Thinking about doing your first triathlon? While it can feel a little overwhelming, you can definitely tackle this awesome goal. These tips for your first triathlon will help you feel prepared and confident as you approach the start line of your race!
This post was originally published in 2016 and has been updated in 2021.
Disclaimer: This post was written by Chrissy Carroll, USAT Level I Triathlon Coach. It is for informational purposes only. Consult a doctor prior to beginning any new exercise program.
Tips for Before You Start Training
1. Choose the right distance.
A triathlon is a race comprised of three different disciplines – swimming, biking, and running (in that order). There are different distance triathlons, so you can pick one that you feel would be a good challenge but a feasible goal to start with!
- Sprint distance: 1/4 to 1/2 mile swim; 10 to 15 mile bike ride; 3.1 mile (5K) run
- Olympic distance: 0.9 mile swim; 24.8 mile bike (40K), 6.2 mile (10K) run
- Half ironman: 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, 13.1 mile (half marathon) run
- Ironman: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, 26.2 mile (marathon) run
Not every “triathlon” means an ironman, so look around and see what races are out in your area that you feel could be a “comfortable challenge”!
2. Sign up for a race.
Don’t wait around and debate about signing up someday. Choose a race that gives you enough time to train, of course – but put the money down and sign up now so that you’re committed. Yes, it can feel scary, but you’ve got this!
Keep in mind the timing of your race and how that will play into your training. For example, if you choose a season opener race in New England in late May, that means you’re going to need to find somewhere to swim in February, March, and April. Obviously up here in the Northeast, that means swimming indoors – so think about if you have somewhere to swim available during that time.
On the flip side, signing up for a September race in New England means that you can swim in open water to train, but also means you’re doing you’re run training in the height of summer.
Any option can work, just think about your personal preferences and goals.
When you sign up for a race, you’ll pay the race registration fee and then you’ll also pay a fee for USA Triathlon (USAT) membership. You don’t have to sign up for a whole year; you can do a 1 day membership if that’s the only race you’re doing right now. This is normal in every triathlon race and it’s not a way for the race directors to scam you or anything; it comes with the territory or triathlon racing.
3. Look for a good training plan or coach.
Most beginners will probably be choosing a sprint distance triathlon as their first event, or possibly an Olympic. For these races, especially a sprint distance, you can feasibly train for them in around 10-20 weeks (possibly more or less depending on your current fitness level.
If you need some accountability and a more customized plan, look for a coach that can help with individualized advice. Coaches are great for keeping you on track, helping you troubleshoot tough workouts, and motivating you throughout the process! I recommend looking for coaches that are USAT certified.
Tips for Choosing the Right Gear
People often think you need a fancy expensive bike and tons of other gear to do a tri. While it’s true that elite athletes and competitive racers own pricy gear, if you’re just starting out and want to test the waters of triathlon, you only need a few pieces of basic gear to get started.
1. Swim Gear
All you really need is a decent swimsuit (or tri suit) and goggles. If wearing a swimsuit, an athletic style male or female suit is recommended since it’ll be fastest in the water without creating drag. Women may want to wear a sports bra under their swimsuit or tri suit so they’re all ready for the bike and run afterwards.
If you want to spend the money:
- Some people like wearing a tri suit, which is kind of like a tank top/short combo that is made out of swimsuit-like material. Tri suits come in one piece or two piece styles. You can wear the tri suit for all 3 portions of the race. (You can find more about them in our article about what to wear during a triathlon).
- If the water is supposed to be cold or you have trouble with swimming, you may want to invest in a wetsuit. These keep your body warmer and help with buoyancy, so they’re very helpful – though not a necessity for your first race (unless extreme cold water temperatures dictate that they must be used).
My first tri: For my first triathlon, I wore a halter style bathing suit, cheapo goggles, and no wetsuit. I was one of only a few people sans wetsuit, which made me nervous at the start but the water was fine and I’m a naturally decent swimmer. Once I started competing more, I invested in a wetsuit because it does help with buoyancy and staying warm.
2. Bike Gear
You can use any kind of bike for your first triathlon, even your old mountain bike (of course, using that might slow you down a bit though). The only other essential piece of equipment you’ll need for the bike portion is a standard helmet, which you can find at pretty much any sporting goods store. (The helmet is required to participate).
If you want to spend the money:
- If you’re serious about competing, you may want to use a road bike or a triathlon bike which will be much faster on the streets than a mountain bike. You can find bikes in a range of prices, from less-expensive road bikes that cost a few hundred dollars to high-end tri bikes that cost tens of thousands. If you are doing a tri for the first time and you’re not sure you’ll continue, consider starting with an inexpensive bike or borrowing one from a friend.
- More advanced athletes will also want to use cycling shoes that clip into the bike pedals, which create a more efficient cycling experience. If you’ve never used these before, I would recommend just doing your first triathlon with regular sneakers.
