How to get in to triathlon - tips from a top amateur

Keen amateur triathlete Nick Lindsay explains how he got started with the sport and how you can too.

At Ordnance Survey, we've got staff who enjoy all sorts of sports. Meet Nick who works in our innovative products team. He is a keen swimmer, runner and cyclist and now takes part in triathlons. A triathlon is a combination of a swim, ride and run where you are timed over the whole course, including the changeover from one to another. It's a relatively new type of event - it was added to the Olympics in 2000.

How did you get in to triathlon?

"I did a charity triathlon to raise money for Macmillan cancer support and I just loved it. It was a very short triathlon, and it was quite unusual as it combined a ride, run and a kayak. I really enjoyed it and just got the bug for the idea of multi-sport mass participation event, and that got me into triathlon."

You were already into running, cycling and swimming?

"I was already casually into the three disciplines - trail riding, mainly off-road stuff, and id always run on and off, but nothing organised, and I'd been swimming since Id got up early one morning due to a young child and decided to have a swim before breakfast, and got into the swimming through that.

I'd never done any of them at an organised event before."

How much do you have to train?

"I worked my way up from sprint triathlon - shorter and pool based - to Olympic distance and now to middle distance events. Those are typically a 1.9km open water swim, 90km bike ride and then a half marathon at the end. For that sort of event you are looking at a minimum of three months training beforehand, although this year I've done seven months.

My weekly program would be four swims, about 9km, one in open water, about 20km running and about 185 miles (300km) a week cycling. I keep the running distance down to avoid injuries, doing a lot of 'brick' sessions where you ride and then switch straight into a short run, just to get your legs used to the transition.

It sounds like a lot, but you can get in a swim before breakfast, which makes you really enjoy breakfast, then on most days you can double up, with a swim in the morning and a run in the evening. Or I might bike in to work and then do a run later, or bike home and do a swim afterwards. If you double up with two sessions a day, but not back to back, it becomes much more manageable.

Weekends is the slog, as that's when you have to get your long sessions in. Your three hour bike ride followed by and hour run, or an hours worth of swimming followed by a 90 minute run - that's where the big commitment is."

"You always have to find time for your training. You can't take a few days off. very quickly you will use 5% or 10%. It's a commitment over time.

One thing I would recommend is that you always check the bike route beforehand so you know what to expect, you know where the hills are so you are familiar with it for the event itself. The key thing is you have to plan the bike route - you need to have a paper map and see where it is. I always print off a mini version of the map of the area with the route as a back-up. Get the route loaded on to your GPS so you have turn by turn directions, if you have one.

There are great apps out there that will help you if you get lost. OS Locate is ideal - if you go off track, fire up the app and it will tell you where you are, you can see this on the paper map and get back on course. There's nothing worse than turning up to check the bike route and getting lost - you don't want too be worrying about navigation, you want to be concentrating on the ride. Plan for it and have the right maps when you go out."

How do you find events to take part in?

"I go to the British Triathlon website. It's the best source for finding events. You can search by event type, distance and region - it gives you so much choice. For each year I will pick one or two major events I want to go for, so this year it was the Challenge Weymouth Half Ironman in September, and then I work backwards to find some middle distance events around June or July so I can build up a program based on peaking for that one particular event.

British Triathlon list all the events from a variety of commercial event organisers, such as Human Race and Bustinkins so you can find all the events on there. British Triathlon also supervise the events to ensure they are up to standard and organised correctly, which gives you reassurance as a competitor that the organisers know what they are doing, and that they are safe."

Is it an expensive sport to get into?

"Getting into it can be moderately expensive. There are retailers that will do starter packages, so for around £500-£600 you can get an entry level bike, a wet suit, a tri-suit and enough gear to get you going in the sport. That's a good way to have the equipment to try an event itself. I've found the retailers really helpful, giving me a lot of time to find the kit is right for my needs.

For me, the first time round I just turned up on my mountain bike and just gave it a go. Just turn up with the gear you have already got.

I'd recommend starting with one of the sprint events that are pool based. You don't have the mass start and you don't need a wetsuit, so it's an easy introduction to the swim side. The bike will be 20 to 40km, about an hours worth of riding and the run will be no more than 10k, so it's all manageable. They are lower key and there are lots of them to choose from."

How did you find joining other, more experienced competitors?

"It's very relaxed. You get all sorts of people there, from hard core athletes that are training for a European or world championship all the way through to first timers. When you are a first timer there is a lot of help there. They are very supportive and they will guide you through the process and encourage you to enjoy it and encourage you to come back for more.

It's one of the things I like about it. I've done individual cycling, running and swimming events and they are great fun, but the people there are focussed only on that particular activity. For triathlon events you can be a jack of all trades and a master of none, and the majority of people are there just to see how well they can do against the course. It's much more you challenging yourself, not competing with the other people.

The goal is to see if you master the swim, control your nerves and keep it going on the bike without 'bonking' (running out of energy). Managing your energy is a key thing to learn, and people will help you out throughout the event."

What's your favourite discipline?

"I enjoy all three. The swim is the most nerve-racking as often it's a mass start with 200 to 2000 swimmers at a time in the water. Everybody is pumped up and you can get a 'washing machine' effect, with people swimming in to you, over you, through you, which can be a bit chaotic, so the swim is very intense, but very rewarding when you have mastered it.

Bike is longer distance. I enjoy it as it's not so pressured - you have more freedom and space, but you are always aware of the chance of mechanical failure.

The run is fantastic as it's the last stage and you can start to anticipate the finish. The crowd support is much more intense around the run route, so you get that energy from the crowd as you get closer to the finish."

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Have you had things go wrong, or seen them go wrong at an event?

"The transitions are the biggest point. There can be big crowds, all focussed on you, and you have to get changed and get going. Getting out of a wetsuit can be interesting - your legs can cramp up, or you can fall over.

People will come out of the swim, all pumped up with the adrenalin going, and the first thing is 'where's my bike'. There could be 1,000 bikes that are racked, and you thought you knew where yours was - next to a red bike with a white helmet, but of course they could be gone. You can see people running up and down rows of bikes, wide-eyed with panic because they can't remember where their bike is. You just forget they are in race order number, so you just have to follow the numbers.

You have to be careful getting to the area to mount the bike. You might be running in cycling shoes, which can be interesting on wet cobblestones. You do breathe a sigh of relief once you are on the bike and away and you can relax a bit and concentrate on the ride.

Once on the bike, everyone just follows the person in front, but don't assume that every bike out there is doing the triathlon - it could just be someone out there for a Sunday morning ride! Don't just follow them an peel off left - you might end up at the local shops."

Is there any advice you have for newcomers?

"Pay attention to nutrition. It is an endurance sport. You need to think about fuelling up for the event in advance, and that can start 12 hours before if you are doing longer distances. Think about getting your carbs and protein in your body and think about how you are going to consume fuel, primarily on the bike, so think about gels and water bottles. Make sure you are continually refuelling as you use energy - it's often ignored in your early days of triathlon but its a key element of being able to perform and enjoy."

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All images used with kind permission of Marathon Photos