Triathlon, I think, is an interesting sport in that many people come to it from a completely non-athlete background. So while every race you'll attend is full of naturally-born athletes who have been running/biking/swimming since they emerged from the womb, you'll also find a significant number of competitors for whom triathlon represented an end to a previously sedentary lifestyle.
For those of you who are just getting into triathlon from another sport, you probably already know your strengths; if you swam in high school, you're a strong swimmer; if you used to spend every weekend out on a mountain bike, cycling is probably a dominant sport; if you're a former cross-country runner, odds are that you prefer running to the other two disciplines. But if the last time you were physically active was seventh-grade gym class (or high school football in freshman year, if you're like me), figuring out your strengths will present more difficulty. It was difficult for me to determine what areas of triathlon performance I was best at, but now that I've processed that question, I'd like to share what I've discovered with you. My hope is that this post will help you to figure out what you're best at, so that you can maximize that strength as you prepare for competition.
To begin the process, take some time to think about which sport you enjoy the most. Even if it's not the area where you possess the greatest skill, the fact that you want to spend more of your time doing that sport will eventually make you better at that sport. That can work against you, too, you know. If you're a strong swimmer but a weak cyclist, and you spend all of your time swimming, you'll never improve as a triathlete. Because even though you might have the fastest swim split, the whole field is going to pass you on the bike. You have to exercise a little bit of caution with playing to your strengths, since there's no sense in making your strengths stronger while maintaining poor performance in two other sports. But when you're just starting out, why not go with practicing the discipline you like most, as long as you're not neglecting the other two?
Maybe you're strength isn't in a specific discipline, but in combining two disciplines. For example, you may be in the middle of the pack in a track workout, but can come straight off a two-hour bike ride and run like you're totally fresh. Or maybe you excel at staying calm during the swim, so that your heart isn't racing as you hop on your bike. A friend once told me (while reporting on a very successful race experience) that to be successful in triathlon, you have to be solidly mediocre in three sports. So even if you can't run the fastest mile split, if you excel at putting two sports together, your strength is one of the most important ones for successful triathlon competition.
What if there's no one sport that you can be fastest in, no sport you like the most, and you don't feel that you possess any extraordinary skill in putting swim and bike or bike and run together? That's the position I found myself in, as I was considering my strengths and how to exploit them. I'm steadily improving in every discipline, and have trained myself into the middle of the pack as a swimmer, cyclist, and runner. I spend the most time on the bike, but it's because that's a big part of my job (teaching spinning classes), not because I like it more. I feel like I enjoy each sport equally, and once I get started, I love the different elements of each discipline. So I was a little puzzled, at first, when I tried to determine whether I was strongest as a swimmer, biker, or runner.
Then I thought back to my performance at Shawnee Mission, in which I had an average swim, an average bike, and a sub-par run (so at least I know what my weakness was). I also had the the seventh-fastest overall T1 time and the fifth-fastest overall T2 time. So there you have it. My strength is not in swimming, biking, and running (although I may change that prognosis as I continue to develop and start to reach the peak of my fitness in each discipline), but in transitions--the one aspect of this sport where it takes the least pain to knock a couple minutes off of overall time. And even though, as I write it out, that seems absolutely ridiculous (I mean why couldn't my strength be in something a little more physical?!), I have to admit that I'm pretty proud of that.
The point is that we're all good at something. Figure out what you're best at and maximize your advantage in that area, while continuing to train your weakest points in order to grow evenly.
What are your strengths and weaknesses? Let me know in the comments!