Getting Started

Trying Triathlon for the First Time? Here Are 10 Things to Know

Looking to sign up for your first triathlon? This advice will help you have a successful first race.

The links below will also provide further guidance on the topics. Welcome to triathlon! Get ready to have some fun.

Ready to learn more about triathlon? Check out our complete beginner’s guide.

  1. First of all, you have to keep a sense of humor about it all and realize that you’re about to take on a very steep learning curve across three different sports and everything that is required to make them come together. Want to skip through some of the crap? Social media star Triathlon Taren has shared five rites of passage every tri newbie must experience here. For example, swimming as a kid is not the same as swimming as an adult. The first time you swim, you’ll realize the “Don’t Drown Levels 1-7” you took as a kid did nothing to help you swim laps as an adult“Beginner’s Luck” columnist Meredith Atwood agrees and says that her number one piece of advice is to not take yourself too seriously. “We do this sport for fun,” she writes. “Very few of us are actually feeding our families via swim, bike, and run.”
  2. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the gear, so keep it simple at first. You do not need a $5,000 carbon-fiber bike to do a triathlon! Senior editor Chris Foster shares his 10 gear essentials for beginners here.
  3. One of the first things you’ll want to do after deciding you want to be a triathlete is to pick a goal race so you can plot your course of action. We recommend starting with a sprint-distance race (or even a shorter super-sprint), which will offer a solid challenge to newbies without being too overwhelming. Your race choice should be guided by answering a few other key questions, which can be found here.
  4. Nutrition is the fourth discipline of triathlon and it’s important to get it right! Making the right fueling choices is key to becoming an overall healthy triathlete, but it becomes even more important on race day for fueling performance, avoiding GI issues, and recovering from your efforts. Follow this sample menu from nutrition and performance coach Krista Austin, Ph.D. for guidelines on how to eat on race day. You will want to test-run your nutrition/meals during training so there are no surprises. A cardinal rule in triathlon: Don’t do or try anything new on race day.
  5. One of the most unique parts of this sport is the transition between swim and bike and bike and run. In addition to adding an inordinate amount of time to your total on the clock, you can also completely bring your momentum to a halt by making one of several common blunders. The key is to have a plan and practice, practice, and practice some more while preparing for the little things that could go wrong.
  6. For most beginners, the most intimidating part of triathlon will be swimming in the open water. It’s important to make sure you ease into open-water swimming! Be very comfortable swimming in the pool before you attempt to get in the lake, ocean, bay, pond or river near you. You should be able to swim a decent distance in a pool—continuously—before attempting open water. In the open water, there are no walls or sides or resting places. Be confident that you can swim the distance without needing to stop. When you feel ready, start in the shallow end and then stay there (swimming along the shore) as long as you need. Give yourself plenty of time and open-water sessions before your first triathlon. Atwood shares more tips on making the open water less intimidating here.
  7. Not every workout is going to be hard. You think, “Triathlon is a big deal! I need tough workouts!” But not every day. “You need easy, moderate, and hard workouts to train different parts of your physiology,” says exercise physiologist, coach, and author Joan Scrivanich, founder of Rise Endurance in New Jersey.Author Matt Fitzgerald is a big proponent of the 80/20 method, where low intensity accounts for 80 percent of total training time and moderate and high intensity together account for the remaining 20 percent. “Low-intensity and even moderate-intensity exercise get little respect, while high-intensity workouts are constantly hyped,” Fitzgerald writes. “A glance at the science shows why all three intensity ranges are essential ingredients in the recipe for endurance fitness.”
  8. The right tribe will make you a better athlete. It’s well-documented that training with others makes us step up our game in ways we wouldn’t necessarily do when working out alone. This phenomenon is known in academic-speak as “social facilitation,” or performing better in the presence of others. You’ll also learn a lot by being around other triathletes who have been in the sport longer than you. Author Susan Lacke shares the five types of training buddies every triathlete needs here.
  9. You will have to find some mental toughness. There will be moments during a triathlon when the challenge feels silly hard. The succession of swim-bike-run—as fast as you can—isn’t easy. It is how you respond in those moments of difficulty that can determine your enjoyment and success in the sport. Do you throw your hands up and relent to the strain? Or do you accept it, maybe even dance with it a little? (Note that we do not advocate pushing yourself beyond what is healthy or safe. Every athlete should consult with his or her doctor about individual physical condition and athletic goals before beginning any training regimen.) Triathlon will push you to the upper edges of your athletic ability, ultimately expanding them, and that sensation takes some getting used to. When stuff gets real during a race, multiple Ironman champion Meredith Kessler employs a three-word mantra: It will settle. “Whatever I may feel during a period of time, it will settle, and I will rise above any issues that may arise,” she says.
  10. As someone who is new to the sport, it may feel counter-intuitive to hire a coach because it seems like that is reserved for top-tier athletes. The truth is that, as a beginner, you stand to gain the most from investing in some guidance, especially early on. “Aside from the physical and mental demands, triathlon is a sport of experience,” explains Benjamin Drezek, the 2014 USA Triathlon national coach of the year and founder of KMF Performance Triathlon Club in Denton, Texas. “A knowledgeable coach who has seen it all can guide you away from many of the pitfalls and common mistakes a new athlete can make. A coach will teach you how to navigate the entire training and racing process and work with you to create an initial blueprint for success in all aspects of the sport.”