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If you are reading this then you are probably beginning the journey towards your first Triathlon. Congratulations on making that decision – you are entering a sport that is as addictive as it is fun and as rewarding as it is challenging. But your first race can (and probably will) be a daunting experience; there will be at least one discipline that you don’t really enjoy as much as the others, you’ll be confronted with a multitude of things to remember (such as where did I leave my bike!) and surrounded by people who look like they’ve done it a thousand times before. So, in this short 101 – I’m going to take you through the things you need to know – from arriving at the venue – to crossing the line.
Before we go any further – remember this – you are not alone!! You will not be the only first-timer on race day and there will be plenty of other people there in exactly the same position. Even Messrs.’ Brownlee and Gomez had to start somewhere!! If you do one thing well on race day make it to be as composed and calm as you can be – and enjoy yourself.
Triathlon, as the name suggests, is a sport involving three disciplines: Swim, Bike, Run. Between each of these is a transition period (changing from swim to bike and bike to run). There are two transitions – imaginatively referred to as T1 and T2. One thing I’m often asked is, “Why do you the sports in that order?” to which the answer is – have you ever tried putting a wetsuit on!! Try doing that after a run and see how you get along!!! Tackling the swim first allows for a rapid extraction from your wetsuit; into cycling gear and jumping off of the bike, your second transition will be even quicker – as you really only have to get a pair of trainers on.
A Few Essentials
Like all sports there will be some essential kit. A basic list is:
- Tri Suit – Whilst some may argue that this is optional, it will make your life much easier. A Tri Suit is a one (or two) piece suit that you can swim, cycle and run it. It will fit nicely under a wetsuit and means that you don’t have to faff with additional kit in Transition. Entry-level suits can be had for £30 (Planet X) whilst the more fashion-conscious may opt for a high-end (Castelli) costing five times that. If you are a member of a Tri club, you’ll probably find that they have their own bespoke kit – which may be worth investigating.
- Wetsuit. This will only be required for Open Water swims – and only where the water is cool enough to justify it (which to be fair is most European races). Entry-level wetsuits start from around £100 and are perfectly acceptable for anyone starting out. As your experience grows, you may choose to upgrade – with high-end suits costing anywhere over £500. Like all things, you get what you pay for but I started out in a £100 Orca suit – which I still have and love.
- Swimming goggles – required for both pool and Open Water. With goggles, fit is everything. My personal preference is Zoggs Predator Flex – but try various options from a rang of manufacturers to find the ones that fit your face best. The one thing they should not do is leak – even a trickle of water will annoy the Hell out of you in the swim.
- Bike and bike kit – Goes without saying really. For most Triathlons a decent road bike is perfectly acceptable. Again, go with what you can afford but remember that the more you spend, the better your riding experience will be. For all races, you will be required to wear an approved helmet – so if you don’t already have one then get one.
- Running kit – The core of this will be a good pair of trainers that are suited to your running style and gait.
- Number Belt – You will be given one race number which will have to be on you throughout the bike and run segments of the race. A number belt is a very convenient way to transfer this between disciplines.
That should cover your basic training and race day needs. As with any sport, you can add considerably to this list – and probably will as your experience grows.
Choosing Your First Race
There are a variety of accepted triathlon race distances:
- Super sprint: 400m (swim), 10km (bike), 2.5km (run)
- Novice: 400m (swim), 20km (bike), 5k (run)
- Sprint distance: 750m (swim), 20km (bike), 5km (run)
- Standard (Olympic) distance: 1500m (swim), 40km (bike), 10km (run)
- Middle (Half Iron) distance: 1900m (swim), 90Km (bike), 21Km (run)
- Full (Iron) distance: 3800m (swim), 180Km (bike), 42Km (run)
For your initial race, it makes sense to be realistic – rather than ambitious. It’s easy to convince yourself that because you once ran a half marathon, know that you could swim 1500m and aren’t scared by 80Km on a bike then you’d be alright in a middle distance event. Whilst it’s true that you may have done all of those things in isolation – have you ever done them consecutively and in a competitive environment? Trust me – it’s a different deal!
Shorter races are an excellent way in. Not only are the distances manageable for most but they also teach you race craft – which is a priceless skill. They get you used to setting up your transition zone, managing the swim start, running off of the bike and, of course, getting through T1 and T2.
So – You’ve Got the Kit and Booked the Race…..What’s Next?
