The top 10 things you need to know BEFORE your first triathlon

Handy hints and advice to get you ready for that big triathlon debut

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We may be biased, but we are of the sincere belief that taking up triathlon is something you won’t regret.

Testing your ability in swim, bike and run is one of THE great sporting challenges you can take on – it’s also terrific fun and can be the route to a whole new social life.

Whatever triathlon distance or race you start with, we are here to help you on your journey, so we decided to give you a handy list of things you should know about BEFORE your very first triathlon.

Things you need to know

Okay, so your mind is made up, you have decided to go for it, you are going to do your first triathlon and you have paid your entry fee. Here are the 10 things you need to know:

1. Triathlon is not just a sport, it’s a way of life

This first point on this crucial list may not be as fundamental or as informative as what follows, but it would be a serious omission not to flag to you (and your loved ones) that your life is likely about to change. There are hobbies, and there are HOBBIES!

It is true that for some triathlon is a ‘one and done’ lifetime event. However, for the vast majority of people, once you get the taste for triathlon your life will never be the same again, and all the better for it!

Who needs friends who don’t swim, bike, or run? Now you’ve got friends that at least do one of the three sports, and often all three!

Completing your first triathlon is an incredible feat in itself, but be prepared, once you have recovered and the celebrations have ended, you’ll have a burning desire to improve.

That could be to better your time at the same event; to build up to longer distances; to beat your friends; to improve your swimming, it’s been years since (if, ever) you last tried to swim properly; to gain more confidence when cycling, be it riding on the open road or simply to enjoy the wind in your hair; to reduce how often you walk on the run leg (it happens to us all at some point).

The possibilities go on and on.

2. What are transitions, and how do they work?

Now, it might sound obvious, but triathlon is a non-stop race. That means your overall race time starts when your swim starts and doesn’t stop until you run or walk across the finishing line. Yes, many events will give you time splits for the three main disciplines, but your overall finishing time includes transitions. So what are they?

It is quite conceivable you swim, bike, and run faster than your friends, but they could still beat you with comparative ease. Here is why:

In triathlon there are two transitions, called T1 and T2 respectively. T1 starts at the end of the swim and ends when you start on the bike leg. T2 runs from the end of the bike section up to the start of the run.

You are free to take your time in transition (see number 6 on this list), and many people choose it as an opportunity to collect themselves and make sure they are recovered and fully prepared for the next discipline.

For example, on a cold day you might want to layer up before getting on the bike, or after the bike it might be a good opportunity to have some food. On the other hand, there is definitely merit in practising and perfecting transition.

Imagine how much fitter you would need to be to run a 5k between 30 seconds and 1 minute faster? That kind of time saving or loss can be made or given away easily in transition.

3. Time limits and cut-off times

Many races will have time limits – the time by when each discipline is to be completed, and an overall limit to finish the whole race.

You should check the cut-offs, if there are any, for your race. In particular, if you are a strong runner but weaker swimmer, you don’t want your race to be over before you get out of the water.

Even if you are confident in your ability, it is worth checking the cut-offs.  For example, you may have mechanical on the bike, a nutrition issue, or an injury that slows you down.

Full-distance Ironman races are the most famous for cut-offs, generally with set cumulative time limits commencing with your race start:

  • Swim: 2 hours and 20 minutes
  • Bike: 10 hours and 30 minutes
  • Overall: 17 hours or midnight.

Sometimes races will have intermediate cut-offs. For example, a race with multiple bike or run loops may require you to complete half of the laps for each discipline before a certain time.

Cut-offs and time restrictions are not limited to big events. Even local events may have cut-offs, for instance a time by when each wave of athletes must be out of the water (for example, to prevent overcrowding) or a hard-stop when cyclists need to be off the road (due to the traffic increasing at a certain time).

It’s fairly common for races with open-water swims to start with the fastest athletes first (often pool swims are the opposite), meaning that where there is a cut-off for the overall finishing time of the event (rather than a limit on an individual athlete’s finishing time) and the slower athletes have less time to complete the course.

The reason for a cut-off can vary. For a local race this may be due to the agreement with the local authority concerning the use of the open road before the traffic numbers increase; in an Ironman race meanwhile the 17 hour time-limit is in large due to logistics and road closures.

4. The start time

Let’s be honest, even the coolest and most relaxed of people are likely to be a little nervous before the start of a triathlon, especially their first triathlon.

With that in mind, you should make sure you have plenty of time to leave your home, travel to the race venue, register and collect race paraphernalia, set up in transition, change into race kit and make your way to the start line. It will take longer than you expect.

Depending on the size of the event there can be a substantial walk from the car park to the race headquarters – a factor worth considering when deciding whether to go to registration with your kit or to register and return to your transport.

The other crucial issue is to ensure you have allowed yourself enough time to go to the toilet before the race – you can sometimes find nicer toilets away from the bank of portaloos (temporary facilities) and avoid substantial queues!

Also, listen out for any delays in start times or other changes prior to your race.

5. Drafting, or not

Triathlons can be split in two: events where you can draft on the bike and those where you are not allowed to draft on the bike.

This is a crucial distinction for several reasons.

Firstly, this will dictate the type of bike you can use (see number 5) – I once packed a time trial bike for a race I had assumed was non-drafting. Luckily I checked the race website at the last minute to find it was a draft-legal race and I had enough time to swap bikes.

Unless you are a confident cyclist, we wouldn’t recommend kicking off your triathlon experience with a draft-legal event. If you are not used to it, having lots of cyclists riding very close to you may be disconcerting.

