Your First Triathlon

Mum and me

Yes, she can.  So can you.

I feel like a bit of a fraudster, passing on my advice for ‘your first triathlon’.

I mean, I’ve done precisely one triathlon.

But if you’re looking for advice like I was/am, maybe learning from somebody who is as new as you is the best option.  When you’ve done a few, I imagine that certain things become obvious, and you might assume they’re obvious to everyone.

So this guide to ‘your first triathlon’ is for the real beginner, and the one who is Type-A, needing to know every detail they possibly can, including the obvious.  This is for you, my friend (although the rest of you may read if you want to)

I have split the post into sections, because it is long – there is a lot of information.  If you’re OK with some sections of your triathlon journey, you can skip the parts of this post that cover those sections.

Let us begin.

Choosing your first triathlon race.  I was really glad to find a first race that was close enough to drive to, on the morning of the big day – it meant that I knew the local area (where to go for breakfast afterwards? sorted!) and felt kind of comfortable in my surroundings.

Being able to spend the nerve-wracking night prior to the race in my own house, with my dog, before going to sleep in my own bed, made a big difference to my preparations.  When I awoke at 2.30, I was able to slip out to the lounge room and make a cuppa, which isn’t always possible if you’re sharing a hotel ‘studio room’ (IE just a bed and ensuite toilet) with your partner who is trying to sleep.

Apart from the location, an important factor is obviously going to be distance.  I didn’t realise that, apart from the ‘Olympic Distance’ or ‘Ironman Distance’ triathlons (whose distances are prescribed by Triathlon Law, as laid down by the Triathlon Gods) most other races will vary quite widely in length depending on what routes are available to the organisers, what is approved by council, what makes sense in terms of having a free-flowing race, etc.

Usually a ‘Sprint Distance’ triathlon is a 750m swim, a 20km ride and a 5km run – exactly half of the non-negotiable ‘Olympic Distance’.  The ‘sprint distance’ race I will be doing at Straddie is 750/20/8 – so not quite ‘right’.  I think for a first race, anything less than 750/20/5 has got to be good.  My ‘short course’ Bribie Triathlon was 300m swim, 10km ride and 3km run – you can’t go too far wrong with that, even if everything hurts and you have a really hard time of it, you should still finish.

Consider your own abilities as well – the swim was always going to be the hardest part for me, so with a 300m swim I knew that if the worst came to the worst, I could breast stroke it and only be 10 minutes behind the leaders of the pack (which wouldn’t entirely ruin my race)

If the hardest part for you is the bike or run, either find a tri that offers shorter legs in those disciplines, or consider teaming up with someone who can take that leg for you.  This is called a Team entry, and every triathlon offers it as an option.  You will still get to see the transitions take place and learn from it all that way, without being overwhelmed.

Note that not all triathlons take on the traditional ‘swim-then-bike-then-run’ format.  I’ve seen the odd one that goes bike-then-run-then-swim, or some other combination.  If you’re a stickler for doing things the right way, then the traditional format might suit you best.

Last but not least, don’t forget the price.  Prices of triathlons vary even more than the distances, and if it’s your first race you may not want to splash out the big bucks.  The Noosa Triathlon cost me over $300 to enter, the Bribie cost me $52.  Having researched a lot of tris now, it’s fair to say that the Bribie race is an absolute bargain and they could get away with charging a lot more.  The general cost of a short distance or sprint seems to be between 80-120 dollars.  Consider the price and look for early-bird deals too – that will give you more time to train, which is a win-win!

Signing up for your first triathlon.  There are lots of categories to race under.  When I first signed up, I got my category completely wrong and put myself down as an elite athlete.  Obviously you’re not as stupid as I am, but I am sure it can sometimes be confusing for those with more than two brain cells as well.

Generally the option you will select is your age group – ie 18-24, 25-29, 30-34 etc.  You should select the group you’ll be in come race day if possible, so if you’re turning 30 next week make sure you select the 30-34 age group for that race in three months’ time.

There are also weight-based options – if you are a man over 90kg you can select to race with the Clydesdales.  If you are a woman over 70kg you can select to race with the Athenas.  Note that you don’t have to race according to weight – I guess it depends whether you want to race against beanpoles or normal people.  Personally, I prefer to race with the beanpoles because I have a massive ego, and also I hope that their bean-ness rubs off on me a little.  So even if I were over 70kg (which I am, if you weigh me after a big dinner) then I will always put myself into my age group category rather than the Athenas.  It’s personal choice – you do what is right for you and what will make you feel more comfortable.

If you are in Australia, you have to have a membership to Triathlon Australia in order to race.  I imagine this is the same in other parts of the world, although the organisations have different names.  Yes, I am a super-sleuth.  You can buy a one-day TA (Triathlon Australia) membership when you sign up for a race – it will be right there, next to the box to tick that says you accept the terms and conditions of the triathlon.  I believe it is about $10 or something silly.

