triathlete on bike

Top tips for your first triathlon

I remember standing on the start line of my first triathlon in a state of nervous anticipation, uncharacteristically stressed and anxious about what was going to happen. I’m usually pretty relaxed before an event, but coming from a running background, triathlon was ‘the great unknown’ to me.

Racing three different disciplines in a oner, was an exciting thought, but also meant there was more things to factor into the preparation – including race day logistics, all the kit, and transitions. The kit required for a running race is minimal compared to what’s required for a triathlon, so getting organised for event proved fairly stressful! I needed separate kit for swimming, cycling and running, and would be reliant on smooth, quick transitions to have my best race… so the doubts began to creep into my mind. I pictured all the things that could go wrong before and during the race. What if I forget my helmet? What if there’s an issue during the swim? What if I get a puncture during the cycle? What if I fall? And the list goes on and on and on.

Organisation is key for multi-sport events, especially if you’re new to them.

I assure you, my first triathlon was a great experience. And yours will be too! Even though I felt anxious, I loved it from the start of the swim to the end of the run. It was the Aberfeldy Middle Distance Triathlon: a great location for a first tri as you get to swim in the dark, still water of Loch Tay, then cycle around Loch Rannoch and run around Taymouth Castle in Kenmore. Simply stunning!

Based on my experience, my advice to first-time triathletes would be as follows:

1. Write a kit list

The kit packing stage is exciting. Your attention will be 100% focused on the event and task in hand and it will be hard to think about anything else. As mentioned, there’s a hefty amount of kit to pack for a triathlon, which can be a bit overwhelming (especially if you’re having to travel far).

To take a weight off my mind and ensure I didn’t forget anything important, I wrote a kit checklist with all the gear I needed for the swim, cycle and run (organised into sub sections). Then when packing my bag, I ticked the items off my ‘to pack’ list along the way. Organisation is key for multi-sport events, especially if you’re new to them. Whether you use good old-fashioned pen-and-paper or a digital note-taking app on your smartphone, your triathlon kit list will prove invaluable!

Images from Run4It Edinburgh’s Finlay, who races long distance triathlon and works as a Triathlon Coach/Sports Scientist for What’s Your Meta when he isn’t training or working at Run4It.

2. Take spare kit

It’s important to have back-up kit in case of a wardrobe malfunction or equipment failure. It would be a shame to stop the race (or not even start it) because you forgot something or didn’t have spares. I made sure I had spare items for some key gear like:

  • Swimming goggles: clear googles and tinted ones (so I could choose my preferred pair on the day depending on the weather).
  • Swimming hat: usually a mandatory item.
  • Running shoes: so I could decide what type of shoes I wanted to run in, based on how my body was feeling post the swim and cycle (responsive shoes with a firmer feel for a faster pace, or soft shoes with plush cushioning to take the strain off my feet and legs),
  • Bike puncture repair kit: mine includes a CO2 pump + cartridges and a valve inner tube. 
  • Wetsuit: I only have one, but I would bring two if you can.
  • Nutrition: I always take more nutrition than I plan on needing during the event, to ensure I have sufficient energy intake for expenditure across each of the sporting disciplines. I personally crave for more solid food on the bike.

3. Practice open water swimming

The swim was the section I was least confident about. I was a decent swimmer before starting my training and I had no fear I would be comfortable swimming 1.9km with some training. But I had never swum in open water before. I needed to practice, to build my confidence ahead of race day. I had to get used to swimming in a wetsuit (which actually gives you greater buoyancy and stability) but mainly work on my sighting. Unfortunately, there’s no line to follow like in the swimming pool, so you have to navigate by sight. Poor sighting and the swim section can become a real nightmare!

Doing several open water swims prior to the race really helped me. I even replicated and practised my open-water sighting in the pool, swimming the same way I would do in open water, to be really confident on race day.

Poor sighting and the swim section can become a real nightmare!

If you can, bring a friend or training buddy with your first open water swim, or go to a group session (with a triathlon club for instance). It will be a better experience if you have people around you and a safer experience too. Open water swimming is great for anyone who wants to break away from the monotony of pool training and it pushes you out of your comfort zone. Train hard, race easy!   

4. Know how to repair a flat tyre (and practice it)

My worst fear was getting a flat tyre during the race and not knowing how to repair it. So I took the bull by the horns, watched a few YouTube videos, to learn how to fix a puncture and repair an inner tube, before practising it on my bike. Thankfully, fixing a flat tyre is less complicated than you might think and familiarising yourself with the process can save precious minutes, should you get a puncture halfway through the race.

I also took my bike to my local cycling shop for a service, a few days before the event. To ensure it was primed and ready for the 90km ride! It’s great to have an expert check the mechanics of your bike (particularly after weeks/months of training rides) for safety reasons and for added peace of mind ahead of race day.

5. Analyse the transition area

‘Bike in’ ‘Bike out’ ‘Run in’ ‘Run out’ – for first-time triathletes, transition zones can be daunting and confusing places. Take some time to familiarise yourself with the transition areas before the race starts.

You can have up to two transition zones (T1 and T2) if the swim finish/start of the bike section happens at a different location to the bike finish/start of the run section.

If participant numbers are high, transition areas can be very busy. Coming out of the swim can be a confusing and chaotic if you don’t know where your bike is, particularly if you’re tired after a hard effort swim. Visualising for me is key, so before the start of the race, I simulated my exit from the water and made my way to my bike rack. I repeated the same for transition 2. I also saw triathletes putting up flags next to their rack so they can see it from distance. Smart!

