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Beginner Triathlon Tips From The Ultimate Veteran

Six-time Ironman World Champion Mark Allen provides tips on getting through your first triathlon race experience.

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With the inaugural TriRock Series Race set to take place in San Diego, Calif. in less than a week (Sept. 12), we thought we’d use the next few days to provide tips you’ll need when jumping into your first triathlon. In this article, six-time Ironman World Champion Mark Allen provides tips on getting through your first triathlon race experience.

2010_TR_SD_LOGO_RGB-1The first race I ever did was in San Diego in 1982. That seems like a lifetime and a world of experience ago. There was nothing familiar in that initial triathlon race experience. I had not put together a fast swim, bike and run—ever. I was not a stranger to competition growing up as a swimmer, but this was different. There were no moms cheering from the pool deck, giving reassuring smiles to calm my nerves. I certainly wouldn’t find a nice roped-off lane line to follow, just a furious, cold ocean for the swim. Beyond that, the second two thirds of the race were such an unknown to me. I really had no clue about pacing. How would I know if I was going too easy, too fast or pegging it just right? But I made it through and learned a few things that might help you in your journey as a triathlete.

Be Comfortable with the Unknown

The first thing every beginner needs to accept is that you are indeed a beginner; the mechanics of racing might feel awkward. This is OK! It can take years to learn to temper your nerves and find your approach to racing. But what follows here will help you jump ahead of the learning curve and race well your first time out.

Cover Your Basics

From day one in the sport all good things start with training. Before the exotic (and expensive) bikes can work their magic, you have to swim, bike and run over and over again. This preparation starts in the weeks and months leading up to your competition. Draw strength from your workouts. You will forever be learning how to perfect this three-part sport. No one has it all buttoned up.

Plan the Details

Some details to consider include planning what you will wear in each segment of a race, creating a strategy for taking in calories and fluids during the day and practicing your actual transitions. Don’t save these decisions until race week. Figure out beforehand if you will need a full wetsuit or none at all, if you will take bars, gels or just sports drinks on the bike and whether to do the entire race in the same outfit or change partway through. Over time the details become second nature and will be a strength that helps you perform better.

Locate Your Stuff

Try to find a way to make your bike stand out so you don't lose it in the sea of bikes on race day.
Try to find a way to make your bike stand out so you don't lose it in the sea of bikes on race day.

This may seem like a rudimentary idea, but it’s not. I guarantee you that how your gear looks in a transition area in the wee hours of the morning will be very different than it does when you come out of the water and your eyes and brain are waterlogged. A bike rack full of equipment can look totally different if half the crowd is gone by the time you try to find yours. Have a plan. Pick a stationary landmark in the area that will help you find your bike, your running shoes or anything else. It might mean placing a colorful towel near your gear or finding a unique object near your spot that will tell you you’re in the correct row.

Build, Build, Build

The No. 1 rookie mistake is to go too hard too early. There are many reasons why beginners make this mistake. The first is that by race day you are usually the most rested you have been for a while, and when that surge of extra energy is coupled with race day nerves, you can swim like a hydroplane for the first 500 meters in the water. But guess what? There is a lot of racing to do after those initial opening minutes.

You can avoid this mistake by thinking conservatively. Hold back about 5 percent to 10 percent from the pace you feel you can sustain during the first third of the swim. Continue to hold back about 10 to 15 seconds slower per hundred meters than you can typically swim during the second third. Then, just maintain your pace for the final third.

Once on the bike, give yourself a few miles to get the blood out of your upper body and into your legs before really pushing the pace. But again, pick a speed and effort level that you feel you can build on throughout the entire bike ride. Don’t try to peg it and then hold it. That strategy leads to a lot of tough moments later in the race.

One of the top mistakes beginners make is pushing too hard too early in the race. Photo: Larry Rosa
One of the top mistakes beginners make is pushing too hard too early in the race. Photo: Larry Rosa

One trick to help you pace your energy output is called “soft pedaling,” where you push on the pedals with the sensation that you are letting up on that pressure at the same time. Try to get the feel of this in training. It is easiest to get the hang of when you maintain a modestly high cadence rate (around 90 to 95 rpms). Riding with a strong tailwind is another good way to practice soft-pedaling. If you find yourself turning big gears with a low cadence and really pushing hard on the pedals in the opening miles of the bike, well, good luck to you!

For the run, the same rule holds, which means you should feel like you are floating rather than racing during the opening miles. Keep a small amount of energy and speed in reserve so that you can gradually increase your pace until you find that perfect rhythm that is both competitive and sustainable. It is much easier to back off 1 percent to 2 percent from a pace that was gradually built into than it is to come back from pushing way too hard in the opening miles of the run.

The Perfect Race

I tell people all the time that there is no such thing as a perfect race, but you can run a race perfectly. What this means is that things happen in racing that are, at the very least, unwelcome and, at worst, unexpected. It’s how you handle each of them that can make every race “perfect.” You always try to visualize what your perfect race will look like and how you will deal with situations that are challenging. But the reality of racing is that usually you will encounter situations that you hoped you would not have to deal with and situations that can seem off-the-charts tough.

Racing perfectly means that you deal with difficult situations calmly. If you get a flat, don’t freak out, just change the tire. If you get kicked during the swim, just keep swimming. If you miss a water stop on the run, pick up some extra at the next one. Whatever it is, just deal with it calmly and move on. That is what having the perfect race is all about.

No Bad Races

There is really no such thing as a bad race. Certainly there are expectations that far exceed reality, and there are days where absolutely everything imaginable goes wrong. But there is really never a bad race—with one exception. That is the race where nothing is learned that will help you out in the future. Each moment in your race day is a chance to note something that will help you in the future. It might be a stark reality that tells you how to train better for the next race. It could be personal insight into a weakness that you become inspired to transform into a strength. The toughest races are often the ones that give you the pot of gold for the future. But this only happens if you reflect on them and learn something that betters you as a person and gives you insight that helps you race better the next time.

As for the ultimate race of your life? Well, it is only after the finish line has been crossed and enough time has passed to reflect back on the day that you will really be able to see how great of a race you just had. In the moment of having the race of your life, it will hurt, you might doubt your preparation and you could ask yourself a thousand times why you are even there. But between those moments of questioning and doubt, there can be magical miles where your mind is quiet and your body is working at its top efficiency, where you ignore the moment before that was tough or the next instant that is unknown. The best race of your life exists in the quiet beating of your feet on the pavement and the breath of air that is sustaining your efforts. That is the mindset that will take you from being a novice in the sport to having the best experiences you can.

Mark Allen is the six-time winner of the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. Based in Santa Cruz, Calif., Mark has a state of the art online triathlon training program at

See also – 15 Must-Haves: Essential Beginner Tri Gear