5 Tips for the First-Time Triathlete

If you’ve been contemplating entering your first triathlon then here’s my advice: just do it! Grab the mouse, go online, find an event, and click on the registration button – it’s that easy.  Well maybe it’s not that easy, but with a little planning and a few good tips, you will soon be on your way to fulfilling that goal. Here are my top five tips to help you get started. 

1) Choose the right event for you.

Not all triathlons are the same. Some are long and will take an entire day, while others can be completed in less than an hour or two. The standard Ironman distance events consist of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and finish with a full 26.2 mile marathon. There are events that are half that distance called “half Ironman” or “70.3” triathlons that are also very popular. These might be great goals for the future but may not be the best distance to start with. The “Olympic” distance triathlon is a more moderate distance with a 1.5K swim, 40K bike, and 10K run. Finally the “Sprint” distance is considered anything shorter than the Olympic, most commonly comprised of a half-mile swim, 9-mile bike ride, and 5k run.

I encourage first time triathletes to start with an Olympic or sprint distance event. Then, as you become more comfortable and experienced, you can progress to longer distances. Consider where the swim will take place. Many events begin with an open water swim in a lake or an ocean.  If you’re confident and comfortable in open water then you will probably be fine with either. If however you are timid, with less experience in ocean swimming, then you may want to start with an event where the swim takes place in a calm lake or pool swim.

The type of terrain can also be a factor when choosing the right event. Hills can make the bike and run segments even more challenging and add a technical component requiring good bike handling skills. Triathlons are held in a variety of locations. You can turn it into a destination or weekend getaway or find something more local. Spend time researching online in various race calendars and choose the one that seems right for you.

2) Get the necessary equipment.

Let’s start with what you don’t need. You don’t need to rush out and get a fancy expensive new triathlon bicycle with carbon race wheels, aero bars and a pointy race helmet. You can worry about those later when you are trying to maximize your performance, squeezing out precious seconds from your time. A basic road bike will suffice. A mountain or hybrid bike can also be used with satisfying results. The most important point is that the bike is the right size for you. Using a poorly fit bike will be uncomfortable, inefficient and could lead to injury or possibly a crash. Investing in new tubes and tires is recommended if the bike has been sitting around for a while. Use a floor pump and get into the habit of inflating your tires before every ride. A local bike shop can perform a simple tune-up to make sure everything is in good working order.

If you don’t know how to fix a flat then this is a good time to learn. Don’t wait until you are stranded on the side of the road in training or a race. Carry a small tool kit under your seat and be prepared to make minor adjustments if necessary. The bike should have at least one water bottle cage.  While it is possible to change clothes during a triathlon, most athletes will do the entire event wearing tri-shorts with a light pad for comfort.  A tri-top will be tight enough to swim in or wear under the wetsuit and will have a couple small pockets to keep food in. Bike shoes with cleats that attach to your pedals are preferred but not required. If you decide to go with shoes and cleats, then you will need to spend a few minutes practicing mounts and dismounts before venturing out on the road. If you use regular shoes, tuck your shoelaces in to avoid them from getting caught in the cranks or pedals. A comfortable pair of cycling shorts and jersey will make training rides more comfortable.  A bike helmet and sport sunglasses will round out the equipment needed for cycling.

An inexpensive race belt can be used to attach your race number for the run. An experienced runner or running store staff member can recommend the appropriate type of running shoe for your individual run gait and preference. You may need to try several pairs of swim goggles before you find the best fit for your face.  The strap should be snug but not uncomfortably tight. Keeping the strap higher on the back of our head will help prevent leaking.  A brightly colored swim cap should be worn during all open water swims so others can see you.  A swimming wetsuit can and should be used whenever possible when training or racing in open water -- especially when it’s cold. Wetsuits come in a variety of brands, styles and prices. An entry-level suit is recommended for your first couple seasons. Getting the right size and making sure you put it on correctly is critical for comfort. Start by pulling it high on your torso providing some space in the armpit and neck areas.

