24 frequently asked questions for beginner triathletes

New to triathlon? We answer 24 common questions beginners often ask, including how to go to the loo in an Ironman...




1. Do you have to swim front crawl in triathlon?

In short no, you can swim any stroke you want as long as you make it to the end of the swim by cut-off time. However BTF rule 4.1 states: “Backstroke is not permitted in pool swims; any competitor wishing to use backstroke at an open water event must indicate this to the Event Organiser before entering the water.” Backstroke in open-water can also lead to some sighting issues though.

2. Can I use pool goggles for open-water swimming?

Of course you can. But open-water-specific goggles do tend to come with larger lenses, which therefore provide better peripheral vision. The other area to consider is the lens colour, to cope with the different lighting conditions outdoors.

3. What’s a catch-up drill?

A catch-up drill is a swim drill to lengthen your stroke. One arm should be out in front, while the other goes through the whole stroke motion and ‘catches up’ to it. Then switch arms and repeat. it’s similar to your normal stroke action, just with one arm waiting on the other before starting to move.

4. Is there a minimum temperature that requires athletes to wear wetsuits?

According to BTF rule 4.2 “The use of wetsuits is forbidden or mandatory if the following combinations of distance and water temperature are attained:

Although rule 4.3 also states that “at temperatures below 11°C it is recommended that open water swimming does not take place.”

5. How do you get out of a wetsuit quickly?

Pull your wetsuit down so that it’s below your knees. Step out of one leg, and tread on the wetsuit to help pull the other leg out.

6. What’s the best way to store a wetsuit in the off-season?

Firstly make sure it’s clean before you store it. Rinse down with non-chlorinated cold water and turn inside out to dry. You can buy ‘wetsuit hangers’. Store in a cool place out of sunlight.

7. I’m not a strong swimmer and hate people swimming over me in the open-water. How can I avoid the scrum?

Stay over to one side of the pack or at the back if you’re not racing competitively. If there’s a buoy turn involved, work out your route prior to the start and stay to the outside of that to avoid a squishing. Also remember that it’s all part of the racing experience and no triathlete would put you at risk on purpose.

Open water swim: Crowd control tips


8. What’s a dolphin dive?

It’s a technique used to get through shallow water efficiently. It simply involves taking short shallow dives, standing up and repeating until you get deep enough to swim.

How to do a dolphin dive

9. Can I wear a nose clip for the triathlon swim leg?

Yep. The only other ‘aids’ you’re allowed include a cap, goggles and costume/wetsuit.


10. What are jelly legs exactly?

It’s the odd sensation you’ll experience in your legs as you move from one discipline to the next (swim to bike: bike to run) and as your body gets used to using different muscles. Don’t worry – it’ll abate as you settle into your rhythm.

11. What are the rules with regards to helmet wearing in T1?

According to BTF, rule 7.1: “All competitors must have their helmet securely fastened from the time they remove their bike from the rack before the start of the bike leg, until after they have placed their bike on the rack after the finish of the bike leg.” Failure to do so may result in a time penalty.


12. Apart from aerobars, what else makes a tri-specific bike different from a road bike?

In short the frame geometry. Typically that means shorter head and top tubes that you’ll find on a road bike, and a seat tube that’s closer to vertical. All this is to get your upper body lower and further forwards. This makes you more aero but also opens up your hip-leg angle to make it easier to run after the bike.

13. How can I work out my Functional Threshold Power?

Functional threshold power (FTP) is your maximum sustained effort over a 45-60 min period. You can work it out by performing a 20min bike test  and calculating 95% of your average power output for the ride. You will need a power meter (or a sophisticated indoor trainer such as a Wattbike) to obtain these results.

14. What’s the difference between clincher and tubular tyres?

The most common is the clincher, which consists of a tyre and an inner tube fitted into the clincher wheel’s rim. Tubs (or tubulars) is a one-piece system where the tube is sewn inside the tyre. You glue this onto the rim of a tubular wheel. You can pump tubs up to a higher pressure than clinchers, which potentially means more speed.

15. What’s the difference between turbos and rollers?

With a turbo, your bike is attached to it: rollers require you to balance on them. Both are ideal indoor trainers.

The best turbo trainers reviewed

 16. What cadence should I be averaging on the bike?

Everyone is different, but studies have shown that 90rpm is roughly a good figure to aim for. Having said this, your cadence cadence can be affected by your physiology and bike set-up, among other things. Check you have the correct crank length – if it’s too short this could lower your rpm. Heavier athletes are usually more efficient at lower pedal speeds, whereas lighter riders will often have more slow-twitch muscle fibres that are suited to faster spinning.

 A triathlete’s guide to bike cadence


17. What’s a negative split?

A negative split – most commonly used in relation to the run – is where you pace to make sure that the second half of the respective discipline is faster than the first. It’s a common tactic to ensure that you don’t go too hard too early and ‘blow up’ further into the race. It’s especially important if you’re not good at pacing yourself.

18. When I’m running in zone one, it feels really slow. Is that right?

Yes. Base training is all about keeping your heart rate down and building fitness, not about speed. So you may well find that you’re running slower than usual but that means you’re doing it correctly!

Best heart rate zones for running

19. What does the word overpronation mean?

When the feet roll inward too much on toe-off. Supination is the opposite, when the feet don’t roll inward enough. Go to a run/tri shop and they’ll be able to tell you what sort of gait you have and advise which shoes would suit you best.

20. How does off-road running benefit me in the long term?

Running off road is easier on the body, strengthens the core muscles due to variable surfaces, is more interesting than running on pavement and can include seriously steep hills. Try it, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it!

Five off-road run sessions

Beginner’s guide to off-road running



21. I’ve been using energy gels, but I find them really hard to stomach. Are there any alternatives?

Plenty of alternatives to energy gels have been touted, from marzipan to jelly babies. But the best bet maybe to go for something made by an energy manufacture, so consider trying Clif Shot Bloks (chewy energy blocks) or Lucozade energy tablets, both of which have different consistencies to gels.


22. I always feel like I’m slacking on rest days. how important are they?

Rest days are absolutely vital to a good training plan. Your body needs time to recover after you push it hard in training. If you don’t allow your body to revover you’ll accumulate fatigue, your performance will drop and you may even end up injured. Make sure you take days off.


23. In Ironman, what are the rules on outside assistance?

WTC (the governing body) rules state: “Friends, family members, coaches or supporters of any time may not bike, drive or run alongside an athlete, may not pass food or other items to an athlete and should be warned to stay completely clear of all athletes to avoid the disqualification of an athlete”.

24. How do triathletes go to the loo mid-Ironman?

There will be mobile toilets along the route for rest sops. Or, if you really can’t wait. you can simply pee in your tri-suit. But you might want to consider the official race photographers positioned around the course first. And the poor marshal who takes your bike from you.

Found this useful? Then try:


12 weeks till triathlon race-day? Here’s how to prepare

Plan your first race: our ultimate beginner’s guide

What are the different triathlon distances?