So, you’ve decided to dive into the world of triathlon! Welcome. There’s a ton to learn at the start when you get into this sport, so this list will take you from the day before a triathlon through until after you’ve crossed the finish line. I’m going to assume your first triathlon is either a sprint or Olympic distance, and that’s what these tips generally apply to.
(I’m not saying you can’t do an Ironman for your first race, but it’s not an advisable place to start. That said… plenty of people do it, and if that’s you, power to ya.)
Tip #1: MORE FOOD BEFORE A TRIATHLON IS NOT BETTER
There is a huge misconception about how much we need to eat before a race. Simply put, just because you’re doing a race, it doesn’t mean you need to gorge yourself ahead of time. Although it’s a great excuse to ditch our clean diets and dive into delicious carbs face first, the reality is that overeating is not going to benefit you in a race. I did a post about this already, walking you through what I consume in the 24 hours before a race. In short, my recommendation is to only add 10-20% more carbs at your main meals in the morning, afternoon and evening the day before your triathlon.
Your breakfast on race day should actually be small and efficient; that meal isn’t what’s going to get you through your race, it’s the weeks or even months of training you’ve been doing to get your body in shape. If you cram a bunch of food into your body a few short hours before you race, you’ll be heavy and uncomfortable… and there’s a good chance you’re going to have to veer off course to use the bathroom to eliminate that extra.
Trust me, there’s nothing more embarrassing than having to tell your friends you lost a solid three minutes from your run time sitting in a Port-A-Potty… or worse, emptying your bowels in the bush without toilet paper. (Both of which have been done by members of our tri training group)
Tip #2: HAVE YOUR LAST MEAL BEFORE THE RACE ABOUT FOUR HOURS BEFORE THE START TIME
If you’re racing at 8:00am, then try to get yourself up and have a meal about 4:00am. (I know it sounds painful or difficult but doing this has served my digestive system really well over the past few years.)
Make that meal light. NOT fatty, not greasy, nothing hard to digest, nothing heavy, nothing NEW, and be careful of fibre and dairy unless you want your digestive system to be in trouble. Easily digestible carbs is your best bet to settle your stomach and prevent you from having hunger pangs before you get going.
Tip #3: DON’T DRINK MUCH BEFORE THE TRIATHLON
Another misconception is about hydrating immediately before the race. If you’ve woken up on race morning and still need to hydrate, it’s a little too late. At maximum, morning of the race, sip on 12 oz. of a light electrolyte fluid. You should have done your fluid and electrolyte loading in the day(s) before the race, so this isn’t the time to be loading up your belly with liquid.
And believe me, it’s very easy to drink too much before a race. One of my training partners lost out on 2nd place at Nationals by 17 seconds because he had to stop to pee three times during the race. Once again, less more.
Tip #4: ONCE YOU SET UP YOUR BIKE, FEEL OUT TRANSITION
When the time comes to set up your bike in the transition zone, don’t forget to take the time to map out the area for yourself. Make a mental note of where the entrance and exits are, and definitely take note of which row your bike is in so you know where you need to go.
In fact, take a few minutes to actually walk the transition zone as though you’ve just gotten out of the water and need to find your ride. That way you won’t get lost and lose precious minutes trying to locate your things.
A pro-tip here is to set your bike up to a really noticeable bike, maybe something brightly coloured or a super high end model that stands out. Just find a bike that’s easy to spot and put your stuff next to it. Because even if you have a mental note of where your own stuff is, in the excitement of the race, you may forget.
TIP #5: MENTALLY REHEARSE YOUR TRANSITIONS
Until transition becomes second nature to you, it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to mentally rehearse Transition 1 and Transition 2. If you’re physically in the zone, walk from the entrance to your bike and then think through what you’ll need to do to go from swimming to cycling: goggles off, glasses on, then helmet, then clip shoes into pedals, etc.… just think through the order of what you’ll need to do. And then head to the exit, and walk yourself back in as though you’ve just finished the bike and are heading on the run. Helmet off, bike shoes off, running shoes on, race belt/race number on, etc.
