So you are thinking about training and competing in your first triathlon are you? You have come to the right place as I have recently took part in my first ever triathlon and I have loads of hints and tips that will help you if you are a triathlon beginner.
What are the normal triathlon distances?
The most common and original length of triathlon is typically called the “Olympic triathlon”. It consists of a 1km swim (0.93miles), 40km bike (24.8miles) and a 10k run (6.2miles). There is also something called a “Sprint triathlon” that is typically a 0.8k swim (0.5mile), 24k bike (15miles) and a 5k run (3mile).
In addition to these lengths you can also have an “Ironman triathlon”. The lengths for this are; 3.9km swim (2.4miles), 180k bike (112miles) and a 42.2k run (26.2miles).
You can also find some triathlons that are even longer, or in some instances, shorter than the sprint length. I went for an Olympic-length triathlon as my first attempt, but with hindsight, I should have tried a few sprint length triathlons to practice and prepare myself for the first Olympic length one.
What should you consider when choosing a triathlon to take part in?
There are a number of factors that you should consider when picking your first triathlon. These can include, what are your least and most favourite out of the three disciplines of swimming, bike and run, and picking a course that plays to these strengths.
You should also consider if you want to swim in an open lake, sea or a pool-based triathlon. If swimming is not your strongest element (as is the case for myself) then you need to factor this into your decision-making. Swimming is my least favourite of the three triathlon sports, so I was a bit of a fool to have chosen myself a lake swim for my first one.
You also need to look at the bike and run elements of the course that you choose. Some triathlon courses are set across rough or hilly terrains for the bike and run sections and this can be very challenging if you have only ever ran or cycled on roads before. If you are an experienced trail runner or well versed in hilly bike rides, then this becomes less of a factor.
What kind of bike do I need for a triathlon?
If you are planning to compete in your first triathlon and are wondering about the bike you should always go for a road bike. I went for a Carrera from Halfords because I was short of time, but I would have preferred to have used an independent store. Unless the bike element of the triathlon is off-road (you should then consider a hybrid or mountain bike) then it has to be a road bike.
One of the most confusing parts of getting ready for my first triathlon was the conflicting advice about the type of bike to get; a mountain bike, a hybrid bike or a road bike. Ignore the confusion and just go for a road bike!
If the cost of the bike gets you scared, then scour the many triathlon groups on Facebook where people are often selling their road bikes and other triathlon equipment. I spotted good quality, hardly used triathlon road bikes from as little as £200 on some of the Facebook triathlon sale pages. If you do want a brand-new road bike, always try and help an independent bike shop over a chain, not least because they give great advice and help.
Will I need to use bike cleats for a triathlon and what are bike cleats?
Bike cleats are really handy for a triathlon and will help you improve your speed on the bike and reduce your overall time. Bike cleats do take some getting used to but are well worth it.
Most bikes don’t come with cleat pedals. You can buy cleat pedals from any good bike shop and also the likes of Amazon. Bike cleat pedals are normally a standard size so don’t worry about them fitting or not. You will need an Allen key and maybe a screwdriver to remove the old bike pedals and add the cleat pedals.
I bought some Shimano Cleats from Amazon and they cost from around £30 through to around £100 for a decent pair.
If you have never worn cleats shoes and used cleat pedals before you HAVE to go and practice using them. You need to practice getting your feet in and out of the cleats and don’t worry if you fall over a few times, we have all done it. In my case I did it several times at traffic lights and also during my triathlon, when I got cramp and could not get my feet out of the darn things! Practice, practice, practice!
What do you wear for a triathlon?
In a nutshell, if you are doing a UK-based triathlon that involves an outdoor swim then you need to wear a triathlon suit (tri-suit) underneath a wet suit. The tri-suit is typically an all-in-one piece of clothing made from lycra. You can get two-piece tri-suits. The wet suit that you would wear for a triathlon is different to your normal beach one. It will be a bit tighter (in my experience) made of far thinner rubber, but far more buoyant than a beach wet suit.
With regards to buying a wet suit, you really do get what you pay for so try and go for the best quality triathlon wet suit that you can afford. They typically range from £85 through to £300+ and the online store that I recommend is Wiggle. Also note, when your wet suit arrives it will typically come with a pair of white cotton gloves. This is not so that you can become a French mime artist, it is so that you don’t poke a hole through your wetsuit when you put it on. The rubber in these wet suits is far thinner!