The membership to Triathlon Australia, from what I understand, gives the race the support it needs from the organisation, and also covers your insurance for the race.  This doesn’t mean you don’t need your own health insurance etc in case something happens (you should totally get that) – it’s more like, if the pavement has a crack in it and you fall over in the run and hurt yourself, then hopefully the race can afford to cover your medical bills.

Presumably if you die in the race from being eaten by a shark, your family gets sent a nice bottle of wine or something, courtesy of the insurance.

If you’re made of money then go ahead and buy yourself a full year’s membership to Triathlon Australia, then instead of buying the one-day membership you can tick the box that says ‘I am a member already’ and move on with your life.  I will be very jealous.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to get yourself signed up and have that date to aim for in the calendar.  I can confirm from my own experience that if it turns out you’ve made a mistake, the race organisers can generally fix it up for you.  So don’t panic (yet) and click Pay Now.

Training. I wont say too much about this, because there are a lot of personal choices to be made.  I didn’t join a triathlon club, although I hear it is highly recommended.  I didn’t get a personal trainer or a triathlon coach – also highly recommended.  So I am living proof that you can train yourself to get to your first triathlon, no problem.  I had never trained for an event before either, so I didn’t exactly have any special advantage there.  I am sure I could have been better/stronger/fitter/faster if I’d had more help, but I also would have been more overwhelmed/stressed/hassled because that’s the kind of person I am.  As soon as someone tells me what to do I want to do the exact opposite, which is why I’m training myself for my next race too.

My advice on training is to learn to love it, first and foremost.  If you love training in a group, then you’d better join a bloody tri club, quick-smart.  If you love training solo like me, then learn when your local pool is quietest.  If you love strict regimens and structure to your workouts, get a personal trainer or coach.  If you are in tune with your body and are prepared to adapt your training each day to your own progress, then maybe you can train yourself.

If you have no idea where to start, get Googling – there is so much information available on the web!  Read my blog, especially the first few posts.  Get a coach for two or three sessions perhaps.  Or join a tri club that is a long drive away, so that they understand when you only rock up once every two months.

Whatever happens, make a start on training as soon as you can.  You will eventually need to purchase equipment, possibly two or three times if you break things as often as I do.  My advice is to keep an eye on Ebay and Gumtree etc for things that you’ll need prior to the race – a better helmet maybe, or clip-in shoes, or a tri suit.  To get started with training, you only need a pair of running shoes with which to go for a run and start building your fitness level.  Then you can collect a swimming cap, goggles, pool membership, bike etc as the weeks progress.

after the swim

Absolute joy – when training pays off and you complete the swim

The bike.  The bike is clearly the most expensive thing you’re going to need for a triathlon.  If you already have one, good on you.  If you can just about afford to get one, then take yourself down to the nearest shop ASAP and explain to the people there that you have stupidly signed up for a triathlon, and you need a bike that will take you through it – not a mountain bike.  Bear in mind that even in a short distance triathlon, the difference between doing the bike leg on a mountain bike as opposed to a road bike is minutes, not seconds.  In my (short) race, the people on mountain bikes may as well have had to do the swim twice, because the bike leg set them significantly behind the rest of us.

It’s not that time matters in your first race, because it doesn’t.  But being passed by people who are no fitter than you, they just have a different bike, may cause you to have an epic tantrum.  And you can’t go training with your new tri club on a mountain bike.

My bike cost me $1060 by the time I’d bought the pedals and water bottle cage etc, but you can spend over $20,000 if you’ve got the cash to burn.  And yes, generally the more expensive the bike, the faster it will go.

In saying that, my cheap-ish bike fits me absolutely perfectly, and I can go pretty fast on it.  I am not hunched over or stretched out or anything on my bike.  Any good bike shop can ‘fit your bike’ for you by taking a variety of measurements of your body, then adjusting the handlebars, seat etc to suit you.  Getting your bike fitted to you, whether it is new, old or second-hand, is an absolute necessity.

After I bought my bike, I was driving past Cash Converters one day and noticed a heap of road bikes outside.  So think outside the box too – try garage sales, car-boot sales, classifieds in the paper, Ebay, community noticeboards.  Ask around your friends if anyone has a road bike they no longer use!

Learn to change gears properly, too.  Don’t be afraid of the clanging noises your poor little bike makes when you do it- it’s made for it, apparently.  I passed a lot of people in my first triathlon, who seemed to be peddling too slowly for the section of road we were on.  They were probably in the wrong gear.

my gears

Pick the right one of these

What to wear for your first triathlon: I chose my triathlon suit because I wanted to be able to wear an outfit that would take me through all three legs of the race, without getting changed.  I had no desire to get remotely naked in front of the crowds at the Bribie Island Triathlon.  Plus I wanted to at least look like a pro athlete.

