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Ultimate Guide to your first Triathlon

Updated: Sep 10, 2022



As a beginner I trawled the internet to ensure I didn't appear to be the complete amateur I was... So here i've tried to summarise my findings and the experience that I have to the top ten things I wish I knew when I started out!


This guide covers four main topics:




THE TOP TEN

1. GO SHORT BEFORE GOING LONG. The Ironman World Championship event is arguably the most recognisable triathlon event in the world. The award-winning NBC broadcast of this event has brought the struggle and triumph of triathlon to living rooms around the world. However, a 140.6-mile event—2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and 26.2 miles of running—is more than nearly all first-time triathletes should attempt on the first outing in the sport.

Begin with a shorter sprint-distance event (400 to 750 meters of swimming, 10-20km of cycling and around 5-10km of running.

2. STAY CLOSE TO HOME. For the first race, make it easy on yourself and select an event close to home. If the event is within easy driving distance from your house, it helps reduce race-day stress and hassle. You can also do some of your workouts on the course, increasing your confidence. You can find events close to you by searching the Active event listings.

3. JUST A SWIM SUIT AND GOGGLES FOR THE SWIM. If you do not own a wetsuit or are an inexperienced open water swimmer, select an event that is in a pool and does not require a wetsuit. If your event does require a wetsuit, and you don’t own one, some retail stores rent wetsuits. A good pair of goggles and a swim suit made for lap swimming, not sunbathing, is all you need for the swim portion of the event.

4. YOUR BIKE IS FINE. Any bike you’re currently riding will work just fine. It can be a road bike, mountain bike or hybrid. Many people have completed their first triathlon on a borrowed bicycle. Be sure the bike is correctly fit to you and is in good working order. (No rotted tires or frayed cables.) Most races have a support motor vehicle (also known as sag support) following the race to pick up riders unable to complete the bike leg for one reason or another, but it is best that you know how to change a flat tire for training and race day.

5. YOU NEED RUNNING SHOES. If you do not currently own a pair of running shoes, you need a pair. I recommend going to a good running store near you and let the experts in the store help you select the right pair of running shoes. They should ask you questions about your feet, running history and watch your gait while walking and running.


6. IT DOESN’T TAKE AS MUCH TRAINING AS YOU MIGHT THINK. You are not training for a podium position at an Ironman event for your first race, therefore you do not need to be training 20 to 30 hours per week. You can be ready for a sprint-distance race on less than five hours per week of training. Most weeks are less than five hours. You can find detailed training plans here.

7. PLAN TO REST. For most eager racers, it is easy to plan to swim, bike and run. Be certain you plan to rest as well. You want to do enough training to complete the event and have fun. It is best if you finish the event with a smile and hungry for more races.

8. TRANSITION TIME COUNTS TOO. I have had some beginner triathletes write to tell me they were surprised that the time it takes to change from swimming to cycling and from cycling to running (known as transitions, “T1” and “T2”) counted in overall race time. All of the time between the start of your swim and when you cross the finish line at the end of the run counts. Practice smooth and swift transitions.

9. PLAN TO DO THE FIRST HALF OF THE RACE SLOWER. Most beginners start too fast. Estimate how much time you think it will take you to do the entire event. Plan to do the first half of that total time at a slower pace than you think you’re capable of doing. When you reach the half-way point, you can pick up the pace and finish strong. This is called a negative-split effort.

10. ONE PIECE OF “TRICK” EQUIPMENT. If you want to pick up one piece of “trick” equipment, purchase elastic shoe laces. One such brand is Yankz. Elastic laces allow you to slip your feet into your running shoes and eliminate the need to tie your shoes. For your first race, try to keep things simple. Once you get hooked on the sport, you can look into ways to get faster or go longer.



MAKE IT EASY FOR YOURSELF

ORGANISATION - is an important part of triathlon training. You are going to be training for three different sports; there’s no time for a wasted workout.Here are a few things that can help you stay motivated and make the constant training a little easier:

RECRUIT HELP - Make plans to meet a friend for an evening run or bike ride. Skipping your workout is much harder when you realise you’d be letting your friend down, too.

EAT PROPERLY - Training for a triathlon is not the time to start skipping or skimping on meals. Refuel after your workout with a quick snack of healthy carbs and protein, a board-certified sports dietitian and triathlon coach. A glass of chocolate milk is the perfect post-workout snack. It will allow your body to refuel and recover from your workout.

