This is a question I hear a lot as a triathlon coach. I hear it in all kinds of contexts, but below are the ones I hear the most. The hot topics seem to be masters swimming, hiring a coach, and racing full or half Ironman distances. Hopefully this might help some of you to decide if you are "ready"!
How do I know if I'm ready for masters swimming?
This depends a lot on your swim background, your comfort in the water and the type of masters group you are looking at. If you have a swimming background - go for it! It will probably bring back some of your competitive fire from back in your swimming days! If you do not come from a swim background, how comfortable are you in the water? Do you currently swim workouts on your own with sets, a variety of paces, drills, etc? If so - go for it! You will likely be able to push yourself further out of your comfort zone, and it might make swimming more fun! Just be sure to save at least one swim day each week to swim on your own to further work on your drills, technique, etc in a non-competitive environment.
Now, for the newbies in the crowd…masters swimming can be intimidating, right?! All these swimmers cruising through lap after lap at crazy fast paces, swimming all four strokes, flip turning! The key for a beginner is to find the right type of masters group. Some groups are crazy competitive and are filled with "real swimmers". But, there are PLENTY of groups who are more beginner friendly, or at least have a beginner-friendly lane or two. You might also find out how hands-on the coach is on deck. Are they just running a workout or will they work with you on technique? A coach on deck can help you improve, and meeting up with a masters group will hold you accountable to get your swimming in each week.
Check your local rec center/gym to see what they offer. Or, visit http://www.usms.org for more info or to find a group.
If you are truly a beginner just starting to string some laps together, I would suggest continuing to work on your own (or ideally with a coach) on technique and building endurance until you can swim longer sets with no problem.
How do I know if I'm ready to race a half or full Ironman distance?
Everyone seems to be jumping on the Ironman band wagon. But, are you ready for the long stuff? First let me say that there is nothing wrong with racing sprint and olympic distance races only. Racing those shorter distances can be HARD for sure! I personally love racing long. But, there are a lot of factors in looking to make that jump.
First - what is your background in each of the sports and in triathlon? I would advise spending a season or two racing shorter distances to become familiar with all things triathlon and to work on your skills in all three sports. Next - what are your strengths and weaknesses? If you have a lot of work to do in one or more of the sports, consider giving yourself another season to put in the work to become stronger in those.
Then, consider your work/family life. Does your schedule allow you to train as much as would be required for the longer races? Keep in mind that not everyone can or should train 15-20 hours a week for Ironman. It can be done on less. But, you will still have to put in the time to train. Really look at your family schedule, your work schedule, your social schedule to see if the time is right to go long.
Last, really, really think about whether you WANT to race an Ironman. Just because your friends are doing it, or everyone in your triathlon club is doing it, doesn't mean you have to do it. You will make sacrifices - sleep, social engagements, etc. Do you really want to be out there riding your bike for 4-6 hours on Saturday while your friends are having brunch and going to a movie? Week after week after week. Ironman training is not always glamorous. But, it's rewarding and can be a lot of fun!
How do I know if I'm ready to hire a coach?
Some people are great at training on their own. They can read a book or find an online schedule and make it work for them. They are self-motivated and have a good sense of what they want to get out of the sport. But, others seem to need a little more direction. Some people need the accountability of a coach. Others just can't find the time or mind-space to sit down and piece together a training schedule.
In my opinion, the biggest value in using a coach is that your schedule will be for YOU. Online schedules can be great, but they do not take into account your strengths and weaknesses. Often, they are just trying to get in 3 swims, 3 bikes and 3 runs each week. If you have a busy schedule, fitting in 9 workouts a week can be daunting if not impossible. So, which workouts should you cut? When you use a coach, they will take the time you have to train and give you the workouts that give you the most bang for your buck. A coach can also make changes on the fly for illness, travel, work, etc. A coach can push you harder than you would work on your own. Or, a coach can reign you in if you tend to overtrain and do too much. Coaches take the guess work out of training.
If you decide you are ready for a coach, you can find a coach at www.usatriathlon.org or by asking around in your triathlon community. Or, you can train with a group like Team in Training (www.teamintraining.org) that provides coaching as part of the package.