I found my suit for $70 on Ebay.  Be warned that women’s triathlon clothing sizes are very small – I wear a medium size suit and could probably wear a large with no issue.  If you are purchasing on Ebay, then Google the manufacturer’s website and find their sizing guide before you bid, so you know what size you need.  Don’t go by Ebay descriptions.

Triathlon suits are the best option in my opinion, because they are made for swimming, but also have a small pad in the bottom for extra comfort in your cycling portion of the race and the shorts come down far enough to cover the tops of your legs, for running in.  You will need to wear a sports bra underneath, but no knickers because they will be wet and you will chafe.

NOTE: You will look awful in your triathlon suit – they are the ugliest pieces of clothing ever invented.  Everyone looks awful in them.  I personally looked like a blue sausage running around the Bribie Island foreshore, trying to avoid a giant frying pan or something.  It’s OK to look awful.  Accept it and move on.

One of the advantages over choosing a tri suit instead of a tri shorts and top combination is that you’ll have no waistband digging into your stomach on the bike ride.  It’s much more comfortable (in my opinion)

My tip would be to choose a suit that has a zip at the front rather than the back, for easy removal when you need to go to the toilet.  My suit has a zip at the back, which is tricky.  I’d also choose a slightly thicker fabric – having bought mine on Ebay I didn’t realise it would be as see-through as it is, until I first tried it on.  My next suit will be a different fabric for sure.

If you can’t afford a suit yet, you could wear your swimming costume for the swim, then slip over a pair of shorts in T1 for the cycle and run.  Whether you choose padded cycling shorts is up to you – most cycling shorts are too padded to comfortably run in, but you could use tri shorts that have thinner padding.  You’re still going to have to spend money I guess though.

Bear in mind that if you choose the swimsuit option, you will probably still want a sports bra under your swimming costume.  And you should practice running and cycling in the swimming costume you’ll use, because running in a swimming costume gives you a special kind of chafing that may make you wish you got the tri suit.

Or you’ll just prove me wrong and do the whole tri in nothing but a bikini and I will take my hat off to you, madam.  Anyone that runs 3km or more in a bikini has my utmost respect.

Other things to consider include elastic laces, which I now recommend with gusto.  When your hands are shaking from adrenaline and you’re out of breath, it can take a minute to lace normal shoelaces, so the time saved in Transition is well worth it.

The trick to feeling comfortable in elastic laces is to lace them through the eyelets in the same manner that the original laces were put through, while your foot is still in the shoe.  I cannot emphasise that enough – I nearly turned my back on elastic laces for good when I just laced them willy-nilly myself.  Having your foot in there as you do it prevents the shoes getting tight in the wrong spots and hurting your feet when you run.

Finally, don’t forget your sunglasses for the bike and run (if only to keep bugs out of your eyes as you zoom along) and a hat or visor to try and stop yourself from squinting.

leaving transition 2

Run sausage, run!

Race Day Nutrition.  I am a carb-loading aficionado.  I have been known to carb-load for a shopping trip.

The 24 hours prior to your race is not the day to be on a diet.  You want your body to have plenty of calories to burn when the gun goes off, because you’ve worked hard in training and the last thing you need is to run out of energy half-way through the race.

The calories you consume should obviously be as high-quality as possible – so not just doughnuts and coke (although I strongly feel that if you would like a doughnut or whatever the day before your race, you should go ahead and have one)

If you can stick with slower-release carbs such as sweet potato, oats, rice etc then the energy will hang around long enough for you to race on the next morning.

I personally don’t have a very sensitive stomach, so I tried to eat my breakfast precisely 2 hours before the race start.  You might need 3 hours if you have never worked out straight after breakfast – try it before the race and see if you vomit.  I had planned on having a Clif Bar or something extra about 15 minutes beforehand as well, but I was too nervous.

I had a gel on the bike (which I had opened before the race and placed carefully in my bento box, ready to just squeeze into my mouth mid-ride) which possibly made me sick but also possibly didn’t – I need to test it out in the future.  Don’t do what I did – test all gels and things out before race day.

But remember, you’re not doing a race to lose weight.  Perhaps make that a goal of training if you want to (although I prefer to think of it as a happy by-product of a healthy lifestyle, rather than a goal) but on race day the goal is to perform to the max – and you need fuel for that.

The Race Pack.  You will be able to pick up your race pack before race day, which might be less nerve-wracking than picking it up on the morning of the race like I did.  Some races actually don’t allow you to pick up the pack on race day (i.e The Noosa Tri) so check the rules first so you know what you have to do.

The pack will contain your swimming cap, numbers and your timing chip.  They’re all very important!

In all triathlons that I have read about, you must swim using the race-provided swimming cap.  I don’t know of a single one where you can take your own.  I suppose this is so that they know who to go and redirect if they see someone swimming off-course (because I guess it could just be a member of the public out for a swim)

You can wear your own cap underneath the race-provided one if you have a sensitive head or something, but I think most caps provided are latex-free.

