How to Complete Your First Triathlon

Did you know that the first triathlon race was held in 1974, where 46 people competed in San Diego, CA? Completing your first triathlon is an exciting and challenging experience. Training three disciplines together requires quite a bit of knowledge on essential equipment and tips to encourage smooth transitions from swim to cycle and from cycle to run. As a newbie triathlete, you’ll be able to start with the sprint distance triathlon, and if the race-bug bites you, you’ll gradually progress to longer distances such as the Half Ironman, and eventually the ultimate full Ironman.

Get to grips with the distances

Triathlon Sprint Distance: This is what you should be aiming for as a newbie triathlete.

Triathlon Olympic Distance: A step above the sprint distance, and was first introduced during the 2000 Summer Games held in Sydney, Australia.

Half Ironman: If you’ve completed a few Olympic distance triathlons, your next challenge is the Half Ironman before progressing to the full Ironman.

Ironman: The ultimate event for any triathlete, and an incredible challenge for the body and mind! In South Africa, the Ironman takes place in Nelson Mandela Bay - but many athletes aspire to compete at the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.

When to start training

If you’re new to triathlons, we recommend first completing a few sprint distance triathlons before progressing to more advanced races. Even if you are quite comfortable with each separate discipline, it’s quite a different ballgame to complete these after each other.

Use the below as a guide to prepare you for the time commitment for triathlon sprints:

Training Basics

Swimming: at least 2 swims per week

Cycling: at least 2-3 sessions per week

Running: at least 2-3 sessions per week

As a starting point, aim to include at least 2 sessions of each discipline each week, with at least one brick session per week. A brick session refers to a back-to-back session consisting of your cycling session and running session. Also aim to include one or two open water swims each week.

Ideally, you’ll want to include some resistance training into the mix as well. This will help you build strength in the primary muscles required for each discipline.

Rest: Never neglect the importance of rest days within an effective training schedule, which is essential for recovery.

Swimming Basics

For most, this is the most challenging portion of the triathlon. You’ll need to learn how to coordinate your stroke and breath effectively so that you’re not completely exhausted when you transition to the cycling portion of the race. If you’re serious about taking up triathlons as a sport, perhaps consider taking a few lessons to correct your stroke and get you swimming as efficiently as possible.

Remember, that the swim portion of the sprint is only about 3% of the total distance, but with poor technique it has the ability to consume a disproportionate amount of energy. As a general guideline, you should aim to keep your head down and body straight throughout the swim. Allow your body to rotate with every stroke, keeping your head as still as possible. Only a small part of your head should be out of the water. Your hands should pull all the way back past your hips, and really try to minimise the amount of leg kicking in order to conserve energy. Practice breathing every 2-3 strokes on either side of your head. This will enable you to be better adapted to varying conditions during the race. You’ll also want to look up out the water every 3-5 strokes to make sure you’re still on course when on an open water swim.

Swimming Equipment

  1. Cap
  2. Goggles
  3. Wetsuit: This will depend on the specific race and water temperature. You will only be permitted to wear a wetsuit if it is less than 5mm thick.
  4. Tri-suit: You may have other options, but a tri-suit will most likely be the most comfortable and convenient gear to wear underneath your wetsuit. It will allow you to transition as smoothly as possible between disciplines, and you’ll want to try out all your options to ensure it fits properly come race day. Avoid wearing traditional bike shorts when competing in a triathlon, since these can be very uncomfortable when wet.

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Wetsuit Conditions

  • <25 degrees Celsius: You are usually allowed to wear a wetsuit, and will supply an advantage by providing additional floatation.
  • 25-29 degrees Celsius: You will be allowed to wear a wetsuit but won’t be eligible for any awards.
  • >29 degrees Celsius: You won’t be allowed to wear a wetsuit because this temperature provides a risk of overheating.

Training

Aim to incorporate at least 2 swims per week at a distance of 0.8-1.6 kilometers. Since most races occur in oceans or dams, you’ll want to make sure you don’t limit your training to pool swims. Consequently, you’ll want to take special note of safety concerns during open water swims (currents, sea creatures etc).

Cycling Basics

After your swim comes the cycle - the portion of the race where you can make up the most time, since it constitutes for the most time and distance.

You might think the secret lies in pedalling as fast as possible, but as a beginner that shouldn’t be the focus. The most efficient cadence will depend on your bike, fitness level, as well as the terrain. Applied sports scientist, Barney Wainwright, says: “Beginners should not try to push cadences too high to begin with. Keep at a cadence that is manageable but over time look to increase this. Being comfortable – a cadence of 90 to 100 RPM is a good target – will improve the ability to sustain cycling over long periods of time and distances."

