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Nailing Your First Race

12-week Training Plan for a Successful Sprint Triathlon

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By Molly Balfe, Co-owner Chris Bagg Coaching Group


Molly Balfe is well-known to any Wattie Ink. team member who has attended one of our Wattie Ink./CBCG camps. A veteran athlete and coach with close to two decades’ experience in the sport, Molly works to empower athletes regardless of level, whether they’ve just begun or are racing at the highest levels. Read on for her guidance to your first triathlon.
So you’ve just signed up for your first triathlon! Whether you were reluctantly roped in by a spandex-clad friend, or the feat has always been on your bucket list, we’d like to congratulate you on deciding to try your first multi-sport event. Unlike stepping into a simple running race, triathlons take an exceptional amount of courage, testing your comfort zones in at least one of the three sports. This training plan will help you reach your goals as you explore this new endeavor. Learn from our, um, mistakes (expertise?) and simply follow the recipe below to your successful—and fun—completion.
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Necessary Gear

If you’ve begun to gather information for your first triathlon, you’ve encountered a seemingly endless array of toys and tools on which you can spend your money. The fastest and lightest gear may help you at certain points in your triathlon career, but we recommend starting out with the basics. If you find you‘re up for more triathlon adventures, you can fill your closet as needed with gear appropriate for you. That stated, a few pieces of equipment are necessary to train for and complete your first race:

Bike

Repeat after us: “I do not need to buy a race bike for my first triathlon.” Pretty much any bike with working gears and brakes will get you through your first sprint. If you already own a mountain bike, hybrid, or entry-level road bike, that will work. True, a heavier bike may slow you down a bit, but you’ll have the chance to experience your first race and see if you want to invest in something more sport-specific.

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Helmet

This one is non-negotiable. All bicycle training and racing should be done wearing a CPSC-approved helmet. Same thing as above applies, though: it would be overkill to invest in a race-specific “aero helmet” for your first one.

Running shoes

Want to know which running shoes are the best? Guess what: it totally depends. We recommend you visit your local running store to have someone help you select a shoe that works for your specific stride and biomechanics. Fashionable fitness shoes may look rad, and deals from online warehouses can be a steal, but they might not protect you from injuries. You’ve likely been running already, so you shouldn’t make any major changes in terms of going minimal or more structured. In fact, the only major change you should make is considering quick-draw laces. Invest in a pair of running shoes, and break them in a bit before your race.

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Swim cap, goggles, and something to wear

Think about where you’ll be racing when you pick your goggles. If you’ll be in a pool, or racing on a foggy day, get clear lenses. If you’ll be staring down the sun at dawn, go for something tinted. Wear them for at least the time you think you’ll be swimming in your first race, and when in doubt, get something pretty. Speaking of pretty, you’ll need a “kit,” which you can learn more about here. It doesn’t have to be the fastest kit or tri suit out there. Keep it simple and comfy, and wear it before you race in it!

Watch

While this one isn’t entirely necessary, a cheap running watch can make a big difference in your triathlon training. You don’t need bells and whistles, but a watch that can show total time elapsed (and lap splits) comes in very handy. Many people use their smartphones for this function, but we believe it’s best to keep your smartphone away from your training and racing—too many opportunities exist for you to get distracted, or to focus on what your friends are doing.

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Following the Plan

This plan contains two workouts per week in each discipline (swim, bike, and run) as well as one strength session. You can download a version here and pin it to your fridge or bathroom mirror, which will remind you that you thought this was a good idea and that you wanted to do it. Ideally, you will complete each workout as written, but we know that life sometimes gets in the way, so if you’re time-limited, focus on completing the two workouts for the sport you struggle with the most, and at least one workout each for the other two sports in a given week. Don’t forget, too, that you’ll need to fuel your workouts and the race itself. Go have a look at our tips for triathlon nutrition here.
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We also included a few “brick” workouts in this plan, instructing you to run right after you ride. “Bricks” should be considered key workouts: they’re a perfect time to practice your bike-to-run transition, and they give you a chance to grow accustomed to how your legs feel right off the bike (hint: bad). These workouts are also great opportunities to practice your race day nutrition, which we’ll talk about below. Quick trivia session—why do YOU think it’s called a “brick?”


If you need a day off, or you’re just feeling blasted, take a day off! If you’re unsure, we suggest at least attempting the workout to see if you just needed a warm up to blow out the cobwebs. If you start the main part of the workout and it’s just not happening, then call it quits.


The majority of these workouts will be at an easy effort, especially during the first six weeks of training. In order to safely build up your endurance, you need to gradually increase your training volume. Even if you feel good, keep the effort level low unless otherwise indicated! A common triathlete trap is to make the easy stuff too hard, and then hard stuff too easy. Be patient! As with many things that you’re starting fresh: take your time, and enjoy the learning process. Don’t beat yourself up because you’re not “fast” yet—that will come, and fast and slow are relative terms, anyway. You do you, OK? For this plan, you’ll need to know the three levels of intensity, outlined below:

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