Everything You Need to Know Before Your First Triathlon

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Everything You Need to Know Before Your First Triathlon

This article includes everything you need to know before doing your first triathlon.


On August 27th, 2016, I volunteered at the Revolution 3 Maine Olympic and Half-Ironman Triathlon in Memorial Park along with the rest of my club triathlon team from UCONN. In doing so, I was granted the opportunity to meet dozens of friendly triathletes from all over the world.

I walked over to the entrance of the transition area after showing someone to their spot to go escort the next triathlete. This time, it was a little man with a small yellow bike. I was of course impressed that there was someone with dwarfism competing in a race so intimidating to even a well-trained and seasoned triathlete. I asked him which race he would be competing in, and he tells me it’s his 7th Half-Iron. Shocked, I convey to him how impressed and inspired I am, and wish him luck for his race the next day.

A quick google search for triathlon inspiration gives top results of Teri Greige, who finished the Ironman Kona race with stage IV colon cancer. Another is Marcus Cook who lost 250 pounds by training for triathlons. Third is John Young, the first person with Dwarfism to complete a full Ironman. I saw Young’s picture on the “Inspiration” page of the Ironman website and immediately realized I’d not only met him before, but raced alongside him. He was so confident and casual in his abilities as a triathlete that he made it look easy. He made me assume that there must be lots of little people doing triathlons all over the world. But John Young is an exception, an inspiration, and a representation of how great the sport of triathlon is for bringing people together and inspiring them to be the best people they can be.

On the Ironman website, in an article about Young following his historic full Ironman finish in November of 2016, Young is quoted saying, "The world needs to see that it doesn’t matter what type of body you have, if you put in the effort and training, you can do anything you want to do."

Quote originally from: http://www.ironman.com/triathlon/news/articles/2016/11/john-young-profile.aspx#ixzz4lRHraEeT

Beginner Training Tips

Hopefully by now you are properly inspired, and since you are reading this page, you are thinking about doing your first triathlon. In this next section, I’m going to highlight some key training tips for beginners, but this is by no means a full training guide. In addition, if you have any concern about your health, please first consult your doctor to make sure it is safe.

The brick workout is your best tool as a triathlete. It is not just for improving your times, but for becoming more comfortable for race day. A brick workout consists of two or more disciplines of triathlon completed in succession. The bike-to-run transition is very strange and uncomfortable the first few times that you do it, and therefore it’s very important to try it out before signing up for a race.

I am always pushing my friends and people I meet to give triathlons a shot. I always tell them that it is not as hard as it seems, but so many people reply, “I think I could do the biking and running, but I would drown in the swimming part”. If possible, ask an experienced friend to show you a few pointers or consider signing up with a personal trainer. Whatever you can do to feel more confident in your swimming abilities, go for it.

What do I Need for a Triathlon?

When getting ready for your first triathlon, you are probably more focused on getting across the finish line and gauging your interest in the sport than you are about being the fastest, most professional looking competitor. Here I have created a list of the essentials for those of you who want to do your first tri.

  • Photo ID and USAT membership card (if you’re a member)
    • If you don’t have a USAT membership card, that’s fine. When you sign up for a race, you can purchase a one-day membership pass that is meant for people who won’t be doing several triathlons each year.
  • A bag to put all this stuff in
  • For the Swim
    • Goggles (don’t forget these or you’ll have a rough start)
    • A something to swim in
      • A wetsuit will make you faster and more buoyant, but can be expensive.
      • A jammer or one-piece will do just fine. Lots of women will do the entire race with just a one-piece on.
      • I wear a tri suit for the entirety of a race. In a sprint, I often opt out of using a wetsuit because the time it saves me is probably about equal to the time it takes to get off. There are one and two-piece tri suits for sale on our website.
    • You’ll be given a swim cap with your race packet so don’t worry about that. Also, don’t swim with any footwear on.
  • For the Bike
    • A bike
      • For your first couple races, use whatever bike you want. More experienced people will have road bikes and triathlon bikes, but a mountain bike or hybrid will be fine for a sprint distance race, it’ll just make you a bit slower and hills will be tougher.
    • A helmet
    • Water bottle
      • Usually about 1 fluid ounce per mile you’re biking is fine. In a sprint triathlon, this is just one water bottle. Make sure it’s full and to drink it so you can stay hydrated for the running portion. 
    • Shoes
      • If you don’t have a road bike, you probably won’t have cycling shoes, so just wear the same shoes during the bike as you are going to during the run.
    • Sunglasses
      • You’re really going to want a pair of these to keep the wind and sun out of your eyes. 
    • Energy gels (optional)
      • These are great if you feel like you need an extra boost in the middle of your race. They’re not essential for a sprint distance triathlon, but I usually go through 3 or 4 of them in an Olympic distance race. This is the type of thing you would want to practice beforehand and not do for the first time in a race.
  • For the Run
    • Running shoes
      • Some people like to wear socks, some don’t. 
    • A shirt
      • This can be the same shirt you wore during the bike portion, which is what I would recommend if it’s your first race to make your transitioning easier.
    • Your race numbers
      • You don’t really have to wear this during the bike portion, as it can get in the way, but you are required to wear it for the run. The easiest way to do this is by buying something called a race belt, which you attach your numbers to and then clip around your waist.

