What to Know to Register for Your First Tri

As an 80s kid, I, like Hannibal (Smith, that is), love it when a plan comes together. This goes for my triathlon training, too. I’m downright giddy when, 12 weeks before race date, I see the workouts written on my calendar and finally get started.

This time of year, I’m itching to register for a race. If you’ve never completed a tri before, here are some of my considerations for race planning. I hope this gives you a helpful perspective. If you have any questions, please speak up in the comments.

Enjoy the ride. For me, it’s as much about the training process as it is the race day itself. I generally only compete in one tri per year. I’m a planner and an organizer, so checking off all the workouts is half the fun. (And, as I’m reminding myself in a fairly directionless January so far, having a plan in place helps ensure that I’ll actually do it.) Plus, I’m a working mama, and it’s hard enough to find time for everything that’s already going on, much less blocking off another weekend day. I’m feeling ambitious this year, so I’m planning to do a sprint and an Olympic, and possibly a half marathon (run only, NOT a Half Ironman) in the spring to, well, hit the ground running. I’m sure I’ll be keeping you posted on how that is going.

What do I consider in selecting the race?

• Mostly, date and distance. There are a ton of online resources to find a race that works for your schedule. I like active.com and runningintheusa.com, but just search “sprint triathlon” and your state, and you’ll come up with listings. Search more than one site because not all races will be listed on a a single site.

• Believe it or not, not all sprint races are the same distances. There is usually some variation in the swim, frequently in the bike, and rarely in the run, which is pretty consistently a 5k. They’re all still considered sprint races and slight variations won’t make a difference in your training, but, if a slightly shorter swim is less intimidating to you for your first race, by all means go for it.

• Does the race look like fun? Yes, I can be swayed by gimmicks: I’ve done races at an amusement park and a winery. This isn’t the main factor for me, but I’m always up for an adventure.

• How large is the race? See if there is a participant cut-off. I prefer smallish (a few hundred), locally organized races, which are less crowded and tend to be put on by people who really want you to have great experience. Large races have their advantages as well, especially that they are likely to be run smoothly, by professional organizers.

• In my experience, women-only races are quite beginner friendly, with a collaborative, “you go, girl” vibe. (Check out the Iron Girl series, which is both quite large and very beginner friendly.) Again, not my main consideration, but, if this is your first race, think about a women-only race.

• Is race-day packet pickup available? This can save time if you don’t live near the race site.

Follow a plan. Once you choose your race, register right away, so you have a goal and a financial commitment. Also bear in mind that there are early bird registration fees, so it pays to commit. Then, figure out your training plan. If you have a base level of fitness and are reasonably comfortable in the water and on a bike, you should be able to at least complete a sprint tri without a specific training plan. But don’t do that for your first race. Find a plan and stick to it. Most beginner sprint tri plans you’ll find will be 12 weeks. I have used Triathlete Magazine’s Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide for years. There is a plan for literally every distance and fitness level. You also could check out Your First Triathlon by Joe Friel. This is a step-by-step guide that includes not only a training plan, but also chapters on gear, race preparation, and more. Don’t worry if you miss a day here and there; you’ll still finish the race just fine, and might avoid burnout. That said, don’t make a habit of skipping.

So, now, get out there and get started. You’ll pity the fool who isn’t racing.

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