Lastly, if your event is non-drafting, it is important to understand what is meant by drafting at your race to ensure you do not face any time penalties or even disqualification.

The size of the drafting zone (that is, the area behind the cyclist in front of you that you are not supposed to be in) and the time permitted in the drafting zone when trying to overtake varies from race to race. For example, for Ironman races the drafting zone is-normally 12 metres, in Challenge races it is 20 metres and in British Triathlon-sanctioned races it varies depending on the distance.

6. Triathlon rules, the important ones

Not surprisingly given it’s three sports into one, triathlon has its fair number of rules and regulations. Some of them are probably blindingly obvious (such as, don’t drop litter, if you are caught doing so this will mean disqualification). However, there are a fair few which are very important but unless someone mentions them to you (or you fastidiously check the event documentation) they would never come to mind. Don’t worry, here are the important ones:

  • On arriving at the race your bike will be inspected (as well as a check that your helmet fits correctly). The bike must be roadworthy and safe. Of particular note, your handlebars must have bar ends/plugs in place.
  • Buoyancy aids are not permitted in the swim. In races where wetsuits are not worn, clothing is not permitted below the knee during the swim. This means that if you want to wear calf guards, you’ll need to put them on after the swim.
  • A bike helmet is mandatory. In T1 you must put your helmet on (and fasten it) before you remove your bike from the rack, and in T2 you must have re-racked your bike before you take off your helmet.
  • On leaving T1, you must not mount or get on your bike until you have passed the mount line – most often this is a line drawn on the road with marshals closely monitoring the line has been crossed. Similarly, on returning to transition you must dismount your bike before crossing the dismount line.
  • Depending on the race you enter, the bike section of the race will be non-drafting or draft-legal. It is most likely your race will be non-drafting. This means that during the bike leg you cannot ride directly behind, or very close behind, another rider. Doing so may lead to disqualification or a time penalty.
  • On the bike, when riding on open roads, you must comply with the laws of the road, including not crossing the white line onto the opposite side of the road.
  • In transition you might want to change into fresh kit, especially if you are not wearing a tri-suit. For example, cycling shorts and jersey after the swim and new running shorts and vest for the run. However, be warned that nudity or indecent exposure may result in disqualification!
  • Unlike many running races, headphones are not permitted during any part of a triathlon.

7. Race numbers: Do you need a belt?

At nearly every triathlon event you will be given multiple numbers to wear at different times during the race. This will include stickers for your helmet and bike and large numbers to be worn on your back during the bike and on your front during the run. Check your race pack information as the requirements and positioning of the stickers can vary.

Importantly, do not lose your race number or the stickers on your bike. At most events, marshals carefully monitor who goes into and out of transition and you will have difficulty getting your bike out of transition after the race without matching numbers!

If you have a race belt you can attach one of the large numbers and simply position the number on your back when riding and when getting ready to run move the number round to your front.

If you don’t have a race belt you will need to attach one version of the number on your back and one on your front. Events normally offer safety pins, but these will snag your T-shirt.

8. Socks, should you wear them?

You will undoubtedly have seen triathletes riding bikes and running without socks. Ever wondered why?

The reason for this is simply speed and time saving. Putting on socks after the swim is very difficult due to wet feet, and when coming off the bike vital seconds can be saved by avoiding putting on socks.

This might sound a great idea. However, unless your feet are conditioned for running without socks, and you have practised using your raceday trainers, you do so at your peril. I once stepped up from running 5k without socks to a triathlon with an 8k off-road run – that 3k was quite the difference…

In addition to your sock considerations, you need to ensure you know what gear or kit you need as a minimum to participate in a triathlon.

9. What sort of bike do you need?

The general answer to the question ‘what bike do I need?’ is any bike you want as long as it is roadworthy – remember those important rules. Obviously, if you are entering a cross triathlon (that is, a triathlon with an off-road bike leg), a mountain bike is more suitable than a road bike.

If your first triathlon is a non-drafting event with the bike leg on the road (or a tarmac track) you can take part on a mountain bike, a hybrid bike, a cyclo-cross bike, a gravel bike, a road bike (a bike with bull horn shaped bars), or a time trial/triathlon bike (the ones which look particularly uncomfortable to ride).  However, using an electric bike is not permitted (unless the race has a special category!).

If the race is a draft-legal event, which would be a quite a bold choice for your first triathlon, it is very likely that only road bikes are permitted. Time trial or triathlon bikes will not be allowed in a draft-legal race. You should also check whether a road bike with clip-on extensions attached to the handlebars (you may have seen these used by long-distance cyclists or by the triathletes competing at the Olympics) is permitted.

10. Nutrition: How should you fuel?

If you don’t fuel in the right way for your first triathlon race your performance will suffer. The longer the distance you race, the greater the importance of getting your nutrition correct. In shorter races poor nutrition might just mean you feel weaker or hungry towards the end of the race; in longer races it could result in some very unpleasant stomach complaints or even a DNF.

It might sound obvious, but the best (and most practical) place to take on fuel is during the bike leg. You should consider how you will stow and access your nutrition when on the bike leg. Depending on your bike-handling ability, and the length of the event, eating and drinking on the move might make sense.

The main takeaway is to practice and test your nutrition strategy leading up to your event, and don’t try anything new on race day (many people before you have ignored this and will have a grim tale to tell!).

Many events will have a nutrition partner and will provide energy drink, gels, and other fuel on the route. You might want to consider checking what nutrition will be provided on race day and trial the brand in advance.

Written by
Chris Hovenden
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