Tips for Aspiring Triathletes: The Japan Edition, Part 2

written by Faith (Communications Manager)

motivational quote on chalk board

There is no shortage of tips and advice for aspiring triathletes out there in the interwebz but triathletes based in Japan face a unique set of challenges. So, we decided to write about it.

As noted in part one, the content will be most relevant to civilians located in or near Tokyo. However, the broader ideas and recommendations can be applied to triathlon in Japan.

Nutrition and Hydration

Whether you’re racing a sprint or a full Ironman, you need a race nutrition and hydration plan. In fact, nutrition is such an essential part of triathlon training that you’ll hear it being called the “fourth discipline”.

At its core, triathlon is an endurance sport – even the shortest triathlons are comparatively long races! When possible, train with the fuels you intend to use during a race. Determining the appropriate amounts of nutrition and hydration required for YOUR body often takes a lot of trial and error – don’t compare yourself to others.

For longer distances, you may need to bring your own nutrition rather than rely on what is served at aid stations. This is doubly so for those with sensitive stomachs. Nothing will ruin a race faster than an upset stomach and dry heaving on the side of the road.

food at aid station
volunteers at aid station

Races in Japan (and anywhere abroad) often offer nutrition and hydration options that you may be unaccustomed to. If possible, try to find out the nutrition and hydration options beforehand – especially for races longer than an Olympic Distance. There’s nothing like expecting Gu or Clif chews and finding a bunch of gooey Japanese red bean snacks and watery jellies claiming dubious health benefits.

Choose the Right Race

In short, choose a manageable race. Sure, there are people who could absolutely crush a full Iron for their very first triathlon – and you very well might be one of them. It isn’t however, a realistic goal for the majority so it’s important to pick a distance you can realistically complete (in mild to extreme discomfort).

triathlon distances

Your first triathlon is a trial – in both senses of the word. It should be difficult but not so challenging to make one think, “I’m never doing this again.” Of course, the sheer satisfaction and adrenaline of completing a triathlon (whether for the first time or the fiftieth) keeps triathletes coming back for more.

Destination races are amazing(ly expensive) and require a lot of preparation. If possible, stay close to home for your first to make things that much more stress-free. Finding a race nearby has the added advantage of possibly allowing you to train on the race course itself, which reduces race-day stress and increases your confidence!

Triathlon Race Reviews

Mark Shrosbree
Samurai Sports
Triathlon in Tokyo (ask to join the Google group)

Pro-tip: A full Ironman (probably) shouldn’t be your first triathlon

Before signing up for a triathlon, consider the following:

How will your bike travel to and from the race site? Unless you’re driving or riding to the race site, taking your bike aboard public transportation can be a hassle (especially for those unaccustomed to it).

When does the race start? Depending on when the race starts, you may need to find lodging nearby (added expenses!).

What’s the course like? If the swim requires a wetsuit, you’ll need to rent or buy one (added expenses!). If you are an inexperienced open water swimmer, look for races in calm waters, a bay, or even a pool. If the bike or run course features rolling hills or climbs, you should train for these conditions!

If you’re not really sure about a race, don’t bite the bullet all willy nilly.

Do. Your. Research.

Your success and confidence come from training and being prepared – not the amount of shiny gadgets and sleek gear you roll up to the race with.

Keep It Simple

Whether it’s at a team training or a race, seeing fellow athletes with all of their colorful gear, promising supplements, and data-driven tools may make you feel ~all the things~. Truth be told, triathlon is an endless loop of bells and whistles – the large portion of which are decidedly not cheap.

Of course, those with the means may as well dive in head first but for those still “figuring it out”, why not take the time to gain a better understanding of how various components might be utilized to improve your individual performance?

It’s true that only basic equipment and attire are necessary to complete the three sports. There are a lot of great tools to make things go faster, feel lighter, and look fancier but you don’t need everything at once!

Talk to teammates, browse online, or consult a coach to see how best you can smartly invest in gear that you’ll not only use but also give you an edge – without going broke.

At the end of the day, every triathlete does three things - swim, bike, and run.

With any new purchase, you’ll want to have several trials before using it during a race – especially if its technology (compared to say, clothing, nutrition, or hydration). There’s nothing more frustrating than a piece of equipment malfunctioning (usually due to operator error) when it really counts!

Lastly, don’t change too many things at once in your training. Introduce one piece of “new” at a time, acclimate to it, then make it a normal part of your routine before introducing the next new thing. Once things start to click and you start to “get it”, it’s time to start more complex things, like getting faster or going longer. 

