“I couldn’t breathe. My heart was racing. How did I get myself into this?”
Let’s rewind a bit…
A hot, sunny December day with flowing vino, a reflection on the fitness events I’d done in 2018 and a sudden sense of “what’s next?”. “You can already run and cycle” – they said. “Swimming is easy” – they said. “Hmmmm, maybe it’s time I tried it” – I relented. Cue committing to entering my first triathlon in 2019.
I’m not a swimmer. I like the water, you know, on holiday, when it’s warm. But when it comes to actual skill? Let’s just say I’m more of a margarita-in-hand treader than a Penny Heyns. So I joined the #RoadToITU and signed up for a lesson with coach Steve Atwell. I found a proper (read: full) swimming cossie I bought at an adidas sale ages ago and the cheap goggles I got for a holiday in Bali and headed to the first meet-up. The friendly Embark tri crew lent me a swimming cap for the session and I nervously slid into the water awaiting instructions.
“Show us what you’ve got,” said Steve, with a follow-up instruction to swim two lengths. I couldn’t breathe. My heart was racing. How did I get myself into this? It was only 50 metres. I didn’t expect it to be this hard! To be fair, I had zero technique and couldn’t breathe out of either side. I kept lifting my head up out of the water to breathe like a whale.
Not the kind of splash I wanted to make on my first appearance.
After some technique correction, a whole lot of drills and repeats of “Don’t get discouraged. You’ll get it!” (from Steve), I ended my first swimming lesson exhausted and in awe of the athletes around me. I thought, “How am I ever going to swim more than 100m without stopping?”. But I’d committed to the Discovery Triathlon World Cup Cape Town and I was determined to get through it! Even if I doggy paddled the whole way.
After a lot more group training, I arrived on race day nervous as hell, struggling to put my wetsuit on and fearful of the water temperature. But I did it. A 750m swim followed by a 40km bike ride and a 10km run. And I did it in 2hours, 23 minutes, which was much better than I expected. I loved it so much, I’ve committed to doing my first IRONMAN 70.3 in Durban in June. And now as I gear up for my second triathlon, the Blue Lagoon Triathlon in Langebaan, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learnt along the way…
1/ The Training Is Time-Consuming
Be prepared to dedicate several hours to training every week. And by several, I mean about 8 hours. Work with a coach to get a proper training programme that includes long-distance running and sprinting, pool swimming and open water sessions and cycling drills and long rides out. You never know what conditions will present on race day, so learn to make the wind your friend! And, if you must, make use of indoor training equipment, like watt biking, spinning classes, treadmills…
2/ It’s Easier With A Crew
Knowing you have others to motivate you and keep you accountable means you’re less likely to flunk your training. Also, you might feel like your social life is taking a dive with all the early-morning wake-ups and evening training sessions, but having a crew and club means post cycle brunch with the gang and coffees after canal swims as well as actual glasses of wine after a big event. I am definitely driven by community and love knowing that I can spot a fellow team mate out on a race and have the support crew cheering me on from the sidelines.
3/ You Don’t Have To Buy Everything At Once
Ah yes, let’s talk moolah. So you need cash for the club, the gear, the coaching and the race events. It can seem like a lot initially, but there are ways you can save and build up gear over time. You can buy second-hand equipment for much less than brand new. Choose one or two items that you’re willing to spend some money on like a new trisuit or a good pair of running shoes and build up your gear over a few months. Enter races early on as there are often early-bird rates. Enter competitions to win entries. Share transport and accommodation. Your club might also have relationships with certain brands, so see what discounts you can get (or if you can pay something off over a few months).
4/ But You Do Need A Trisuit
I borrowed my friend’s old tri suit for my first race and while it served me just fine, I’m very excited to be getting my own new trisuit. It’s really handy because you can train for all three disciplines in the tri suit. You don’t need to invest in bib shorts and cycling tops, for example, or an additional costume. This can be your own piece of gear that gets you training all three disciplines.
