15 Tips to a Successful First Triathlon

Thinking about doing your first triathlon?  While it can feel a little overwhelming, you can definitely tackle this awesome goal.  These tips for your first triathlon will help you feel prepared and confident as you approach the start line of your race!

15 Tips to a Successful First Triathlon

Before You Start Training 

1. Choose the right distance.

Super-Sprint Triathlon

  • 400m swim
  • 10km bike
  • 2.5km run
  • The super sprint is the shortest triathlon distance and a great entry point to triathlon, giving you the chance to experience the three disciplines together without having to put in hours of training.

Sprint Triathlon

  • 750m swim
  • 20km bike
  • 5km run
  • Often the shortest triathlon distance option at many events, but still a good race to get started. This triathlon distance gives you the chance to really experience triathlon, you will need to do some serious training in order to compete, don’t let yourself down by thinking it’s a walkover, it’s not!

Olympic-Distance Triathlon

  • 1.5km swim
  • 40km bike
  • 10km run
  • Triathlon made its Olympic debut at the Sydney Games in 2000, and this distance is now accepted as the ‘standard’ distance for World Series racing.

Half-Ironman Triathlon

  • 1.9km swim
  • 90km bike
  • 21.1km run
  • You might also hear the half-Ironman distance referred to as a ‘middle-distance triathlon’ or a ‘70.3’. The half-Ironman distance triathlon is a gruelling step up from the Olympic distance triathlon and a great challenge that more triathletes are taking on.

Full Ironman Triathlon

  • 3.8km swim
  • 180km bike
  • 42.2km run
  • Ironman races typically represent the longest triathlon distance around. Complete one of these, and you can certainly brag that you are an Ironman or Woman.

A triathlon is a race comprised of three different disciplines – swimming, biking, and running.  There are different distance triathlons, so you can pick one that you feel would be a good challenge but a feasible goal to start with! The Sprint and Olympic distance triathlons are best for beginners.

2. Sign up for a race.

Choose a race that gives you enough time to train, of course – but put the money down and sign up now so that you’re committed. 

Any option can work, just think about your personal preferences and goals.

3. Look for a good training plan or coach.

Most beginners will probably be choosing a sprint distance triathlon as their first event, or possibly an Olympic.  For these races, especially a sprint distance, you can feasibly train for them in around 10-20 weeks more or less, depending on your current fitness level

If you need some accountability and a more customized plan, look for a coach that can help with individualized advice.  Choose a coach who is UKCC certified or equivalent.

During Training

4. Be consistent.

Consistency in training is the absolute number one factor that will get you to the finish line of your race.

If you get out there and train five days a week for three months, practising each of the disciplines and ensuring you’re comfortable in open water, you will almost certainly cross that finish line successfully.

5. Practice open water swimming.

Unless your triathlon swim takes place in a pool, you need to practice some of your swim training in open water to make sure you’re comfortable with it. 

Open water can feel a little murky and bottomless, by practising in open water, you can help familiarize yourself with it and reduce the chances of anxiety during the race. 

Some races will hold open water swim clinics for triathletes.  These are a great option, as they can help you learn how to swim without getting nervous about the many other people around you.

6. Know how to use your bike gears.

The gears are there to make things easier!  During training, practice switching gears so that you understand how they work and how to use them in various situations (like approaching a hill or a stop sign).

7. Practice setting up your transition area.

The transition area is the place where you will put your other gear while you’re doing each part of the race.  After the swim portion, you’ll head into transition to put on your bike clothes and grab your bike and helmet (called T1 in triathlon language).  After the bike, you’ll return to transition to drop it off and head out for the run (T2). 

Here are a few recommendations for transition:

  • When it comes to race day, bring only what you need. 
  • I recommend setting up on a small towel.  You can leave an empty space at the end where you can wipe your feet after you come in from the swim.   You can keep a small water bottle there to rinse your feet off after the swim too.
  • In your transition area, set up the materials you’ll need for when you switch to the bike and run portions.  Practice setting all this up in advance.

8. Practice bricks.

It’s also important to practice going from one sport to another – mainly with the bike to the run. 

Include a couple of brick workouts in your training plan where you go for a bike ride and then immediately go for a 10-20 minute run.  This will help you learn how to run on “jelly legs” – a very strange feeling as you come off the bike!

On Race Day

9. Fuel right.

Before your race, be sure to eat a carb-rich breakfast that you know sits well in your stomach.  Eating carbohydrates on race day morning will help fuel your body for the upcoming challenge.

Avoid excessive amounts of fat or fibre before the race, as this can lead you to rush to a porta-loo mid-event.

During the race itself, you may want to have a sports drink on the bike to sip according to thirst, and possibly a gel or another fuel source for the run, depending on the length of the event.  

A sports drink or electrolyte drink can be useful on hot days for proper hydration.

10. Check in and set up transition.

When you get to the race, you’ll check in and get your race numbers.  Attach your race numbers to your bike, and helmet, and either to a race belt that can be put on over your clothes or to the shirt that you’ll wear for the bike/run.

When you get to the transition area, bike racks will usually be assigned by ranges of race numbers.  Find your assigned row. If the numbers are just grouped though (i.e. this row for #65-70), then try to get a spot on the end of the racks. This trick makes it easier to spot your bike and you’ll likely have a little more space to set up the transition.

