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Run for Your Life

Training for a triathlon offers immeasurable physical and mental health benefits.

A few weeks ago, when it still felt like summer here in New England, I competed in my sixth triathlon.

This was my fourth swim/bike/run event of 2006, and my third straight year in the annual September Hyannis, Mass., sprint-distance race.

How did I do? We'll get to the results in a moment. But first, I want to give you some advice in case you want to race in 2007.

My introduction to triathlons was serendipity: A few years ago I realized that a slowing metabolism and endless hours in front of computer screens had sapped my strength.

Unhappy that I could not run five miles like I could in college, I joined a YMCA to jumpstart my workout routine.

Tonya Spagnuolo, one of my instructors, mentioned she was doing a triathlon on Cape Cod at the end of the summer and said I should join her. It was an easy decision for Tonya; she came this close to competing in the Olympics in synchronized swimming and could also hold her breath underwater for two minutes.

Since the race was months away, I agreed. I could always back out later.

But before I knew it, it was race day and I was standing at the edge of Nantucket Sound. What had I gotten into? I could bike 10 miles and run 3.5 miles, but the swim -- a quarter mile never looked so long.

"Is it possible that I'll wash up on shore this afternoon?" I muttered to the guy next to me.

I finished the race in one hour, 23 minutes and 39 seconds.

While still glowing from the endorphins, I set my next goal: to improve my time the next year by 10 minutes. And I did, finishing in one hour, 13 minutes and 12 seconds. For 2006, my aim was to finish under 70 minutes.

While it's always satisfying to improve your performance, what matters the most to me are the physical and mental benefits of regular training.

Today, thanks to cross-training, I'm in as good shape as I was in my early twenties. And the discipline of committing my sports goals to paper and then working to achieve them helps organize the rest of my life.

To cite an example, I am a better securities analyst since I started working out, and that's partly because of applying lessons learned about measuring activity and sticking to a well-defined process for my workouts to portfolio management.

If these benefits sound appealing, here are a few suggestions to help you prepare for your first race:

    See your doctor. You need to get a full physical before plunging into an intense exercise regime. After, enter your vital signs like weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc., in a spreadsheet, along with the date. These data points will improve as you train.

    Get a coach. After joining the YMCA, I enrolled in a 10-week program in which an instructor helped me establish good fitness goals. Without a personal trainer, I might have dropped my exercise program before it was habit.

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    Map out your training. I did not keep a detailed journal of my workouts before my first triathlon two years ago -- and deceived myself into thinking I worked harder than I did. So last year I tracked every workout in a spreadsheet.But I was still training on an ad hoc basis; there was no blueprint telling me which sport to do and when. So last December, I adapted one from Gale Bernhardt's Training Plans for Multisport Athletes and scheduled every day of every week.When you follow a plan devised by a professional, you reduce the chance of injury and also make sure that you get the most out of each minute you sweat.

    Equipment. You'll need a good pair of sneakers, a bike and a heart rate monitor to begin.Because running shoes lose their cushioning with use, replace them every 300-400 miles. As for a bike, you can spend as much as $10,000 if the money is burning a hole in your pocket, but there are also great options for under $1,000. (I still ride a 1978 Trek, which I bought for $325 when I was in college and later rode across the country.) To ensure your training is appropriate for your age, use a heart rate monitor, such as those from Polar or Nike.And if your head is worth more than $65, then get a helmet for riding.

    Diet. Now that you're working your body hard, treat it right. This means eating more whole grains, fish, lean meats, fruits and vegetables.Also, watch what you drink: Three years ago I switched to Diet Pepsi from Coke Classic and have saved 226,000 calories since. My experience has been that if exercise is an important part of your life, then you will want to eat healthy; in other words, soon you won't miss the French fries and Pop-Tarts.

    Keep things in perspective. While there are many benefits of training for and competing in triathlons, don't neglect your primary support network -- your family. Most of my workouts during the week last just an hour. I save the long bike rides for the weekend and leave at 6 a.m.; this way I get home as everyone else's day is starting.

    Countdown. Approaching race day, swim, bike and run the full distances so your body knows what to expect. Also, practice your transitions to bike from swim and to run from bike.During one race, I wasted precious minutes looking for my bike shirt (which later turned up in a little-used corner of my pack). If I had practiced my transitions a few times, this snafu would have been avoided. Breaking Away Also do a couple of bike-run workouts, called "bricks." The more bricks you do, the easier it is to shake the lead out of your legs during the first several minutes of the run.

    Race day. Just before the starting gun fires, breathe deeply to relax your muscles. Also, think positive thoughts: "I trained wisely, and now I will race strongly and smoothly."Once the race begins, don't try to beat anyone else. Instead, find your own pace and build from there. As with Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," you want to start slow and finish strong.

    Postrace. While the details are still fresh in your mind, write down what went right and what didn't. This way you'll be better prepared for your next race.

    So how did I do in the 2006 Hyannis Sprint II?

    As I mentioned, my goal was to race under 70 minutes, which meant shaving a little more than three minutes off my 2005 results.

    After the swim, I was 76 seconds ahead of my 2005 pace. So far, so good. Even better, I was two minutes and 57 seconds faster than last year after the bike portion. Now if I could just run 15 seconds faster than a year ago, I would reach my goal. Alas, a terrible muscle cramp forced me to withdraw from the run. While it is disappointing to pull out, you must listen to your body. There will always be another race.

    If you miss the camaraderie and competition of playing sports when you were younger, enter a triathlon (or two) next year. Not only will you have fun on race day, but the cardiovascular and mental benefits will help you live a longer, more productive life. I am already looking forward to the 2007 season.

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    Hewitt Heiserman is a RealMoney contributor and a Gerson Lehrman instructor in Finance and Accounting. Heiserman also conceived the Earnings Power Chart and the Earnings Power Staircase. A graduate of Kenyon College with distinction in history, Heiserman is a member of the Boston Security Analyst Society and the CFA Institute. He also authored

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