3) Develop your triathlon skills

Training for triathlon means you are preparing for three separate disciplines and two transitions. The most common mistake beginner triathletes make is to spend too much time on their strongest sport while neglecting the area with the most potential for improvement. In other words, if you are a lifetime runner with limited swim experience, then you will benefit more by working on your swim technique and swim-specific fitness. Developing an efficient swim stroke should be a top priority at first. Find an experienced coach who will watch you swim and offer energy saving tips.  Or join an organized swim class if available. Include some open water swims as race day approaches.  Gather a few swim buddies and practice your ability to sight and swim straight.

Most of us learned to ride a bike when we were young so it’s usually only a matter of getting back on the saddle. Cycling does however require specific skills to develop good pedaling technique. Select lighter gears and learn to spin efficiently. Most triathletes should target a pedal cadence between 85-95 rpm. Think about pedaling circles, not squares. Running immediately following the bike sounds easier than it is. Cycling uses the larger quadriceps on the front of our legs, compared to running, which involve the hamstrings on the backside. Dismounting the bike and starting the run often results in a tight, compact gait at first. Running immediately off the bike during training will lead to a faster and smoother transition. With practice, this important transition will become more natural. Moving from the swim to bike and bike to run is referred to as “T1” and “T2”. These are skills that can be improved and quickly executed with practice. The key here is to move through these transitions quickly yet controlled.  Velcro on cycling shoes and elastic shoelaces or lace locks on your running shoes will save you time.

4) Build your endurance.

It goes without saying that the main focus of triathlon training is to increase cardiovascular and muscular endurance. Some first-time triathletes come in the sport with a large aerobic base achieved through years of endurance training. Others enter with limited endurance training and stamina. Training is the process of progressively adding duration and intensity. Training causes stress which leads to increased fitness. Learning to balance this stress load with proper rest and recovery is paramount to a successful program. A novice triathlete may benefit by following a professionally designed training plan that can be downloaded from the Internet or found in triathlon magazines. Coaches are available who can customize a plan to fit an individual’s goals, background and available time to train. Different athletes will be able handle different amounts of training loads. The key is to find out what works best for you. Ultimately our goal should be to do the least amount of total training to obtain the highest amount of fitness.

5) Plan your race.

You can do all the right training and have the best equipment but that doesn’t guarantee that you will have a successful race. Having a good game plan means that you have put thought into controlling what you can but at the same time being mentally and physically ready to adjust to unforeseen circumstances. The best way to be mentally prepared for the event is to observe a triathlon in person.

Arrive early, and watch how the athletes set up. Note how they start the swim, come out of the water and move through transitions. Pay attention to the mount and dismount lines at the beginning and end of the bike. Plan your pre-race nutrition and practice this at least once. You should also practice laying out your equipment the night before, as you will for the race. Create a checklist to help assure you have the necessary equipment. Spend time visualizing your race from start to finish. If possible train on the course and get familiar with the areas that may present the biggest challenge come race day.

In summary, plan your race, then practice your plan. The single most powerful tool you can bring to the triathlon is a positive attitude. It’s natural to have negative thoughts during times of discomfort. Participating in a triathlon is not easy. If it were, then there wouldn’t be anything special about it. Anticipate and be prepared to experience a roller coaster of emotions on race day. In a short time of racing, you will learn how to deal with this discomfort. You will also discover that this discomfort is temporary but the pride you earn by finishing will last forever.

By Duane Franks, MS Athlete, Head Coach & Founder of Trifiniti Endurance. Duane is a fitness consultant and triathlon coach with more than 30 years of experience in the sport. He works with athletes of all abilities, from beginners to all out world champions.


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Mio Global
Tuesday, January 6th, 2015 at 12:08AM
They sure are! Both are water-resistant to 30 metres.
Mobile Audio Video
Monday, December 29th, 2014 at 6:10PM
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website, Keep up the fastidious work.
Mio Global
Thursday, July 24th, 2014 at 6:25PM
Great tip, Morrison! Thanks for sharing!
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