Getting Started

First Triathlon Tips: 10 Things to Know Before You Tri

Top tips, tricks, and bits of wisdom guaranteed to get you to your first start line ready to rock.

Looking for first triathlon tips? Our team of editors and contributors are here to help.

Twenty minutes before the start of my very first triathlon, I panicked. Not because I was scared about how to swim, bike, or run—I had practiced that plenty in the weeks leading up to the race—but because I feared I wouldn’t be able to pull o the whole “triathlete” act. The triathletes around me in the transition area seemed so confident. They made last-minute tweaks to their bikes like they knew what all the whatzits and gizmos were (I didn’t), neatly arranged their gear, because they had so much gear (I didn’t), and generally looked like they knew what they were doing (I definitely didn’t). Me? Well, I was cowering in the corner of transition, hoping no one would notice the interloper in their midst.

Except here’s the thing—I wasn’t an interloper. I didn’t realize it until many years (and many more races) later, but had I actually talked to those seemingly con dent people the morning of my first race, I would have learned they were just as nervous as I was.

Race-morning nerves are so ubiquitous in tri, I’m surprised they’re not listed as their own race-day discipline. My fellow racers would also have reassured me that despite my fears, I very much belonged. Everyone belongs in this sport—young, old, fast, slow, $10,000 superbikes and $45 yard-sale rigs. It’s the best thing about triathlon, if you ask me.

In the pages to come, we’ll let you in on the most important tips to know for your first triathlon—the little things like whatzits and gizmos and how to arrange your gear. All of that is very helpful information. But the most important thing I can say to you as a new triathlete is this: Welcome! We’re stoked you’re here and hope you’ll enjoy these first triathlon tips. See you at the finish line. – Susan Lacke

First Triathlon Tips: What You Need

Swimming, biking, and running all seem so simple, but put them together, throw in the space in between, and the gear requirements can start to look like a month-long trek up Everest. But fear not: Here’s a list of the absolute necessities to get from starting gun to finish line without hauling a small town. – Chris Foster

Swim

Goggles

One-hundred percent essential, and don’t go cheap. The difference between a $5 pair of goggles that doesn’t fit your face and fogs up and a $20 pair that works is nearly priceless.
Try: Aquasphere Kayenne ($27, Aquasphere.com) or ROKA X1 ($27, Roka.com)

Tri Top and Bottom

Specially made to swim, bike, and run in, having this padded, quick-drying clothing means you won’t have to change between sports.
Try: Zoot Core Tri Top and Bottom ($140 for both, Zootsports.com) or Zone3 Women’s Activate+ Tri Top and Bottom ($150 for both, Zone3.us).

First Triathlon Tip: Wetsuits Are Magic

Neoprene won’t turn you into tri superswimmer Josh Amberger, but the right suit will instantly up your game. Emphasis on “right”—a well-fitting, tri-specific design will be the fairy godmother to your Cinderella, the berries on your oatmeal, the clarifying spit in your goggles. Roka co-founder Kurt Spenser explains why.

First, wetsuits help eliminate form drag, or drag caused by suboptimal position in the water (think: hips and feet angling down). “99.999-percent of people, if they take a big breath of air, will float in the water—vertically,” Spenser says. “A good wetsuit puts your body in a horizontal floating position without effort.”

Second, they give you support to help you swim more efficiently. “If you’re trying to push a piece of spaghetti through the water, being a wet noodle totally sucks,” Spenser says. “Think of your body in loose clothing or a bathing suit in the water with no support. A wetsuit doesn’t turn you into that perfect piece of dry spaghetti, but it maybe takes you to al dente.”

Third, wetsuits help reduce frictional drag, or resistance caused by your body’s (maybe hairy?) surface and what you’re wearing. It’s like the drag we combat in the air with everything aero—except it’s much, much greater in the water. “You want to swim in something really fast and slippery in the water,” Spenser says. Tri-specific wetsuits are designed with varying kinds of coatings to make them super slick and turn you into the hydrodynamic bullet you’ve always dreamt of being. “It’s basically giving you dolphin skin.” – Erin Beresini

The Bike

Helmet

Be sure your bike lid is CPSC-certified, otherwise you won’t be able to race in the U.S. More expensive means lighter weight and more ventilated, not necessarily safer (with the exception of MIPS-equipped helmets).
Try: Giro Isode MIPS ($45, Giro.com) or Bell Draft MIPS ($60, Bellhelmets.com)

