Now I don’t consider myself an expert in triathlons, but I have completed about 14 triathlons in the past few years, and I have tried many different methods of clothing and transitioning techniques. I’ll share tips on what has worked for me, but ultimately you will need to do what works best for you. Feel free to post a comment to include your own suggestions, comments or questions. Warning: This is a very lengthy post because I wanted to be thorough.
Be familiar with the event’s race rules. Check out USAT Event Rules. If it isn’t USAT sanctioned, then research that event’s specific rules as they may be different from USAT. This is not only important for your safety, but to avoid receiving a time penalty or disqualification.
Study the course. Be familiar with turns, up-hills, down-hills, flats and aid station locations. Even though there are volunteers out on the course providing directions, it’s good to have a plan of attack for your race.
Practice open water swimming. While there is truly nothing that will fully prepare you for your first triathlon swim, at least being comfortable in open water is a great start. There is no big blue line at the bottom of the lake, ocean or river guiding you where to go. Always practice open water swims with other people, experienced open water swimmers preferred.
Here are a few things to focus on:
- Learn how to sight and how often you need to do it. Learning to swim in a straight line can be a challenge, the more you practice the better you’ll get. I find I struggle to swim straight as I’m beginning to tire towards the end of the swim. So prepare yourself to possibly sight a bit more often at that point.
- Practice having a swimming partner swim behind you, in front of you and right next to you. Have them touch your feet and bump into you. When this happens it can be a scary situation for first-timers, but the trick is to keep swimming. If you get scared and stop, the swimmers behind you will swim right into you (It took me a long time to realize this). So don’t stop swimming, at least swim to the outside so you can flip onto your back to take some relaxing breaths before beginning again. If you need a rest or need to calm yourself down, it’s perfectly alright to hang onto a lifeguard vessel, you won’t be disqualified (again, read the race rules).
- Most swimmers want to swim the least amount of distance so they tend to stay to the inside of the swim route. Instead, stay to the outside of the pack. I have faster swim times by starting on the outside because I can swim faster when not battling heavy traffic. After I pass the main pack of swimmers, I’ll slowly cut in and position myself for the 1st turn.
- When coming into shore, swim until your hands graze the ground. You’ll be faster gliding through the water than attempting to run in it waist deep.
Practice open water swimming with and without a wetsuit. The weather can change water temperatures pretty quickly, and it’s good to have practiced open water swimming while wearing different gear so that you are comfortable either way.
Also, practice taking off your wetsuit immediately after your open water practice swims. When you come into T1 at an event it’s normal to feel tired and wobbly so you’ll want to be familiar with how to get your wetsuit off.
Use a lubricant prior to putting on your wetsuit to help the removal process. I cover my lower legs, arms (if wearing a full-sleeve suit) and I’ll even put lubricant along my neck to help prevent chafing during the swim. I tend to buy commercial wetsuit lubricants such as Body Glide as I always worry about using something that may damage the wetsuit material (such as petroleum jelly). I have heard of some people using a non-stick cooking spray (such as Pam) as a lubricant, I’ve never tried it before though.
Tip: The wetsuit zipper cord should have a piece of velcro at the very end. Insert that in the larger Velcro flap at the back of your neck so keep it from tangling in your arms while swimming. This also makes for easy access to grab the cord when you are ready to remove your wetsuit.
As I’m coming out of the water I unzip my wetsuit, slide out my arms and fold it down to my hips. Once I return to my bike I completely remove the wetsuit from my lower half and begin preparing for the bike portion of the race. It’s ok if you’re wetsuit ends up inside-out, you can fix it after the event. I tend to hang it over the bike rack bar to keep it from being stepped on.
I’ve seen some triathletes at events that use a small tub of water to rinse their feet off. Since there is very little room in transition, I opt to use an extra bike water bottle to quickly squirt water over my feet then stand on a clean towel to keep them clean, and possibly take a few sips to begin rehydrating.
