So you just completed your first marathon...

Congratulations are in order. But if you are like many of the marathoners I know, you likely crossed the finish line and — before the sweat even stopped rolling down your face — started thinking, “What’s next? Another running event? Another marathon?” Maybe you tossed around the idea of a triathlon, but aren't sure what it takes. Here are a few things to consider when preparing for your first triathlon.    

Fitness Basics

If you’ve just completed your first marathon, there's no doubt that you have developed the running base that you need for a triathlon. However, it's a common mistake to think that running a marathon is the only requirement for being ready for an IRONMAN triathlon. The required distances take considerable training and can be risky for anyone who doesn’t respect the preparation needed to combine 2.4 miles of swimming with 112 miles of cycling, and then hopping off your bike and running a marathon!

So if this is your next lofty goal, I highly recommend you give yourself six months to a year of training, read lots of literature on training and preparation, and even consider hiring a coach. The good news is that your marathon training has been extremely beneficial, and if you keep your running base and add some swim and bike training, you will be ready to complete your first Sprint- and maybe even Olympic-distance triathlon this summer! (A Sprint triathlon requires a half-mile swim and 12.4-mile bike, while an Olympic triathlon calls for a 0.93-mile swim and 24.8-mile bike.)

Finding the Right Event

Finding the right event is key when selecting your first triathlon. It's best to look for events that are local, get good reviews from local triathletes, and someone you know has completed. Selecting a local event can be an advantage as you can sometimes train on the actual race course — allowing you to prepare for challenging areas of the course and limiting surprises on race day.

A smaller event is also recommended for your first triathlon. If you are not used to swimming in a mass group, jumping in the water at the same time as 2,000 other swimmers can spell disaster, and your race can be over before it even begins. Pick an event where there are fewer participants or even where the swim portion of the event has staggered start times, which decreases congestion.     

It’s a Commitment

Just like marathon training, there is a time commitment, and my guess is that as a marathon runner you understand this completely. The big difference here is splitting your training time between three sports. Coming off a season of running means that your run volume should be good, so you will need to focus more on swimming and biking. However, this is somewhat dependent on your swimming and biking skill sets.

To make it easier, focus more of your training time on the sport in which you are weakest. Most new triathletes need time to learn or refresh efficient swimming skills. It is hard to recommend a specific time commitment, as it varies based on so many important factors, but splitting your swim, bike and running training up over five to 10 hours per week should prepare you for Sprint to Olympic-distance triathlons.


Don’t Be Scared

Just like tackling nearly 30 miles of running, accomplishing a sport that includes swimming, biking, and running doesn't need to come with an automatic  “scaredy cat” sticker. Preparation is the best way to decrease your pre-race anxiety. Read about the sport, take some time to talk with other triathletes, volunteer at an event before participating in your own, train with other local triathletes, or hire a triathlon coach. All of these things can help you master and overcome any apprehension you may have about completing your first triathlon.      

Comparison to Marathon

As a coach, my athletes try to compare marathons and triathlons, but the truth is they are quite different. From years of training, racing and coaching others in both sports, my best advice is not to compare them but realize that participating in each can help you become more successful in the other. Completing a marathon doesn’t give someone the green light to think, “I’m ready for an IRONMAN now.”

I’ve seen too many athletes not take triathlon training seriously enough and wind up having a really bad race day. However, all that running has prepared you quite nicely, and with time in the water and on the bike, you should be ready for your first triathlon this summer.

Duston Morris is an associate professor in health sciences at the University of Central Arkansas, certified health education specialist, certified triathlon coach, and veteran triathlete and runner who enjoys helping others obtain their own personal health and fitness goals. He can be reached for questions about triathlon and marathon training at