The ultimate guide to your first triathlon…38 tips

Your first triathlon may almost be here, but how do you make sure everything goes smoothly and conquer the nerves? Here’s 38 tips to see you through your first of many triathlons...

© James Mitchell

To minimise the risks of coming unstuck at your first triathlon, we’ve asked some top coaches to provide expert insights to take you through that first event, from the nail-biting build-up to the celebratory beverage after the race, whether it be super sprint, sprint, standard distance – or, for the crazies among you, something even longer.

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• How to train for your first triathlon

• 8 lessons I learnt from my first triathlon

• What are the different triathlon distances?

    

 Week before your first race-day

1 “No panic training. It’s not like sitting an exam, so cramming can’t be done the night before,” warns Cat Benger of London-based ABCpure. “Before the event, the volume of your training should be reduced, but keep the body engaged, with some shorter efforts close to your planned race-day exertion. Carb loading isn’t essential, overeating not required. A glass – not a bottle – of wine is allowed, and can settle nerves.”

 2 “Having your bike serviced so that it’s ready to go on triathlon race day is essential,” says Phil Jarvis, Ironman coach . “And this includes new tyres if necessary.” A spare inner tube and the ability to change it is also a must to prevent a puncture curtailing your race. It’s worth a few dry runs because racing against the clock ups the pressure.

3 “Read reviews and find social media groups talking about the race,” believes Russ Hall, senior coach at Birmingham Running and Triathlon Club. “Remember: knowledge is power. The more you know, the better you’ll feel – and you might gain an advantage over your fellow competitors.”

4 As for the rest of the kit, don’t leave it until the last minute. Lay out everything you’ll need with enough time left to re-stock if anything has gone astray, and pack whatever you can into the car the day before the race. 

Download a triathlon Race Day Checklist here

  

5 For a tri start you’ll often need to leave before first light, so making sure you’re good to go will help settle your mind for the night and negate added stress in the morning.

 6 Final checks should include knowing how to reach the race venue, checking the weather forecast to be sure you have ample kit: and reading the race instructions to absorb the information. And don’t bank on sleeping soundly the night before, but make sure you set a reliable alarm (or two) to wake you in plenty of time.

7 A race number belt is a great idea for race day, saving you from having to faff around with safety pins. Attach your number to the belt and wear it facing backward during the bike leg, then simply spin it round so the number faces forward for the run leg. Many belts have loops to carry energy gels, too.

Race morning

8 The easiest way to schedule race morning is to work back from your start time. Aim to arrive 90 minutes before the off; and factor in travel time to the venue. Ideally try to munch breakfast three to four hours before the starter’s horn. 

9 Load up anything not already packed (leave kit by the front door the previous night, if necessary), and double-check that you have enough warm clothes for before and after the race – then you’re off.

10 On arrival, administration can vary from race to race. Your first move may be to visit a registration tent to pick up race numbers and a timing chip to be Velcro-strapped above your left ankle. 

11 The stickers can seem daunting. Often there’s a number for your bike helmet, another for your bike seatpost and one for your race belt or to pin to your race top, but longer events using split transitions and bag drops might provide more. Just take it one step at a time and ask anyone looking knowledgeable if you become muddled. This is triathlon – everyone is here to help!

12 Once done at HQ, head over to transition, a secure area where you’ll leave the kit required to complete the bike and run legs. “Just take what you need, not the kitchen sink,” Benger says. “Space is always at a premium and, with the adrenaline flowing, you want to keep it simple.” Look for a permanent feature – a tree or mobile toilet – that’ll help identify where you’re racked, and take note of any numbers or letters put out by the race organisers to mark the rows. I’ve been using the same bright towel for years to help me identify my spot. It can also be used to dry feet! 

13 Place your towel and gear on the side with the most space, and in the order you’ll use it – so with the bike gear closest to you. Have the chin strap on your helmet undone, leave your bike in the correct (easy) gear to ride away from T1 and, if you’re stashing gels for the run, wedge them between your trainers as a reminder.

14 Exactly what kit you will want for the bike and the run is quite an individual choice. Layering is often key with the British weather, especially when emerging from a chilly swim and coping with windchill on the bike, so err on the side of caution – you can always shed garments. 

15 Once everything’s set in place, walk the most direct route you can from finishing the swim (SWIM IN) to leaving for the ride (BIKE OUT), and then returning (BIKE IN) and heading out on the run (RUN OUT).

Race start

16 You will be called to the start with a few minutes’ notice, and given a briefing covering aspects from key safety procedures to last-minute course changes. Listen intently to the briefing.

