I can’t say that I remember my first ever triathlon, as I don’t remember much from when I was eight years old! However, I do know a lot of people who jumped on the triathlon-bandwagon at a later age and remember every detail of their first race.
If it is anything like how I feel before the race, the most nerve-wracking part is the preparation. With that comes the transition setup, what equipment to use, what to eat the night before and what to wear for the race (dependent on the weather).
I always find it weird when people ask me for advice for their first triathlon, not because it is a weird question but more that they see me as someone who can help them!
However, it does fill me with joy when I am able to help them, even if it just a small bit of advice.
So, in the spirit of the new year and the new triathlon season just around the corner (if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), I decided to list my top 10 tips for beginners:
Tip #1: Just enjoy the day!
It may seem like the most stupid answer, but this is the most important piece of advice I can give you! It isn’t just about the race, it is also about the atmosphere before and after the race. Yes, it may be too early in the morning for you, but the easy-going, chatty atmosphere before a triathlon is something I am proud to say is one of the best things about this sport.
When everyone is in transition setting up their equipment, strike up a conversation with the people around you – you never know, they might be in the same situation as you!
Tip #2: Practice your transition before the race
Many triathletes will tell you that the transition is the fourth discipline in a triathlon. People can spend as little as 30 seconds or as long as 4 minutes (sometimes longer!) in transition, depending on how much time they have spent practicing it.
You may be asking, “why do I need to practice getting a wetsuit off and putting shoes on?!”, but it sounds easier than it actually is! When you are freezing cold from the water, adrenaline pumping and arms aching, it can be quite hard to get your wetsuit off and steady your hands enough to put your shoes on. Run through your transition process before the race, from getting your wetsuit off all the way through to getting your helmet on BEFORE(!) you grab your bike and exit transition.
Tip #3: Use baby oil or baby gel to get your wetsuit off after the swim
On the subject of getting wetsuits off, every triathlete can tell you how annoying it is when it gets stuck around your knees or ankles! The best thing to prevent this is to smother your arms and legs with either baby oil or baby gel before you put your wetsuit on, as this allows the wetsuit to slide off easily after the swim. I personally use the Johnson Baby Oil Gel, as I find it doesn’t come off when I put my wetsuit on, but whatever works for you.
Also, it adds that extra layer before the cold water gets to you!
Tip #4: Don’t feel like you have to use bike cleats for your first race
You’ll see many triathletes using a cycling-specific shoe called cleats, which allow them to clip into the pedals, so their feet don’t slide off. The main aim for this is to allow them to push down on the pedal and also pull back up, resulting in more force to turn the wheels and therefore a faster speed.
However, these can be extremely hard to get used to, and if you aren’t comfortable wearing them in training then you definitely won’t be comfortable wearing them in a race. When I first tried the shoes, I fell off multiple times as I forgot to unclip them before I stopped. It is not something you want to be worrying about in your first triathlon.
By all means, if you are happy to wear them then go ahead, as it will benefit you! But don’t feel pressured to use them because everyone else is.
Tip #5: Use a safety pin to stop your timing chip falling off
Most races now use the timing chips that go around your ankle. Although they are very helpful in showing you your splits and positioning, it is also something else to think about when you’re racing. If you lose it when on the course, you could be charged to replace it, and it will also be difficult to see how you performed in the race. From experience, it is very annoying!
Since the disastrous race that this happened to me (it was doomed from the beginning after I forgot my goggles!), I have used a safety pin to stop it from undoing. Make sure it is fairly tight around your ankle, then secure the section that can undo to the fabric underneath it (but don’t prick your skin, it hurts!) – if you try to pull the Velcro off, it shouldn’t move.
This will stop the timing chip from falling off in the water or when you’re taking your wetsuit off, and also stop people from trying to pull it off at the swim start (also happened to me).
Tip #6: Don’t panic at the swim start – position yourself where you feel comfortable
The swim start can be like a boxing match if you don’t prepare yourself properly. With arms and legs flailing all over the place, trying desperately to find the speed they need to get to the front, it can quickly become dangerous for the unprepared.
If you don’t like the thought of being hit multiple times, or sometimes swam over, then I would suggest starting on the outside edge of the pack, or at the back. This way you’ll have enough room around you if you wanted to move away from someone, and less likely to be battered than you would in the middle.
Tip #7: Don’t use or try anything new on race day
Many people think it is best to get new running shoes before their first race, but you couldn’t be more wrong! You never know how the new equipment is going to perform on the day, and if the shoes aren't broken in/worn properly they could give you painful blisters that could prevent you from finishing the race.
The same goes for food habits. If you don’t normally have porridge before training, don’t try it on the morning of the race! You don’t know how your body is going to digest it whilst exercising, and you do not want to end up with ‘runner’s stomach’!
Stick to what you know works for you, and trust that the equipment you have used in training will get you around the race – leave all of the testing new things to your training periods!
Tip #8: Give yourself plenty of time before your race
It is easy to underestimate the amount of time you need before a race, especially when they are at a stupid time in the morning. It is also easy to forget everything you will need to do within that time: park your car and get your stuff out, walk to the competition site, register, place your numbers on your equipment, check into transition and set it up, run through it to make sure everything is there, warm up, get changed into your trisuit (if you aren’t already) and into your wetsuit and get to the start at least 10 minutes before. All of this could take at least an hour, and even then, you aren’t giving yourself time to relax and enjoy yourself. You don’t want to be stressed before the start, and like I said in tip #1, you want to enjoy yourself!
Tip #9: Don’t miss your start time!
Most races have multiple start times (aka. ‘waves’) to accommodate for the amount of people there. They usually each have their own colour hat, so the marshals, athletes and spectators know what wave is what, and they normally go off every 5 minutes (but check before you start – you should receive an email a few days before telling you when your start time is).
MAKE SURE YOU ARE IN THE RIGHT WAVE! If you go in a wave too early, you can be disqualified, and if you go in a wave too late from your own, then your time will start from when you should have started (ie. 5 minutes before you actually went off). Neither of these are an ideal situation, so make sure you know your exact start time and be there 10 minutes before anyway.
Tip #10: Know where you are in transition
At some races, the transition is so big that it just becomes a blur of wheels and shoes. It is not a nice feeling running around like a headless chicken trying to find your own stuff! Make sure you know where your transition is in comparison to the swim entry, bike exit, bike entry and run exit, before you start. Practice running from each entry/exit to your position to get the feel of where you are going, and also count which row you are in (sometimes they are numbered for you).
I also, if it is possible, try to find something that I can use as a reference. This could be a tree that your bike is near, a sign, a bike that is at the end of a rack, anything that you can easily spot to remind yourself where you are.
And make sure you put your swim equipment and bike back in the same position you were in before – you can disqualified if you leave it in a different position!
I hope this helps you in your endeavour to your first triathlon, and good luck – I hope you enjoy it!
If this helped you for your first triathlon, I would love to hear about it!
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