5 Worsts & Bests of Triathlon Training


triathlon-leah-june-2016-01-1One evening during the summer of 2014 I decided I wanted to do a triathlon. At the time I didn’t own a bike, had never run more than a mile in my life, and had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. Maybe I was just bored or maybe I was losing my mind. I may never know what really drove me to sign up for that first sprint triathlon, but I do know that I’m glad I did. I am currently, probably as you read this, out training for my second half Ironman. In the time that has passed between now and that day in August when I panted across the finish line for the first time, I have learned that training for a triathlon is simultaneously the best and worst thing I have ever done.

Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Waking Up Early

Why it’s the worst:

I work a full time job and also have to figure out a way to put in 10-13 hours of training each week. There are just not enough hours in the day. To maintain an even somewhat normal schedule, and avoid riding my bike around at midnight, my days have to start early. That includes weekends. There are days I don’t get home until after 8:00pm from work and the next morning I am dragging myself out of bed to throw myself into the pool by 6:30am. Saturday mornings I am in the kitchen making eggs by 6:00am, wondering if there will ever come a day where I get to sleep past 7:00am. Some days it is almost impossible to get up, especially thinking of the long workout ahead.

Why it’s the best:

After suffering through the initial misery of waking up before 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning to go out on a 40-mile bike ride, things usually start looking up. I’m awake, eating breakfast, and watching an episode of the Golden Girls as I get ready to go. As I head out on my bike I get to ride with the sun as it rises. There are hardly any cars out on the road and everything is quiet. It’s just me, my bike, and the world. I start to think that maybe I am not the one missing out on sleep, but that everyone sleeping is really missing out on life. Some mornings I get back from a 9-mile run or 3-hour brick workout, endorphins flowing, and realize it is only 10:00am and I have the entire day ahead of me. I tell myself, look what you accomplished while everyone else was asleep. Aren’t you glad you woke up early?

  1. Buying Triathlon $tuff

Why it’s the best:

When you are training for a triathlon and are exercising six days a week, you need more clothes just to make it through the week. And unless you have a laundry robot, you are going to want more than one pair of running shorts. Athletic clothes, to me, are cute, empowering, and a lot of fun to shop for. When I was first starting out and someone would try to tell me I didn’t need more shorts I would say, “Uhm, I have to work out 10 times this week. I’m getting the shorts.” Having a basically perpetual excuse to go look at cute workout clothes is a dream come true.

Why it’s the worst:

It’s no secret that triathlons are not an inexpensive hobby. I try to tell myself that it’s okay and there are worse, expensive hobbies I could have, but that doesn’t make running clothes any cheaper. As I mentioned, I didn’t own a bike or even a pair of running shoes when I first started. But soon after my first race I began to realize there was a lot of stuff I was going to need. Bike shoes, running shoes, shorts, shirts, swim suits, goggles, socks, wetsuit; the list is endless. Running shorts are not the same as cycling shorts, which are not the same as triathlon shorts. Cycling shirts are not the same as triathlon shirts. And as if that weren’t overwhelming enough, it isn’t just clothes you need. There are bike parts, swimming equipment, energy gels, electrolyte powders, water bottles to put the electrolytes in, water bottle cages to put your water bottle with electrolytes on your bike. You get the point. Every day there is some new piece of equipment or a new flavor of an energy gel. If you aren’t careful, you could spend your entire life ordering things you “definitely need” from swimoutlet.com, slowly going completely broke.

Tip: It can seem impossible at times to not get swept up into thinking you need all the stuff. Especially when you are surrounded by people with $5,000 bikes and fancy triathlon suits at every race. Remember that having a cute tank top or a less beat-up-looking pair of shorts will not make or break your race. I can run just as fast in a crappy t-shirt triathlon-leah-june-2016-03-1as I can in a $45 Nike top. It’s what you do, not what you wear, that defines you. Please note that this is excellent advice I am giving here, but that doesn’t mean I am always great at following it.

Tip: If you are just starting out, the amount of things you are going to need will seem overwhelming. Try to spread out your purchases across a long period of time. Eventually you will accumulate it all. Prioritize the things you will absolutely need for a race, like a bike.  Leave the less important items, like the two-toned teal running tank top of your dreams, for later.

Tip: Purchase a good pair of triathlon shorts and a triathlon shirt. You can bike and run comfortably in both of these so it will save you from having to get separate shirts and shorts for cycling and running. Woo!


  1. Muscles

Why it’s the best:

One day, sometime during training for my first half Ironman, I was out shopping with my mom. I was looking at something, probably workout clothes, when I heard her yell, “Leah!!!” I spun around, pretty sure that I hadn’t been touching anything breakable, and saw her staring at me with her eyes nearly popping out of her head. “Look at your legs!” she said. She was referring to the new muscles that had recently appeared in my thighs from cycling, which I
hadn’t even noticed until that moment. I looked up into the mirror nearby and said, “Whoa, when did those get there?” It is pretty incredible to watch your body change and to watch your muscles grow, muscles you didn’t even know you could have.