PREP MEALS AHEAD OF TIME - Try to cook as much as you can over the weekend and freeze larger meals into single portions for the week ahead. There are loads of places for inspiration, but a great start is using a meal delivery system such as Hello Fresh... It takes care of the decision fatigue on what to have that night and finding the ingredients!

REMEMBER THAT THIS IS FUN - No one says you have to love every moment of training, but if you’re constantly moaning about it, maybe this isn’t the sport for you.


BE SOCIAL: Triathletes are a social bunch. Most athletes train with friends, since training with others can help you push harder. If you can’t sweet-talk a friend into signing up for a race with you, here are some options for finding companionship during your training.

FIND A CYCLING GROUP. Head to your local bike shop, and an employee should be able to recommend a good cycling group that’s welcoming to beginners. Ask for a cycling group with a no-drop policy, which means someone will stay with the slowest rider and make sure they get home safely.Just one word of warning: If you do join a group ride, make sure you are steady on your bike; brushing the wheel of the bike in front of you could result in the entire group going down.

JOIN A SWIMMING PROGRAM. Master’s swimming programs, which are like low-pressure swim teams for adults, are a great place to perfect your stroke. Most YMCAs and community pools have master’s groups. Oh, and in case the “master” part seems terrifying, know that it’s a reference to age, not ability.

JOIN A RUNNING OR TRI-CLUB. Running clubs are easy to find, even in smaller cities. Use Google or ask a salesperson at your local running specialty store (versus a big box sporting goods store) to direct you toward where and when these clubs meet. Most clubs are friendly to runners of all paces and many welcome walkers, too. If you’re worried about being left behind, ask if there’s a sweeper who stays at the back of the group, or ask for a route map so you can get home safely.



KIT

At the beginning it is not always about having the best and most expensive equipment. You may not do more than the one event and it would be a waste of money to overspend on something you will not make use of. As long as it is safe and fit for purpose then it will suffice until you decide this is a sport you wish to continue in longer term.

This is more than enough kit for those doing their first triathlon and not wishing to spend too much until they have definitely got the bug:

  • Wetsuit: 2XU or HUUB

  • Goggles: Speedo Speed Sockets / THE MAGIC5 Swim Cap: Silicone

  • Bike: Beginner road bikes <£600

  • Tri-Shoes: dhb T1

  • Apparel: 2XU OR HUUB

  • Helmet: Catlike / Oakley / Bontrager

  • Run shoes: Nike - infinity react 3 for milage, pegasus tempo zoom x for sessions, Alphafly next% for Racing.

  • Heart Rate Monitor: Garmin Pro / Polar OH1+ (for swimming)


SPECIFIC RACING ADVICE

SWIM

Don’t go out too fast as you run the risk of tying up and running out of energy. If this happens people will just swim past you towards the end. If you can situate yourself near people you know are a similar speed to you then do that and try and swim directly behind them. Drafting works in the swim as well as on the bike. Keep your cadence high to compensate for any disturbances. Minimise you kick as much as possible, use the buoyancy of the wetsuit, and get into a good rhythm. Try and build through the swim and finish strongly.

T1

Make sure you have a well fitted wetsuit and use baby oil on your arms and legs before putting it on as this will help it ocme off. Whip the suit off, helmet on and run out of transition with your bike. If you’re using a garmin make sure it was turned on and paused prior to leaving the transition area. Use elastic bands on your tri shoes to keep them in place if you’re able to do a flying mount (look online for examples and practice before doing it in a race).

BIKE

Again, don’t go out too hard. Settle into your rhythm and keep the cadence high as its proven that you’re able to run better off of a higher cadence. Keep as aerodynamic as possible as this saves a lot of energy and keeps your speed high. Make sure you drink enough on the bike and take on any nutrition you need dependant on the length of the race. Sprint distance you can get away with just an energy drink, anything longer you may need gels and other nutritional supplements.

T2

Get out of your shoes prior the the dismount line. Get off your bike just before the dismount line. Rack your bike, running shoes (with elastic laces) slipped on, helmet off, run out.

RUN

Keep the run consistent. Get to half way and then go as hard as you can for the rest of the race. Use the crowds as motivation, take on water as and when you can at the designated stations.



Hopefully this has been a helpful insight into what you might expect leading into and during your first triathlon experience. Above all, be sure to enjoy it and make the most of the crowds and atmosphere... Remember... it's your first, not your last!

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