Triathlons: 6 tips for beginners

Are you considering training for a triathlon? Discover what type of triathlon is right for you, and find six expert tips that will help get you started with training.

What kind of triathlon is right for you?
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In 2008, superfit entertainer Jennifer Lopez completed her first triathlon in Malibu, Calif., in two hours, 23 minutes and 28 seconds. Her personal trainer, Gunnar Peterson, joined her on the half-mile swim, 18-mile bike ride and four-mile run, though he wasn't racing himself; he was simply there to help keep Lopez motivated.

Keen on trying a triathlon, but can't afford to hire a high-performance trainer, J.Lo-style? Not to worry!

"If you can swim, ride a bike and run, you're in essence already a triathlete," says Libby Burrell, the Whistler, B.C.–based director of high performance for Triathlon Canada and a former coach of the South African Olympic triathlon team.

What kind of triathlon is right for you?
Once you've decided to commit to your first triathlon, the first step is to choose one. To accommodate different skill levels, there are several types of triathlons composed of varying distances, including a sprint triathlon, an Olympic triathlon and a full or half Ironman.

A sprint triathlon involves a 750 metre swim, 20 kilometre bike ride and 5 kilometre run, while an Olympic triathlon features a 1.5 kilometre swim, 40 kilometre bike ride and 10 kilometre run. A full Ironman consist of a 3.86 kilometre swim, 180 kilometre bike ride and a 42.2 kilometre run.

If those sound too daunting, a "try-a-tri" might be your best bet. There aren't really set distances for these shortest of all the triathlons, and in some cases the swim portion may be in a pool rather than in open water. Generally, a "try-a-tri" is made up of a 300-500 metre swim, 7-15 kilometre bike ride and a 2.5-4 kilometre run.

"Regardless of your fitness level and which triathlon you choose, you need to set specific goals and create a program to carry them out," says Burrell, 56, who has completed several triathlons since her first in 1992. "That will be critical to both success and enjoyment."

It's important to keep in mind that most triathletes don't set out to finish first.

"It's not about winning," says Burrell. "It's about finishing and clocking a personal best time," she explains.

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