5 things to know about your first triathlon

CNN editor Michael Martinez shows off his Fit Nation uniform for the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in 2012.

Story highlights

  • Forget how old you are! Many triathlon enthusiasts are in their 40s and 50s
  • A good wetsuit will keep you warm and provide buoyancy in the ocean
  • You should train harder for the part of the race you think will be most difficult

(CNN)The only thing crazier than doing a triathlon -- an ocean swim, a cycle ride along coastal mountains and a long-distance run -- is doing it twice.

I participated in my first triathlon last year with the Time Warner Fit Nation team, and I offer these tips as I prepare for my second in early September. To all those considering doing the same, here are five things worth knowing:

    Age is just a number

    Triathletes are a diverse bunch. Sure, there are the 20- and 30-somethings on their new road bicycles, looking extra sporty in their matching top and shorts.
    But many triathlon enthusiasts are in their 40s and 50s, and their body shapes are hardly as intimidating as the fresh-out-of-college crowd. We just like swimming, cycling and running.
    So set aside any qualms or fears. The camaraderie you'll see among participants while training will further allay any anxieties. There are many groups out there -- find them through local triathlon clubs or corporate teams. Or go online and find one. Some teams, especially those sponsored by a company, even offer a coach.

    Wetsuits are cooler than they look

    It's not a triathlon unless you don the black synthetic rubber suit. Yes, it may make you look like a tasty seal to a shark. But the super buoyancy enhances your speed in the open water. It also provides warmth.
    And perhaps its biggest benefit is confidence.
    As one Los Angeles county lifeguard told a bunch of us who were training at Malibu's famous Zuma Beach this summer: "Look, you're not going to drown out there. You're gonna float. So don't panic."

    Train for your weakest leg

    What's the hardest part of the race? In my opinion, it's a toss-up between the swim and the cycling.
    The cycling is the longest leg of Nautica Malibu Triathlon (at 18 or 25 miles, depending on when you're competing during race weekend). It's a lot of heavy breathing up those hills -- the sort of aerobic workout your doctor encourages you to get from exercise.
    But what you'll likely want to train the most for is the swim, especially if it's an open-water race. Swimming is the first leg of the competition, and the ocean is daunting with its powerful surf. The good thing is, on race day, there are buoys marking the course, so you don't have to worry about navigation.
    A colleague of mine at CNN is doing his first triathlon this year. He's focusing most of his training equally on these segments, figuring the third and last leg, the run, will demand the least of him.
    Ultimately, of all the preparation required for this kind of journey, the psychological is often the toughest. Once you put your mind to the challenge, the next steps are as natural as walking.

    Enjoy the scenery

    There's a huge payoff for all that sweat: Every weekend when you practice, there's the surprise of discoveries.
    During our Sunday open-swim practices, dolphins often join us, at a good distance away. Pelicans fly low or float around us. Gulls hover on the updrafts. As you continue your stroke underwater, you can see crabs sidewinding on the seabed.
    As you make your way to land, the bike and run legs offer spectacular views. If you're lucky and happen to be training in Malibu, that means vistas of mist-shrouded mountains and its chaparral.
    The natural world is a high reward.

    Remember that the race itself doesn't really matter

    Forget the race.
    Yes, race day is thrilling and scary. It was an exhilarating early Sunday morning last year when thousands of athletes, included myself, gathered on the beach -- like an invasion of frogmen, all in black wetsuits, goggles and swim caps color-coded to a gender and age group.
    It was game time. The race unfolded in waves, with each group starting at intervals a few minutes apart.
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    The athletes who struggled most were the ones who didn't train. It showed. When they entered the surf, lifeguards plucked them to safety. The participants just didn't have the conditioning or practice to negotiate the course.
    In the end, the weekly ritual of training made race day seem to me like just another practice session.
    So take a breath and let it in. Enjoy the sights. Enjoy the people.
      The best part? There's a post-race celebration that amounts to an extravaganza celebrating your good health.
      And, by the way, no one really talks about their race time. Who cares? You're now a legit triathlete.