(Side note, when I did the Superior Man race in 2016, I forgot my race number coming out of Transition 2. Race organizers do NOT like this. Also, if there are photographers on the course, you’ll have a hard time getting your race photos because the race folks won’t have a number to ID you with.)
The reason for mentally rehearsing is because when you get into transition during the race, it’s a bit of madness. Other people are frantically entering and exiting the zone, spectators are yelling encouragement, and adrenaline is high just having come out of the water. You need this part to be second nature, and the best way to do that is to think through those steps. Do it as many times as you need.
TIP #6: DON’T JUST STAND THERE!
Once you’ve gotten into transition and laid out your gear, use the time to do a bit of a warmup. But do it in reverse order: do a bit of jogging with a few sprints to get your heart rate up, then hop on your bike and do the same steady pace with a few bursts f speed, and finally get into your swim gear and hop into the water. Do a couple short sprints and get your heart rate up to, let’s call it a comfortable run rate.
You just want to wake your body up and remind it of what it’s going to be doing in just a few minutes.
TIP #7: SWIM SMART, START AT THE BACK
Unless you’re a former professional water polo player, you won’t be used to how much you can get knocked around in the water at the start of a triathlon. A great tip is to start at the back of the pack or off to the side. This won’t impact your time negatively, so don’t worry about that. You’ll lose more time getting tossed around the washing machine if you try to start at the front or if you’re right in the middle.
Another reason for this is, if this is one of your first races, you’ll probably be nervous and your heart rate will be pretty high already. Getting dunked is not something you need at that time, so just stay out of the churn and swim your own race. You’re not competing against the other athletes this early on, you need to just focus on yourself and the rest will take care of itself.
TIP #8: DON’T EAT IN TRANSITION
Just don’t. You’ll waste precious time standing around chewing, and you’ll start to lose momentum. One you’ve been on the bike for about 10 minutes, then you can pull out your nutrition and start eating. BUT! Do it slowly and gradually! And make sure you’re done eating about 10 minutes before you’re done the bike portion of the race. Same thing goes for the run. Wait until you’re about 10 minutes into the run and you’ve settled into your pace before you whip out the food.
Say it with me: Transition is not for eating.
(Oh, and when you DO eat on the course, make sure to put your trash into your pockets or discard only at aid stations. You’ll be penalized for throwing wrappers or bottles onto the course. Don’t do it.)
TIP #9: BE SMART ON THE BIKE
Just like with the swim, a slow bike is actually probably a faster race in the long run. The difference between a slow bike and a fast bike is probably about five minutes. If you get on your bike and pedal like a bat out of hell, you might make up a bit of time… but you’ll use up precious energy and have nothing left in the tank for the run. And the difference between a slow run and a fast run is probably about 30 minutes. So, save your legs, do yourself a favour and go easy on the bike to save yourself for the run. You’ll be super mad at yourself if you waste your legs on the bike and your run totally sucks.
TIP #10: DON’T BE A HERO (AKA: EASE YOURSELF INTO THE RUN)
When you get off the bike, the adrenaline is going to be pumping because you’re starting to see the end in sight. Only one more leg left and you’re done. Plus, spectators will be yelling encouragement and there’s probably a race announcer yelling encouragement as well. But don’t get caught up in all that!
If you go crazy coming out of Transition 2, it won’t be pleasant. If you go hard in those first five or 10 minutes, expect your legs to lock up and you could end up walking a great deal of the run course. Remember, when you get off the bike and onto the run, all of your blood needs to re-route to power your legs, so just give your body some time to settle in. It’s the first time in the race where you’re not aided by water or a bike, this is all you. Having your body seize up because you pushed too hard out of the gate is not going to be a pleasant first triathlon experience, and it can totally be avoided if you just take it easy for that first small portion of the run. In other words: don’t try be a hero. You won’t look very tough limping over the finish line.
Those are my 10 beginner tips, I hope these help you to avoid catastrophe in your early races! If you’d like to see the video I made for this post, click HERE!