Advice for the Beginner Athena & Clydesdale Athlete
Welcome new triathlete! Welcome to the amazing world of triathlon. And if you’re like me, welcome to the Athena and Clydesdale world.
First thing, what is an Athena or Clydesdale athlete?
Athena/Clydesdale (or A/C) is a weight-based racing category. It is a category you may choose to race in. No one will ever force you to race A/C. Just like an Age Group, Athena or Clydesdale is its own division and it is often broken up into age groups as well (39 & under, 40-54, 55 & up).
To race as an Athena you must weigh in before your race and weigh more than 165 pounds. As a Clydesdale you must weigh in at 220 pounds or higher.
Everyone still with me? Great - let’s get going!
You’ve taken a bold first step - deciding to train for and/or race a triathlon. It is no small feat, no matter how short the race is. Whether you’re dreaming of Kona or Team USA or just finishing the local triathlon with a smile - all are a challenge. And it’s one that you can rise to.
If you take nothing else from this article, please take this:
You Belong Here. It doesn’t how big or small you are, what gender you are, what size kit you wear, what color your skin is, who you love, or where you come from. You Belong in Triathlon. You’re already ready for this challenge in the body you have right now.
You Belong in Triathlon.
In this article, and in the ones to come, I’m going to give you the advice I wish someone had given me when I started out in triathlon.
Triathlon is more than just physical endurance. There is the mental and emotional race as well. Not to mention a LOT of logistics and planning. But don’t let that put you off. Follow the advice of those who have come before, tailor it to your needs. Over time it will become second nature and you won’t stress as much about it.
For those of us who live in bigger or heavier bodies there are a few, just a few, considerations to think about. I’ll address these as they come up below.
What distance should I do for my first race?
As a coach I have a rule - I never say no. So if you come to me and say “Kyla, I want to do an Ultra Distance (commonly referred to as an Ironman)!” I won’t say no. I will make sure you race a Sprint or Olympic at least once to get a feel for doing the three sports all in one go.
But here’s my advice: if you want to make sure your first race is fun, start with a Sprint. The entry fees are a little lower, you get to support your local race director, you’re done in less than 3 hours, and you still get an awesome medal. Sprint distances don’t require as much training as other distances, which is great for someone starting out and trying to fit all that training into an already full calendar. Sprint races have slightly less logistics to deal with. You’re out there for less than 3 hours, so fueling, while important, isn’t as complex. Transitions can be faster. Before you get too bored riding your bike or out running, it’s over!
Once you fall in love with triathlon and are hungry for more, the Olympic (sometimes called International or Standard) distance is there for you to conquer next. And, of course, the longer distances will always be there.
Should I compete in a local race or should I jump into a larger event run by a Big Race Company?
I love racing in my local races. I know the folks I’m racing with. I get to know the race director, the referees, and the volunteers. They are all people from my community. When I’m at the local coffee shop we chit chat and laugh about race day. I know that my race fees are staying in my community and supporting the local economy.
Another awesome thing about local races/Smaller Race Companies is that they have the Athena/Clydesdale category. I should say, most do. There are many folks in the A/C world actively advocating for A/C presence in all races. If you race a USAT Sanctioned Race, the race director is required to have an A/C category. Big Race Companies don’t always have A/C categories. The more you show up and race as A/C, the more race directors know they should support the A/C community. Big Race Companies don’t have to support the A/C community (though they should) because they already have large followings and make more than enough money.
What type of course should I select for my first race?
Do you like hills? Choose a hilly course! Do you like swimming in the ocean? Choose an ocean swim! Do you like trail running? Try Cross Triathlon! Do you like cross country skiing? Try Winter Triathlon! I choose races based on the course profile; how hilly or flat, type of open water swim, how far it is from my house. I live in a really flat area, so I try to choose flat courses, because that’s what I can easily train on. If you also live in a flat area and can’t find hills to train on, I’d recommend starting with a flat or rolling hills course. If you are scared of open water swimming, choose a race with a calm lake swim, or even better, a pool swim. I live near the ocean, and can train in it every week; I’m not worried about choosing a course with an ocean swim. You’ll have the most fun on a course that you feel prepared for - choose your race based on that. And of course, don’t shy away from a challenging race course, but give yourself the time you need to train for it. If you’ve never done an open water swim and you want to race the Carlsbad Triathlon (in Carlsbad, California) you might want to make some trips to an ocean to get that open water experience. You do not want to try anything new on race day.
Where should I get my initial guidance? Who do I ask for advice?
Not everyone wants to start out with a coach, especially if you don’t know how passionate you’re going to be about the sport. And a USAT Certified Coach or USAT Certified Club is the best place to get reliable and safe advice. There are a couple fantastic Athena/Clydesdale Facebook groups that were created and are managed by Athena/Clydesdale athletes. These groups are great for gear recommendations, race reports, and making new friends to meet up with at races. There is a lot of information in the world about triathlon, so it may seem overwhelming at first. How can you sort the good from the bad? There is no tried and true method for this. This is where those Facebook groups are fantastic. You can also look on the USAT website for coaches and clubs that say they specialize in A/C.
Should I get involved with the local athletic community?
Yes, of course!