Why it’s the worst:

This season I am training a little bit harder than I was last year and it is definitely showing. My legs are kind of enormous. Even though I know it is cool that I am getting new muscles, it is sometimes hard to stay positive. Mostly because none of my pants fit. I recently had to get rid of a pair of my favorite work khakis because, in an attempt to sit cross-legged in a chair one day, part of the seam in the thigh started to rip open.

Thanks to swimming, my back and shoulders are not exactly petite. Trying to wear a dress and not rip something is a challenge I have pretty much given up on. My non-workout wardrobe is now very limited and I wonder daily at what point I will just need to start shopping for new things. On the bright side, I am wearing workout clothes about 90% of the time and at least then my legs and shoulders are free to be themselves.

  1. Food

Why it’s the best:

Training requires exercising a lot, which in turn requires eating a lot. I eat at least every two hours, regardless of what time it is. I no longer eat just breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I never have any idea what time it is or think about which meal I am eating. I eat whenever I am hungry and that is okay, which is awesome.

Why it’s the worst:

I mentioned that I now eat something at least every two hours or so. That might sound great in theory, but the problem is, if I don’t eat within that period of time, the world as I know it starts falling apart. I have to really plan ahead so I don’t starve or lose my mind while I’m at work. Imagine the feeling of being extremely hungry. Now imagine that you just swam 2800 yards and you left your food in the fridge at home and you can’t find a single item of food in your entire office. You start to panic as you think about the next nine food-less hours that lie ahead of you. You think you’ll never make it. You’ll never survive. This is the end. Even if you do manage to make it through the day, you have ruined your next day of workouts, you have maybe ruined your training completely. How could you forget to bring the food? Who has something to eat??? Maybe I could eat these post-it notes? This is the scenario I have to remember when I am feeling too lazy to pack food for the day. It takes a lot of work to avoid turning into the i
ncredible hangry hulk and to keep myself hydrated and satisfied. But for everyone’s sake, I try to keep plenty of food nearby at all times.

  1. Commitment

Why it’s the worst:triathlon-leah-june-2016-04

Training for a triathlon means you never get a break. It isn’t just about waking up early or never getting quite enough sleep. It’s about waking up every single day and getting it done. Even on your worst days, even on the days when you wonder why ever started doing this. Even when you feel completely defeated and are so ready to give up, you have to keep moving forward. There have been so many days where I wake up and think to myself, “I just can’t do it.” Moving past those feeling of self-doubt and the constant fear of failure is one of the most mentally challenging things I have ever faced. It is easy to talk about doing long workouts and working out six days a week, but it is a lot harder to actually do it. Running is hard. Getting in the cold pool at 6 a.m. is hard. Cycling all alone for three hours is hard. Running after cycling for three hours is hard. Continuing to run when you want to give up more than anything is, some days, nearly impossible. Working to keep your body and mind healthy, hydrated, and happy after everything you put them through is a full-time job in itself. You can’t be lazy. Not even for one day. Not even for one moment. It is a commitment that requires time, energy, emotion, strength, and sacrifice every single step of the way.

Why it’s the best:

On that summer evening when I decided to do a sprint triathlon, I was not a triathlete. I wasn’t even in shape. I could swim, but that was about it. I hadn’t played a sport in high school or college. I had never run more than the one mile they required us to run in school for gym class. I was pretty sure I could ride my bike 10 miles, but I didn’t really know. I started going running and had made it up to maybe six miles when I signed up for the 2015 Steelhead Ironman 70.3. A 70.3 race consist of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run. In a word: insane. I remember I told a very experienced triathlete that I had signed up and I will never forget what she said. “Wow, you really picked a hard race for your first. But I’m sure you’ll be fine. You have done half marathons before, right?” I stared at her and said something like, “Oooh, um, yeah, I’m sure it will be fine.” I had never done a half marathon. I had never even done half of a half marathon. I could tell that she didn’t think I could do it. But what she didn’t know was that, despite all of the rational facts, I believed I could.

A few months after that I bought a six-month training plan which I put my complete faith in. I did everything it told me to do. I didn’t miss a day. After two months, I ran my first half marathon and four months after that I crossed the finish line of my big race, completing the 70.3 total miles in just over six hours. I didn’t drown in Lake Michigan, I didn’t crash on my bike, and I didn’t have to walk on my run. I did it. Those six months of training weren’t always pretty and they certainly weren’t always fun. But when I finally crossed the finish line, I realized those had been the best six months of my life.

It was almost exactly one year between my first sprint triathlon and my first half Ironman. It was unreal to look back at how much I had grown, to see that in just over a year I had gone from struggling to run two miles, to being capable of running a half marathon after riding 56 miles on my bike.triathlon-leah-june-2016-02-1

I was not able to do all of this because I am a robot or because it was easy for me. I just kept going even when it seemed impossible. I committed to something and never gave up. No matter what. I truly believe that is all it takes. Committing to something means you will sacrifice a lot, you will suffer a lot, you will have days that you question your strength, your endurance, your sanity, and everything you have ever done in your life. But it also means you will get better. It means that every time you keep going you are one step closer to doing the impossible. And in the end, you will feel like a champion.

Even now as I am in the middle of training for my second 70.3 race, I wonder why I am doing this to myself again. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s the hardest thing I have ever done. But even on the hardest days, it somehow continues to also be the greatest thing I have ever done. And that’s why I keep going.