Bike

We’ve devoted entire issues to choosing the right beginner bike, but the most important thing here is fit. A $10,000 poorly fit bike will be worse than a $1,000 bike that’s fit just right. Go to a shop. Get a road bike in your proper size. Ask them to fit you on it.
Try: Felt FR30 ($1,600, Feltbicycles.com) or Specialized Sprint Comp ($1,800, Specialized.com)

The Run

Running Shoes

Another place you don’t want to be (overly) cheap. Invest in something run-specific, and again, go to a shop to have them fit you and check out your running gait.
Try: Saucony Ride ISO ($120, Saucony.com) or Asics Women’s GT-2000 7 ($120, Asics.com)

Race Belt

This tiny accessory saves you tons of time by having your required race number ready to wear on the run or bike. Buckle it in and go.
Try: Louis Garneau Tri Belt ($8, Garneau.com), Orca Race Belt ($10, Orca.com)

Body Lube

Trust us.
Try: Body Glide ($8, Bodyglide.com) or SBR Sports Trislide ($16, Sbrsportsinc.com)

First Triathlon Tips: Where to Train

Tri training requires you to cover a lot of ground (and water). Here are the best, safest places to work out. Written by: Toni McAllister

first triathlon tips

Tri training requires you to cover a lot of ground (and water). Here are the best, safest places to work out.
Finding a pool or body of water for swim training might be the toughest ask—maybe. “I believe we need to make the best from what we have available and be grateful. Use creativity,” says Antonio Ferreira Da Silva Neto, an Austin, Texas-based USAT level 1 coach who holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology.

If you’re just starting out, hit the pool first, Ferreira Da Silva Neto advises, preferably one that’s 50 meters for a continuous swim without much lap counting and fewer walls to lean on—but a shorter distance is fine too.

Swimming in the wild, on the other hand, is a “big deal,” for many reasons, Ferreira Da Silva Neto warns. “Open water can be rough, dark, and deep. So, the psychological aspect can be crucial to succeed in open water.” For beginners, start in calm water with someone capable nearby on a SUP board or kayak. Even better—recruit a strong swimmer to tag along. Also, check with lifeguards and local swimmers about water currents, and know conditions can change unexpectedly.

A wetsuit can also be a great way to start open-water training.

It’s usually less complicated to find good bike and run routes—many of us start right outside our front door—but GPS computers and apps can help you (safely) get creative. Free online services like MapMyRun.com and MapMyRide.com let users plug in zip codes to find courses with varying degrees of difficulty, distance, and elevations (road and dirt). Movescount.com, powered by Suunto (the smartwatch maker), is another online mapping resource that crowdsources popular (and ideally safe) routes.

Also, get to know Strava, a social network built for cyclists and runners. Using its database of users’ activity data, Strava can recommend bike and run routes in your area (smartphone or smartwatch required). The Strava app is free, but—like many in the fitness category—it offers a premium subscription.

First Triathlon Tips: How to Eat (When You Compete)

Four must-know tips to keep your training and racing nutrition on track. Written by: Susan Lacke

Follow these fueling tenets to dial in your nutrition for peak tri-performance when it counts most.

Rule #1: Keep It Real

High-quality nutrition is even more essential when in the throes of two-a-day training sessions.
“Real food in its natural state is higher in the naturally occurring vitamins and minerals needed to keep the body functioning at its best when training hard,” says sports dietitian, author, and Ironman athlete Marni Sumbal.

You’ve nailed it when:

Your shopping cart is over owing with whole grains, vegetables, fruits, smart proteins like sh, and healthy fats like nuts

Rule #2: Monitor Macronutrients

Carbs are your major energy source for grueling workouts, while protein is what your muscles need to help recover afterward. When training from one to five hours per day, as a general rule of thumb aim for: 3-8 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight; 1.5-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight; and 1 gram of fat per kilogram. NOTE: Your carb intake should gradually increase or decrease depending on training intensity and duration.

You’ve nailed it when:

Your performance continues to improve and you don’t feel consistently haggard after long training days

Rule #3: Drink Up

Make it a habit to drink several cups of water during your daily routine, and try sipping a sports drink while training to help replenish essential carbs and sodium/ electrolytes lost during exercise.

You’ve nailed it when:

Your urine is consistently straw-colored and you rarely feel thirsty

Rule #4: Rehearse Race Day

Testing out a new nutrition plan on race day is setting yourself up for digestive issues or possible bonking, which is the last thing you want mid- triathlon. Instead, practice race-day fueling strategies on training days.