Join a Masters’ Swim Team, find the local Road Runners Club, visit the local bike shop and find out when the group rides are. Surround yourself with folks who love these sports. This is where most of your good advice will come from. If it all seems overwhelming, figure out which sport feels the weakest for you, then go join that community. Not only will it make the workouts more enjoyable, but you’ll make new friends. And nothing gets me out of bed at 5:30am to do a track workout like knowing that my friends are waiting for me.
A note of caution: one of the annoying things that happens as an A/C racer is the notion that we’re in it to lose weight. Many A/C racers are in triathlon for fun, for a challenge, for fitness, for the community. Not every A/C racer is looking to lose weight. If you run into folks who address your body size or shape you’ll need to have a quick phrase ready to stop the conversation, if you want to. Folks might try to tell you the “science” behind losing weight to be a faster racer, or the health benefits of whatever diet they are on, or other comments on why you should lose weight. Know that your body is YOUR body and others aren’t allowed to comment on it.
When we get involved in our local athletic communities there is more of a chance that we’ll run into someone who will comment on our bodies. But there’s also the chance that you’ll run into your new A/C friend. And together you can change the stereotypes that exist about A/C racers.
Should I get a Road Bike or a Tri Bike?
This depends on your cycling ability. The bike you’re riding right now is a great bike for whatever triathlon you want to do. If you’re looking to upgrade, start with a road bike. On a road bike you can participate in group rides (often tri bikes are not allowed). Road bikes are easier to get the right fit for. Tri Bikes are high-maintenance, in that they need special parts, are tricky to fit, and need to sleep in a bed with silk sheets every night. Joking aside, tri bikes are great once you’ve developed great riding skills and are ready to go longer distances.
One consideration for A/C riders is weight limits. Most bike frames can handle a bigger body with no trouble. However, something to consider is wheels. Wheels do have weight suggestions, and there are several wheel companies out there who make wheels that can handle heavier bodies. Here’s the thing: if weight limits are truly a concern for A/C riders, we’d see each other on the side of the road all the time.And we don’t. We have flats and broken spokes and wonky cranks just as often as non-A/C riders. If you’re looking to get a competitive edge over other racers, if you’re looking to “buy speed” by investing money in a fancy bike, if you’re looking to shave those precious seconds off your bike time - investing in specialized wheels will help with that. For your first races, maybe even all your races, whatever bike, with whatever wheels are on it, is perfect.
Make friends with your local bike shop. Find the bike fitter who will listen to you and help you get the right fit. A good bike fit is the most important thing, right after knowing how to change a flat tire.
What running shoes should I get?
I could write a whole article just about running shoes!
Find your locally owned running shop. Make friends with them. Try on all the different shoes. Go for a quick run around the block. Some will feel amazing, some will feel crappy.
You want to be able to “feel the ground” as you run. That means giving your toes enough space to spread out and avoiding too much cushioning. If you’ve got larger feet, like me, or if you’ve worn flip flops for most of your life, like me, you may find it challenging to get a pair of shoes that will fit just right. Look for shoes with a wide toe box (like Altra), or those made for wider feet (like New Balance). There are many shoe companies out there. With many innovative new things for your feet. Making friends with the local running store will go a long way to finding the right shoe for you. As an added note, if you’ve got foot or ankle or knee issues, find a sports physical therapist or orthopedist. Ask them to do a run analysis and recommend guidelines for the shoes you should get. The running store may offer a run analysis as well, but if you’ve got past injuries or issues with those joints, it’s best to start with a professional like a PT or Ortho doctor.
That is a lot of information! You may need to read this article twice. Or let it all soak in and come back to read it a second time in a few weeks.
The most common mistake folks make in triathlon is assuming they need to get everything right now! A new tri kit, a new bike, new shoes, new helmet, new sunglasses, new everything! You don’t need to get anything new! You can do all the things you want with all the stuff you’ve got.
Triathlon is an amazing sport and there’s a great community that comes with it. Find your Athena & Clydesdale friends, it’s not hard, and you’ll find friends for life.
Kyla Lupo is a USA Triathlon Level 1 certified coach with a Master's in Education from George Washington University. She brings years of experience in coaching people in a variety of situations, including triathlon.
Kyla is also a US Masters Level 1/2 certified swim coach and a Roadrunners Club of America certified run coach.
As a coach, Kyla believes that anyone can tri in the body they have right now and works with athletes on a personal level to overcome their fear and doubts while getting fit and ready for the start line. Actively advocating for a radical level of body acceptance in sport and society, Kyla started Team Go Big (a USAT certified club) as a place where all bodies would feel welcome and supported.
As an athlete herself, Kyla represented Team USA at the 2019 ITU Multisport Championships in Pontevedra, Spain as an age-group Long Course Aquabiker. In 2019, Kyla was a nationally ranked Age Group short course triathlete and finished second in the Athena division at the Illinois Triathlon Championships. In 2021 Kyla qualified for and competed at the Age Group Sprint National Championships in Milwaukee.
Kyla lives in Central Florida on the Atlantic Coast with the Banana Man, hundreds of board games, 4 bikes, and 4 adorable cats. She is currently training to qualify for Team USA in 2024. You can visit her team at www.teamgobig.life