17 This is the time for warm-up exercises, loosening the arms or jogging on the spot to help start the blood flowing and ready the body for action.

18 Lake swims can involve navigating buoys, while even in a pool you’ll need to swim a certain number of lengths; though marshals will be there to help, don’t rely solely on them to guide you.

19 If it’s a pool swim you’ll be set off at timed intervals, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to think about other swimmers – concentrate on a relaxed stroke, but be spatially aware.

20 “The inside ‘racing line’ is often the most chaotic in a lake swim,” says Cat Benger. “Farther back or wider is calmer, with more space for you to get into your own rhythm.”

21 “You can often get into the water ahead of your start time to become familiar with your surroundings,” continues Benger. “If so, duck your head in and out and practise a mix of front crawl and breaststroke to regulate breathing.” 

22 “Remind yourself of the route,” adds Benger. “Sight regularly and don’t trust other swimmers are going the right way. I always follow the same process on swim exit: once stable, I jog to T1, lift my goggles and have my hands ready to undo my wetsuit. I take out my arms and strip to the waist, then remove goggles and hat and, once by my bike, strip off the wetsuit entirely.”

T1 to bike leg to T2

23 Whether you dry yourself and slip on socks and full bike kit or simply hammer through T1 as fast as possible is personal choice, but whatever you decide make sure your process is methodical and legal (you must have your helmet on and fastened securely before you lay hands on your bike). 

24 Run the bike out of transition – holding the saddle or  – to the mount line, which should be clearly marked. Once clear you can start riding. 

25 If you have clip-in bike shoes, you may have them already attached to the pedals and fixed horizontally with an elastic band (see the pros in action). This means that you can run with bare feet and slip into shoes when aboard, but it requires practice.

26 “Now you need to stay calm and alert to what’s happening with both local traffic and fellow competitors,” says Jarvis. “Initially, you can be disorientated by switching from swimming to biking, and chilly for the first couple of miles, causing you to ride faster than you’d intended.” 

27 Once you’ve settled into your ride, work at your race pace and listen to the marshals – particularly when it comes to the dismount, to make sure you alight before the line.

28 Don’t take off your helmet before you’ve racked your bike, and then pull on your run shoes. “Have a drink or gel handy so you can have a quick swig,” adds Jarvis. Forget TT helmets and disc wheels – this is the moment when one of tri’s most efficient time-saving shines: elastic laces. 

The run leg

29 Now all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other. The initial stages of the run will feel disagreeable, your legs like jelly, but don’t be overly concerned. 

30 Including brick sessions (biking then running in quick succession) in your training will help prepare the body, but every triathlete has to deal with jelly legs. “Spend a few minutes getting settled in,” Russ Hall suggests. “If you’ve ridden hard, the first few hundred metres are going to feel uncomfortable. It’s always better to finish strong than start strong and fade. Oh, and try to smile!”

31 Pacing is critical. As you near the finish, now’s the time to enjoy your achievement. Triathletes have a reputation for milking ‘finish chutes’ – indulging in high fives with spectators and plenty of waving – so now’s your chance to strike that well-rehearsed finish-line pose for the cameras! 

Post-race

32 There are still a few practicalities to consider when you cross that finish line, from a safety perspective and respect for other finishers, to ensuring you achieve an optimum recovery. And also remembering to thank all of your supporters and celebrating your amazing achievement. 

33 “Remember to clear the finish line quickly,” Hall says. “Others will be coming through, so try not to get in the way. And don’t scramble to get your results. It’s more important to pull on warm clothing and warm down, because that will help minimise the pain in your legs the following day.”

34 “In the few hours after completion, enjoy it,” Hall concludes. “You’re part of the triathlon family, and that’s something to be proud of. Have a good meal, put your feet up and don’t analyse the race immediately. When you do work out what you did well and where you went wrong, remember: no matter how badly you think you’ve done, there are always positives.”

35 “Don’t forget to thank all family, friends and supporters after the race,” Jarvis adds. “And if possible get someone to drive you home so that you can relax and have a power nap.”

36 Don’t switch off completely, though. “Give your mind and body a rest on the day after your event, but some light, easy, active recovery like gentle swimming will help alleviate soreness,” Benger suggests. 

37 “Resume normal eating patterns and eat real food to give the body the nutrients it needs,” concludes Benger. “And maybe treat yourself to a massage a few days later.”

38 Send 220 Triathlon some words and pictures – we’ll print the best – or tweet @220Triathlon with #FirstTri so we can all bask in your glory. Congratulations – you’re a triathlete! 

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Related Chrissie Wellington’s six top tips for triathlon beginners