You’ve nailed it when:

Your nutrition helps you perform well on race day

First Triathlon Tips: Get Your Head Straight

Written by: Susan Lacke

first triathlon tips

A strong body is important for a successful race day, but a strong mind trumps all and is the top first triathlon tip, says Seth Rose, mental performance consultant and founder of Southern California-based Transition Performance.

“There are a lot of unknowns at your first race, and those can cause stress,” Rose says. “Some athletes might experience negative feelings as physical responses, such as muscle tension, tunnel vision, and rapid breathing that might affect your ability to perform at your best.”

That’s not to say race-day nerves are a sign of weakness—many triathletes, even those with years of experience under their belt, experience the jitters. “It is all right to have the butterflies in your stomach,” reassures Rose, “but you want to get them to fly in formation.”

Master Your Mental Chatter

“I’ve covered the swim, bike, and run distances, but always separately. There’s no way I can string all three together to finish.”

Don’t sabotage yourself before you even begin. “Your confidence is fueled by what you tell yourself, and by creating positive affirmation to reframe your doubtful thinking can increase con dent thoughts and actions to help you on race day,” Rose says. Research has shown that motivational self-talk statements have been found to enhance cycling performance by increasing power output, VO2max, and completion times during a 10K time trial (Barwood, 2015). Repeat to yourself: “I can do this, and I will do this.”

“Everyone else is doing something different. I need to change everything up on race morning.”

“Control what you can control,” advises Rose. “Set up your transition the way you planned. Get your nutrition lined up. Go find the swim, bike, and run exits and entrances to have a game plan for getting back to transition during the race. Listen to music. Getting a short jog in after to get away from the transition area can also get you away from everybody else.

“I am so scared of my first open-water swim.”

Preparation is a strong predictor of building confidence and managing stress, but no matter how much you prepare in open water prior to race day, there can still be some fear. Rose recommends some light meditation: Focused inhales (4-5 seconds) followed by relaxing exhales (6-7 seconds) while you walk to the start allows more oxygen to the body (and brain). Anchoring your focus to the counting of your breath with your inhale and exhale can clear the mind before the starting pistol fires.

“It’s too hard. I can’t do this.”

Rose says the mantra “motion over emotion” is your new BFF. “Sometimes, it is better to go with it than to think about it. If the water is cold or choppy, you’re not going to be able to magically change those situations. They are out of your control, so change what you can: your mindset. If you come to accept your situation, it might still be a physical challenge, but less of a mental one.”

First Triathlon Tips: Don’t Go It Alone

Training in a group can make you faster, more consistent—and feel more confident on race day. Written by: Bethany Mavis

For beginner triathletes, training in a group environment can be intimidating (“Will I be too slow?” or “What if I don’t know anyone?”), but the bene ts of joining a tri club far outweigh the potential embarrassment, says Ethan Lish, who’s on the board of directors for the well-established D.C. Tri Club, which has more than 1,000 active members. “Most people in the clubs are there with an intent of helping others,” he says. “They’re there because they want to help the group, they want to lift up the newbies and make sure they’re successful.”

Whether you’re following similar training plans (some clubs, including D.C. Tri Club have their own training programs), training for the same race, or just showing up to occasional group workouts, “the goal of group training is to keep the motivation level high,” says Lish, who’s been involved with the club since 2008. “It keeps you accountable to your peers—whether it’s run, bike, or swim, having a set time and date to meet and complete an activity, you are held accountable to getting to that.”

But what about all those burning questions you have about how to clip in and whether to go with a one-piece or two-piece race kit? Get them answered (and get other first triathlon tips) by experienced triathletes in your club. “Beginners don’t know how to do transitions, and that’s where the club comes in—to just kind of smooth out those rough edges,” he says. “These little things can really mess with your head the first go-round, and talking to people in the group will help you learn how other people have done it.”

Find Your Tribe

Usatriathlon.org

The national governing org’s website is an extensive, searchable list of tri clubs all over the U.S.

Meetup.com

Easily find local swimmers, cyclists, and runners to join for group workouts—multisport athletes are usually very welcomed.

Local Shops

Almost every bike, run, or triathlon shop has its own organized rides or runs, a perfect spot to meet local triathletes.

First Triathlon Tip: Know the Rules of the Road

Written by: Bethany Mavis

Five key rules experienced triathletes know and are key first triathlon tips:

1. Keep your gear compact in transition.

“Put your gear on one side of the bike—do not take up space on both sides,” says multiple half-Ironman winner Lauren Goss, who’s been racing pro for nine years. And stick with the essentials—if you don’t bring the kitchen sink, you won’t need that much space anyway.

