Getting Started

The Basics of Signing Up For and Completing Your First Triathlon

Starting out in triathlon can seem overwhelming—but here's some key information that'll help give you a headstart.

Just about anyone can find a triathlon and complete it with (mostly) the gear you already have and four to eight weeks of some swim-bike-run training. If you’re looking to dip your toes in the water, so to speak, what follows is a blueprint for finding and completing your first triathlon.

You might also want to check out the latest episode of our Fitter & Faster podcast: The Beginners’ Guide to Triathlon and our Tri 101 hub.

Signing Up for Your First Triathlon

You’ll want to put a bit of thought into selecting your first race so that you set yourself up for success. I highly recommend starting with a sprint-distance race (typically a 1/2-mile swim, a 12.4-mile bike, and a 5K run, but distances do vary a bit). If you love it, then go for more with your second race—but please, please, complete at least a few short-course races before making the jump to long-course events (half- and full-distance—or 70.3- and 140.6-miles).

So how do you find some great local sprint-distance races? A quick Google search for “triathlon near me” should provide a few resources, or you can go straight to trifind.com, which provides a list of triathlons by state. I recommend finding a race venue that is no more than about a two-hour drive from your house, if possible, to keep the logistics simple.

Getting Equipped for Your First Triathlon

Most of the gear you’ll need for race day are items you already have or will need in order to do some training.

  • For the swim, you’ll need a swimsuit and goggles as well as access to a pool. Some people do wear wetsuits in the race (not typically in training) and whether you need one or not depends on whether you are swimming in a pool or open water, like a lake, and what the water temperature will be. If you’re swimming in open water and the water temp is below 70F, you’ll likely be happier in a wetsuit. 
  • For the bike, you need … um, a bike. And definitely a helmet, plus probably sunglasses. You DON’T need to get fancy—any bike you have is fine, and you can bike in your running shoes.
  • For the run, you’ll need run shoes and it’s best to make sure they’re suited to you and your feet (not just any old tennis shoes). If you’re going to run consistently, it’s always best to seek out expert advice from a reputable run store on which type of run shoe is right for you. I also like to wear a hat or a visor, others prefer sunglasses, and some wear both. You don’t need music and headphones—they are, in fact, not allowed on triathlon run courses.
  • You will want a bag to carry everything on race day (known as a transition bag).
  • Here’s the big one: You will want one outfit that you can wear from start to finish—from swim to bike to run—on race day. Often triathletes wear a tri kit—a top and shorts, or a one-piece—that is designed specifically for swim-bike-run, but you can also wear a swimsuit and put bike shorts and a bike jersey on top of the suit, and then switch to run shorts and a T-shirt. You just can’t actually strip down naked for a head-to-toe change in transition, which is what makes that tri kit so convenient.

RELATED – Ask a Gear Guru: What Are The Best Beginner Triathlon Bikes?

Training for Your First Triathlon

There are all kinds of ways that you can get fancy with training, but at the end of the day, you just need to be able to swim, bike, and run. I recommend building enough fitness that you are comfortable swimming/biking/running longer than each distance required for your actual event, since they do add up on race day. Also, if possible, you’ll want to do some training on terrain similar to what you’ll see on race day, such as a hilly bike course, or a trail run, or an open-water swim.

Additionally, you’ll want some practice putting the different sports together. For example, you will want to swim and then ride your bike right after, potentially even in the outfit you’ll wear on race day, so you know what it feels like to start the bike soaking wet. You’ll also want to do a short run directly after finishing a bike ride. Fair warning: This is a super-odd sensation the first time you do it! With practice, your body learns how to handle the transition, which is why practicing your “run off the bike” several times before race day can be a big key to success.

RELATED: 8-Week Sprint Triathlon Training Plan For Beginners

Race Day

When the big day finally arrives, there are a few final touches that can help set you up for a successful first triathlon:

  • Get to the race venue well before the start time of the race. I find that 90 minutes is typically a good amount of time to get parked, pick up your race packet, set up your gear, and get to the swim start.
  • When you do set up your gear, get the lay of the land so you know how to find it again after the swim, where to head out with your bike, how to find your gear again after the bike, and finally where to start on the run.
  • Know the course! You don’t want to be surprised by anything unexpected in the middle of your race.
  • Almost all athletes abide by a strong rule of “nothing new on race day!” Your outfit, your gear, your food and water and snacks should all have been “test-driven” in training prior to race day.
  • Most of all—HAVE FUN and enjoy the triathlete community! We may look like we take ourselves very seriously (and maybe some of us do) but we love our sport and we love sharing it with others. You may think you’re just dipping your toes in the water, but we’re hoping you have enough fun to dive into the deep end with us!

Alison Freeman is a co-founder of and triathlon coach with NYX Endurance in Boulder, Colorado. She works with a wide range of age-group athletes, but athletes new to long-course triathlon are her favorites because there is no such thing as too many questions.