How to avoid common triathlon race day mistakes
Credit: ITU Media / Delly Carr

Triathlon race-day: 21 common mistakes

Andy Blow outlines some common scenarios that have a habit of tripping athletes up on race-day with the solutions so you can avoid making them and race better and better


Competing is stressful at the best of times, so a good routine in the days before an event will help you get to the start line feeling as relaxed as is realistically possible, with only the usual pre-race nerves to deal with. Ask yourself honestly if you made any of these common errors this year. 

1 Being late

Few things can ruin a race more than running late or missing the start. Even if you manage to arrive in time, the adrenaline rush caused by cutting it so fine can leave you exhausted when it wears off halfway round the swim. 

Solution Triple check when your start is and allow double the amount of time you think you need to get there. Remember that everything takes longer than it should on race day due to the sheer volume of nervous athletes faffing around in the start area. Much better to be set up and ready to go with 30mins to spare than panicking about whether you’re going to get to the start line on time. 

2 Lack of reconnaissance 

If you turn up at a really important race and don’t know the course, you’re putting yourself at a significant disadvantage. 

Solution Plan course recces into your training. If that’s impractical then, at the very least, read up on the route, look at maps and course profiles online, talk to people who’ve raced it before and drive the course in a car to get a feel for what you’re taking on. That way you should avoid turning up with the wrong gear ratios for the ride, or being psyched out by a hill on the run that you never knew was there.

3 Forgetting kit

Turning up at a race and finding out that a key piece of equipment is still sat in the garage is at best frustrating and at worst devastating to your performance. 

Solution Write a checklist of all crucial items. Break it down into pre-race, swim, bike and run sections. Physically check all items off the list as they go into your bag or the car, and take spares of things like goggles that have a habit of breaking. Do this for every race and forgetting kit should be a thing of the past.

 4 Disrupted nutrition

If you’re not racing near to home then getting hold of sensible pre-race food can be tricky, especially if the town in which you’re staying is suddenly overrun with hungry triathletes looking for a good feed. 

 Solution Book restaurant tables in advance or, even better, get self-catering accommodation and take your preferred foods with you. Prepare your race morning breakfast the night before or make special arrangements if you’re staying in a hotel; they may not be geared up to produce your favourite bowl of gluten-free, vegan granola at 4:30am on a Sunday. If you’re competing at a championship event and staying at the official team hotel, all meals should be provided accordingly. 


It’s often said that you can’t win a triathlon in the swim, but you can certainly lose it. A bad first leg can put a real downer on the rest of your day, both physically and psychologically, whereas coming out of the water in good shape does at least set the scene for a decent result. Were any of your 2012 swim legs adversely affected by the problems listed here? If so, implement the suggested solutions before next year.

5 Open-water nerves

In the UK we tend to go to the pool for most of our swim training. The open water is a very different place, and swimming in a restrictive wetsuit, in cold, turbulent water, with other swimmers and poor visibility can make the experience very intimidating.  

Solution Ensure you get plenty of open-water practice before the season. This is without doubt the number one way to gain confidence in that environment. The more hours you can accumulate in lakes, rivers and the sea, the more comfortable you will be during races. Learning to control your breathing is the key to success if you start to panic. When training, be sure to swim with others at all times, and in places where you know the water quality and conditions are safe. If open-water swimming is not an option, see if you can at least practise in your wetsuit at the pool to get used to how it feels. 

6 Going out too hard at the start

When you’re pumped up for a big race, the body is locked into fight or flight mode. Adrenaline is flowing to increase your heart rate and mask the pain of intense effort. This can easily lead to maxing out in the first few hundred metres and paying for it later on. 

Solution Practise swimming negative splits (a training method where successive sets are swum faster than the previous one) regularly during your winter training. This ingrains the ability to pace yourself properly and allows your mind to acclimatise to increasing the level of effort as time goes on. As a general rule in races, if you feel like you’re working hard in the first few minutes you’re probably absolutely cranking it and should back off. Think about regulating your stroke rate and only using a powerful leg kick in the first few metres when you want to accelerate hard. 

7 Poor navigation 

Taking the shortest line round the course is critical if you want to produce your best swim; the main reason for needlessly clocking up extra distance is not swimming a straight line between the marker buoys. 

Solution In both the pool and open water, practise looking up every 4-6 strokes to navigate above the water. When swimming outside, ensure you have well-fitting, anti-fog goggles, with clear or light-enhancing lenses for cloudy days and tinted lenses for when the sun’s out. Practise picking out landmarks on the shore that line up with the buoys, so you can sight them if the actual markers are too hard to see from water level. Also, when racing, don’t blindly follow the feet of the swimmer in front and assume they know where they’re going. Check for yourself from time to time
and stay on course even if they don’t.

8 Relying on fitness rather than technique

Many triathletes who aren’t from a swimming background punch below their weight in the swim, as they lack sufficient technique to make the most of their otherwise impressive fitness levels.

Solution Over the winter, seek out front-crawl swim coaching to help make your stroke more efficient. Of the three sports, swimming is by far the most technical and the rewards for increased efficiency are huge. Teaching yourself technique is extremely difficult as you can’t really see what it is you’re doing wrong, which is why external feedback from a coach or camera is so useful. Bear in mind that dedicating time to technique work might mean taking one step backwards in terms of fitness in the short term, as you aim to take two steps forwards in the long term. 


Front crawl technique: the key compenents

22 steps to a better triathlon swimming technique

6 ways to improve your triathlon swim technique

Triathlon swimming technique: 9 common mistakes


9 Swim gear not up to scratch

Don't be let down by poor swim gear

Solution: When the season is over MOT of all your swim gear. The biggest item to check over is your wetsuit: does it still fit well, are there any nicks or tears that need repairing, or is it time for a new one? There are off-season bargains to be had in the shops but be brutally honest about fit – are you likely to change weight before starting racing again next year? If so, it might be wise to hold off on a purchase until you’ve established your racing weight. 

It’s also worth checking that your goggles aren’t too scratched up from being thrown around in transition – new ones are a relatively modest investment. Swim training is much more productive if you can see where you’re going and read the pace clock!

If you swim on your own a lot without a coach on poolside to offer feedback, consider a stroke and lap-counting watch like a Garmin Forerunner 735XT or PoolMate 2. While they won’t be able to correct your technique, they will help you count lengths during long efforts and make sure your stroke rate isn’t dropping or increasing too much as you get tired at the end of a set. 

Continue reading our guide to common race-day mistakes 10-21 here (2/2)


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