FUEL: 8 Common Issues Faced When Starting Your First Triathlon

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Darren Ho is one of our guest contributors for our sports series, FUEL. He is a triathlete who experienced a transformational weight loss from a peak of 150kg. Since then, he has participated in various triathlons – including the renowned Ironman. Darren has also shared about his experience with ADHD and autism in hopes of ending the stigma attached to mental illness. 

Some people call it the holy grail of fitness while some think it’s absolutely mad as to why anyone would combine swimming, cycling and running into a single event. One thing is for sure – regardless of which side you’re on, it is always a marvel to see these gladiators take the stage and push themselves for hours on end.

So the question begs – how do you begin doing your first multi-sport event and what does it take someone who has absolutely no background in endurance activity?

During the course of my journey I was fortunate enough to earn my Ironman coaching badge and one of the areas I help people with is in beginning their multi-sport experience.

Having worked informally with athletes, one thing noticed was the enthusiasm to get started would – in most cases – fade out once they realised that a multi-sport event would require a certain change in their lifestyles.

The reference to multi-sport events are usually quickly linked to full or “Iron” distance events where competitors swim, bike and run seemingly superhuman distances (3.8km, 180km and 42km respectively).

In reality, multi-sport events usually mean a combination of sporting disciplines, usually swimming, cycling and running in various distances.

Hence, when embarking on this journey, the athlete needs to be clear on what the end goal is because training for a full Iron distance requires a lot more commitment than training for a shorter distance when it comes to the time spent.

Here are some of the common issues athletes face when starting out on their triathlon journey :

1. Fear Of Open Water Swimming

In truth, this is the component that scares many athletes, even the most seasoned ones.

This is also probably the most uncontrollable aspect of the race because the sea could be calm the day before and wreak havoc on the race day itself.

Knowing that this is a common fear amongst many triathletes should be a relief to many and the advice would be to engage a swim coach to work on your technique.

With a sound technique comes the ability to brave even the hardest of currents and waves, enough to remain fresh for the bike and run portions.

2. Not Eating Properly Or At All During Races 

Many experienced triathletes will tell you how important nutrition is during a race and I believe that this is one of the leading causes as to why triathletes “bonk” or “hit the wall” (where they run out of energy primarily due to the lack of nutrition) during races.

Having experienced this on my own, it is imperative to practice nutrition on the go during training to ensure that the athlete’s stomach becomes accustomed to consuming food.

3. Not Spending Enough Time On Weaker Aspects And Hoping The Stronger Portion Will Pull Them Through

A common issue for many – and while some may get away with it during the swim portion – every aspect of the race requires training and is as important as the other.

The lack of swim practice will leave the athlete gasping for breath during the start of the bike leg, lack of bike training will leave the legs tired for the run and lack of run training will result in a much slower finishing time due to muscular fatigue.

However, this does not mean that the athlete should aim to be the strongest in all three aspects but rather ensure that the transition from each is not a torturous affair.

The most common aspect that is trained by all triathletes is the bike-run brick where a run is preceded by a bike session. This trains the legs to cope with fatigue.

4. Not Resting Enough

I cannot emphasise this one enough – too many of us simply do not rest to let our bodies recover from the impact of training every day.

There are scientific reasons for this but essentially – we only get stronger when we rest.

While some have reached a stage where they can consider a slow 5 – 10km run as an active recovery rest day, many others simply need to take the day off and eat (more on this later).

Sleep is also important – think of all the hours you can save if you were more focused on using your time properly.

5. Not Eating Enough To Fuel Training

With the increased load of training comes the requirement to consume more calories to keep the body fuelled and primed.

Even if on a weight loss regime, the body cannot be in deficit of more than 15% of its daily calorie requirement or the process of losing weight actually stops. The lack of energy stems from the lack of nutrients and this will impact the quality of the training during sessions.

Slipping into this vicious cycle has often led to many triathletes giving up on their journey.

6. Allowing Triathlons To Take Over Your Life

Triathlons are extremely addictive. The adrenaline rush of finishing a race and achieving a personal best timing makes us strive for more races and better timings.

Do remember that there is more to life than just racing. Many of us are not professional athletes and balance a life with work and family. Strike a balance and ensure that you are not neglecting what is important.

It is always better to train without worry and with the full support of your family rather than having to do it alone.

7. Obsession With Training Data

Hands up if you are guilty of this.

So many of us have become slaves to our smart watches and need to track everything to post on Strava or social media that we forget simply how to have fun. Try going for that long run, bike or swim without your smart watch and enjoy the process. It’s liberating.

8. Not Being Precise With Training Goals

Every session has its purpose. There’s this saying “if you want to go slow, go really slow and if you want to go fast, go really fast.” In short, stick to the purpose of the session.

Too many of us forget this halfway and end up either going too fast or not going fast enough, hampering progress.

If you have a coach, stick to the plan and if you don’t, ensure that most of your training is in the lighter zones (approximately 80%) and the rest are focused on speed and power, designed to improve your muscular thresholds.

As we choose this new lifestyle and embark on our first exciting triathlon, many of us will feel disappointed and discouraged when we do not meet our expected times or find it difficult to train regularly.

Triathlons are a tough sport but everyone faces the same dilemma, even the professional athletes and hence you are not alone.

Step back if you feel like you need a day off, lower the intensity or take the day off completely and come back the next day fresher and ready to fight again.

Like all endurance activities, the training is a long term process, not a sprint.

Onward.