By Gabriella Boston

Special to The Washington Post

Getting started

Debi Bernardes, a longtime Washington, D.C.,-area triathlete and tri coach, suggests not spending a lot of money on the first race or two. Borrow a friend’s bike, or even ride a non-road bike as long as it’s been serviced and doesn’t have toe cages that your feet might get stuck in, she says.

“But I’ve seen everything,” Bernardes says. “One guy running a 10K in his basketball shoes. Others riding their mountain bikes.” Here are the bare-bones essentials you’ll need for your first triathlon:

• A bike (any kind, even a borrowed one), without toe cages

• A helmet

• Running shoes

• Swimsuit (worn alone or with shorts for the ride and run) or tri-suit

• Swim goggles

• Water bottle

• Race instructions and race bib

Want to try a tri? If so, you are not alone. Triathlons — the triple-threat endurance events that combine swimming, bicycling and running — are growing rapidly in number and size every year, according to USA Triathlon, the organization that governs the nation’s triathlon races.

“I think just about anyone can do a sprint triathlon with the right preparation,” says Debi Bernardes, a longtime Washington, D.C.-area triathlete and tri coach.

A sprint triathlon is much different from, say, an Ironman (a triathlon made up of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run — all done in succession).

Instead the sprint features shorter distances per discipline. There is some variation in these sprint distances, but the Luray Sprint Triathlon in Virginia, for example, features a 750-meter (just short of a half a mile) swim, a 27-kilometer (just short of 17 miles) bike ride and a five-kilometer (just over three miles) run.

Bernardes says most people are wise enough not to make Ironman their first triathlon experience, but there are exceptions.

“You’d be surprised,” says Bernardes, who always advises that taking “baby steps is very important” to avoid injuries.

In this case, “baby steps” means a focused swim, ride and run program that includes at least four hours of training per week for at least three months (shorter if you are already fit and trained in the disciplines, she says.

“It’s great if you can cross the finish line feeling good and saying to yourself, ‘That was so much fun, I want to do another one,’” Bernardes adds.

That’s what happened for Jenni Lancaster, of Washington, D.C., who did her first triathlon — a sprint — a year ago at Luray.

“I loved it. It’s a beautiful triathlon, and I felt ready,” says Lancaster, who ended up winning her novice division. Getting ready meant swimming, cycling and running for at least an hour, five times a week, for several months, she says.

The training equation

How those training hours are split up is important, says Joe Friel, author of several books on endurance training, including “Your First Triathlon.” Most of the training — about half — should be devoted to cycling because that’s the biggest chunk of the race. Then comes swimming, the most skill-intensive of the three disciplines, and last is running.

“The potential for injury is the greatest in running,” says Friel, who recommends that novices spend as little as 20 minutes, three times a week on running.

“The bike is the key to performing well,” Friel says. After all, remember Luray: bike 17 miles, run three miles, swim less than half a mile.

If there is time left over in the week, Friel recommends including some strength training such as push-ups, squats and rows — exercises that target triathlon muscles.

In terms of the intensity of the workouts, Bernardes says not to worry too much for your first triathlon. But be consistent with the frequency and length of your workouts.

“Basically, if you are huffing and puffing, you are working too hard,” Bernardes says.

One thing, though, that you don’t want to skimp on, says Lancaster, is swim training in open water, if that’s what your race calls for (most do).

“There are no lanes or walls, obviously, and you might get kicked,” Lancaster says. “It’s very different from swimming in a pool. I highly recommend an open-water swim before the race,” says Lancaster.

“It’s good to have a goal,” Lancaster says. “It gives everything you do a purpose. Signing up for a race gives me that purpose.”

Beyond the big race-day goal, some triathletes find the social aspect of joining a tri group or club is crucial to training motivation. Others benefit from having a coach.

If all else fails on particularly low-motivation days, Friel recommends using the five-minute deal.

“It’s when you make a deal with yourself that you will do at least five minutes and then if you want to, you can quit,” Friel says.

Five minutes? Sounds like baby steps.

Except most people, Friel says, won’t stop after five minutes but will keep going with their scheduled training program — taking those baby steps to an Ironman and beyond.