My first tri: I used a mountain bike. With a warped back tire. Which happened to hit the brake pad every rotation. And tires that were probably so flat because I didn’t know you had to inflate them more than once a year. I still made it through. (Of course, as I got more involved in the sport I upgraded to a good road bike and have used that ever since).
3. Run Gear
A decent pair of sneakers is all you’ll need for this part of the event.
If you want to spend the money:
- While any pear of sneakers will do, if you have the time, visit a running store where they can watch you run and assess your stride. They can then make specific shoe recommendations based on this, which can be quite helpful.
- If you are doing a longer distance triathlon race with limited aid stations, you may want to have a fuel belt to help you carry hydration and nutrition during the run portion (though most races will have various aid stations along the way). For sprint races, no fuel belt is needed.
My first: I wore the pair of sneakers I worked out in regularly. Nothing fancy.
First Triathlon Training Tips
As mentioned in the first section, using a training plan or finding a coach will give you very specific guidance about how to train. As an adjunct to that, though, here are some other helpful tips.
1. Be consistent
The absolute number one factor that will get you to the finish line of your race? Consistency in training.
If you get out there and train five days a week for three months, practicing each of the disciplines and ensuring you’re comfortable in open water, you will almost certainly cross that finish line successfully.
Don’t get too bogged down in speed or what others are doing – just train consistently, and know you’ve got this.
2. Practice open water swimming.
Unless your triathlon swim takes place in a pool, you need to practice some of your swim training in open water to make sure you’re comfortable with it.
Open water can feel a little murky and bottomless, and that can frighten people – especially in a race when the chaos of everyone swimming together ensues. But by practicing in open water, you can help familiarize yourself with it and reduce the chances of anxiety during the race.
Try recruiting a family member or friend to go with you and kayak or paddleboard alongside you. This can give you the chance to stop and hold on to that if you get out of breath or nervous. (Fun fact – during a triathlon race, there are typically safety kayaks along the water, and you can even stop and hold those as long as you don’t make any forward progress while doing so! This is allowed in race rules).
You can also find a friend or family member that’s a strong swimmer to swim alongside you, and find an open water location where you can “hug the shore”. In other words, swim close enough to the shore that if anxiety takes over, you can quickly get to a spot where you can stand. Or in the event of an emergency, the other swimmer can quickly get you to where they can stand and help pull you out.
Lastly, some races will hold open water swim clinics for triathletes. These are a great option, as they may include practice getting into the water in groups. That can help you learn how to swim without getting nervous about the many other people around you.
This section probably makes open water swimming sound much scarier than it actually is – I love swimming in open water! But for those of you who are nervous, taking the precautions above while practicing will help you increase your confidence in a relatively safe setting.
3. Know how to use your bike gears.
The gears are there to make things easier! During training, practice switching gears so that you understand how they work and how to use them in various situations (like approaching a hill or a stop sign).
For example, when you start approaching a hill, you might drop down a gear or two while continuing to pedal quickly. As you climb the hill, you’ll need to drop down more gears to keep up a good cadence (you don’t want to be using up all your leg strength trying to grind the pedals in too high of a gear). Depending on how steep the hill is and your bike set up, you may need to drop down to the smaller chain ring (if you have one) in order to comfortably ride up the hill.
Similarly, once you’ve got a nice downhill or flat stretch, don’t forget to shift back up to a harder gear so that you can put some extra power into your pedals and propel your speed.
This article about how to use bicycle gears is a great overview, but just riding around and playing with the shifters will help engrain it into your memory. Before long, it’ll be second nature.
4. Practice setting up your transition area.
The transition area is the place where you will put your other gear while you’re doing each part of the race. After the swim portion, you’ll head into transition to put on your bike clothes and grab your bike and helmet (called T1 in triathlon speak). After the bike, you’ll return to transition to drop it off and head out for the run (called T2 in triathlon speak).
Here are a few recommendations for transition:
- When it comes to race day, you want to bring only what you need. Transition space isn’t that big, so you don’t want it to be cluttered. Practice ahead of time by paring down to only the items you’ll need on race day.
- At the race itself, you’ll rack your bike and set up transition next to it. For practice purposes, just imagine your bike is racked and run through your set up.
- I recommend setting up on a small towel. You can leave empty space at the end where you can wipe your feet after you come in from the swim. You’ll have to run out of the water through sand, grass, dirt, or pavement, and you might want that off of your feet before you put on your shoes. You can keep a small water bottle there to rinse your feet off after the swim too.
- In your transition area, you’ll want to set up the materials you’ll need for when you switch to the bike and run portions. Make sure to have your helmet out and the straps open so you can snap it on quickly. Lay out sunglasses if you use these. Have socks ready to put on if you wear them (roll them down so that you can roll them onto wet feet quickly). Have your sneakers ready with the laces undone, or with elastic laces. Lay out any clothes that you will wear during the bike/run. Practice setting all this up in advance.
