Transition from Runner to Triathlete

The move from being a runner who might dabble in cross training to a multi-sport athlete (swim, bike, run) can be a fun challenge that enhances your running potential.  For many runners, jumping into a pool can be a big scare, but don’t worry: lots of practice will help you overcome any fears about being in the water that you might have.  The same can be said about biking; long hours in the saddle and cars whizzing by can be nerve-wracking.

transition from runner to triathlete
transition from runner to triathlete

Regardless of how you move from runner to triathlete, make sure you practice and get help from athletes who’ve done it before you.  Unless you have prior swim experience, chances are this is the discipline that will take the hardest to master.  Join a swim group who will motivate you, give you tips, and push you to become a better swimmer. 

While biking costs the most to pick up, you’ll find that the fast pace and the wind in your face will alleviate your desires to be running.  Link up with a bike group who can teach you the ins and outs of being safe on the open road, help push you to new distances and prepare you for the longest discipline in the triathlon.

New to swimming?  

Here’s what you’ll need to get started.

  1. Swim suit – preferably one that is made for racing in the water, instead of lounging on the beach chair.  Speedo makes a great (and affordable) line for new swimmers that are flattering and modest for the newbie triathlete.  
  2. Goggles – try a few pairs on and see what fits your head and face.  Upgrade by getting a pair that protects your eyes from UV rays.
  3. Swim cap – optional, but a good idea if you’ll be doing a lot of swims and you worry about what the chlorine is doing to your hair.


Practice your breathing (something you don’t have to worry about on land), your stroke through the water (efficiency is key!) and how your body moves through the water (the less your body resists water, the faster you’ll move).  

Swimming usually is calculated in yards (rather than meters), so aim for swimming by laps or by time.  As a runner, it’s more manageable to focus on laps rather than yards or meters.  Swim 8 laps the first week and increase by 2 laps every time you get in the pool.  By the time it is race day, you’ll be strong enough to handle the race distance.

Getting into biking?

Here’s what you’ll need to have a safe and enjoyable ride.

Gus Andersen, a recent 2x Ironman finisher says, “You don’t need to buy new as there are lots of used bikes out there and can be of GREAT value.  Find a biking friend to help you out…With new bikes, you get what you pay for and lots of people get discouraged on the bike because they buy CHEAP and then its painful (literally).  A bike fit or at least working with a local shop is the best option.  Good bike shops will not push you into a purchase and will let you test ride a bike for hours.  A simple lap around the block is not sufficient.  Bike shops don’t make their money on the bike sale really, they make it on the accessories and follow up services.”

Bike Transition at Ironman Vancouver
Bike Transition at Ironman Vancouver
  1. Helmet – a must if you want to protect your brain.  There are entry level helmets and super advanced ones (for time trials), but a mid-level helmet will be perfect for you.
  2. Bike shorts – Most new bikers skip this crucial part of the bike portion of a triathlon.  Long rides in the saddle almost require having some padded protection for your butt.
  3. Bike – this is the no-brainer item to be a biker and have a good bike split.  Bikes range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars.  Do your research, find a bike you are comfortable being on and will use often and then save for it.  For the most part, the more expensive the bike, the faster (and easier) your bike portion of a triathlon will be.
  4. Clip in pedals – “Clip ins” are for the more advanced rider as they take a lot of getting used to.  Clip in pedals helps disperse the amount of work your legs must do to pedal.  While you’re clipped in, you can push down and pull up on the pedals.  
  5. Sunglasses – Protect your eyes from bugs, leaves, grit, and wind.  You don’t want to be going 20 miles an hour and get something in your eye.  Trust me.

Practice changing gears on the downhills and uphills.  Find an efficient yet comfortable position on the bike and make sure you abide by the rules of the road.  Since you’ll be spending a lot of time on your bike, try taking in nutrition – there are a lot of products on the market, so try them before race day.Transition from runner to triathlete

Biking is measured in miles (unless you’re from out of the USA), in which case to get a good workout on the bike, you’ll need to ride for well over an hour.  Don’t get discouraged if your pace isn’t there at first, it takes time to get efficient on a bike.

Already into running?  

Here’s what you probably already own.

  1. Running shoes – go to a specialty running store and have them watch you walk and/or run.  The right pair of shoes will make the difference between having good runs and bad runs.
  2. Racing shoes – get racing shoes (also known as racing flats) only if you feel comfortable being in a less-supportive shoe.  Most high-end runners will find that racing flats are the way to go for road races.
  3. Shorts – being a runner means owning running shorts.  If you’ve never been in running shorts, you haven’t lived yet!
  4. Running/racing tops – Moisture wicking shirts will change your life.  Racing tops (racing singlets) will not only keep you drier but also promote your favorite company or brand.
  5. Watch – a GPS watch isn’t necessary, but definitely comes in handy if used wisely.  If you don’t have one, don’t sweat it.  Not all runs require a GPS, so if you don’t have one, it’s not a big deal.

The three-sport discipline of triathlon can be rewarding in so many ways.  Since you’re already experienced with running, you’ll find that the cardio aspect of swimming and biking to be quite fulfilling.  On top of that, you’ll be able to work harder (in the pool and on the bike) without feeling the fatigue of the pounding from running.  Training for a tri breaks up the monotony of just running and will strengthen your non-running muscles making you a stronger athlete. 

Carly and Marc running
Carly and Marc running

So give it a try.  Take 2 months of taking out some of your normal running and add in biking and swimming.  You’ll have the same strength aerobically, but you’ll be so much more well-rounded as an athlete.

Tell us how you feel once you’ve added in the other disciplines! 

Ever do a triathlon? What tips can you leave for Marc so he can rock his first tri?


Dr. Jack Daniels VDOT & USATF Certified Running Coach
Dr. Jack Daniels VDOT & USATF Certified Running Coach

I am a USATF Track and Field & Dr. Jack Daniels VDOT O2 certified running coach. I have more than 19 years of experience running and more than 10 years of experience coaching runners. Click for more information!

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