Want to try a tri?

By: Alison Dunn Jul 09, 2010

Triathlons are one of the fastest growing recreational sports. Here's what you should know before you try one yourself.

It's often considered the ultimate test of athleticism; the holy triumvirate of sports. It's the only sport where you test yourself in three different areas and if you make it to the end, you can officially call yourself an athlete.

It's a triathlon, and according to "Ironstruck" Ray Fauteux, a 14-time Ironman finisher, it's now one of the fastest growing sports in the world. "It's becoming a mainstream sport, and people from all levels of activity are doing this," he says.

A triathlon is broken down into three areas: swim, bike and run. Depending on the challenge of the race, triathlons can vary in distance, including:

Try-a-tri: Varies depending on race, but is generally 400m swim, 10km bike and 2.5km run.
Sprint: 500m swim, 20km bike and 5km run
Triathlon: 750m swim, 30km bike and 7.5km run
Olympic: 1.5km swim, 40km bike and 10km run
Half-Ironman: 2km swim, 90km bike and 21.1km (half marathon) run
Ironman: 4km swim, 180km bike and 42.2km (marathon) run

Whether you're a runner, rider, swimmer or weekend warrior, triathlons are appealing to many because most people feel it's an intense physical challenge – but one that's also doable. Even the Ironman, considered the pinnacle of athletic achievement, has opened itself up to the masses.

"It's getting pretty mainstream," says B.C.-based triathlon coach Paul Regensburg. "If you go to an Ironman, you won't believe the variety of different types of people that are at an Ironman. You'll see all kinds of ages, body types and sizes."

And for most triathletes, the goal isn't to be the best in the world. It's just to know they've done it. "It's really a completion type of event," says Regensburg. "It's a challenge. Most people just want to cover the distance."

The top rookie mistakes

Still, lots of beginners don't do the right type of planning and end up injured, putting their triathlon dreams on hold. If you're thinking of taking the plunge (not to mention the ride and run), here are some of the most common mistakes beginner triathletes make.

Not getting the go-ahead: Too many people don't see their doctor before starting to train for a race, says Fauteaux. Triathlons (particularly the longer distance ones) are tough and you need to be sure you don't have an underlying problem before you begin. "If there's anything physically wrong with you, it's going to come out," Fauteaux says. As an added bonus, by getting your doctor to record your vital stats and health before you start training, you'll be able to see how much your health improves at the end of training.

Not getting the right training plan: According to Kevin Cutjar, a five-time Hawaii Ironman finisher and triathlete coach, one of the worst mistakes rookies make is getting their training plans from magazines or friends who have completed triathlons. Many don't want to pay the $100 or $200 for a structured training plan, but that is really what's going to get you through your training, he says. A good plan will make sure you're using your time effectively and not wasting any on junk training. It also builds upon itself, helping you build endurance and proficiency in each sport. Besides, the cost of a training plan is minimal compared to the other costs (bike, wetsuit, running shoes, entry fees) of doing a triathlon.

Only focusing on what you're good at: If you're a runner, you might be tempted to focus on running and only do enough swimming and biking to make it through. That's completely backward, says Cutjar. If you've already been running for a few years, you need to bring your swimming and biking up to speed. Focus on the areas where you are weak and improve those, and you'll be strong enough to make it to the end.

Treating every workout like it's a race: Maxing out your performance every single training swim, bike ride and run is a recipe for injury, Cutjar says. The key to a triathlon is building your endurance. You should train at a moderate pace for about 90 per cent of your training, only pushing yourself for speed in some of your workouts. Just be patient. Train slowly and the results will come.

Going gung-ho on the equipment: There is a lot of fancy triathlon equipment out there, and since many new triathletes also have a lot of disposable income, the temptation is great to buy the fanciest bike, wetsuit, or other triathlon gear. But much of that is not only useless for the beginning triathlete, it could end up causing injury. Take a top-of-the-line triathlon bike; often, those bikes force the body into positions that are not effective for the beginner (they are really designed for the pros). Fauteaux recommends starting with a good road bike instead, and getting it fitted to ensure it is right for you. There will be time enough for the fancy equipment later.

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.