5. Practice bricks
In addition to practicing the act of transitioning itself, it’s also important to practice going from one sport to another – mainly with the bike to the run.
Include a couple brick workouts in your training plan where you go for a bike ride and then immediately go for a 10-20 minute run. This will help you learn how to run on “jelly legs” – a very strange feeling as you come off the bike! By practicing, you’ll be prepared for this feeling on race day.
First Triathlon Race Day Tips
1. Fuel right.
Before your race, be sure to eat a carb-rich breakfast that you know sits well in your stomach. Eating carbohydrates on race day morning will help fuel your body for the upcoming challenge.
Avoid excessive amounts of fat or fiber before the race, as this can lead you rushing to a porta-potty mid-event.
Now is not the time to try a new food; stick with the tried-and-true options you love. My personal favorite is a bagel with a little cream cheese, but do whatever you know and love. Other ideas include:
- Toast with a little peanut butter, honey, and bananas
- Smoothie with fruit and yogurt
- Quinoa or rice with poached eggs
- Pancakes with fruit and syrup
- Sweet potato with a little nut butter and raisins
During the race itself, you may want to have a sports drink on the bike to sip according to thirst, and possibly a gel or another fuel source for the run, depending on the length of the event. Sprint distance triathlons are relatively short so not much fuel is needed during the event; Olympic or longer races will require some fueling. For either race though, a sports drink or electrolyte drink can be useful on hot days for proper hydration.
2. Check in and set up transition.
When you get to the race, you’ll check in (if you haven’t done it in advance) and get your race numbers. Attach your race numbers to your bike, helmet, and either to a race belt that can be put on over your clothes or to the shirt that you’ll wear for the bike/run.
Most races also do body marking, where a volunteer will use a marker to write your race number on your upper arms, as well as your age on your calf. Depending on the race, your race number may also be written on your thigh as well. Some races will use temporary tattoos instead of markers.
After you’ve gotten body marking done, you can go ahead and set up your transition area.
When you get to the transition area, bike racks will usually be assigned by ranges of race numbers. Find your assigned row. Sometimes each row will have the numbers on the rack – if that’s the case, just find your number and set up there. If the numbers are just grouped though (i.e. this row for #65-70), then try to get a spot on the end of the racks. This trick makes it easier to spot your bike and you’ll likely have a little more space to set up transition.
3. Get in a pre-race swim when possible.
Most races allow athletes a little time before the start to get in the water. This usually closes down about 5-30 minutes before the race itself starts. The closer you can get in to race time, the better, but obviously it depends on the race logistics.
This doesn’t have to be a full out practice swimming session, but it’s helpful to get into the water and just move your body a little. If the water is cold, try to dunk your head a few times as close to the race start as you can. This helps combat the breathless feeling that sometimes comes with swimming in cold water.
4. Start the swim in the right spot.
For your first triathlon, the mass swim start can feel a little nerve-wracking. Here’s the trick to help – seed yourself in the back corner on the side furthest from the bouys. For example, if you’re swimming in a loop where you’re passing bouys on your left, start in the back on the right. (And vice versa for the opposite direction).
This reduces the risk of getting kicked or hit when everyone starts swimming. The few seconds you might lose by being in the back are minimal compared to the comfort of having a little extra space.
5. Don’t freak out – breathe!
Even athletes that have prepared in open water can start to get nervous during the race itself. This can lead to anxiety that makes it feel like you can’t catch your breath.
If you find yourself struggling in the water, go ahead and froggie swim with your head above water for a few minutes. Or flip onto your back and just float for a second while you breathe. Or hold onto a kayak for a minute and let yourself calm down.
Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing or your pace, just focus on doing whatever you need to in order to get your breathing under control. Once it is, go ahead and resume a slow freestyle stroke.
6. Remember the rules.
As you get into the bike and run portion of the triathlon, there are two rules that people often forget – so they’re worth a reminder:
- No drafting on the bike – In most triathlon races in the US, it’s “illegal” to draft on the bike – aka ride right behind someone, so that it’s easier for you since they are taking on the air resistance. You need to leave about 3 bike lengths between you and the rider in front of you. If you know you can speed up, go ahead and pass them on their left within 15 seconds.
- No headphones – There’s no headphones allowed on both the bike and run portions.
7. Have fun!
Last but not least – have fun. Triathlon is meant to be fun and enjoyable, and generally the community of triathletes is incredibly supportive of beginners. Focus on your enjoyment of the race as you’re going, of course pushing yourself just a little. The feeling of crossing that finish line will be amazing.
There you go – the quick run down of what you need to know for completing your first triathlon! Now get out there and sign up for one. 🙂
Share with me: Have you ever done a triathlon? If so, what tips do you have for new triathletes? And if you haven’t done one, are you planning to do your first triathlon soon?
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