Updated: Dec 17, 2019
You won’t regret tackling your first triathlon! Perhaps you’ve been thinking about racing in one but have hesitated. I get it. I was a high school swimmer, ran a fast three miles in the Marines, was a huge recreational biker, but still put off signing up for my first race for way too long due to a combination of intimidation and complexity of the task. But don’t fear; it is neither as difficult nor as complex as you might think – with a little planning and a touch of training, you’ll be ready to go on race morning.
And more good news: you probably don’t need to buy much for your first race unless you’re planning on a half or full-distance triathlon. For your first triathlon, I’d recommend a sprint- or Olympic-distance race.
Typically, the sprint is the shortest variation, with most races consisting of a 750-meter swim, 11-mile bike, and 5k run, a great entry-level race. You can likely plan on finishing somewhere between 1 ¼ - 2 ½ hours depending on your fitness level. The Olympic is usually double the sprint, with some variation: 1500-meter swim, 24 to 26-mile bike, and 10k run. This race will take you a little longer, usually between 2 ½ to 4 hours.
Wetsuit: USA Triathlon rules are very specific on water temperature and wetsuits. If the water is 84 degrees or above on race day, you cannot wear a wetsuit. If the water is 79-83 degrees, you can wear a wetsuit but if you opt to do so, you cannot receive an award or prize. I recommend checking with the race organizers on the water temp of the previous year’s race. Personally, I think 78 degrees is too warm for a wetsuit. I’m comfortable not wearing a wetsuit in water temperatures down to 72 degrees or so, but you’ll rarely see an experienced triathlete not wearing a wetsuit when the rules allow. Most racers like the buoyancy wetsuits provide and will often wear them more for speed than warmth. The extra buoyancy allows you to use more effort propelling yourself forward rather than up to stay afloat. If you’re in the DC area and need to rent a wetsuit, Transition Tri in Leesburg, VA has them for rent. If you do rent one, I highly recommend going with a sleeveless version so you’re not constrained in the shoulder area. *A note of caution: a racing wetsuit is not the same as a diving wetsuit. Racing wetsuits are slick on the outside to help you glide through the water. Racing in a porous diving wetsuit might be an awful experience. Here are my thoughts on equipment, logistics, training, and nutrition for your first race:
Goggles: For any triathlon distance, you’ll definitely want goggles. Swimming in the open water would be pretty tough without them (more on open water swimming below).
Cap: While you’ll almost certainly receive a free race-branded swim cap as part of your registration, you may want to buy one for training, especially if you have long hair. Caps are inexpensive and make you much more streamlined in the water.
Bicycle: For a sprint- or Olympic-distance triathlon, the bike you already have, if serviced properly, should be adequate. You’ll want a water bottle or two on the bike, so be sure your bike has a water bottle cage. If you don’t have a bike, you could borrow or rent one. For the Olympic-distance, a road bike would be preferable to a hybrid or mountain bike, but it’s not absolutely critical. I highly recommend ensuring the gears and brakes work, the chain is lubed and not rusty, and the tires are fully inflated with no leaks. USA Triathlon rules stipulate that all participants must wear a bike helmet so make sure you have one on race day.
You won’t need much gear for the run beyond a pair of running shoes and possibly a visor and some sunscreen (a quick spray of sunscreen in transition might save you from a burn). Shoes might be something you need to buy if your old ones are worn out. I recommend not skimping on the shoes as a shoddy pair can lead to injuries (here are a few recommendations from our team.)
Registering: When you sign up for your first race, register in the “Novice” category if its available. This is one of several special categories for those who qualify and earns you a special starting wave as well as a special prize/award category. Special category starting waves are usually much smaller and are behind the main category often referred to as “age group.” Starting in a smaller group makes the swim less stressful and crowded, which is a huge incentive for beginners. There are also Athena and Clydesdale categories for the larger sized racers among us, as well as military and master categories. Check the website for available categories when signing up.
Setting up your transition area: The transition zone is a magical place - your home away from home. The mood in transition on race morning is one of excitement and a little anxiety. A good playlist should be booming in the background as racers prep their gear, stretch out a bit, and socialize.
Once you’ve picked up your race packet (which contains your swim cap, running bib number, and numbered stickers for your bike helmet and frame) the night before or morning of the race, you’ll head to the transition zone to set up your gear. There will be a rack for your bike and a spot for your running and biking gear. I usually keep a filled water bottle handy in transition for a quick swig. Some people will also keep spray sunscreen easily reachable. There is no special formula for transition, just try to lay your gear out in an easy-to-access manner while respecting others’ space (sometimes it can be tight). Feel free to tell your neighbors it’s your first race and they’ll help you get set up properly. Triathletes are a friendly bunch.
