So You Want to be a Triathlete

So you want to be a triathlete, do ya? Do you know what you’re getting yourself into? Let me see if I can describe what you can expect if you’re coming into the sport brand new, i.e., a newbie, or have done a few triathlons with a minimal amount of training or commitment. If you’re interested in making a serious, or somewhat serious attempt at racing, versus just training as you like, then racing and having low expectations with regard to when you finish or how high up in the standings you finish, then here’s what you need to consider.

Focused training typically involves working out 6-7 days a week, so are you ready to commit to that? Juggling training, a job or school, and family commitments requires a high degree of time management skills, to incorporate your training into your lifestyle, are you able to do that? And not only are triathlon entry fees going higher and higher, but buying all the gear, paying for pool time, maybe paying for coaching or personal training, and/or other club memberships, can get pricey, so are you prepared to commit to that? Let’s look at each of these in more detail to break it down.

To develop the proper sport specific skills and muscular adaptation in each of the three sports, you should be doing at least two workouts a week in each sport, so without going right into working out twice a day, you’ll be working out six days a week. This doesn’t include other workouts that you might add to your schedule, like strength training, yoga, Pilates, etc., or other fun things you like to do, to go along with your swimming, biking, and running. If you’re wondering how you’re going to fit it all into each day of the week, week in and week out, and you already “have a life”, then you realize that something has got to give and typically it is your other social activities that take a back seat. For many serious or long distance triathletes, their social life quickly resolves around their training and hanging out with other like-minded athletes. One local Ironman distance athlete refers to Ironman as her boyfriend! Sure you can see your other non-triathlete friends at night (and bore them with stories of the epic workout you just did or the really cool training gear you just bought!), but if you’re getting into the early morning, pre-work workouts, they might think you’re a bit odd when you’re heading home at 9-10PM, just as the party is getting started.

As far as juggling training and other aspects of life, single people have it a bit easier than those already in a relationship or with families, at least initially, being more flexible when they can come and go, as long as your work schedules (or studies for those still in school), allow it. Of course if you’re self-employed then maybe it’s easier to juggle your schedule, but especially those that are independently wealthy, lucky you! Anyone with a fulltime relationship, and/or children, will have to work out an agreement, sooner versus later, with their significant others to determine how they can fit their training into their already busy life and not completely disrupt how things run around the house and when they’ll be available to pitch in to help. Again initially this all seems pretty easy to work out, especially if you’ve been pretty active before, maybe coming from a single sport background, but now you have to manage three sports, easy and hard workouts in each sport, each week, and do some body maintenance to help work out the kinks from the hard training, i.e., stretching, massage, or yoga. Your early morning routines may also change, getting up earlier to squeeze in a workout before work, or to get to work earlier to get in a workout at lunch (don’t forget about having to shower and still eat lunch, refueling the machine), or to leave work earlier to get in that longer ride at night before it gets dark. There is a reason many triathletes start hitting the sack earlier at night, as early to rise means early to bed, not to mention being more tired from all your activities.

And finally, the cost of training and racing. If you come from a pool swimming background, aside from paying for your pool time, your annual costs are probably pretty low, replacing swimsuits and goggles as needed. If you’re also an ocean swimmer then you probably already own a wetsuit, which tend to be pricey, so you’re ahead of the game. Cyclists come into the sport already owning a bike and riding gear, which even if they’re not triathlon specific, are fine to get you started in the sport. Eventually as you develop and see where you’re going in the sport, you’ll probably start purchasing things like clip-on aerobars for your bike, maybe race wheels or an aero helmet, and when you really decide to commit to the sport, an aero triathlon/TT bike. If you’re not a cyclist they you’re seeing the dollar signs start to really add up, even at the start up level. Runners are kind of like swimmers, in that you don’t need a lot of fancy gear to compete, maybe a nice watch or HRM (Heart Rate Monitor), only needing to replace your shoes as they wear out, typically 250-500 miles, depending on the kind of shoe and your running style, and then new running tops and shorts as needed.

The 800 pound gorilla in the room is the actual costs of each triathlon. Back in the day races could be done for $50-75 for the shorter ones, and $100 and up for the longer ones, and there wasn’t nearly as many races or choices as you have now, but those days are gone, long gone. You might still find a sprint tri for $75, if you sign up early or it’s a local event, while Olympic distance races seem to start around $100 for the smaller races, or those with less logistical issues, like multiple transition areas, which can easily cost $150. For the moment, focusing more on newer triathletes, I’ll ignore the $200-300 fees for other long course or half Ironman distance tris, but keep that in mind if you think you’re going to progress in the sport.

After the inaugural NYC Ironman triathlon in 2012, which was I believe then the most expensive race in the Ironman series at $895, the fee for the 2013 race was raised to $1200, ouch! The race organizers justified the cost increase, 34%, based on the complicated race logistics, and was subsequently cancelled when almost nobody signed up due to the sticker shock and reports of too many issues with the first race. This just gives you the idea that the cost of the bigger, non-local races, can be very expensive. I’m not even talking about the other fees involved to get to these races, including airfare or gas, hotel, eating out, etc., but pretty soon you’ll find yourself having to spend a lot of money to do just one race. Eventually many a triathlete plans their “vacation” around destination races to partly justify or offset the costs of having to travel to do them. A certain local triathlete, no names please, went all the way to New Zealand to race, turning it into a three week vacation.

If you’ve gotten this far and have never really considered all that it would take and cost to race triathlons on more than just a casual or local level, then I hope you now realize that the sport is not just about being able to swim, bike, and run. In time, triathletes, who can tend towards being obsessive with their training and preparations, start examining all aspects of their life looking for ways to improve. Eating, drinking, and sleeping habits are examined, as well as up to and including where they live, their jobs, the aforementioned vacations, who they hang out with, are all open for discussion and change.

So if you think you still want to be a triathlete and are prepared to deal with everything I’ve said, and you think that you can still do all this and have fun (because if you’re not having fun then why are you bothering to do it?), then I’d say you’ve already taken the big first step and you’re ready to commit. I hope your journey as a triathlete is a good one, and that you can become the best triathlete that you can be.

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