In a word…..training!! Everyone’s training plan will differ – based upon their chosen race distance, current level of fitness / ability and time available. It certainly makes sense to work with a coach – if you can get one. One very good – and cost-effective – way to access professional coaching is through membership of your local Tri Club. Most Tri Clubs will provide regular group coaching sessions run by accredited coaches at very little cost. You’ll also get the benefit of the shared experience of your fellow club members – which will help you learn more about the sport than you’ll ever pick up through online forums and the like.
As race day approaches you will receive information and briefing from the event organiser – READ THIS!!! The race briefing will tell you everything from what time you need to be at the venue through to where the toilets are!! Increasingly this briefing is provided online – rather than being mailed to you in hard-copy. So it makes sense to regularly check the event website (assuming it has one) to get this information as soon as it is available.
As Race Day approaches
Three words for you – (1) Preparation (2) Preparation (3) Preparation……really!
Ideally you will want to be as relaxed as possible when you line up for the start and that won’t happen if you arrived at the venue only to discover that your bike shoes are still in a bag in your wardrobe!!!
In the run-up to race day, make yourself a list of everything that you will need to take with you on the day. When you pack for the race – tick everything off as you put it in the car.
Equally, make sure that your kit is in order. If your bike is feeling a bit tired – get it serviced and if your toes are poking through the ends of your trainers then use this as the excuse to buy a new pair. During the race, you will be reliant upon every bit of kit working as intended – so give it the best chance of doing this by making sure it’s in good shape before you need it.
One word of caution though – race day is not the day to try something new! If you are going to replace your trainers – or any of your kit – do so in advance of the race and give yourself time to test your new kit in training.
With all of your preparation done; all items on your list ticked off and every bit of kit tickety-boo, you’ll be able to sleep easy the night before your race. And a good night’s sleep is right up there on my personal list of must-haves!!
Firstly – and most importantly – DON’T PANIC!!! Unless you are clinically dead then you will feel nervous – and this is a good thing. But remember – you’ve done the training, ticked all the items on your list and you are here as much to enjoy yourself as you are to compete. Now – let me walk you through a step-by-step timeline from arriving at the venue through to crossing the line….
It makes sense to arrive as early as you can – to give yourself a relaxed registration and setup – and then generally to chill a little before the start.
Upon arrival the first thing you should do is register. The race briefing – which, of course, you have read….haven’t you – will tell you where to find the registration tent / desk. During registration you will be given your race number, number stickers for your helmet and transition bags, a BTF Day Licence (if you are not a BTF member), a swimming cap (for open water events) and a timing chip(usually a small plastic disc on a Velcro strap that will be worn around your left ankle). In some cases, the timing chip will be given to you at the registration desk and in some cases you will need to collect it as you enter transition to set up.
Once you are registered, get your bike built-up (if needed) and attach your race numbers to your helmet, bike and number belt. Now gather together everything that you will need in transition and make your way there.
You should arrive at Transition wearing your helmet with the race number on it and the chin strap fastened. The marshal will check this before you are allowed to enter and begin setting up.
Setting Up in Transition
Triathlon is an individual sport so only you will be allowed in the Transition area – friends and family may not enter with you. You will be directed to your transition spot where you will rack your bike and lay your bike and running kit out ready for use.
Generally speaking, the bike rack will be long lines of scaffold poles – with numbers attached to mark your transition zone. Strictly speaking, the BTF rules state that all of your kit must fit within the width of the handlebars of your bike – but realistically, everyone sets their kit out slightly to one side. However – you may be shocked by how little room you have available. Rack your kit in this order:
o Bike – Rack this by hanging from the bike rack, using the seat. Generally speaking, bikes will rack one in, one out which means that if you are standing in front of your bike, it will be pointing towards you whilst those on either side will point away.
o Kit – This is very much going to be a personal thing. But it makes sense to lay your kit out in a logical order – and in the order that you will need it.
When selecting kit the one golden rule is that you should never give yourself choices in Transition – decide on the kit you’ll need and lay only that out. In this way, you will move swiftly and efficiently through – whereas standing in front of your Transition zone and trying to decide whether to use your trail trainers or roadies will burn precious time.
Make sure that your helmet is easily accessible (it will be the first thing you put on after the swim) and that your number belt is laid out ready. On windy days, I generally clip this around my handlebars or seat post to ensure it does not blow away.
o Location, Location, Location – With your kit laid out take a moment to pin down just exactly where your bike is. Use big landmarks such as a tree, registration tent, finish line etc. to pin down the location and lock this in your head; there is nothing more frustrating than running into a crowded transition without a clue where to find your bike and kit.
o One Final Check – With everything now set up take a minute to run through a mental checklist of the things you’ll need for the bike and the run and make sure these are ready. And, one final item – make sure your bike is in a low (easy) gear!!!