200 yards) of swimming (lake, ocean or River)
  • 56 miles of biking
  • 13.1 miles of running


  • 2.4 miles (4,400 yards) of swimming
  • 112 miles of biking
  • 26.2 miles of running

It’s fairly easy to see what you are getting in to with each distance. Most people opt to start out with a sprint as it offers just a taste of what you can expect from the sport. There are, however, athletes that I know personally that started with the Ironman right off the bat. This is not what I would recommend, but if you are daring, have at it. 🙂 It all really depends of what kind of shape you are in now and what your experience level is with each sport.

Again, check your local rec departments or do a search on triathlons in your area. I guarantee you will find a race that is appealing in proximity, distance, and price of entry. A word to the wise though … triathlon is a growing sport and races fill up quickly. I live in North Carolina and our state triathlon series, the NCTS, opens up its races right at the first of year. So, be attentive to when your local race season starts and be prepared to sign on the dotted line when you see a race that fits your schedule and budget.

Things to Consider

1. General Fitness Level. What kind of shape are you in right now? Are you active, or have you been more watching than doing? 🙂 If you are in reasonable cardiovascular shape, you can complete a sprint triathlon in as little as two to four months of effort, no problem. You will need to work up to about an hour’s worth of steady aerobic activity, be it walking, riding a stationary bike, elliptical machine, whatever. Just get moving and give the individual sports of swimming, biking, and running a try to be sure you like them.

2. Training Plans. There are many books and web sites that offer fabulous training plans that will suit any athlete looking to complete any distance or race. Many of the these are free, some you can buy memberships to, and you could even go as far as hire a coach. Depending on what your goals are, you have decision to make. How much money are you willing to throw at your new hobby? How well do you want to do in your first race? Are you racing to finish, or do you have a specific time goal in mind? All of these will factor in to what works best for you right now. If it were me, I would choose a free plan from a reputable internet source, follow it to the letter, and finish your first race. Once you go through the process once, you’ll be better prepared for the triathlon addiction that ensues. 🙂

3. Bike. What kind of bike will you ride? Do you have a road bike, a mountain bike, or anything with pedals? 🙂 If you do, you’re ahead of the game. If you have chosen a local sprint or international distance for your first race, the bike really doesn’t matter that much. Many people complete triathlons on all sorts of bike. Do your first one and see if you like it before you go out and buy an expensive triathlon-specific bike. You can find cheap bikes all over Craigs List, eBay, etc., if you don’t have one. You can also simply borrow one from a friend and do some of your training on a stationary bike at the gym. Keep it as simple as possible for your first. You will also need a helmet. These range in price from an adequate one for $30 at Wal-Mart or a sleek $150 model at your local triathlon or bike shop.

4. Swimming. Do you have access to a swimming pool or a nearby lake that will enable you to work on your swimming? Many gyms have small pools that will suffice, as will local ponds, lakes, etc., in warmer months. Swimming is often an obstacle that scares people about triathlon. Rest assured, though, that many folks start out in triathlon without being able to swim, period. They take lessons and often quickly learn to be a more than adequate swimmer. If you haven’t done much swimming in your life, it’s a good idea to take some lessons, or look into one of the fabulous swimming programs like Total Immersion. Swimming is mostly technique, so getting it right the first time will pay huge dividends down the road.

5. Running. How far can you run now? Have you run previously, say, over the last five or six years? The answers to these questions will need to be assessed honestly by you. It is perfectly fine to walk in a triathlon. I have seen many elite athletes walking in short races over the years. 🙂 Running comfortably across the finish line is much more fun, though, I can assure you. Be prepared to work up to about four miles of running. If you can’t cover that distance now, don’t worry. Running is something that is a skill, much more than people realize. You can learn to be a better runner in a few hours by learning about proper posture, foot strike, cadence, etc. A book that I found immensely helpful in improving my running is Chi Running, which teaches you proper form and how to run from your core.

6. Gym Membership. Do you have access to a gym with a pool and stationary bikes or spin classes? This is a great way to train for a sprint triathlon in the winter. Many clubs offer triathlon specific spin classes, swimming classes, etc. You can go to your gym and do mini-triathlons anytime. It also gives you a good sense of how riding on a bike, then running for awhile feels, all in the comfort of indoor heating! A short run on the treadmill following a spin class is an excellent workout, and you have a built-in transition area in the lockerroom. Consider a gym in your area for convenient access to equipment and possibly new training partners.

7. Training Partners. Are you peers in to the sport? If so, you are in luck. If not, you need to get out and meet some like-minded individuals. 🙂 Triathlon is a lifestyle, as you will soon see, and if you surround yourself with people who excel at the sport, odds are you will, too. I would be willing to bet that there are more triathletes in your area than you thought. Do a search on tri-clubs with your city and see what you come up with.

8. Online Resources. There are several online resources which offer excellent tips, advice and other resources that will help make your first race a snap. Visit and and check out the forums these sites offer. Many of the questions you have will be answered right there.

Good luck! You are well on your way to becoming a triathlete!

Brett Cornwright, who writes a blog for triathlon beginners at, has completed two Ironmans, five half-Ironmans, along with numerous other triathlons of varying distances. He is also a father of infant twins and a full-time freelance writer. You can follow him at

Grand Rapids Triathlon

We are the largest independent triathlon and proud host of five USAT National Championships over the course of our ten-year history. While our event brings in some of the best athletes from across the country, we have also been named one of the Top 5 Best Triathlons for Beginners in the country according to Triathlon Business International. This triathlon event is a chance for athletes of all skill levels to compete on a scenic riverside course, perfect for the novice through the seasoned triathlete. Offering Sprint, Olympic, and Half distance Triathlons, Aquabike, Swim and Relay events, this USA Triathlon sanctioned event promises heart-pounding excitement from start to the finish.