2. You can draft on the swim.

Unlike the bike course (see rule No. 5), drafting is legal in the water, but that doesn’t mean you can slap the feet of the swimmer in front of you. Situate yourself within about two feet of a slightly faster swimmer’s feet, or align your head next to his hip to ride the “bow wave” he creates.

3. Don’t cause a bike-mounting traffic jam.

“If you are slow at mounting the bike out of T1, move to the side so that you don’t block others,” Goss says.

4. No headphones allowed.

USAT prohibits the use of all personal audio devices for the entire race (you will get DQ’d!). You can still use them for a pre-race pump-up jam, just leave the earbuds in transition.

5. Pass carefully on the bike.

Drafting on the bike is illegal— you must leave an area 7 meters long and 2 meters wide around each bike, and once you enter that drafting zone, you have to pass within 15 seconds. “Always say, ‘on the left’ and don’t assume the person being passed hears you,” Goss says. “Also, never pass on a U-turn or sharp corner.”

First Triathlon Tip: Remember Your First Race Won’t Be Your Last

The mere fact that triathlon intrigued you enough to get up one day at zero-dark-thirty, jump into a cold body of water, ride a bike until you air-dried, then run on springless legs says something about you: You’re crazy! Just kidding. It’s pretty much a scientific fact that if you got yourself through a single triathlon, you’re different. You ask more of yourself than the average person and have more humility and a better sense of humor than a single-sporter. Those points are also scientific facts in that a scientist who races triathlons would probably say that.

This rare, lauded personality type—let’s call it T-R-I—sets goals and goes after them. TRIs enjoy the process of quantifiable self-improvement. They also thrive on endorphins more than the average non-TRI. All of these things combined let us make the following prediction: You’ll cross the finish line of your first race rightfully elated at what you just achieved. Then you’ll drink some beer, eat some bagels, get a rubdown, chit chat with your newfound bestest friends in the universe, and have a single, simple thought that will echo in your head for years to come: I could do better. Also: That was freaking fun.

And thus, you will be back. That taste of what your magnificent body can do will make you wonder just how much more it can achieve, while the community you’ve discovered will make you feel so happy and welcome you will never want to leave its embrace. Triathlon is the ultimate lifelong companion, giving you energy, health, endless goals to crush, and the funnest friends in all endurance sport. So go ahead, pretend that first race is a bucket-list thing. But remember this first triathlon tip: you’ll be back. And it’ll be the best sporting choice you ever make.

First Triathlon Tip: Have a Solid Training Plan

Use this plan from USAT Level 1 coach Drew Sapp of Crew Racing and get to work!

Week 1

Total Training Time: 5:35

Monday: O- Swim :45 FF
Tuesday: K- Bike :45 AE, T-Run :20 AE
Wednesday: Swim :45 AE ST
Thursday: Bike :50 AE
Friday: Run :40 AE
Saturday: Run :40 AE
Sunday: Run :50 AE ST

Week 2

Total Training Time: 6:50

Monday: Swim :45 FF
Tuesday: K- Bike :45 AE, T-Run :25 AE
Wednesday: Swim :45 AE ST
Thursday: Bike :50 TE w/2x6min. at HR zone 3
Friday: Run :40 SD
Saturday: Bike 1:20 AE
Sunday: Bike 1:20 AE

Week 3

Total Training Time: 6:50

Monday: Swim :45 AE
Tuesday: K- Bike :50 AE, T-Run :30 AE
Wednesday: Swim :45 RP ST
Thursday: Swim :45 RP ST
Friday: Run :45 SD
Saturday: Bike 1:30 AE
Sunday: Run 1:00 AE ST

Week 4

Total Training Time: 4:30

Monday: Swim :45 FF
Tuesday: Rest Day
Wednesday: Swim :45 AE
Thursday: Run :40 AE ST:20
Friday: Rest Day
Saturday: Bike 1:00 FUN
Sunday: Run 1:00 AE ST

Week 5

Total Training Time: 7:10

Monday: O- Bike :45 R
Tuesday: K- Bike :50 TE w/2x8min. at HR zone 3, T-Run :30 AE
Wednesday: Swim :45 RP
Thursday: Bike :50 TE w/2x10min. at HR zone 3
Friday: Run :45 SD
Saturday: Bike 1:30 AE, T-Run :10 AE
Sunday: Run 1:05 AE ST