Wiggle does overnight delivery, has great hints and tips and, if you have any problems, they get them sorted very quickly. Wiggle really are the experts at triathlon, running, cycling and ironman equipment and gear.
With regards to tri-suits, they cost from £35 to a few hundred pounds, and again, Wiggle is a great place to buy one from. One thing to note about tri-suits, you wear them with the zip on the front, unlike the wetsuit that has the zip on the back.
How long does it take to train for a triathlon?
This very much depends on the length of the triathlon that you have chosen but as a basic rule you should plan for your training to take place over 12 weeks (three months). I actually trained on and off for around 6-months but this was because I am a novice swimmer and needed lots of help.
I would very much recommend reading our guides to triathlon training section as a starting point. It is then worth considering the option of finding a coach or personal trainer to help you. I had personal training sessions from Theyer PT for the last three months of my training and they really helped, especially in the swimming element where I was really struggling.
If you train at a gym, it is also worth asking around your gym mates for other members who have done a triathlon. I have found the triathlon community to be super friendly and very helpful. Everyone is keen to pass on their tips and you never know, if you are as lucky as me, you may find someone who will take you under their wing and help you from start to finish. Massive thanks to Shane Snell in our gym who helped me, along with fellow competitor Rachel Nash, who also inspired and helped.
How many hours a week should you train for your first triathlon?
Initially you should aim to do at least one hours training per weekday, and then plan for a long run, bike or swim at the weekend. As you move closer to the triathlon date, start putting together a few elements of the race at the weekends, e.g. a bike and swim, or a bike and run, along with continuing your weekday training. If your triathlon involves an outdoor swim, get down to your local lake to train in the evenings. I really regret not doing this more before my first triathlon. I really struggled on the lake swim and could have rectified this by training in a lake far more often.
A personal trainer will typically tell you to slow down (they call it tapering) on the week before the triathlon, this is great advice.
All of this training advice is based on my doing an Olympic length triathlon. If you are doing an ironman length triathlon or a sprint triathlon, you should factor your train up or down as necessary.
What food should I eat on the morning or day of the triathlon?
I am no nutritionist, but fortunately my wife is! Before a triathlon you should eat foods such as porridge, banana’s, brown rice etc. Make sure it is food that you are used to eating so you don’t risk an upset stomach during the race (your fellow swimmers won’t love you if you leave a brown trail!). Avoid fatty foods on the morning of the triathlon.
What should I eat during a triathlon?
There is so much conflicting advice on this it can become confusing. I went for SIS flavoured gels and had one after the swim, during the bike ride, after the bike ride and half way around the run. Again, try these on the run up to the triathlon to make sure that they don’t upset your stomach and that they work well for you. For me, I feel they gave more of a psychological boost more than anything.
I saw some people eating jelly babies, trail mixes, homemade protein balls, Grenade bars, Bounce Balls and all kinds of foods. I just tried to keep it simple.
One important thing to note for foods is to plan what you will do with your empty wrappers. Not all tri-suits have pockets! This becomes a major issue when you see that the majority of outdoor triathlon events will disqualify you for littering!
Also, don’t forget to put water bottles in the transition area to drink between the swim, bike and run, and also make sure you put water bottles on your bike!
Where to store the food you will eat during a triathlon – top tips!
A few tips on where to store the food you are planning to eat during the triathlon. The best tip I had was to tape the SIS gels to my road bike frame and then just pull them off as you go around. It prevents them rubbing on you if you are storing them in your tri suit pockets (if you have pockets). This was a great tip.
Also line up a banana or some energy food in your transition space. You can then just grab something as you get ready for the next stage of the triathlon.
What to do when you arrive at the location of your first triathlon
When you first arrive at the triathlon venue the main thing is not to panic. When I turned up at my first triathlon there were loads of people who knew each other and were chatting away, and they were also some of the fittest people on earth! If you are meeting up with friends taking part or supporters, go find them and chill out!
Next up, go and find the race reception tent or desk and let them know you have arrived. Once they have ticked you off you will get given your race numbers, a race chip (more on that in a second) and find out the pre-race brief time if you don’t know it already, and where it is taking place. Then go and get ready and sort your transition space!
Do I put my triathlon race chip under or over my wetsuit?
Really simple, always put your triathlon race chip on top of your wet suit! If you put it under the wet suit you risk the chip not registering at the checkpoints and in the worst-case scenario, you won’t get a time or could be disqualified for accidentally not following the course!