Trial what you plan to wear. I have an entire dresser drawer dedicated to triathlon clothing, and I think I have worn almost all the varieties of options available at an event. Do you wear a two-piece tri short and top or the one-piece tri suit? Or do you just wear a sports bra and tri shorts underneath your wetsuit and put a top on at T1?
The most important aspect is that you will be comfortable. I have had success the past year wearing a two-piece tri top and shorts as it transitions from swim to bike to run well, and it’s easy to use when visiting the bathroom. My one-piece suit has worked well for shorter events when I skipped using a wetsuit during the swim, but it is inconvenient to take on and off when using the bathroom right before your race. Also, keep in mind that having to put on clothing after the swim can be difficult when you are wet and it can burn unnecessary time, so invest in a comfortable tri race kit.
For women (or men with long hair) – plan how you will wear your hair. This is a small factor that can save you time. When swimming, most women will wear a high ponytail or bun. However, when you reach T1 and try to place your helmet on you’ll have to adjust your hair to a low ponytail which takes time (especially when your hair is wet).
I go with the French braid, and I’ve heard of other women doing two French braids. It will hold your hair in place and is no fuss during the event. When I place my swim cap on I ask someone nearby (usually a woman as they are better at this) to shove the tail end of the French braid up into the swim cap. Keep in mind that the French braid will make your hair more bulky around the crown of your head, so always test out your bike helmet prior to the event and adjust so that it will fit your new do and is comfortable. During the run I wear a hat to keep any flyaway hairs out of my face and to keep cool in the heat of the summer.
Don’t rely on the event’s bike mechanics the morning of the event. Take care of all bike maintenance the week prior to the event. Have your bike tuned up or checked over by a professional that you trust. You’ll have a better peace of mind traveling to the event knowing that your bike is in good working order.
While I’m sure most bike mechanics at events are reliable and know what they’re doing I would rather put my trust into someone that I know. Use them only in the situation of an unexpected emergency.
Practice the little things. Practice mounting and dismounting your bike quickly and efficiently, especially after you’ve completed a hard bike workout. This will help simulate what your body and legs will feel like during the race.
Don’t attempt any new mounting and dismounting techniques during the race unless you have practiced it, such as the flying mount and dismount. Seasoned triathlon spectators LOVE standing near the Bike In & Out area to watch newbie triathletes. You don’t want to be that new Facebook video sensation taking a digger into the concrete while trying to get on and off your bike.
Practice transitions, or at least have a specific plan. My goal during my first triathlon was to just finish the event, my T1 and T2 times weren’t a huge priority so I took my time to make sure I wouldn’t forget anything. You want the event to go as smoothly as possible so it’s important to have a plan for transitions. Here are some key tips to a successful transition:
- Space is VERY limited in transition, ONLY bring what is essential. I always see people bringing in huge quantities of equipment the morning of the event and I often wonder where they fit all that in the tiny area we are given (and pray they aren’t located near me).
- Place your gear on some sort of towel or mat to keep it clean, and set it up in order of when you will use it.
- Open shoe straps, laces etc. so that they are quick to access.
- If using a fuel belt, have bottles filled and energy food loaded in advance.
- Tape energy gels to the tube of bike in layers. Ripping the gel off the bike will open it at the same time.
- Reset your bike computer so it’s ready to go.
- Ensure that bike is in a low gear for starting out.
- Put the timing chip on your left leg. This will keep it out of the gears of your bike.
- If your bike has aero bars, set your helmet upside down on the bars and place your sunglasses with arms open inside the helmet. Sunglasses go on first so they don’t get ripped off during T2 while taking your helmet off.
- Check the weather forecast, if there is a chance of rain consider bringing a poncho, extra towel etc. to cover your gear and keep it dry.
Note: Pack a separate bag with post-event clothing & shoes and keep outside of transition with a friend or family member as you may not be allowed back into transition area right away.
