Your First Triathlon: Where To Start?

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So you have decided on entering a triathlon! First off, well done for deciding to push your boundaries and try a new sport (or three)!  If you are looking to get yourself up and running (after swimming and cycling of course), here are some helpful pointers for your first triathlon.

  1. Find a race

You may already have a race in mind or entered one, but if you haven’t, a quick search on British Triathlon’s ‘Events’ page (www.britishtriathlon.org/events) will show you all of the upcoming races in your local area. You can specify race type (aquathlon, duathlon, triathlon), distance (super-sprint, sprint, standard (Olympic), middle distance (half-iron), long distance (full-iron)) and also if you really want to cut your teeth against some of the best in the country, championship races and qualifying events for the age group team. So head over and select a race!

Regarding race selection, there are several points to consider:

  • Proximity to your location – for a first race it is probably best to race as locally as possible to reduce travel time (and potential pre-race stress if you are delayed by traffic), and provide the option to recce the course in advance.
  • Distance – There are a multitude of distances that you can race from the GoTri initiative (usually 200-250m in a swimming pool, 5-10Km bike (or on a static bike), 1.6-2.5Km run), all the way through to full iron distance races (3.8Km open water swim, 180Km bike, 42.2Km run). There has been a trend of going ‘long’ as a first race but if you’re new to regular exercise, any of the three disciplines of triathlon, or are not sure if it is the sport for you, I would recommend choosing a shorter event as a starting point. Pool-based aquathlons (400m swim, 5Km run) and triathlons (400m/20Km/5km) are a good place to initially test the waters, as are the GoTri series, and are usually held by local triathlon clubs who are very supportive of newcomers.
  • Your strengths/weakness/course type – Think about the race course and your personal strengths and weaknesses. If you are a weak swimmer, jumping into a race with a rough sea swim probably isn’t the best idea. Likewise a hilly bike route if you are not a strong cyclist. In these instances, a pool based event or an open water swim in a calm lake would be best, as would a flat bike course. Conversely, if you are a strong cyclist who climbs well, that hilly route will give you an edge over your competition. Also, think about the nature of the course, if you are planning on having family/friends come out and support you, a multi-lap bike and run course will be better than one large lap or an out-and-back route. This is also something to think about regarding your mentality, a single lap route can stop people from becoming bored by always having something new to look at whilst a multi-lap route may become repetitive or daunting if there is a steep climb or other obstacle to tackle several times. However, the boost of support from a lapped course is an advantage, so consider what might best suit you.
  1. Equipment

Triathlon can be expensive with the sheer volume of training and racing kit/gadgets available. However, you don’t need to break the bank to complete your first race.

For the swim:

  • Goggles that fit your face well and don’t leak.
  • A swim hat (but usually provided by the race organisers).
  • Swimming costume.
  • Wetsuit (if an open water swim).

Of the above, a wetsuit will be your most expensive purchase. If you have a surfing or similar wetsuit though this will do the job. A specific swimming wetsuit will fit better, have improved flexibility and buoyancy – making you faster and your swim more comfortable. This doesn’t have to be expensive though with prices starting at just under £100 online (although make sure you get the right size!). You might pay slightly more for a basic model at a specific triathlon shop but you will benefit from their knowledge and ensuring that you get the correct fit.

The bike

Any road worthy bike will do. I have seen everything from folding commuter bikes with tiny wheels and mountain bikes all the way through to top of the range time trial bikes. If you have a bike with functional brakes and that isn’t going to fall apart as soon as you turn the pedals or hit a pothole you are good to go.

A helmet is mandatory for all races. Again, this doesn’t have to be a super expensive ‘aero’ model. Just make sure it fits and meets the required impact-protection standards (a helmet purchased from any reputable dealer should have a sticker inside showing that it conforms to either UK or European standards).

Cycling shorts and top are worthwhile for training and also putting on once you have finished the swim to provide padding and warmth whilst you ride (you can also pin your race number to the cycling top).

If you are starting out with cycling on regular flat pedals, your running shoes will be fine. If you use mountain bike pedals and shoes, they are also fine, as are clipless pedals and regular cycling shoes.

