How to Get Started with Triathlons in Alabama

Learn the basics to train and complete your first triathlon.
Learn the basics to train and complete your first triathlon. West Point - The U.S. Military Academy
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There was a time that triathlons were considered events for elite athletes, and the rest of us weren’t encouraged to try the challenging combination of swimming, running and biking. But, that’s no longer the case, as many races across the country are now structured to suit a wide range of ability levels, from beginners to elite racers. Since 2006, the number of triathlon participants in the United States has more than doubled, and more than 4 million triathletes competed in races each of the last two years.

Maybe you’ve thought about competing in a triathlon, but you don’t consider yourself a top-notch athlete, and you think this goal is too lofty. Well, it’s time to change your thinking.

Here we lay out the basics to get you started training for and completing your first triathlon. Whether you know it or not, by reading this you’ve already taken the most important step—getting started.

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If you don’t know exactly how to find a triathlon, trifind.com is a fantastic resource to get you started. Just set the search filter to limit your results to Alabama and you will find a triathlon near you.

Next, you should find a sprint triathlon that’s about three to four months away, which gives you plenty of time to train properly. Triathlons are broken down into different distances to allow for more participants. While you might dream of competing in an Ironman one day, for now start small, and work your way up. A sprint triathlon generally consists of a 400-meter swim, 12.1-mile bike ride, and a 5k run.

A few of the beginner-friendly competitions in Alabama are the Buster Britton, Mountain Lakes, Alabama Coastal, and XTERRA Oak Mountain triathlons. Go ahead and pay the entry fee, mark it on your calendar, and start training!

Wait, Don’t I Need New Gear?

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You don’t necessarily need a bunch of new gear. Of course, you could go out and buy a new bike and spend thousands of dollars on other equipment, but you should try to use what you have for this first triathlon. If you catch the triathlon bug and want to continue entering races while powering toward your Ironman goal, you can always upgrade later. And there is no better place to get caught up on the latest gear than at the end of a race.

However, there is some triathlon-specific gear you will need:

  • A bike and helmet. Anything but a beach cruiser will work.

  • Running shoes

  • Goggles and swim cap

  • A swimsuit

If you already have these, use them! If you’re concerned about being cold during the swim, you can legally wear a wetsuit until the water temperature surpasses 84 degrees. But, for your first dip in the lake, your floral print trunks are fine if it’s warm enough. Remember, focus on starting and completing this first race rather than thinking about all the shiny new gear you’ll use to finish your first Ironman.

Begin Your Training

There is no shortage of sprint triathlon training programs available online. Whether it’s a plan from an site like beginnertriathlete.com, or an in-depth brick regimen, the key is to pick one and stick to it. Or, better yet, join a group like Vulcan Triathletes, and get access to a wealth of triathlon training information from members and coaches.

Watch Your Form

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Everyone has heard the adage, "You practice like you play." A triathlon is no different. Training with proper form will increase your odds of having a successful first triathlon and will give you an advantage when you hit that halfway point of the run.

For the swim, rhythm is everything. As you spend more time training in the pool or lake, you realize how tiring swimming is, and as you prepare for race day it’s important to remember to control your pace. Jumping in the lake with a hundred other swimmers splashing all around you will get your adrenaline pumping, and if you aren’t accustomed to their pace, your race will be over before it starts. Remember, this first leg of the race is the building block to successfully completing your first triathlon.

With the bike, proper fit and form is key. Assuming you didn’t go out and get fitted for a new bike, here are a few simple checkpoints to ensure you’re riding a bike that correctly fits your frame:

  • While straddling the frame, there should be 1 inch of clearance between the frame and your pubic bone.

  • Your leg should be 80% to 90% extended when at the bottom of a pedal stroke.

  • The knee needs to be above the ball of your foot when fully extended, so adjust your seat accordingly.

If you’re uncertain about whether your bike fits properly, take it to a local bike shop to make sure. Also, train in the same shoes and similar apparel and gear that you’ll use on race day.

Once you’re properly fitted for a bike, keep your form in check with a few basics:

  • Keep your elbows bent but not locked.

  • Your head should be looking forward, while keeping your back arched.

  • Let your chest carry some of the weight by keeping your shoulders forward.

If you’ve decided to commit to a triathlon, there is a good chance you have a solid foundation in running. But, it’s never a bad idea to review the basics:

  • Keep your shoulders, back, and head up.

  • Aim to strike the ground with the middle of your foot.

  • Scan around 20 to 30 feet in front of you and keep your eyes forward.

  • Bend your arms at a 90-degree angle while leaving your wrists loose.

Set Goals

It’s always a good idea to go into an event with goals. They will help you push yourself when your mind is all-systems-stop. Whether you aim to complete the race without stopping, come in the top five in your age group, or finish within an hour, make your goals attainable yet challenging.

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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