The swim: The swim is the more intimidating leg for most people but it is very doable. Depending on how well you swim, you can either get out in front to beat the crowd or hang back a bit to save energy and avoid the rush. I highly recommend practicing a few times in the open water prior to race day – check out a previous blog post on tips for open water swimming here. Swimming in the open water is unlike pool swimming; you’ll want to be comfortable swimming away from shore in sometimes-dark water where you can’t touch with a large number of people around, some potentially bumping into you with flying elbows. You’ll also want to practice spotting, which means picking an object in the distance to swim toward and lifting your head up from time to time to keep an eye on it. Races usually have brightly colored buoys placed at regular intervals to assist with spotting, but you’ll want to practice spotting before race day. You’ll also want to review the swim course prior to race day to become familiar with the pattern of buoys that you will need to navigate around. Once you get more experienced, you’ll be able to wing it, but you don’t want to be guessing on race morning.
The bike: They say races are won and lost on the bike and that’s probably true, but for your first race, the bike provides a great opportunity to recoup from the swim, catch your breath, have a snack, re-hydrate, and get ready for the run. I recommend stuffing any snacks in your biking jersey (if you have one), taping them to your bike, or stashing them in the waistband of your bike shorts (you can jam them in there during the first transition).
The run: Truth be told, the run can be tough – it’s usually where heat and fatigue start to take their toll. But by hydrating on the bike and preparing yourself with a couple brick workouts (described below), you’ll persevere. If you need to walk a bit, there is no shame in it – water stations make the perfect place to walk and enjoy a sip of water. A well-timed energy chew or gel can also provide a much-needed boost to help you finish strong.
A note on chaffing: To prevent this horrible side effect of skin rubbing on skin or fabric, you should apply body glide or an adequate substitute the morning of the race. Focus on areas that will endure friction during the race such as under your arms, between your legs, fabric seams. If you are wearing a wetsuit, also apply liberally to the back of your neck where the collar of the suit might rub.
The sprint shouldn’t take too much effort to train up for, but the Olympic will likely require some sort of training plan – there are plenty of free plans available online. For both distances, if you can get to a fitness level where you can tackle each leg individually, then combine the bike and run portions into one workout, you’ll be good to go. In what is called a “brick” workout, triathletes will bike and then transition to a run just as if it were a race. This will help you with the bike-run transition, which is tough on your legs as they can seem really heavy for the first few minutes of running.
If you’re serious about training and want a little more hands-on assistance, a more structured environment, and tons of great social support, you might want to consider joining a triathlon team. If you’re in the DC area, there are a ton of great options (big shout out here to YTri, the team Elise and I have come to love!)
You probably won’t need to consume much during the race aside from water if you’re doing the sprint. You can always add an electrolyte supplement to your water if it’s hot and you’ll be sweating a lot – I like Nuun tables. For the Olympic, you could consider adding a nutrition supplement such as Tailwind to one or more of your water bottles and bring a couple energy chews for the bike and run. That should get you through the race.
You’ll want to be more concerned with what you consume leading up to the race. You should focus on hydration beginning at least several days before the race and be sure to eat balanced meals during the week leading up to the race. I like to carb load two days before the race, again the night before, and eat a small portion of oatmeal with dates, raisins, almonds, and a little maple syrup on race morning. Avoid introducing anything new into your diet starting at least two days before the race. And you certainly don’t want to try anything crazy the morning of your race or you’ll get to join one of the most unfortunate clubs – the “having to use the toilet in the middle of the race” club. It’s a less-than-elite group and one that plenty of my friends have joined!
After you finish the run, you’re done! If the race organizer is worth its salt, you’ll be welcomed at the finish line with a cold bottle of water, a finisher’s medal, and recognition from the announcer. If you’re on awesome team, your teammates will be on-hand to cheer you across the finish line and plaster you with sweaty hive fives and hugs.
You’ll have earned that post race high and the label of triathlete! With this handy guide, you can do it. And if you’re up for it, consider joining us on a future trip - we’ve got triathlons lined up for 2020 in Croatia and Montenegro. Sign up for our newsletter and/or follow us on Instagram and Facebook for updates. Imagine combining an exhilarating race with the fun of being in an exotic locale and you’ll start to understand what Open World Racing is all about!