The run and optional equipment

For the run, a good pair of running shoes will be all you require to finish your first race providing that you do so in your cycling kit. If not, running shorts and a top/vest will also be needed as you aren’t allowed to race topless. Some additional considerations include sunglasses to keep the sun (obviously), wind, rain, road grit and anything else out of your eyes. A sun hat/visor could also be considered when running. Depending on your race distance, carrying a drink and/or food on the bike and run might be required (especially for standard distance races and longer). Finally, a towel to have in transition to find your bike and dry your feet after the swim (make sure the race-specific rules allow you to do so though!) along with a pair of socks will complete the equipment you need.

  1. Training

You’ve got the kit, signed up to a race and it’s time to train. Depending on your fitness and background in each of the three sports, build into this slowly, only increasing volume by 10% each week and taking an easier ‘recovery’ week after three weeks of training. Taking at least one rest day per week is also advisable.

Even if you have limited time to train, you can still complete a GoTri or sprint (and even potentially even longer) triathlon without putting in hours upon hours of training. If you are looking to compete, you will inevitably have to put in more work.

If you only have the option to train once a day, 2 swims, 2 bikes and 2 runs with a day off each week will be more than adequate. If you are particularly strong or weak in one of the sports, you can alter the amount of training you do to account for this.

Speaking of weaknesses, if you are a weak swimmer or don’t know how to swim, signing up for lessons with a qualified practitioner will work wonders for your technique and confidence. Also, spending slightly more time on your weakest sport will help improve it and reduce any fears or concerns that you have. This is especially true if you are competing in an open water race; find a local lake or river that holds open water swimming (usually with the local triathlon club) and get used to the differences and challenges presented by open water swimming such as wearing a wetsuit, sighting, swimming in a straight line and the usually cooler temperatures.

Going the distance in training will also help put to bed any pre-race nerves. Successfully completing the individual swim, bike and run distances when training will be a big confidence boost for stepping up to the start line. Swimming, riding and/or running the race route if possible will also provide confidence and an insight into any tricky corners or hills on the course. Finally, a ‘brick’ workout, doing one discipline after another in training such as a bike then a run, will also prepare you for the ‘jelly leg’ feeling when you switch from cycling to running.

  1. The race

Prior to race day, read the race information provided so that you know when and where to register, when transition closes, the routes for each leg and how many laps you are required to complete. Any event specific rules and your start time is also very important!

Slightly reducing your training load on the lead up to your race will ensure that you are rested and ready to compete with all cylinders firing. Be wary of easing up too soon though as you can end up losing fitness or feeling flat. Getting this right comes down to trial and error and everyone is different, but taking a steadier 7-10 days prior to a sprint or Olympic distance race with some small bursts of intensity should set you up well. Try to avoid doing anything new on the lead up to or during your race too, so no new running shoes or goggles or experimenting with your meal choices/race nutrition, stick to what you know has worked in training.

On race day, arrive in time so that you can register, set up in transition and attend the race briefing where important information and any last minute changes are given out. If you have an open water swim and don’t want to be in the thick of ‘the washing machine’ at the start, position yourself towards the back and side of the field. This will allow the faster, competitive swimmers to race away and give you clear water to swim in.

There are several rules which you need to be aware of to avoid a time penalty or disqualification, which will be covered in the race information. However, a couple you should be aware of are:

Remember you helmet – Once you’ve completed the swim and have located your bike, put on and clip your helmet before you touch your bike in transition, and replace your bike on the rack before taking off your helmet after the bike leg.

Watch your step – Also make sure you don’t mount your bike before the specified point when heading out of transition and make sure you dismount before the line on your return. You aren’t allowed to ride in or out of the transition area!

Keep left – On the bike, keep to the left and overtake on the right (unless the race rules say otherwise), avoid crossing the centre line of the road and ride in a safe manner. Make sure you do not enter the ‘draft zone’ of the rider in front of you (a 10m long by 3m wide zone where you gain an unfair advantage by being sheltered by the wind) and overtake in a timely manner (usually within 15-20 seconds).

  1. Enjoy it

This is the most important part really – have fun and enjoy your triathlon experience! Although there can be some serious looking people at races with lots of high-tech gear, I can guarantee that the main reason people keep racing triathlons is because it is fun and highly addictive. So smile for the race photographer as you cross the finish line and start planning your next race!

About the Author:

James Hodgson is a competitive triathlete, representing the Great Britain age group team at European and World Championship events. When he’s not swimming, riding his bike or out running, he can be found doing core exercises and studying for his Masters degree.

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