What To Expect From Your First Triathlon
From what to take with you to how to get that bloomin' wetsuit off, here's everything you need to know to ace your first triathlon
The days before your first super-sprint, sprint triathlon or Olympic distance race can be pretty daunting, what do I wear under my wetsuit/what do I do with my bike while I swim/should I wear pants? There’s so much to think about, how the beejezus are you supposed to know what’s going on?
Luckily, a bit of preparation and you’ll sail through your first tri like a well-oiled Brownlee brother and wonder what all the fuss was about. Here’s what to expect.
Preparation is key
Read through your race instructions at least a couple of days before so you know what you need to take with you. This leaves plenty of time to buy any extra items you’re missing – nothing like a mad 9pm hunt for a spare inner tube to get you in a flap.
Draw yourself up a list and pack everything the morning before so it’s ready to grab the next day. Four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington also recommends taking your bike for a short spin around the block the morning before the race, that way, if anything’s wrong you have time to get it fixed while the bike shops are still open.
No one ever sleeps well the day before a race so don’t expect to and don’t stress if you don’t
She also says don’t panic if you can’t nod off the night before. “No one ever sleeps well the day before a race so don’t expect to and don’t stress if you don’t. The key is to bank sleep in the couple of weeks before."
Plan how you’re going to get to the race, and if you’re going to be taking public transport double check they allow bikes onboard before you travel – this can be a particular ball ache with city triathlons such as The London Triathlon. Leave plenty of time to allow for traffic and road closures.
How to rack your bike
When you arrive at your triathlon the first thing you’ll probably need to do is rack your bike. This means putting your bike, running kit and any other bits and bobs in the transition area. At this stage most triathlons will ask you to show your bike helmet to check it meets safety standards, so have it handy.
Lay out your triathlon clothing and kit in the order you will use them
“Make your transitions as organised and logical as possible," says triathlon coach John Wood. “Lay out your triathlon clothing and kit in the order you will use them then, when the adrenaline’s flowing on race day, it’s as simple as possible."
When you rack your bike, you’ll hang it on a wire frame. Take note of the position and number of the rack! The transition area can look very different early in the morning when it’s quiet. Later in the day it will likely be jammed full of bikes and it’s very easy to waste valuable time searching for your trusty steed. It’s a good idea to place a brightly coloured towel by your bike or over the handlebars so it’s easy to spot.
A word of warning, don’t use other bikes to remember your location as people will be getting on them at different times – that big green tandem may well have vanished once you’ve finished your swim.
How to ace the triathlon swim
The swim is usually the bit most people are worried about, especially if it’s in open water. If you get the chance practice swimming in your wetsuit and in open water a couple of times before the race so you get used to it.
The great thing about wetsuits is they’re super-buoyant so there’s no chance of sinking!
If you’re swimming in open water you will probably have to wear a wetsuit – unless the water temperature is above 14 decrees celsius when it may become optional. The great thing about wetsuits is they’re super-buoyant so there’s no chance of sinking!
“While a surf wetsuit would do the job," says tri coach John, “it will take on water and be very restrictive. I would recommend getting a decent entry-level triathlon wetsuit, which are about £150. Blueseventy’s Sprint tri-suit is a good option. If you don’t want to splash out you’ll the triathlon website will usually give details of where you can hire one instead."
If you’re wearing a wetsuit, baby oil or Bodyglide is your friend! “I put baby oil all over my arms to help get my wetsuit off," says bronze medal winning Olympic triathlete Jonny Brownlee. “I also cut the legs on my wetsuit to the middle of my shins, it makes it a lot easier to get off."
Pull your wetsuit right up under your arms and on the legs to ensure you get the best fit.
If you’re worried about getting bashed about in the swim, stay at the back or the side and go at your own pace. The faster swimmers will congregate at the front and inside to ensure they choose the quickest way round, so it can get a bit gnarly up there.
Most triathlons will give you a coloured hat to demark your wave but take a spare just incase. If you’re worried about your googles getting knocked off wear one hat, place the goggles over your hat and put your other hat on top to keep them secure.
As for what you wear under your wetsuit, a tri-suit – an all-in-one lycra outfit with padded shorts – is the best option. No pants, they’ll just get soggy! If you don’t have a tri-suit, opt for cycling shorts – and a quick-drying sports bra for women – and pull on a t-shirt once you’re in transition.
And a note on sports bras, some female tri-suits will have one inbuilt, these can be a bit of a nightmare to get on and off and often aren’t very supportive for the run so if you have a larger chest it may be an idea to wear a sports bra as well.
If you have to wear a race number use a race belt as this means you can turn it round from your back for the bike to your front for the run
Some triathlons will write your number on your arm or leg while some will require you to wear a race number. If you have to wear a race number use a race belt as this means you can turn it round from your back for the bike to your front for the run. You can wear this under your wetsuit.
And, while this absolutely won’t happen, if you do get in trouble during the swim, turn onto your back and put your arm in the air to signal that you need to be rescued.
How to have the best triathlon bike leg
Once you’re out of the swim remove your wetsuit on the way to the bike and place it neatly in transition so that no one trips over it. If you’re wearing trainers for the bike it can be tricky getting socks on wet feet so many triathletes forgo them and use talcum powder inside their shoes to soak up excess moisture and make them easy to get on. Elastic laces are also a good idea as they don’t come undone and are much quicker than tying laces.
You will usually have to run with your bike away from the transition area before you’re allowed to mount. If you’re wearing bike shoes you may notice people already have them clipped on the pedals and place their feet in as they cycle off. While this can save time it’s a tricky skill to master, so don’t try it for the first time on race day – no one wants to face plant before they’ve even started!
If you want to take on energy gels and fluids, the bike is the best place to do it so you have plenty of time to digest before the run
Ensure you have a full water bottle on your bike as you’ll be thirsty after the swim. If you want to take on energy gels and fluids, the bike is the best place to do it so you have plenty of time to digest before the run. Don’t try any new gels or energy drinks on race day though as they can upset your stomach if you’re not used to them.
Make sure you have a spare inner tube and tyre levers just incase you have a puncture as many triathlons require you to fix any problems yourself. And learn a few basic road rules. Try and overtake on the right and give a friendly warning ‘on your right’ as you pass to help avoid any accidents. Drafting – riding close to the wheel of the rider infront so you get pulled along in their slipstream – is also banned in triathlons, sorry.
You might also find it helpful to leave off the heavy gears and spin easy for the last bit of the bike so your legs aren’t too fatigued for the run.
How to have a fab triathlon run
Your legs will be heavy/wobbly and it can feel like you’re running through a vat of waist-high mud
Yay, you’re nearly there! Rack your bike carefully, turn your number to the front if required, and off you go. While running may seem like the simplest part, running off a bike can be a totally different experience, your legs will be heavy/wobbly and it can feel like you’re running through a vat of waist-high mud.
Brick training – adding short runs immediately after you’ve cycled in your training schedule can help with this. The wobbliness should wear off after a while though and then all that’s left to do is run your way to triathlon glory.
The most important thing though? Enjoy it! “Just aim to race against yourself," says John. “There are so many other unpredictable elements to consider, like having a puncture, that can ruin your time, so just completing it and enjoying it should be your first aim."