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Triathlon, for better or worse, has a lot of moving parts. It isn’t nearly as simple as a regular running event, and combining swim-bike-run into a single day makes things exponentially more complicated. For some triathletes, their first race can feel like a minefield with pitfalls at every turn, but if you can steer clear of a few common mistakes, you’ll have more fun. With that in mind, here are 10 common first-time triathlete mistakes and how you can easily avoid them on race day:
#1: Not being familiar with swimming in open water
For all kinds of very appropriate reasons, most of our swim training occurs in a pool. But for your triathlon, most of us will swim in an open-water environment—such as a lake. While you may think that these two things would be pretty similar, it turns out they are not, and that mistake is a common one among new triathletes. First, pool water is (hopefully) crystal clear and allows you to see the bottom, which you can easily reach. Most lakes, and most non-pool triathlon swim venues in general, are murky enough so you can’t see your hand in front of your face, let alone the bottom.
A lot of triathletes find this lack of visibility to be disconcerting, so getting any kind of experience with a non-pool swim environment before race day can help you get used to the feel of open-water swimming. If you can’t find an open-water swim option before your race, you can practice swimming in your pool with your eyes closed at short intervals (or squint or use a pair of badly-scratched goggles) during the weeks leading up to race day. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s better than nothing!
#2: Not practicing running after biking
It’s pretty obvious that you should swim, bike, and run in preparation for a triathlon. But sometimes new triathletes make the common mistake of forgetting to put those individual disciplines together in training. The reality is that swimming, biking, and running is not exactly the same as swimming then biking then running—particularly when you’re tired. In particular, running right after you finish biking is its own, very specific, very odd, phenomenon.
It’s really important to include several bike-then-run workouts (which triathletes call “bricks” for reasons that are not completely clear) in your training. Start with a 10-minute run after your longest bike for the week—at least four weeks before your race—and be prepared for the run to feel very, very strange: Your legs may not have any understanding of what you’re asking them to do and may feel bizarrely uncoordinated. That’s why you’re going to do a few more bike-then-run workouts. It will feel a little bit less strange each time you practice this, so that by race day it will feel almost normal. Almost.
RELATED: Get to Know the Brick Workout
#3: Forgetting gear / having too much gear in the transition area
There is always, always, someone who forgets to bring their swim goggles to the race. And while there is also typically someone who has brought a spare to help balance it out, you really don’t need that added stress on race morning.
Put together your gear list several days, if not a week, before race day, and check it twice, maybe three times. And then pack everything you are going to bring to the race at least a day before the race, and check that twice, maybe three times.
On the other end of the spectrum, another common triathlete mistake is bringing a rolling wagon filled with every possible gear option, and sometimes even a lawn chair, into transition. Not only does this require about three times the space that any given athlete has at their racking spot (which is the place where you hang your bike on a rack and organize all your gear), it also means it will be challenging for you to find the gear you actually need while moving quickly during transition. Bringing only what you will use into transition allows you to set up a well-organized transition area, with a tidy pile of bike gear and a tidy pile of run gear, so you can grab your gear and get out of transition quickly, knowing that you grabbed everything you needed and nothing you didn’t.
#4: Can’t find your bike / racking spot during transition
So now you’ve done a great job creating the perfect race-day gear list. You brought everything you need and nothing more into transition, and you’ve got it all organized by your bike like a pro. You head out to the swim, and totally crush it (woohoo!). Then you head back into transition … only to find that you have absolutely no idea where your bike is within the massive sea of bikes that is the transition area. Oops. This is yet another common, but all too avoidable first-time triathlete mistake.
Your first job upon finding your racking spot in transition is to get the lay of the land: First, go to the place where you will re-enter transition after the swim (“swim in,” if you can’t find it, ask around) and walk to your racking spot, just like you will after you actually complete the swim. Do you go left or right? How many rows over? And how far down the row is your bike? Next, go to the place where you will re-enter transition after the bike (“bike in”) and walk to your racking spot, just like you will after you actually complete the bike. Once again: Do you go left or right? How many rows over? And how far down the row is your bike? Keep in mind that you’ll need to find your racking spot without your bike when you do this for real, since your bike will be with you, so a brightly colored towel upon which you organize your gear can come in handy.
#5: Going off-course on the swim
This might be the most common mistake made by triathletes—novice and veteran. You can stand on the shore of the swim venue at any race (at every race) and watch it happen (for multiple people). And you can easily understand how they got there. The race starts, and they run into the water and just-keep-swimming until the next thing they know they are somewhere out in the water, all by themselves and nowhere near the buoys that mark the swim course. Oops again.
The key to avoiding this mistake is a swim skill we call “sighting,” which basically means picking your head up out of the water to spot the buoy you are swimming towards. There are fancy ways to sight, including swimming “Tarzan-style” and having “alligator eyes” that pop up briefly prior to taking a breath, or you can simply swim a few strokes of breaststroke while you get your bearings. On race day, you’ll want to sight—find the next buoy—every six to 10 strokes. Yes, that often. Practice that movement in the pool as much as you can. Also, remember that when you make a turn around a buoy, your turn is not complete until you sight the next buoy you’re heading towards, since that’s the easiest place to get off-course. Finally, don’t assume that you are on course just because someone else is nearby. You could easily be off-course together!