When it comes to the numbers, one will be in the form of a sticker, to put on your bike.  This is mainly so that the officials know that you’re not stealing someone else’s bike on the big day, so search it out (mine was really small and I thought I didn’t have one for the first few minutes)

The number that you have to wear for the bike and run portion (you don’t need to wear it in the swim) is a papery one, which you can attach to your t-shirt with safety pins provided.  The better and more common option is to get a ‘race number belt’ from just about any athletic shop – or Ebay for about $10 including delivery.  You attach your number to the belt and leave it setup in transition, so that after the swim when you collect your bike, you just clip the belt around you.  Simple!  No stabbing yourself with pins or fiddling unnecessarily in Transition.  It also turns easily, so that it is on your back for the bike and on your front for the run.

Someone (or a group of someones) on race morning will be in charge of numbering your arm, so that you are identifiable in the swim.  I don’t know why but one of my favourite things on race day morning was getting my number written on my arm.  It was thrilling.  Beware: most races do not allow you to number yourself.

Last but not least, your timing chip is a little velcro band with a plastic bit.  It usually goes on a particular arm or leg – I started off with mine on the right leg before a kind man luckily pointed out that it should go on the left, just as the gun was about to go.  From studying my Triathlon 220 magazine, it looks like all the races pictured had their athletes wear their timing chip on the left leg so maybe that is a rule.

Transition.  On race day, I packed one bag full of just ‘the stuff to take into transition’ and leave there.  Everything else I’d need went into a separate bag.

I saw a few other people with one single bag in which they had stuffed all of their belongings and they looked confused.  I was so nervous on race day I probably wouldn’t have ever exited transition setup if I’d had to choose what to leave and what to take from one bag – it’s not the ideal time to overwhelm yourself with decisions to make.

With my one bag, I entered transition nice and early and found my space (which had been allocated to me according to my race number – some races allow you to pick your own spot but check with your race when you pick up your pack) then simply had to dump the entire contents of my transition bag out next to my bike and walk away.  It made things much simpler.

Of course, by ‘dump’ I mean ‘carefully place’.  I put everything on a towel, which was folded into a length slim enough to only just fit my running shoes on side-by-side.  You can’t be taking up the person’s space next to you.  I put one sock in each shoe, then put my running cap on top.

For my cycling gear, I put my shoes in front of my running stuff (well, closer to me – is that actually behind?) then one sock in each shoe again and my sunglasses on top.  I also put down a bottle of water for squirting over me or drinking and my race number belt with race number attached.  On top of all of that, I balanced by helmet so that it was the first thing I would touch when I got to transition, because you can’t touch your bike until your helmet is on.

If you didn’t get a chance to pump your tyres immediately before you left the house that very morning, you can do it in transition.  Take your bike pump with you, or borrow one from the myriad of other people who will be pumping tyres.

At the start line. I started making my way down to the start line when I saw lots of other people beginning to do so.  My race was a beach start, so some people were on the beach and some were on the pathway.  Others were having a practice in the water, which I decided was a great idea.  I waded in, dipped my head in and out and tried to do some relaxed breathing.  I felt pretty good (I didn’t panic) so didn’t push my luck – I got straight back out again.

Triathlons starts are usually done in ‘waves’ – which means you’re split into groups according to your age groups and released one group at a time, with a few minutes’ break in-between.  This lessens the likelihood of the really good people having to swim over the really bad ones, but doesn’t entirely eliminate it.

I was in wave 4, so I got to watch the previous groups set off.  I saw that most people were drifting to the right, so I decided to stay as far left a possible because I am a drifter anyway. If you are hoping to be really good at the swim, perhaps you could watch out for those that set off very strong – where did they start?  Copy them!

Nervous sausage

Nerves at the start line.  Mum put it in black and white, presumably to make it even more dramatic

When the gun goes. Some wise people advise to hold back when the gun goes off, especially if you are a bit nervous about the swim.  I had planned on doing exactly this, but when push came to shove, I was shoving with the best of them.  The adrenaline kicked in and I wanted to get out there as fast as I could.  It also sucks a bit when you get stuck behind slow people and have to swim around them, so why not be the one everyone else has to swim around?

So I say, when the gun goes off in your first triathlon, go for it.  Run with all your might and dive into the water like you you did in your dreams.  Then whizz your arms around like a windmill and hope you get to the other side (or alternatively, swim beautifully like a proper swimmer, if you’re not me)

In the bike leg, make the most of the roads being closed and try your best to make sure you lose your voice by yelling ‘on your right!’ so many times.

And in the run, remember it is a mental game as much as a physical one – and trust that your training will get you through, if only you can conquer the obstacles in your head.