How to Add a Triathlon to Your Race Season (And Why You Should)

Did you know that triathlon has been the fastest growing sport in the last few years? I’ll bet that if you run, bike or swim at some point you’ve already found yourself tri-curious. You may be already asking yourself “how hard is it?” “Would I live through it?” Or even “could I do that?” The answers to those questions are, not that hard, totally and oh yeah! But if you’re a single sport person you might not want to pull focus from your overall season goal. I’m here to tell you that you really don’t have to! I love me a good triathlon but I sill also get intimidated by the idea of doing one. It seems like so much right? Well If you’ve found yourself thinking about it, haunted by it or with your finger lingering over the register button then this post is for you. We’ll go through why you might want to do one, how to sneak one into your race season and what to expect when you do.

Why you should tri

Because it’s fun! But there are lots of different reasons to do a triathlon too. One really good reason is if you are prone to, coming back from or trying to prevent an injury and you suck at cross training. I have no actual statistics to back this up but most athletes come to triathlons as injured runners and fall in love. Triathlons are sort of a legal loophole for injured runners who really ought not to be running that hard or far. Since there are actually three sports you’ll be doing you pretty much have to run less and cross train more. Swimming and cycling are both pretty much zero impact sports so you get to maintain your fitness and run a little. 

If you’ve been running for a while now you can get a little bored as well both with the running and lack of new challenges. Well once you start doing triathlons your game is new once again. But… triathlons and triathletes can be a super intimidating bunch to the point it might scare you off trying. Don’t let that happen to you. You don’t HAVE to do everything that they do. You don’t need to have a carbon fiber bike, wetsuit or even clipless cycling shoes. You don’t need to do twice a days, brick workouts or hill climbs but if you want to you totally can. Despite what the tri guys and gals believe you can actually do a triathlon casually.

Your options

Triathlons are super long right? Well they can be and the Ironman covers 226 km even the standard (aka olympic) distance takes you through 51.5 km. With some training I believe almost anyone can cover the olympic distance. In about a year I think anyone can get there but the realities of triathlon scheduling means it might take you two years. Triathlons are held in the summer and if you start your fitness journey in the new year hitting one at the end of that season (early September say) could be pushing it but it is doable. It’s a great challenge for you to rise to in that journey.

The thing is that’s a pretty high bar of entry for new racers so the sprint triathlon (should be called half olympic) was born. This challenge is definitely doable your first season out in fitness. This is where I started. I don’t love the name sprint since I think it’s still a REALLY BIG DEAL and I think the sprint name minimizes that. Many newbie friendly races now offer a super sprint option which is a great place to start. I do caution you though for your first time, especially at a super sprint, there’s no need to spend on more than the basic gear. Here are all your options in case you’re interested:

Swim (km)Bike (km)Run (km)Total (km)
Super spint0.4102.513
Half Iron1.99021113
Iron man418042226

How to squeeze one in

I don’t think anyone is just casually adding a half iron to their race season without too much extra work. If that is you, good on ya but it’s probably most realistic to add a smaller distance. As a point of reference a super sprint is about the effort of a 10k, a sprint is somewhere between a 10k and a half and an olympic is probably a hair north of a half marathon in terms of effort. But since you’re doing three things instead of just running it doesn’t quite add up in the same way. It actually seems a tad easier. There are the three (or maybe just the first two) distances that are feasible to squeeze into a race season.

World’s littlest triathlete and her crazy matching auntie!

Option 1: To start a season. Unless you live in an ideal, no winter type climate this can be hard bordering on unreasonable. But if you are a runner who has a hard time running in the off season this can be an option for you. Some of us struggle to get running with no races on the schedule or just want a break from running all the time for a few months of the year. Also if your previous season was derailed by injury starting off with a triathlon is a good way to set your next season up for success. You could join a gym and use the bikes, treadmills and maybe hit up the local pool over the winter. Then you’d be in a good position to start your season off with a triathlon and be in great overall shape for all you running races. Look out for indoor triathlons if you live in a less than ideal climate there is usually one available early on. If you do an early one outdoors though check with a local dive shop about renting a wetsuit for race day as they may not really be optional.

Option 2: Mid season tri. This is a really great option, pick a long run in your training schedule for your big running race for the season and swap it out for a triathlon that will have you on your feet a bit longer or shorter than your big race. This is a great way to actually do your cross training along the way if you struggle with that. Each day that you’re supposed to be cross training go for a swim or bike ride instead. Work up to a distance a bit longer than your triathlon distance on the bike and in the pool on your cross training days as you go along. Then for one of your long runs do your race instead! I think you can do this for any long run on the schedule with no real effects on race day performance. However for confidence reasons you may not want to swap out your longest long run. This is a great way to break up the monotony of a training program AND actually get your cross training done this time.

Option 3: At the end of a season as a cap. Sometimes our big running race is relatively early in the season and it feels like it’s over too soon. If you have any degree of FOMO you may find yourself sad that your friends are still collecting medals while you’re all done. This is a great way to maintain your fitness and extend the time you spend active in preparation for next year too. I’m a firm believer that at a certain point each year you should be done running crazy milage for the year. Put another way you need to spend some time every year not in heavy training. If after your big running race you don’t want to be done quite yet you can transition to mostly swimming and biking. Capitalizing on the fitness you already achieved in your running race you can ‘start’ your swim and cycling training at long intervals right from the start. This is a great way to tackle a longer triathlon distances. The year I wanted to do an olympic I started the season by running a half and transitioning right into longer triathlon workouts soon after. Plus that forced cross training helps to round out your conditioning after all those miles run.

What to expect

I’ve written a lot on what to expect from triathlons and how to go about doing your first one a fair amount because I really think most runners would have a great time trying one. So I’ll keep this brief and in list form but click along for way more information where I’ve written something about the subject already. Okay so here goes:

Baby tri transition!
  • The officials and volunteers literally know everything there is to know. Ask them if you’re stuck on something.
  • The athlete briefing is super important, go and listen
  • No phones or watches are allowed
  • Most people there started as a runner
  • Parking will fill early, get there ASAP
  • You’ll probably get hooked

Triathlons are a great way for runners to round out their whole body fitness and have some fun. There’s a reason triathlon is the fastest growing sport around these days! You can pretty much do a sprint or super sprint with gear you probably already have so there’s no reason you have to spend a bunch just to play. You can check out my realistic triathlon training plans here if you want to tri in a more dedicated way! What brought you to do your first triathlon if you’ve done one? Are you thinking about it?

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