Once you’re familiar with your transition area, you can rack your bike and deposit all the kit you’ll need for the race. It’s useful to bring a big transition bag/rucksack so you can carry it all and easily locate items you need. A big IKEA bag is quite useful as you can chuck all your swimming gear in it after the swim. It’s important to keep your space as tidy as possible. 

It isn’t the quantity of sessions that matters, it’s their quality.

6. Train at the right intensity

Training for a triathlon involves doing different workouts during the week. To squeeze in your swimming, cycling and running sessions when you have a full-time job, a family, social commitments etc. is tricky and can feel like too big a commitment. But don’t worry, it isn’t the quantity of sessions that matters, it’s their quality.

My first piece of advice would be to focus on the discipline you feel least confident about. For me, it was swimming, so I made sure my training was made up of at least 3 swim sessions a week and they included different types of drills.

My second piece of advice is to make sure you train at the right intensity. You can’t always train at 100% of your capacity: you need a mix of easy sessions and harder ones to improve your fitness and allow for adequate recovery. If you push yourself to hard at the pool, on the bike and on the run, you’ll risk getting an injury and you won’t be able to sustain that level of training due to fatigue.

A ‘polarised’ training model can be very effective. It means that the intensity of training is either very easy or very hard and training volume is typically lower than other models like big volume or lactate threshold. The principles of this training model have been backed up by significant research. To learn more about it, read our article Running principles: The importance of training at different intensities next.

7. Take part in a Duathlon and/or an Aquathlon

A duathlon consists of running, cycling and more running (the distance can vary, but won’t be too long). An aquathlon consists in swimming and running.

These events are great for two reasons:

  1. A duathlon or aquathon will boost your confidence and give you some first-hand experience of multi-sport events ahead of your first triathlon. If racing the three disciplines seems too difficult or stressful, then start off with two!
  2. You can use it to gauge the effectiveness and performance of your training and estimate your triathlon time.

I took part in the Stirling Duathlon a few months before my first triathlon. My goal was to check my cycling performance and my ability to run after getting off the bike. It was a great way to elevate my training and build confidence in a race environment before doing the triathlon.

There are different triathlon distances to choose from, to suit all abilities and preferences, ranging from super sprint to long distance and Ironman.  

8. Trust your training

Your mind can play tricks on you the closer it gets to race day. Doubts and negative thoughts takeover. But you must push these out of your mind and exercise positive self-talk! Only you know what you can do and how much you have trained. Trust your training and set realistic goals. Or, make enjoyment your only goal and take part to complete the event to have a great time from start to finish!

Completing a triathlon is a huge achievement. Do the minimum recommended preparation to maximise your enjoyment and triathlon experience!

9. Find the right triathlon distance for you

There are different triathlon distances to choose from, to suit all abilities and preferences, ranging from super sprint to long distance and Ironman.  

You can start your triathlon journey with a longer event (like I did) if you so desire. However, experience makes a big difference, so taking it step-by-step may make the longer events more enjoyable and less stressful.

The distances are categorised as follows:

~ Sprint Distance Triathlon

The distance can vary from race to race but will generally be a 750m swim, 20k bike and 5k run. You can also find Super Sprint Distances which are great to get a first taste of tri (400m swim, 10k bike and 2.5k run).

Ideal for: First-timers or those unable to commit a huge amount of time to training.

Sprint events in Scotland: Loch Tay Sprint Triathlon; Stirling Triathlon (Sprint Distance); Monikie Triathlon Festival; Forfar Triathlon

~ Olympic Distance Triathlon

This is the distance the pros tackle during the Olympics and is recognised as the standard distance on the ITU (International Triathlon Union) circuit. Note the term ‘Olympic’ doesn’t mean it’s far tougher – the distance is just the double that of the sprint distance. It consists of 1500m swim, 40k bike and 10k run.

Ideal for: Those who want to challenge themselves and test their strength across the 3 disciplines or take their triathlon journey to the next level. The course will take a good 3 hours to complete!

~ Half Ironman & Full Ironman

Ironman’s history started in Hawaï and grew to become THE long distance triathlon. Here we’ll refer to Ironman as the distance and not the brand. A full Ironman consists of a 3.8k swim, 180k bike and marathon run (26.2 miles/42k). As the name suggests a Half Ironman is half the Ironman distance and consists of a 1.9k swim, 90k bike and half marathon run (13.1 miles/21k).

Ideal for: It’s quite a step-up from the Olympic Distance! Racing the Ironman distance requires dedication and time – you’ll need to commit to hours of training in the pool, on the saddle and on foot.  If you’re looking for a big challenge, then this is it! 

Ironman-distance events in Scotland: Scotland: Aberfeldy Triathlon (HI distance); Starman Night Triathlon (HI distance); Ben Nevis Braveheart Triathlon (HI distance).

~ Extreme Triathlons

As if an Ironman is wasn’t tough enough, some people have created Extreme Triathlons. Generally, Triathlons take place on roads and with no (or very little) elevation gain for the bike and run sections (select Ironman events do feature a hilly bike route though). An extreme triathlon on the other hand, will feature a hilly route profile for both the bike and run sections and/or extreme weather conditions to contend with. The bike can sometimes be longer than 180k and the run usually takes you up into the mountains.

Ideal for: Experienced trail, hill and ultra runners and those who like to dig deep and push themselves beyond their physical limits.

Extreme events in Scotland: Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon

Now get out there, try some triathlons and see how quickly you get hooked!