Practice Makes Perfect (Work On Weaknesses)

With three disciplines to train, every triathlete is bound to have at least one strength and weakness. One of the great things about triathlon is that you have to train hard in what you  don’t like as much. Incidentally, it’s usually what needs the most work.

Whatever your strength is, it won’t fix your weakness. There are no silver bullets and you won’t improve overnight but practice makes perfect. That is, as long as you’re practicing with good technique and informed guidance at a level appropriate for the individual.

Most triathlon swims are done in the open waters, which is a vastly different experience from the pool. Trying to swim in a straight line and sighting are good skills to practice away from the pool. On race day, you’ll have the addition of race-start adrenaline, tens (if not hundreds) of enthusiastic athletes’ flailing limbs, and the potential shock of initial water entry.

It’s a hassle and you’ll survive without practice, but your first triathlon will be a much more pleasant experience if you take a few hours on the weekend to swim at Hayama with the Triathlon in Tokyo crew, or similar groups holding open water swim sessions.

Open Water Swimming in Japan

If you value your life, no matter where you are it’s advisable to not swim alone – especially during the off-season and when there are no lifeguards. Also, keep in mind that not all beaches permit swimming (like Odaiba). When there is a lifeguard presence, Japanese beaches often have strict (read: absurd) rules about swimming within certain areas and  setting buoy markers, especially as the leisure crowds begin to frolick. 

While the ‘official’ summer season varies by location, most beaches in the main island of Japan officially open on the first Sunday of July (“umi biraki”) and wind down sometime between mid-August to mid-September. Once off-season, lifeguards vanish, beach shacks are dismantled, beachgoers disappear, and jellyfish come out to play. Read about it.

Don't Give Up

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it! Triathlons aren’t a walk in the park – for anyone. They’re supposed to challenge you to the very core, not just physically but mentally and emotionally.

As with most things in life, it’s easy to give up. Throughout training and racing, seasoned amateurs and beginners alike will share darker moments of self-doubt and reckoning. It’s easy to feel consumed by the size of whatever battle it is you’re fighting. The light at the end of the tunnel can seem awful dim and you may feel alone with all of your questions.

Inevitably, you will want to throw in the towel because it hurts too much, it’s not all that fun, and by God, what were you thinking!?

It happens to everyone. Suck it up, buttercup! Then, try to break things up into smaller, more manageable goals. See how you are after that buoy, the next aid station, or after that light post…and you’ll slowly get through it.

You’ll hear the saying “train hard, race easy”. Honestly speaking, no race is ‘easy’ but it’s certainly a lot easier when you’re prepared! Barring “one of those” races where the stars simply didn’t seem to align, triathlon involves a lot of delayed gratification.

Most times, it isn’t until you’re running down the finish chute that you will sense the greatest amount of achievement and satisfaction. All that time, effort, and sacrifice was worth it!

Have Fun

At the end of the day, most of us are doing this for fun, i.e. as amateur athletes not paid for performance. Sure, some of us get a little competitive and have specific goals but truly, the aspiring triathlete should just try to enjoy the experience!

Have fun. Period. Full stop.

Like many kinds of first-time occasions, your first triathlon will probably involve varying amounts of self-doubt, awkward laughter, clumsy fumbling around, and swearing under your breath.

You’ll probably be a little excited, forget a few critical things, and make some mistakes. Plan for things to go wrong and don’t let it consume you when it does.

Race your race.

More than likely, you’ll cross the finish line sweaty, smelling like the gutter, and feeling ready to eat a cow or an acre of kale.

Once the race tats have faded, the sunburn has left you with those telltale athlete tan lines, and you’ve scrutinized every inch of your FinisherPix, you’ll find yourself looking for your next triathlon.

triathlon logo

About the Author

Born in Singapore and raised in Malaysia, Faith holds a Japanese passport, a BA from Southern Methodist University, and M.Ed from Vanderbilt University. Currently, she works as the Communications Manager at Samurai Sports where she spends weekdays at a desk and weekends at various races. 

In her free time, she trains regularly for her triathlon pursuits and hopes to qualify for her second 70.3 World Championship in 2019. Faith loves dogs, hates celery, and is always hungry. Faith moved from Singapore to Japan in mid-2017 and encountered a lot of struggles adapting to her new triathlon life. Read about her first Ironman 70.3 in 2017!

Faith crossing the tape at the 2018 Okinawa International Triathlon (credit: Allsports Community)