Signing Up/ Choosing a Race

Choosing a race is simple. There are great websites for finding triathlons in your area, such as trifind.com and FIRM racing that allow you to narrow the search based on distance of the race, date, and location.

Once you’ve found some nearby that look interesting, you can start to narrow down your search based on a few criteria that I’ve listed here, along with some description.

  • Elevation Change
    • For your first race, I’d recommend a course with light rolling hills or that is totally flat. Races on the shore tend to be flatter than inland races.
  • Ocean or Lake
    • Lake swims, in my humble opinion, are much more pleasant than ocean swims (as I have experienced from the water in the US Northeast). The water in lakes is generally warmer, cleaner, and calmer. The trade-off here is that ocean swims generally correspond to flatter bike and run courses, due to their proximity to the coast, while inland races next to lakes tend to be hillier.
  • Date
    • Races in the early summer aren’t as hot, but the water is going to be much colder so you’ll want to have a wetsuit. Once you get into July and August, it starts to get really hot but the water is more pleasantly warm. This of course, is skewed from my point of view because of my location in the US Northeast, but can be useful information for triathletes everywhere.

I highly recommend signing up for a race with little or no hills if you’re going to be racing on a bike that isn’t a road bike. If you are not terribly comfortable with your swimming abilities, a race with a lake swim is probably more up your alley, so you don’t have to battle with currents and waves.

Race sign up fees tend to be very expensive if you go for a big-name brand race. Although these big brands will have more competitors and cooler free stuff in the goodie bags, they may not be worth the $75+ investment if you’re still not sure how much you’ll like it (even though I think you will). Some places will host a series of triathlons, weekly or bi-weekly, that are very low cost and intended to be used as training races or for people who are looking to get into the sport.  I will be posting another article soon with a list of triathlons that are cheap and great for beginners.

The Morning of Your First Race

It’s 4:30am, your alarm clock is buzzing, and you didn’t sleep well last night because you are nervous about challenging yourself with your first triathlon. But don’t worry, it will all be worth it more than you can imagine.

For breakfast, eat something light at least an hour and a half before the race starts. Try to avoid dairy and anything dense. Finding what you like to eat the day of a race takes experience, and everyone is truly different in this respect. I do highly recommend avoiding anything dense like bagels, or anything dairy. Try something easy and light such as 1-2 scrambled eggs, a little bit of fruit like an apple or some berries, and maybe a handful of lightly salted nuts.

Make a checklist of everything you’ll need and pack it up the night before so you can eat and get on the road to the race right away. Before heading out, double check your checklist and head out to the race.

When you get there, your first stop is going to be the registration tent. At the registration tent, you might have to find your number on a list on a bulletin board if it’s a large race. Other times, it’s sorted by last name. Either way, you’re going to talk to someone there who gives you a bag of free stuff and race numbers. That person will then direct you to a guy or gal with a sharpie who is going to write those numbers on your arm and leg where everyone can see them.

Once you have your free stuff and new ink, you’ll have to go get all your stuff and your bike and take it into the transition area. The transition area is usually a big roped off square of grass or parking lot where you’ll see a bunch of people racking their bikes, doing weird stretches and a bunch of other things that look unfamiliar to you. 

How to Set Up Transition Before the Race

The transition area is the place where you’ll be changing your gear in between the different legs of the race. It is usually a square roped off area of grass or parking lot with wooden or metal racks with bikes on them, often with a huge sign that says, “Transition Area” right over it. After you’ve checked in at the registration desk/tent and at least an hour before the race is supposed to start, go to the transition area and claim a spot by setting your bike up on the rack and getting your stuff together right next to it.

Once you’ve picked a spot, you can arrange your equipment in a fashion that allows you to get it on or off as fast as possible. You can use a towel to wipe sand and water off your feet before putting on your shoes and biking out.

Hang your bike opposite the person next to you so they fit together more efficiently on the rack. Next to your bike, lay out whatever shoes you will be biking in with your socks on top. Next to those shoes, lay your helmet, upside down with the straps out and open, with your sunglasses inside the helmet, open with the arms pointing up so that you can put them straight onto your face without needing to fuss with them. After swimming and in the heat of the moment, it’s going to be difficult to untangle or tie anything so this will save you more time and frustration than you think.

Fill your water bottles and put them in the bottle cages on your bike while it’s hanging on the rack, and leave it this way until you are biking later in the race. If you choose to use energy gels, tape the top portion of them to the top bar of your bike, so that you can rip them off with one hand. To visualize this, think of how you would rip an energy gel open with your teeth by biting the removable tab-like piece on the top, except that tab part is taped down, and only that tab part.

Your swimming gear can rest here in the transition area while you do some warmup stretches.

Warming Up

It can be tempting to skip a warm-up routine thinking that you need to save all your energy for the race. Skipping it will cause you to become fatigued more quickly and leave you injury prone. Everyone seems to be in their own world when warming up, as it is something each person seems to develop their own way of doing, but I will share my warmup routine here so you can get a general idea of how it should go.

Find a warm up routine online from a website like Active.com


Stay tuned for some upcoming articles of walkthroughs for your first triathlon, affordable races for beginners, and more!

Written by Colin Miller

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