Things to Pack:
- Time chip
- USAT membership card (if you have one)
- Race number
- Sunscreen (sweat-proof)
- Hydration and nutrition
- Body glide/wetsuit lubricant
- Race/fuel belt (I didn’t use this my first couple events, but I soon realized it is worth buying)
- Extra water bottle to clean feet
- Bike (+ spare tube, repair kit, CO2 cartridges etc.)
- Bike shoes
- Cycling gloves (I usually only wear these for longer events, I don’t wear them for sprints)
- Running shoes
- Hat or visor
- Tire pump (I use when I arrive and leave in the car)
- Post-race gear (check weather forecast)
Optional, but a good idea:
- Extra hair tie
- Spare goggles (Tip: one tinted pair for sunny days, and one clear pair for darker conditions)
- Anti-fog solution
- Ear plugs/nose plugs
- Extra swim cap (I’ve been to a couple events where they didn’t provide one!)
- Band-aids and travel-size antiseptic
- Lip balm
- Duct tape and/or electrical tape (comes in handy in certain situations)
Tip: Label your gear with your name and phone number. It’s amazing what people will leave behind at an event, if your name is on it the race crew can contact you to get it returned.
As a newbie, I rode in regular bike shoes with socks and I constantly battled putting on socks when my feet were wet. I could hear the seconds ticking away as I tried to place each sock on. After a dozen events, I’ve finally figured out the fastest way to put on socks whether your feet are dry or not. It’s a 3-step process.
- When setting up your transition area, roll or fold the top part of the sock down so that it meets the toes. Place the socks upright in each shoe so they are ready to grab when needed.
- When ready, take sock and cover first half of your foot.
- Then roll the rest of the sock up.
Unless you go sockless, you’ll need a quick way to put your socks on.
The morning of your event, become familiar with the transition area. Know where you will be coming into transition from the water and how to get to your bike. I usually count the number of rows of bikes from shore or pick out a distinctive marker that will help me locate my bike as quickly as possible (a tree, telephone line, bright towel etc.). Determine your route within the transition area for the Bike Out, Bike In and Run Out portion. Also, know where the bike mount/dismount line is as this is the only location that allows you to mount and dismount your bike.
Porta-toilets. You will be using these multiple times before your event. Always leave time for a final trip to the toilet after you put your wetsuit on. It never fails, every time I put on my wetsuit I realize that I have to go again. It may be nerves or the snugness of the wetsuit that just brings havoc on my bladder and bowels. So just be ready to get back in the porta-toilet line.
Follow good biking etiquette. Stay to the right until you want to pass. Use the term “on your left” when you are ready to pass, and say it loudly so the biker hears you. Get back on the right side once you have fully passed them.
Tip: When nearing T2, downshift and increase your cadence to loosen up legs for the run. Be careful when dismounting as your legs will be tired.
Ease into the run. Take time to adjust to run mode. Find a comfortable cadence and don’t overdo it. Many people talk about “Jell-O legs” after getting off the bike, there is a great chance that this will happen to you. With the adrenaline and excitement of being in the final leg of your event, it’s very easy to go out too hard. A good rule of thumb is to run like you’re just on the edge of too easy. Another great guideline is to break your run up into thirds. The first third is dedicated to finding a comfortable and steady pace, the second third is maintaining that pace and the last third is kicking it into gear and finishing as strong as possible. If you go out too fast in the beginning, it’s very difficult to recover.
When you see a photographer be sure to smile or at least try not to look like you are in pain – especially at the finish line. You’ll thank yourself later when you see your photos.
Thank a volunteer, or two, or three or all of them! As I travel through any event, when I pass a volunteer I thank them. They are what make the event run smoothly and they love to know that you appreciate their time and willingness to stand out in the elements of Mother Nature to ensure your safety and success.
Focus on yourself, don’t worry about others around you. You are competing in this event for yourself, not to beat others in your age group. There is always going to be someone who is faster, stronger or more experienced. Swim, bike and run your own race. Have fun and enjoy the experience!
Again, feel free to comment about any additional tips and suggestions you may have. Hopefully your first triathlon experience is a good one and will spark an addiction that eventually becomes an awesome part of your life.