#6, 7, & 8: All the common triathlete fueling mistakes
You’ve probably not thought too much about your fueling and hydration (also known as eating calories and drinking water) during your swim-bike-run training, and that’s ok. Most of your training was probably about an hour or less, and those workouts don’t require much in the way of fueling and hydration. But on race day, you’re likely to be working harder and longer than you’ve done in any single training session, so for your body to perform at its best you’ll want to make sure that it has all the resources it needs. To get started, check out Triathlete‘s Complete Guide to Nutrition and Fueling.
Fueling and hydration can get very specific and can be very individual in nature. So while each athlete could have their own unique top 10 list for fueling mistakes, we can also lump them into three general categories:
#6: Getting the “what” of fueling wrong
Everyone’s gastrointestinal (GI) system has a different set of likes and dislikes, so your list of what not to eat on race day will be particular to what your stomach will tolerate. It’s important to understand the personality of your stomach before race day because the consequences of the wrong food choices can be very uncomfortable and/or very messy. For this reason, it’s important to test your fueling choices in training during the weeks leading into race day.
Universally, stomachs tend to respond poorly during exercise to fatty foods, acidic foods, dairy, and large amounts of protein consumed before or during exercise. Carbohydrates tend to be the easiest to digest and, luckily enough, provide the fuel that our muscles need to keep working. Sport-specific fueling products like gels, chews, and sports drinks that are specifically designed to deliver fuel to your body during exercise are usually reliable choices for on-course fueling. Race-day breakfast and on-course fueling choices should focus on items that are high in carbs and low in protein and fat, like granola bars, oatmeal, bagels, and bananas.
RELATED: How To Fuel For Your First Triathlon
#7: Getting the “how much” of fueling and hydrating wrong
Figuring out the “how much” of fueling is important because if you take in more fuel than your GI system can absorb, it’s just going to sit in your stomach and that is going to feel pretty terrible on the run. If you take in too little—including the common triathlete mistake of skipping breakfast—you’re going to run low on or out of energy before you get to the finish line. Race-day fueling guidelines are calorie-based, so you’ll need to know the caloric content of what you’re eating and drinking.
As a rough guideline, you’ll want a 300-500 calorie breakfast and then about 200-300 calories per hour during the race. To make life easy, most gels are 100 calories per packet and chews often come in math-friendly serving sizes as well. Sports drinks can provide a range of calories per bottle, so check the nutrition information carefully.
From a hydration standpoint, guidelines are a little tricker as individual needs vary widely, and everyone’s hydration needs vary with temperature and humidity levels. As a starting point, you’ll do well aiming to consume a standard bike bottle’s worth of water each hour (if you’re consuming a sports drink, that counts) but if your thirst level demands more, drink more. It’s hard to overdo hydration, as long as you’re also taking in some electrolytes (sodium and a few other essential minerals), which are present in most sports drinks or can be added to water bottles using electrolyte powders or tablets. The hotter the day, the more you’ll be sweating and the more water and electrolytes you will need.
#8: Getting the “when” of fueling and hydrating wrong
The biggest timing mistake we see is not taking in calories and fluids soon enough during the race. If you wait until you are feeling depleted or are thirsty—say until you are almost done with the bike, or you’re already on the run—you’ve already dug yourself into a hole that you are unlikely to crawl out of.
Best practices include taking in about 100 calories of fueling 15 minutes before you get in the water to cover your energy needs for the swim. Then start fueling and hydrating as soon as you start biking. Not halfway through, not whenever you happen to get hungry or thirsty, but right after you exit transition on your bike.
A key component to this entire plan is being able to eat and drink while cycling. In training, you may have taken a sip from your water bottle at stoplights and grabbed a snack while you were taking a break mid-ride. On race day, you won’t be doing any of that, so you want to be sure you can handle your bike with one hand while you grab a bottle or a gel or a chew or bar with the other—this means practice. You’ll also want to be able to open that gel or chew package and get it into your mouth just with one hand. (That’s why a lot of people choose sports drinks!)
RELATED: How to Train Yourself to Drink
#9: Not knowing the rules.
If your only prior experience with racing is a running event like a 10K, then you probably haven’t paid much attention to learning the race rules. And for a running event, that’s fine because really you just show up and wear a race bib and run the course and ignore the rule that says you can’t wear headphones, because everyone else is wearing them too. In triathlon, there are a lot of actual rules that you do have to follow, and it’s a common first-time triathlete mistake to show up on race day completely unaware.
Know before you go. Read the race’s athlete guide (every race has one), or attend the athlete briefing, or talk to another triathlete who can explain them to you. Or check out USA Triathlon’s most common rules violations. As a start, here are some big ones that you’ll want to know about:
- You may need to become a USA Triathlon member to race—even if you just become a one-day member.
- You can’t ride your bike in transition. You need to walk/jog/run with it to the “mount line” just outside of transition, and then get off your bike before the “dismount line” when you return.
- You also can’t be naked in transition, which makes changing clothing a challenge and is why many triathletes opt for an all-sports-in-one outfit called a “tri kit.”
- You can’t “draft” on the bike, which means you can’t ride right behind someone else, because that is free speed.
- You can’t wear headphones on the run. For real. Don’t shoot the messenger.
#10: Nothing new on race day!
Here are a few things you should never hear yourself saying on race morning: “How do I put a wetsuit on?” “When does the race start?” “How do these fancy bike shoes work?!?” “We have to bike/run how many loops???” And my all-time favorite, “T1 and T2 are in different locations?!?!?”
There will be enough going on the day of your first triathlon without you adding anything unexpected or new to the equation. So please, get to know the race venue, the course, and the race-day schedule before you arrive. The race director will always provide all of this information on their website. And if you haven’t used a piece of gear in training, race day is not the time to test it out. Save it for next time.