Top tips for preparing for your first triathlon
Updated: Jun 4, 2018
Triathlon is everywhere. At least that’s how it feels when you’ve been eyeing one up for a while and watching friends, friends of friends, and even your second cousin’s children giving it a go. These days, it might feel like there’s no one left to explore swim, bike and run with without feeling like you’re the only kid in the class who doesn’t know how to Floss.
We’ve been training, coaching and mentoring women and men through the experience of being a ‘novice’ for many years now, so we’ve put together our top tips to help anyone prepare for their first event.
1. Embrace your 'Beginner' status
In many areas in life, being the Beginner, newbie or novice comes with a whole heap of self-consciousness, embarrassment and the awkwardness of having to ask for help. Most of us, especially us Brits, wish we could fast-forward the Beginner bit to the part where we can call ourselves Experienced. However, in triathlon, being a Beginner is totally brilliant, if you learn to embrace it.
This is your time for discovering, exploring and finding out what you body and mind are truly capable of. With this, most decent triathlon clubs will welcome you with open arms, and good training groups will give you as much of their time and attention as they can. Why? Because most triathletes want everyone in the world to love triathlon as much as they do. Guaranteed you will be supported, helped, nurtured and befriended.
The other great thing about your beginner status is that you can beg, borrow, re-purpose hand-me-downs from a community that loves to upgrade but hates to throw away. Most of us are hoarders and kit junkies, which potentially makes your first dip into the sport a cheap win!
2. Stuff will go wrong, mistakes will be made
Mistakes and stuff going wrong is part of our sport; we deal with wetsuits, bikes, helmets, weather and fatigue, and inevitably, mechanical, physical or mental failure will happen to all of us at some point.
We’ve met many beginners however, who are fearful, terrified even, of ‘getting it wrong’. The truth is that every triathlete gets something wrong in pretty much every single event they ever take part in. Any youtube search will throw back evidence of elites making the silliest of errors. What makes a really good triathlete is the ability to carry on regardless, learn from the experience and not let a moment of physical, mechanical or mental failure stop us from giving it another go.
So make friends with your future mistakes; they will make you the best athlete you can be.
3. Invest in your body, not the kit
As a beginner, you may be fooled into thinking triathlon costs loads of money and to even be allowed to enter an event you have to have a bike worth in excess of £1,500, a wetsuit that was designed by Dolphins and a helmet that looks distinctly sperm-shaped.
Super fast bikes, wetsuits and helmets are only as fast as their driver, as demonstrated by Chrissie Wellington's famous example of winning the Age Group Championships on a second-hand bike bought for £600. So for your first triathlon, we recommend spending the time on building your fitness and spending the money on your entry fee, a comfortable tri suit, and getting your current bike serviced by decent mechanics.
4. Keep it simple
As a newcomer to the sport, you can be forgiven for thinking with three disciplines to train for, taking up triathlon requires having a part-time job, no family commitments, no social life, a full-time coach and tracking every bit of data you can. If this were true, it's highly unlikely triathlon would be as popular as it is. It's also unlikely that the sport in the UK would have the likes of the Brownlee Brothers, who never train with heart rate monitors, power meters or personal coaches, as their pin-ups.
Your biggest commitment when starting triathlon is to try your best. And if your best means having to identify areas in your daily life where you can squeeze a swim, a bike or a run in, then that is good enough. Training has to be sustainable, it has to be enjoyable and it has to be meaningful in order for you to keep it and not break yourself.
As for tracking data, if this really floats your boat, then capturing heart rate, power, cadence, stroke rate, pace can be useful, but only if you know what it all means for you and your training. As a Beginner, there are bigger benefits to be gained from just getting out there and swimming, cycling or running.
5. Brick, brick, brick
One of the most challenging parts of triathlon is changing from a seated cycling position to an upright running position. Not only are we asking our bodies to run at the end of an already challenging workout but we’re asking our muscles to change shape and perform in different positions in the time it takes us to rack our bike and take our helmets off.
To help prepare, we recommend adding short runs on to every bike ride during your training. Even 800m helps to condition the muscles and build a tolerance to any feeling of jelly legs. As you move closer to the event, you can also practice quicker transitions so prepare your run shoes, any other kit change you plan to make in the event, and embrace these ‘Brick’ sessions - they will pay off during the big day
6. Practice swim starts
For a large number of triathletes, open water swims provoke feelings of anxiety and a sense of impending failure, even before they’ve made it to the start line. If you are a weaker swimmer, pay close attention to point 4, above, and make extra time to practice being in the open water with other people.
Even if you have no intention of ‘racing’ or being at the front, open water starts can be intimidating and overwhelming and not something you want to leave til event day to experience for the first time.
Even for the non-competitive types, the sound of the starter horn / gun / yell causes our adrenaline to surge which causes the heart to race and breathlessness. This in turn limits the performance of the muscles and for many people, can result in a feeling of panic and anxiety, resulting in a failure to swim as well as you have during training. We always encourage athletes to put themselves in situations that emulate the chaos of an open water start to make sure that event day is not the first time they experience not, and to develop a process you can follow, no matter what’s going on around you.
We suggest finding a group of open water swimmers and / or triathletes who are also keep til practice this crucial part of the event. Even if your aim is to gently walk into the water after all the other ‘racers’ have gone, practice will help this potentially stressful part of the race one less thing to worry about.
7. Don’t neglect nutrition
Nutrition is commonly overlooked for many beginner triathletes. And not surprising when there is so much information out there and countless fad diets. Understanding that your body will only perform as well as you nourish it can make the difference between a good and poor experience in your first event.
It’s common for many to believe that all this extra activity means they need to eat more, and can eat and drink whatever they like - from a piece of cake here, to a pint of beer there. However, high fat, high sugar diets are still as bad for you, whether you’re doing loads of exercise or not. They also limit your ability to go for longer, because the the energy they produce is quickly used up and create a big dips in energy on the other side.
Focus on good carbohydrates, lean proteins and snacking regularly and not waiting so long that you’re absolutely ravished and so eat anything you can get your hands on.
8. Be in good company
Triathlon is a highly social sport. Even as an individual pursuit, as a beginner, you are part of a unique community of people who share something pretty special; a love for personal challenges, endurance activities, learning, making mistakes, buying kit, being outdoors and eating cake (in moderation). Even if you are the shy type, using the social side of triathlon gives you access to training buddies, knowledge, experience, reassurance, confidence and heaps of new experiences. We recommend joining a club, finding a group or dragging your friends out to maintain the motivation and forward progress.
If you live in Guernsey, you can drop into any Try A Tri Guernsey community training sessions and join our Community group on Facebook.
If you wish to ask us any questions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
What you really need for your first triathlon