What to Know for Your First Triathlon

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Triathlons are often viewed as one of the hardest and most expensive forms of racing. Most people believe that they require you to be fluent in three different disciplines and have incredible fitness. In reality, triathlons can actually be quite forgiving to newcomers, especially as a sprint.

Training

Completing a triathlon, especially a sprint, does not take as much training as one would think. If you have an Olympic distance triathlon on your calendar, plan on two to three months of training. In these months, swim one to two times, ride one to two times and run three to five times a week, depending on your personal areas of strength and weakness.

Nour Alharithi, a member of the triathlon team at Northwestern University, recommends getting comfortable in open water before the race.


“Take a couple times to practice just to get used to it,” he says.

Brick workouts, where you complete two disciplines in the same day practicing transitions, can also help in training.

While you can find a training schedule online for free or a low price, some feel more comfortable training with the help of a triathlon coach. Craig Strong, triathlon coach for Precision Multisport, says to “find a good group of triathletes” since there are “so many beginner missteps” and a coach can guide you both in practice and on race day.

If you train on your own, make sure that you give yourself time to recover to avoid overtraining. Recovery matters just as much as the workouts you complete.

Three Days Before

Get enough sleep! Pre-race nerves may make keep you up the night before your event, so a couple days before, start getting to bed early. Relaxing a couple days prior to the race, as any training done at this point will not make much of a difference. Instead, you can prepare by studying the course well and going through the race mentally.

“The night before I like to lay out all of my stuff for the race the next day so I know it’s all there and ready to go,” Northwestern triathlete Theodore Ward says.

For a sprint race, you likely won’t need to carbo-load, or increase your carbohydrate intake, a couple days before a race. Carbo-loading can help for Olympic distance triathlons, but don’t overdo it.

“There is such a thing as too much carbs,” TJ Butler, a Northwestern triathlete, says. “You can definitely wake up the next morning not feeling well. Just eat a reasonably carb-heavy meal the night before.”

Race Day

The day of the race, keep your head in the game and stay relaxed. Get to the race early enough so you don’t feel rushed and have plenty of time to scope out the race area, practice and set up transitions and memorize where your things are.

“I repeat what row I’m in to myself a lot, and my shoes are bright green so they tend to stand out to me,” Ward says.

Other brightly colored items like towels or hats can help make your spot stick out to make your transitions faster during the race. Stack items in the order that you will put them on for easier transitions, putting your socks in your shoes, or your sunglasses inside your helmet.

Eat breakfast around 3 hours before the race to give yourself time to digest. Don’t introduce anything new on race day: equipment, food, transitions or anything else. If you plan on eating during the race, make sure you practice doing so in training.

Before the race begins, give yourself time to warm up. Work backwards through the sports if you have time, ending with swimming. Dynamic stretching will help get your muscles prepared to race. At the start, position yourself smartly (towards the front if you are faster and the back if you are slower) and focus on yourself, not other racers.

Swim

During the swim, know that you will come in contact with other racers and don’t go out too fast.

“Take a deep breath, just focus on swimming, on getting to the next buoy. Don’t worry about the people around you,” Butler says.

Strong also recommends focusing on a strong and relaxed exhale and using a three to four word mantra to help you stay calm in the water. At the end, swim as far as possible, as it is much slower to run through water.

Transition 1 (T1)

As you leave the water and get to the transition area, begin to change out of your wetsuit, cap and goggles to save time.

“Take the transition as an opportunity to remember your goals, and as a chance to just mentally be ready for the next part,” Alharithi says.

Bike

Start out on an easy gear and don’t go out too fast. The bike is the easiest sport to take in calories, so plan on eating or drinking during this portion. Make sure that you stay on the right side of the road until you want to pass, and vocally warn people when passing. Remember that drafting, or getting behind another cyclist so he or she blocks the wind, is illegal in almost every event. Slowly build up throughout the bike, and make sure you do not drink within the last 10 minutes of the bike to make the run as comfortable as possible.

Transition 2 (T2)

Just as in T1, having everything ready to go will make for a smoother and faster race. Put on your race belt as you run out of the transition area, and check in with yourself once again to remind yourself of your goals.

Run

Once again, don’t go out too fast. Keep good posture and look ahead. Having a mid-foot strike and landing softly will help you save energy, and relax your arms, letting them swing naturally by your sides.

Running off of the bike sometimes results in slower or faster than usual paces, so a watch can be helpful here to check in on your pace. At the finish, leave whatever you have left on the course.

“Too often people who are first-time triathletes end up unhappy with their results mainly because they were told, ‘Take it easy,’”Alharithi says. “It is a lot more enjoyable if you push hard and end up hitting a wall then to just cruise.”

Post-Race

Keep moving after you cross the finish line to avoid muscle cramping. Do a light cool-down and some stretching, and refuel within 30-45 minutes. Most importantly, acknowledge the fact that you completed a triathlon—something not many can say they have done—and congratulate yourself, no matter the results.