5/ Practise Transitioning
I lost quite a bit of time on my first transition from out of the water and onto the bike. It’s important to practise pulling off your wetsuit while running and getting your cycling kit on quickly. Just remember: do not touch your bike until your helmet is on! So take the swimming cap and goggles off and immediately put on helmet and sunnies. Also, make sure your takkies are easy to slip on after the cycle.
6/ Work On Your Weaknesses
By now you know I’m talking about swimming for me. Everyone has one of the three disciplines that they feel less confident in than the others. While your coach will put together a good well-balanced training programme, be sure not to skimp on the sport that needs the most work. There will always be days when you have to work late or you get sick or you have to travel… Make sure you focus on strengthening your weaknesses and make up the time when you’ve missed something.
7/ There’s A Lot To Pack For Race Day
And here’s a handy list:
- sports bra
- swimming cap
- Racetec / timing chip and Velcro strap (to go around left ankle)
- extra hairband (tie this around bicycle handlebars)
- cycling shoes
- bicycle (with a bottle filled with race drink)
- Bike emergency pack (bombs, tubes, bomb adapter)
- a snack (I pack a banana which I eat at the beginning of the ride)
- socks that you can run and ride with comfortably
- running shoes
- running cap
- triathlon waistband (for your race number)
- Fitness tracker (watch/bike computer)
- A change of clothing for afterwards (something warm too)
- A positive attitude!
8/ Manage Your Race-Day Nutrition Carefully
Something I really struggled with after my first duathlon was getting a stitch while running after being on the bike. I drank too much while riding and also too soon before the run. Your body needs the right fuel on race day, but you need to manage what you have when to keep your energy stores high and your tummy feeling comfortable. So my plan is that I eat a good breakfast two hours before the race and I drink an electrolyte-packed drink an hour before the race. I have a banana/snack just as I get on the bike to fuel me for the next two events. Try and not drink for the 20 minutes just before you run and don’t drink too much.
9/ Get In A Good Headspace
There are a lot of nerves thrown around on race day and if you’re like me and struggle with anxiety, it’s really important to get yourself in a good headspace. You know your body is capable, so remind yourself of that. Do positive self-talk. Remember that you’ve chosen to do the race and that being able to do so is a privilege. Move away from any negative talk around you. Getting in the cold water is initially a bit of a shock to the system, so start off calm and slow. Focus on distance markers and see them as little goals and achievements throughout the race.
10/ Don’t Forget The Anti-Chafe!
Apply around your sit-bones (for the bike), your neck area (for the wetsuit), that area in the centre just below your breasts where your bra strap rubs (for the running) and any other areas you might struggle with, like the armpits.
Other Handy Tips From The Embark Tri Crew:
“Bring an extra pair of shoes so that you not barefoot while waiting for your start wave. Drink a whole bottle of juice during the build-up to your race, and pee just before you start racing. (Yes in your wetsuit!). Start slowly and find your rhythm in the cold water, then pick up the pace!” — Coach Steve.
“Get specialist technique training. I started running at 56 years old and quickly injured myself as my technique was incorrect due to sitting behind a desk for decades. Sean Tait was my run coach and got me running correctly within a month.” — Carl.
“Make sure you make enough time for proper rest and nutrition as training can be very demanding on your body. Don’t bank on your strengths rather identify and work on your weaknesses.” — Mallon.
“Have a bag for each event. A run bag, swim bag and ride bag. This means that when packing for a race or a training session you pack in stages and can focus on each bag. Currently, I have the following bags hanging up at home. Ride Bag, Run Bag, Spin Bag, Pool Swim Bag and Open Water Bag. It also means when you wake up late for a cycle you can just grab your cycle bag and you know it has your cleats, helmet, gloves, glasses, arm warmers in it. And pack a bottle of water to wash your feet after the swim so no sand in your socks.” — Evan.
“Go at your own pace and be comfortable. Listen to your body. Set yourself markers on course – mentally it will help you on race day.” — Percy.
“Taken in incrementally increasing doses, Triathlon will reshape your body…. and mind” — Roy.