11. Get in a pre-race swim when possible.

Most races allow athletes a little time before the start to get in the water.  This usually closes down about 5-30 minutes before the race itself starts.  The closer you can get to race time, the better,

This doesn’t have to be a full-out practice swimming session, but it’s helpful to get into the water and just move your body a little. 

12. Start the swim in the right spot.

Seed yourself in the back corner on the side furthest from the buoys.  For example, if you’re swimming in a loop where you’re passing buoys on your left, start in the back on the right.  (And vice versa for the opposite direction).

This reduces the risk of getting kicked or hit when everyone starts swimming.  The few seconds you might lose by being in the back are minimal compared to the comfort of having a little extra space.

13. Don’t freak out – breathe!

Even athletes that have prepared in open water can start to get nervous during the race itself.  This can lead to anxiety that makes it feel like you can’t catch your breath.

If you find yourself struggling in the water, go ahead and breaststroke with your head above water for a few minutes or whatever you need to do to calm down.  

Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing or your pace. Once your breathing is under control, go ahead and resume a slow freestyle stroke.

14. Remember the rules.

As you get into the bike and run portion of the triathlon, there are two rules that people often forget – so they’re worth a reminder:

  • No drafting on the bike – In most triathlon races in the UK and USA, it’s “illegal” to draft on the bike – draft riding means riding right behind someone so that it’s easier for you since they are taking on the air resistance.  You need to leave about 3 bike lengths between you and the rider in front of you.  If you know you can speed up, go ahead and pass them on their left within 15 seconds.
  • No headphones – There are no headphones allowed on both the bike and run portions.

15. Have fun and be confident. 

It’s race day and you have a few butterflies in your stomach. That’s the thrill of competition you’re feeling! Hopefully, you’ve made sure that your bike is in safe and proper working order, and you’ve spent some time developing your bike-handling skills.

As you approach the start line keep a positive attitude and prepare to have some fun. When your race starts, jump into the water and swim your heart out. Once you exit the water, head into the transition area and take some time to make sure you’re ready for your bike ride. 

Take off your wetsuit, towel off, grab a drink of water or a bite of nutrition, make sure your shorts and jersey are properly secured and comfortable, and, most importantly, strap on your helmet. 

Take a deep breath, walk your bike out of the transition area as briskly as your comfort zone allows, and get ready to ride. When you’re out on the course, have confidence knowing that you’ve put in the time and energy preparing for this awesome day. Once your bike split wraps up, ease into the transition area again, safely come to a complete stop, and carefully dismount your bike and walk it back into your parking area and rack your bike. 

Congratulations, you did it! Now you just need to strap on your running shoes and head out for the final leg. And if this was your first triathlon, odds are that you’re now hooked, and you’ll be back for plenty more.

How to Achieve the Fastest Bike Split on Your First Triathlon

Because you’ll most likely be spending the majority of your race time on the bike rather than swimming or running, we’ve found that most triathletes, particularly those just starting out, have the most questions when it comes to optimizing their bike split.

5 Tips to Help You Get the Most of the Bike Portion of Your First Triathlon

Select the right bike for you.

Before you settle on a two-wheeled machine, the first thing you should do is check the rulebook of your chosen event. Some racing leagues and events have restrictions on the types of bikes that they allow, so it’s best to confirm what your available options are and whether or not you’ll encounter any restrictions. 

If it’s your first triathlon, don’t sweat it too much—any old bike will do. Just make sure to take it to your local bike shop to ensure that it’s safe to ride, is in great working order, and is suited for your body size and riding position. 

Failure to follow those steps can result in not only a slow ride but potential injury. But for most folks, a new bike is a fantastic treat and an incredible means of motivation. After all, once you’ve got a new bike, you’ll want to ride it as often as possible. 

Get a bike fit.

A proper bike fit is the single most important thing you can do for your triathlon exploits. Seek a reputable and experienced bike fitter in your area. If you need help finding one, a quick internet search should help kick things off. We also recommend contacting your local bike shop, many of whom have experienced bike fitters on hand. 

A local triathlon club should be able to help out with recommendations for local fitters, they can also open some doors to local training rides, runs, social gatherings, and all things triathlon-related.

Research the course.

You need to learn the course. This is vital for all three portions of a triathlon but is especially true for the bike leg. It is important to know crucial information such as the course distance, road conditions, and possibly even turn-by-turn details. A map of the area is a must-have.

With this information, you’ll be able to tailor your training based on whatever skills you need to fine-tune according to the course as well as the layout of the area.

Do some skills training.

If you’re new to triathlon and haven’t had much experience cycling, then chances are that the bike leg will be much more intimidating than the swim or the run portions. Spend plenty of time riding your bike with the specific goal of getting comfortable with its steering characteristics. 

Too often in triathlon, athletes focus on pedalling power at the expense of developing their bike-handling skills.  However,  if you’re just starting out, the latter will make a bigger difference to your long-term enjoyment of the sport.

The ability to safely navigate a racecourse, as well as smoothly enter and exit a transition area, is key to having a fast and fun bike split.  We highly recommend spending time riding on technical roads that have lots of turns to gradually improve your skills. 

Also, find a safe place away from public roads and traffic to practice your mounts and dismounts, mimicking your actions in and out of the transition area. 

When it comes to fitness you can hire a coach to help you. If you don’t wish to invest in a coach, your local triathlon club, bike shop, and countless online resources should help you form a basic training plan for improving your fitness.


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