Everything You Need to Know Before Your First Triathlon

Tips every beginner athlete needs to know before setting out to conquer their first race
Staff Writer

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Chris Thornham—Congratulations! You’ve decided to compete in your first triathlon. If you’re a newbie to competitions or just want to make sure you’re as prepared as you think you are, you may want to know more than just how to swim, bike and run.

Triathlons come in a variety of durations, the longest being the Ironman — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Many seasoned triathletes can’t even imagine completing an Ironman, so don’t feel like you have to start at the top of the mountain.

Sprint triathlons — a 0.5-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride, and a 3.1-mile run — serve as much friendlier introductions to the sport. Preparation for the shorter event is also less strenuous, which greatly reduces your risk of injury as you get used to the intensity. Start with a smaller race, evaluate your body’s response and only move up when you feel comfortable doing so.

Join the club.
If you don’t have previous experience in triathlons, fear not! Many cities have triathlon clubs that are more than happy to help beginners get started. You don’t have to figure everything out on your own, and because it’s your first time, you have a lot to learn. Don’t waste time focusing on things that won’t help you — let the people who’ve done it before show you the ropes.

Don’t forget the fourth sport.
Swim, bike, run — right? There’s a fourth “sport” that’s often ignored, even by regular triathletes: transitions. 

Transitions make a big difference when it comes to finishing with the best possible time. Both transitions — from swimming to biking and from biking to running — require practice to get them right.

Ask a veteran triathlete for some pointers, and try to keep things as simple as possible. Bring and wear only what you need to eliminate time-consuming transition steps. Do a few practice transitions before the race so you don’t have to deal with unexpected complications on race day.

Get mentally geared up.
It sounds cliché, but don’t forget your purpose when you get to the starting line. Most people take several months to physically prepare for triathlons, but when the day comes, they’re filled with stress and anxiety.

At some point during your first race, you will have to deal with something you didn’t plan for. Don’t worry about it! You can swim, bike, run and practice transitions until you’re blue in the face, but an actual race will always throw a new dynamic at you. You might get kicked in the face while you’re swimming and break your goggles; you might get stuck in your wet suit; you might get a flat tire or a cramp; you might even lose a shoelace.

No matter how much you practice, your race will never go perfectly. The ability to stay calm and deal with issues as they crop up separates the good triathletes from the great. Mentally preparing for your race means staying calm when things go wrong, as they always do in some way or another. When you experience adversity, be prepared to refocus quickly and get back in the race.

Related: 6 Things You Should Do the Day Before a Race

Try not to set too many expectations for yourself, and focus on enjoying the event — and the free food at the end!

Preview and prepare.
While the unexpected does happen, you can plan ahead for the vast majority of your race’s challenges. You need to preview the entire course to know where its key turns and transitions are. In addition, each individual event has unique characteristics to watch for.

1. Swim
Pay attention to the position of the sun. If you’ll be swimming into the sun, then bring dark goggles to help you see. But, have a clear pair on hand in case the clouds roll in. You also need to find out if you will be swimming through the break or against the current. Then, consider how that might affect your swim.

When you finish your swim, you have to run barefoot to your bike. Is the ground rocky or otherwise treacherous? Take note so you can be careful to avoid injury during the    transition.

Will you be able to wear a wet suit? The water temperature at your race determines this. Amateurs can wear a wet suit at 78 degrees and below. These suits make you faster, so wear one if allowed.

2. Bike
Pay attention to the starting gradient. Does the course start flat, uphill or downhill? Make sure your bike is in the appropriate gear to begin the race.

There are also “traffic” rules. Some races have no-passing zones in high-traffic areas or on steep descents. Learn where these are to avoid penalty or disqualification. Some races also enforce speed limits on steep descents. Like no-passing zones, learn their locations to avoid penalty.

Finally, most triathlons are not draft legal, meaning you have to stay a certain distance away from the bike ahead of you. Know that distance before the race begins.

3. Run
Make sure your shoe selection is appropriate for the course. Even some on-road triathlons have a few off-road sections.

Once you get going, most triathlons provide aid stations during the final leg. These stations hand out drinks and food to keep you hydrated and energized for the home stretch. Some longer races also have aid stations during the bike leg.

As you preview the race portions of the course, check out the transition areas as well. Make note of the entrances and exits. You don’t want to be the athlete running to the bike exit only to find out the run course starts on the other side of the transition point.

Start before the starting line.
Some triathlons require entrants to check in a full day before the race begins and do not allow race day check-ins. Know the rules of your particular organizer so all of your hard work doesn’t go to waste. If you won’t be able to make a specific check-in, contact the race organizer to make special arrangements.

Bike check-ins have similar guidelines. Some races require all bikes to be stored in transition overnight, while others let you bring your bike on race day.

Getting your body ready for the big day is 90 percent of the battle, but minding the small details makes a good race day great. Know the rules and be prepared. Follow these pointers and train hard, and your first triathlon will be a guaranteed success.

Chris Thornham is a co-founder of FLO Cycling, which engineers aerodynamic cycling wheels. The company uses computational fluid dynamics software to develop its wheels and verifies its results in a wind tunnel. Less than three years after launching, the company has sold 10,000 wheels to customers in 51 countries. Chris enjoys learning, triathlon training, skiing, hiking with his dog, and spending time with family.

More Reading:
6 Smart Cross Training Strategies for Triathletes
Triathlon Tips: How to Speed Up Your Swim
What Marathon and Triathlon Training Means for a Relationship

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