There are many reasons to start participating in triathlons—staying in shape, trying something new, checking off a bucket list item, maintaining an active lifestyle, a friend talked you into it— and not many reasons why you shouldn’t try at least one. Who knows? You could catch the triathlon bug and not be able to stop until you’ve done an Ironman. Regardless of motivation or reason, here are a few pointers to help your first race go smoothly and avoid those common mistakes we all make.
1. Set a goal and train
After deciding to do a triathlon, pick a distance and plan accordingly. There are several common triathlon distances to choose from. The chart below shows the distances for each leg of the race. Sprint and Olympic distances will most likely be the best place to start. I would recommend the Sprint, as shorter distances are easier to train for and you’ll get a great feel for the triathlon lifestyle without the pain associated with longer splits.
Consider your finish goals. Are you concerned with final time or do you just want to finish? The end goal will determine how you spend time training for the race. There are a lot of published training plans out there, covering many different needs.
2. Consistency with training
Triathlon is an expensive sport—equipment costs are multiplied by three compared to other single-sport competitions. Some items are a necessity for racing; others are not required but can help if you plan on racing a lot. I recommend picking up the essentials for your first race but don’t go crazy. Also essential is not to use brand new equipment on race day. Race with what you’ve been training with. Don’t put aerobars on a road bike the week before the race or buy new lightweight race shoes. You will always perform better using what is familiar and comfortable. If aero bars or a new set of wheels are a must, buy them in advance and train with them.
3. Rent a wetsuit
For most, the wetsuit will be the most expensive addition to their existing equipment list. Unless you are a swimmer and do a lot of open water swimming, you probably don’t have a proper wetsuit. Since this is your first race, I recommend renting a suit in case you decide that triathlons aren’t for you. A swimming specific wetsuit is different than a surf wetsuit. Flexibility and suit thickness varies between the disciplines so I don’t recommend racing in a surf wetsuit.
Nutrition is a hard thing to dial-in. Even after racing for years, I struggle to keep my energy levels high and my stomach happy during longer races. Those with more sensitive stomachs will need to pay more attention to nutrition. I refer back to tip two, don’t introduce new nutrition right before the race. Spend some time trying a few different things if you don’t already have a favorite nutrition product. Pre-mix bottles to ride with or tape gels to your top tube for easy access during the race. Everyone has their own little system for staying energized.
5. Lay everything out the night before
One of the best ways to relieve pre-race stress is to have all of your gear organized the day before. That way you can go to bed knowing you have everything you need. The USA Triathlon organization has put together a helpful race-day checklist to assist you. You might choose to disregard some of the items on this list, but others are helpful reminders. For instance, bar end plugs are required in USAT sanctioned races. Disqualification results if a bike is missing its bar end plugs.
6. Transition setup
Arrive early on race morning. Usually the transition area will have a published opening time and I recommend getting there promptly. Then you can take your time and setup your area without having to rush. Order items logically. Place cycling items at the front of your transition area, with run items behind that. Leave a space behind your run stuff to throw your goggles, swim cap and wetsuit when exiting the water. Hang a bike helmet from your handlebars with sunglasses inside. A transition mat or towel is nice to stand or sit on during transitions. Usually triathletes to your left and right will be more than willing to offer tips and advice if you ask. Transition setup will become second nature the more tri’s you do.
7. Virtual race walk through
After setup is squared away, take a little stroll around transition. Make a mental note of each entry point from the different legs of the race, and where your bike and gear is in relation. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen running around in transition, unable to find their gear during the heat of the moment.
These simple tips will hopefully give you a better idea of what a triathlon involves. Now get motivated and get training! Triathlons can be a lot of fun and the feelings of reward and satisfaction when crossing the finish line are well worth the hours spent preparing and training.
Rubber Side Down is a weekly column dedicated to the fledgling cyclist in all of us. Art’s Cyclery Web Content Editor, Brett Murphy is not a professional cyclist, and doesn’t try to masquerade as one either, but he does love to ride bikes. Whether you are clipping in for the first time or counting down the days until your first race, read on, learn from his mistakes, and keep the rubber side down.