Week 6

Total Training Time: 7:30

Monday: Swim :45 FF
Tuesday: K- Bike :50 TEw/2x10min. at HR zone 3, T-Run :30 AE
Wednesday: Swim :45 ARP ST
Thursday: Bike :50 TH w/3x4min. at HR zone 4
Friday: Run :45 TE w/1x10min. at race pace
Saturday: Bike 1:40 AE, T-Run :15 AE
Sunday: Run 1:10 AE ST

Week 7

Total Training Time: 7:50

Monday: Swim :50 AE
Tuesday: K- Bike :50 TE w/2x10min. at HR zone 3, T-Run :35 AE
Wednesday: Swim :45 ARP ST
Thursday: Bike :50 TH w/4x4min. at HR zone 4
Friday: Run :45 TE w/1×15 min at race pace
Saturday: Bike 1:40 AE, T-Run :20 AE
Sunday: Run 1:15 AE ST

Week 8

Total Training Time: 5:05

Monday: Swim :50 FF
Tuesday: Rest Day
Wednesday: Swim :45 AE
Thursday: Run :40 AE ST
Friday: Rest Day
Saturday: Bike 1:40 FUN
Sunday: Run 1:10 AE ST

Week 9

Total Training Time: 8:00

Monday: O- Swim :50 AE
Tuesday: K- Bike :50 TE 2x10min. at HR Zone 3, T-Run :35 AE
Wednesday: Swim :45 ARP ST
Thursday: Bike :50 TH w/5x5min. at zone 4
Friday: Run :45 TE w/1x10min. at race pace
Saturday: Bike 1:50 AE, T-Run :20 AE
Sunday: Run 1:15 AE ST

Week 10

Total Training Time: 9:00

Monday: O- Bike :45 R
Tuesday: K- Bike :50 TE 1x20min. at HR zone 3, T-Run :35 AE
Wednesday: Swim :50 ARP
Thursday: Bike :50 TH w/5x6min. at HR zone 4
Friday: Run :50 TE w/1x15min at race pace
Saturday: Bike 2:20 AE, T-Run :20 AE
Sunday: Bike :30 AE, T-Run 1:10 ST

Week 11

Total Training Time: 6:35

Monday: Swim :50 RP
Tuesday: Bike :50 TE w/1x20min. at HR zone 3, T-Run :35 AE
Wednesday: Swim :50 RP ST
Thursday: K- Bike 1:00 TH w/6x6min. at HR zone 4
Friday: K- Run :50 TE w/2x10min. at race pace
Saturday: Bike 1:20 FUN, T-Run :20
Sunday: Rest Day

Week 12

Total Training Time: 4:30

Monday: Swim :30 AE
Tuesday: Bike :50 R, T-Run :40 AE
Wednesday: Rest Day
Thursday: Run :40 AE
Friday: Bike :40 AE
Saturday: Swim :30 RP, Bike: 20 R, T-Run :20 SD
Sunday: Race Day!

Training Plan Key

O – Optional
K – Key Session

SWIM

FF (FORM FOCUSED): Work on technique and feel for the water. Include normal swimming after the drill work to help improve your form.
AE (AEROBIC): Work at a comfortable but smooth effort, building your aerobic engine. Intervals of 100s and 200s with short rest in between.
RP (Race Pace): Focus on swimming at or slighlty above race pace. The total yardage of these sets should be equal or above your actual race. Break this into intervals of 50s, 100s, and 200s with short rest periods in between intervals.

BIKE

R (RECOVERY): HR zone 1. Add in some cadence and single-leg drills to help improve pedal efficiency.
AE (AEROBIC): Ride at a zone 2 e ort. Ride with a cadence around 85 to 95, and spend time in the position you will be racing in. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)- 5 out of 10.
TE (TEMPO): After an aerobic warmup, do HR zone 3 intervals (7/10 RPE).
TH (THRESHOLD): After an aerobic warmup, do zone 4 or 5 intervals (9/10 RPE).
FUN (FUN RIDE): Ride with friends or do an unfocused non-workout ride.

RUN

AE (AEROBIC): HR zone 2 or conversation effort.
SD (STRIDES): Within an aerobic run, do up to 6 – 20 seconds of strong intervals—think 90 percent of max effort—with 40 seconds easy between.
TE (TEMPO): A workout based on running at race e ort. For a sprint this should be an 8/10 RPE or HR zone 4.
T-RUN: Bike-to-run workout
ST (STRENGTH TRAINING): 20-minute sessions that focus on building functional strength. Focus on areas of instability that engage the core and require glute activation.