Plan your first race: our ultimate beginner’s guide

We present the definitive guide to planning your first race-day experience, so you’re fully prepped and raring to go…


Come around quickly, hasn’t it? Part of the attraction of signing up for your first triathlon was that it was so far away that it didn’t seem real. But now it’s here, in the words of the great Tony Soprano, ‘What ya gonna do?’ Which isn’t so much a question as a statement of fact, meaning: no backing out now.


Level 3 British Triathlon coach Julian Nagi recently gave us a six-month beginners’ training plan to share. And in more recent Beginner Performance pieces we’ve looked at keeping up the mojo and planning race simulations, all with the focus of maximising your first bash at the tri experience.

With all the hard work banked, many of you will be primed and ready for the start-line. For others, injury and life might have thrown the odd curveball, but just making race day is impressive enough, so give yourself a pat on the back for coming this far.

Now here’s the important bit. Four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington said her race-day preparation started as soon as she crossed the finish line of her previous race. Many a debut has been scuppered by poor last-minute decisions: eating the wrong thing, squeezing in an extra hard session, over-sleeping, or finding a three-inch gash in your tyre in transition. Don’t be that guy or girl.

We’re not suggesting you go to Chrissie’s extremes, but it does stress the importance of planning ahead. With that in mind we’ve invited Nagi back for some virtual hand-holding, from pre-race day to the finish line.

Pre-race day prep

Today is all about the five Ps: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Here are Nagi’s 10 top tips to follow:

1. Take it easy. Forego needless chores that leave you drained and elevate stress levels.

2. A light swim, bike, jog can be more beneficial than stewing. Most athletes taper too much. It’s fine to exercise right up to the day as it helps athletes relax and unwind – it just needs to be short and easy.

3. Check race website instructions. How long will it take to travel to the venue and will roads be shut because of your race?

4. If nearby, consider driving sections of the bike course to familiarise yourself with the route or speak to someone who has raced before to get some inside tips. Ideally, do this and tip 3 well in advance of the race itself.

5. The big one: packing. Mentally walk through race day so you don’t miss anything. For race morning, you’ll probably want warm clothes (even in hot climates you’re likely to be up before the sun), but not your Sunday best.

Transition can involve stripping in a muddy field, plus you’ll likely want to put on those same clothes when you’re done and covered in pondweed – or worse. Be prepared for all weathers and every eventuality.

Now’s the time to fill your transition bag/box, here’s a kit list:

Swim kit

■ Race cap (many races supply them colour-coded for individual waves), plus a spare or neoprene hat if it’s a cold open-water swim.
■ Goggles. Two pairs in case of snapped elastic or leaks, ideally clear and polarised for outdoors if the rising sun will affect sighting.
■ Trunks, swimsuit or tri-suit (and wetsuit if required – one you’ve tested and know won’t become waterlogged or cut off the blood supply).
■ Bodyglide or lube to stop chafing.
■ Flip-flops for pottering about before and after the race.
■ Towel to dry off in T1.

Bike kit

■ The bike! Should be well-oiled and finely tuned. Even if not, make sure the brakes work, the chain isn’t about to snap and there’s nothing dangerous protruding (or the technical official might not let you race). Do you have kit to fix a puncture – and can you use it?
■ Helmet. Undamaged and with a strap that clips snugly under your chin.
■ Gloves, gilet or bike jacket. The wind chill after the swim can be a shock to the system and garments can always be shed if you’re overheating.
■ Sunglasses (if sunny, or you want to look cool).
■ Bike shoes (if clipping in).
■ Nutrition. Drinks bottles and any snacks to stash on the bike or grab in T2. It can be easier to take on nutrition on the bike than the run.
■ Race belt with number or pin number to race t-shirt (unless picking up on race morning).
■ Watch, GPS device or any other gadgets you plan to race with.

Run kit

■ Trainers (with adjusted elastic laces that allow you to slip your feet in quickly).
■ A cap or visor (see sunglasses, above).

On with the 10 top tips…

6. Don’t over-eat; most carb loading should be done in the preceding days.

7. Don’t go to bed ridiculously early. If you normally only sleep for seven hours, it’s unlikely your body is ready for more. Don’t panic if and when you can’t sleep.

8. If the timing chip has been sent through the post, sleep with it around your left ankle.

9. Set an alarm – or two! You’d be surprised how many people sleep through them.

10. Rest easy in the knowledge that it’s all taken care of. Trust us, you’ll sleep much more soundly.

Race day

The following assumes your super-sprint or sprint race starts at 9am and you’re a 30-minute drive from venue. Adjust as applicable to you.

5:30-6am Rise and shine. The butterflies will probably mean this shouldn’t be too taxing.

6:30-7am Have a light breakfast in the knowledge that once the race is over you’re going to have a large brunch. Something light on the stomach that you won’t be seeing again too soon, for example white toast and honey, but it’s personal preference.

7:30am Arrive at the course in good time. Make sure you follow the registration process and pick up your timing chip/race number as applicable.

8am Bike racking. Lay out your kit in an orderly sequence for dressing in T1. Not all races pre-designate spots by number, so slight advantages can be gained with racking positions, but these will also be the most popular points and you need space. Others will be racked around you, so keep it clean and tidy.

8:15am Walk the transition zone from swim exit to bike out, bike in, and run out. Make sure you can locate your bike (you can’t officially mark it) and pinpoint the finish line so you can time your sprint later.

9am Race start. You’ll be asked to line up in good time before your race. Most events give a late briefing advising of the swim conditions and any late changes to the course. If it’s a pool swim, know how many lengths are required.

■ Once under way, stay focussed. It’s easy for the adrenaline to kick in at the start of the swim, but stick to your race pace. If you’re confident in open water, try to draft from the hip or toes of a slightly faster swimmer to save energy.

■ Stay composed in T1. Your heart rate will spike as your position changes from horizontal to vertical. More haste, less panic as you strip your wetsuit and exit with your bike.

■ Settle into a comfortable riding position and concentrate on meting out your effort evenly over the bike course for the fastest possible split. Now is the time to hydrate and use any nutrition ahead of the run.

■ Dismount safely and in plenty of time coming into T2 (you don’t have to go right to the line and jam on the brakes). Make sure your bike is racked before unclipping your helmet, but don’t hang about in T2.

■ Judge your run pace. A jelly-legged feeling at the start is to be expected and then build gradually into your run. Overtaking people with a strong finish is much more enjoyable.

12pm Race over. Bask in that warm, sweaty glow of having completed your first triathlon. Swap tales with other competitors and try to eat something within 20mins of the race finishing. Ideally it will be a carb/protein mix, but don’t fret too much. If ever this is a time to eat what you fancy, this is it!

2pm Share your success with your mates on social media. See Martin Brunt’s Weekend Warrior column in 220 for unashamed advice on bragging techniques.

3pm Go online and sign up for your next tri!

8pm Have an early night ready for work, where your colleagues will be impressed/won’t give a damn/think you’re mad.

(Images: Getty / Ben Winston)


For lots more advice head to our Beginners section