How to take part in your first triathlon: all your questions answered

Are you a tri-newbie and worrying about your first sprint-distance triathlon? Nick Beer explains all you need to know

Credit: Colin Baldwin

What’s a good time to aim for in my first sprint triathlon?

Nick: As it’s your first triathlon, it’s key not to put too much expectation on your performance. Aim to complete each discipline successfully, from the 750m swim to the 20km bike and 5km, while navigating effortlessly through transition and crossing the finish line having given everything. The time you achieve will be what you aim to beat in your next race!

Advertisement MPU article

I live in Britain so do I need to be a member of British Triathlon to race a triathlon?

If you decide to race regularly, it’s useful to become a member of British Triathlon as there are many benefits and opportunities for athletes. However, being a non-member doesn’t exclude you from racing. At Windsor, you can purchase a day membership for £6 on the day.

I’m nervous of wearing a tri-suit in public. Can I wear a t-shirt for the cycle and run legs?

You can, but a tri-suit will make your racing experience much easier. It will create minimal stress, it’s quick drying and there’s no faffing around in transition putting on additional clothes when you’re out of breath. Once fully immersed in the race, you’ll be more interested in conserving energy than looks!

Is pool swim training enough for an open-water swim race?

Swimming in an indoor pool would’ve helped develop your swim strength and race-specific fitness. However, if possible, getting a practice swim in prior to the race at an open-water venue will be hugely beneficial. If not, try and familiarise yourself in the water before the race start.

Check out our section on open-water swimming for more advice

Do I need a pre-swim jab? Would drinking a can of coke in T1 suffice?

You don’t usually need jabs for open-water swimming in the UK. The race organisers frequently check the water quality in the weeks leading up to the event to ensure swimming is safe. Having a can of coke will be fine, but have it post-race as it could be unsettling

How should my ‘transition area’ look before the race?

You should only leave your bike in the transition area. If you rack the day before I recommend that you put a waterproof cover over your bike to ensure it stays race-ready. There may be a chance of rain overnight, and leaving other pieces of kit could run the risk of them getting wet.

What should I eat before a sprint distance triathlon?

 I recommend that you have breakfast around 2hrs before your start time. A bowl of oats, a banana and a coffee will set you up well.

How do I get to the swim start barefoot?

It can be difficult to leave shoes at the riverbank as it’s usually very busy. Ideally, have someone with you that can take your shoes or flip flops before you swim. Races usually have specific carpet laid out that you can walk on barefoot to the swim start.

How can I avoid getting beaten up in the swim?

The washing machine-like effect when the gun goes can be quite daunting for your first mass swim start. Start slightly back from the line to avoid congestion, but close enough so the other athlete don’t get away. When the gun goes, get on someone’s feet and settle into your stroke.

How and where do I go to the loo mid-race?

There are usually portable loos on the course that you’re encouraged to use. Finding a secluded spot among enthusiastic spectators can be difficult. If nature does call when you’re in your wetsuit, then conveniently relieving yourself in the water can accelerate your acclimatisation to the chilly open water!

Should I kick my legs during the swim?

You want to conserve as much energy as possible so you only really want to use your legs for balance. However, I’d recommend using your legs at the start to accelerate away from other athletes. And in the last 100m of the swim to wake your legs up in readiness for the run into T1.

Can I do the bike leg in my run trainers?

There’s no problem doing the bike leg in trainers. But you won’t be able to generate an overall efficient pedal stroke as you would in bike shoes. Your trainers can slip on the pedals as they’re not fully locked in, which can be disruptive.

How quickly will I ‘dry off’ on the bike following the swim?

This will happen quicker than you think. As you exit the water and run into transition, you’ll immediately start drying off. The adrenaline will also be pumping, your heart will be racing and the mind solely focused on the next discipline – you won’t be aware of anything else!

What’s the correct procedure for exiting T1?

Your helmet must be on before you start running with your bike out of transition. Make sure the helmet is securely fastened before leaving as otherwise you’ll be penalised. There’ll be a mount line that you must cross before you’re allowed on to your bike.

What should I eat during the bike?

For a sprint triathlon, you don’t need much nutrition. A drink bottle (around 750ml) with energy powder and two (one as a back-up) gels attached to your bike will be sufficient. Take one gel halfway through the bike and regular small sips from the energy drink.

How do I make sure I don’t accidentally draft someone?

In non-drafting races, athletes must stay at least three bike lengths behind an athlete, unless they’re moving to the side to pass. To avoid the possibility of drafting, keep out of the other riders’ slipstream and consciously make an effort to pass other athletes.

What if I get a puncture or mechanical issue with the bike?

To account for this scenario, take a CO2 canister or a tyre sealant on the bike. These can be taped to the frame and provide a quick fix if you get a puncture. But practise using these before the race as they’re trickier to use than they look!

What can I buy to track my bike cadence during the race?

A specific sensor that attaches to the bike is used to track cadence. There are many cadence sensors on the market that differ in their reliability, so look for one that comes with a bike computer for more detailed feedback and connectivity. Brands like Garmin and Wahoo cater for this.

Why should I invest in a  race belt?

Race belts are an essential piece of kit for triathlon. You clip your race number to them, which is easier than pinning it to your tri-suit. Also, some belts have specific pockets or loops that allow you to carry extra nutrition, such as energy gels, in them.

Should I carry any nutrition on the run?

As you’ll be running 5km, you won’t need too much nutrition. Carrying additional water and gels may be beneficial, but could prove frustrating to use. There is often plenty of fuel and water stops, so it may be easier to use these.

What and when should I eat post-race?

After the race, you might not want to eat immediately. But a recovery shake within 30mins of finishing will be helpful. Once your appetite has returned, a balanced meal and a dessert will suffice!

If this goes well, which events should I consider next?

You may want to look at testing yourself over a hilly course or a similar race with a sea swim. If you found sprint-distance racing manageable, then Olympic distance (1.5km swim/40km bike/10km run) will be a great challenge.

What should i do next if this goes badly?

As this is your first tri, there’s no such thing as the ‘race going badly’. See it as a valuable learning experience that you can use to improve your next race. Entering a mixture of super and sprint distance triathlons will allow you to put to practice what you’ve learnt.

What should my recovery week look like exercise-wise?

Recovery weeks are specific to the athlete as racing affects our bodies differently. But it’s key that you don’t just rest. Take a couple of very easy days and then get your body moving. Aim to increase the training volume during the week.

Advertisement MPU article