After years of marathoning at a high level and a string of injuries, Sara Whatmore decided she needed to be kinder to her body. She was already cycling, thanks to her husband, so she decided to throw swimming into the mix and turned into a triathlete. "I've always enjoyed testing my endurance and setting big goals," the elementary-school teacher says. "Triathlons give me the opportunity to continue to push myself while being mindful of the amount of impact I put on my body."
Whatmore isn't alone. According to USA Triathlon, the sport's governing body, membership was at an all-time high in 2013. In order to compete in USA Triathlon-sanctioned events, athletes must be members of the organization.
Training to tackle all three events (swimming, biking and running) can be daunting. Even for Whatmore, who had many running and swimming races under her belt, being able to string these events together required doing research, putting a training plan in place and updating her eating habits.
"I did look at a lot of training plans in books and online to get some ideas, but I mostly created a plan for myself that fit my schedule," Whatmore says. But she remained flexible about getting her workout in. If a group of friends were going on a bike ride that didn't sync with her training calendar, she'd make adjustments so she could be social while sticking to her plan.
AJ Johnson, a coach for D3 Multisport who is also a USAT-certified coach, says that training plans are key and often underutilized by beginner triathletes. Training for all legs of the race and all of the possible demands on your body will set you up for a successful event, even if you are stronger in one area than another. "I think many athletes train what they are best at more than they should. Balance is a key in triathlon, so take time to bring up your weakest leg of the race," Johnson says.
He also suggests that athletes do a "brick" workout (a bike/run combo) to see what it feels like to jump off the bike and onto the road. He didn't add these into his training for his first triathlon, and when it came time to transition into the run portion, he was surprised at how wobbly his legs felt. Again, he stresses, think about the demand you are placing on your body and train accordingly.
Nutrition is also an important component to training and competing. While Johnson is not a nutritionist, he has done enough races and coached enough athletes to know how integral nutrition is. For shorter triathlon distances (sprint or Olympic), he suggests some water and a gel during both the bike and run legs. For longer distances (half-Ironman or Ironman), it can get a bit tricky because your stomach is probably going to reject most solid foods as the day progresses. What should be highlighted, though, is that you should never try new things on race day. "Work on your nutrition plan in practice, and know what you need and what works best for you (before the race)," says Johnson
For any beginner triathlete, once the training comes together and you're confident in your eating habits, relish in what you are working toward. "I enjoy having such a variety of activities, places to go, gear to use and people to see. One day I'm at the lake, and then I'm riding up a mounting, and then I'm running at the park. It keeps things fresh," Whatmore says. And keeping things fun is one of the biggest tips that Whatmore has for athletes just getting into the sport. If you're not having fun, it's not worth it.
For Johnson, the fun comes from being able to help athletes reach their goals. "I've coached some athletes to their very first triathlon, many to their first Ironman and some to the Ironman World Championships," he says. "Some have lofty goals, and others just want to finish with a smile."
That's great advice to any athlete: Smile and have fun.