How to set up your transition space for a triathlon
A few days before I did my first triathlon Shane, who had completed many of them, sent me a diagram on how to lay out my gear in the transition space. First up, rack your bike by hooking the saddle over the frame that is provided by the organisers. Then, lay a bag down next to bike and at the front of the bag put some water and food, then put your running trainers and then put your bike cleats (if you are using them).
I then lay a towel in front of the bag and also had some talcum powder ready for my feet after the swim. Don’t forget to lay out your socks too. Also pop some talc into your socks to help dry your feet after the swim and protect your toes!
Lastly, I hung my bike helmet on my handlebars with my sunglasses and gloves (both optional) in the helmet as well. If it is raining on the day of your triathlon, cover your section with a plastic bag, if possible. If not, turn your running shoes upside down and put your socks underneath to keep them dry.
Below is a handy diagram.
Tips for swimming in a triathlon
When it comes to the swim element of the triathlon, here are my tips. Keep in mind that my swim section was a car crash, so you may be better seeking the advice of a qualified trainer.
If you are not confident about the swim part of a triathlon, start at the back of the field. The swim section is carnage! People grab each other, kick each other (as I found out) and even swim over each other. Starting at the back is, in theory, a bit safer. In my experience, I still got kicked and it ruined my entire swim.
Go for it! Once you have a clear path, just go for it and put all your training into practice. If you are doing an open water lake swim, be careful getting in and out because there are quite often sharp rocks and branches lurking in the water and you don’t want to damage your feet at such an early stage.
If you get into trouble, start swimming on your back and put your hand up. At every triathlon I have attended (and I have taken part in one) there are always more than enough lifeguards on the side and in canoes. If in doubt, use them. They will toe you to the shallows and get you help.
When exiting the water, take care not to slip, the banks will be slippy and muddy.
Can you do back stroke during a triathlon swim?
In short, no! The organisers of most triathlons will tell you during the briefing that they consider people doing backstroke to be in trouble during the swim and you could in fact be accidentally rescued if you do start doing backstroke.
You can do any other type of swimming stroke during a triathlon, without worry!
How will I know where to go on the bike and run routes for a triathlon?
Every triathlon has clearly marked routes, there is no need to worry about not knowing where to go. If you do have any concerns, ask before you set off and also be reassured that most well organised triathlons have race stewards in strategic places and also other stewards going around in vehicles to check on race competitors.
How to get the most from your transition from swim to bike and bike to run
The swim to bike transition is the hardest part of the triathlon switchovers. Most importantly, don’t touch your bike until you have got your helmet on and don’t get on your bike until you have reached the area where you have been told it is ok to do so. If you don’t follow these last two rules then you face being disqualified or getting a time penalty. The triathlon race stewards are very serious, BUT they have your best interests at heart.
For the swim to bike transition, get out of the water, remove your wet suit (carefully, they can rip easily), place it down carefully (so you don’t mess up your neatly laid out transition space) and then start drying yourself. Take good care to properly dry your toes and feet, use the talcum powder as well to make sure.
Get your bike cleats on, put on your helmet, take on board any food or fluids that you want and then grab your bike and walk to the section where you have been told you can get on your bike. At this stage, your legs should be ok, so just go for it.
The bike to run transition is fairly simple, rack your bike, take your cleats off, take your helmet off, put your running shoes on, take on some fluids or food if you need it and get going. Some people run with a small water bottle, I didn’t, but it is up to you. If it is a hot day I would definitely take water round with you on the run.
Your legs could well be a bit wobbly on the change from bike to run, so take care with your first few steps. You can expect to be very tired at this stage so don’t be worried if your running feels odd at first. It took me a good few minutes to calm myself and settle into a running routine. Once I did though, the fact it was the last stage really got me through the run.
One thing to note about the end of the run, always dip for the finish line, it looks good if nothing else.
How to warm down after a triathlon
Make sure to carry out a series of warm down stretches after you have finished the triathlon. This will really help you with your recovery over the next few days. Also give your feet a good going over to check for sores, cuts and blisters and try and let your feet dry out properly if you see any of these. My last warm down activity suggestion for after a triathlon; go for a well-earned drink!
As a footnote, my first triathlon was at the age of 41 at the Forest of Dean Trimax Event at Mallards Pike. I completed it in a shockingly slow 4hrs 20mins, but at least I completed it.