You’ll also want to practice switching gears smoothly - especially on hills. In fact, the secret to efficient gear use is anticipation. If you know what lies ahead, whether it’s a climb or a decent, you can have your gearing prepared. If you change under load, for example, on an uphill, you would have lost all your momentum, therefore, forcing you to work harder as you switch gears.

It may seem obvious, but you’ll also want to make sure your bike is set up properly during training and for race day. Wainwright adds, “If a cyclist reaches a plateau in their cycling technique or can not address a large left-right imbalance, a poor set up can often be responsible."

Cycling Equipment

  1. Bike: As a beginner, start by looking for a road bike with aluminium frame. Triathlon bikes have a different geometry and handlebars to road bikes. The first difference is that triathlon bikes have aerodynamic handlebars instead of traditional ones. The reason for this, is that most triathlon races (like the Ironman) don’t allow drafting, and therefore, aerodynamics become a massive speed factor. Essentially, your hands will lie in the middle of the handlebars, which allows for a more streamlined, flat back position that reduces aerodynamic drag. The next difference is that the seat tube angle of a triathlon bike is typically 78 degrees or more. This makes it possible to achieve a similar hip operating range as road bikes, and also reduces the use of hamstring muscles on the bike. This often results in improved running performance off the bike.
  2. Cycling shoes and clipless pedals: Triathlon cycling shoes are designed with cleats attached to the soles, and with stiffer soles. The stiffer the sole, the less energy gets lost to flex, and more energy is transferred from you muscles. Triathlon cycling shoes are also typically seamless, and have only one velcro strap to improve the ease of transitions between disciplines.
  3. Helmet: In the beginning, there really is no need to fork out big money for a helmet, but as you progress you may want to purchase an aero helmet to shave off a few seconds off your time.
  4. Tri-suit: You may be tempted to wear typical cycling shorts, but a tri-suit is definitely the best option for maximum efficiency and comfort throughout the race. You’ll find that normal cycling shorts can become extremely uncomfortable when wet, and may weigh you down during the swim, if you wear it underneath your wetsuit.

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Training

For your first sprint race, aim for at least 2-3 cycling sessions per week, building up to 25-35km. If you’re new to cycling, you’ll also want to make sure you familiarise yourself with the rules of the road. For example, always be aware of cars, and ride in the cycle lane at all times.

Running Basics

The run makes up the final of three disciplines on race day, and constitutes roughly 20% of the sprint distance.

Essentially, you’ll want to focus on improving running economy. Running on a treadmill may help to build the habit of maintaining a fast running rhythm - even when fatigue sets in. This is critical to running a good triathlon race. Next, you’ll also want to make sure you work on mobility by rolling, stretching and performing mobility exercises on a regular basis.

Most experienced triathletes will tell you that running is a completely different experience when stacked directly after a long cycle. Remember the term “brick workout” used in the earlier section? Well, many believe that this was a descriptive term for how your legs feel when transitioning from cycle to run, which is why you’ll want to pay special attention to getting your legs prepared for this. Aim to include regular brick workouts in your training to gradually get your body used to running on tired legs. Essentially, this means completing a run after a long cycle.

From a technique perspective, try and lean forwards slightly through your chest, relax the hands, and allow your arms to swing back and forth from your shoulders. Your elbows should be bent in roughly a 90 degree angle. Try to focus on keeping all movement in a single plane: back and forth, to try and prevent wasting valuable energy. Aim for 150-180 beats per minute, or 75-90 foot strikes per minute per foot.

Running Equipment

The running discipline is the simplest of the three in terms of essential running gear. Sure, you could get fancy with the extras, but as a beginner it might be better to start with the basics:

  1. Running Shoes: It is crucial to invest in a good pair of running shoes - especially since your legs will already be tired at the start of your run. This is why you’ll want to make the final haul as comfortable and pain-free as possible. Shoes will often depend on the specific race, since some triathlons feature road running, while others feature trail routes. We have an extensive article to help you choose the best running shoes.
  2. Tri-suit: Purchase a tri-suit that fits you properly, and make sure to train in it extensively. This way you’ll be aware of any potential chafing situations that can be resolved before the race. If you manage to buy a comfortable tri-suit, you should be sorted for the swim and cycle portion of the race as well - making it a rather cost-effective addition to your kit in the long-run.

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Training

Aim to complete at least 2-3 runs per week, working up to 15-20km when training for a sprint triathlon. Try to incorporate at least one run following your longest bike ride (brick workout). You may also experience improved performance by adding speed training to your schedule. For example, 4 sets of 400m sprints, with 1-3 minutes rest in between sets.

Transition Tips

Experienced triathletes view transitions - moving from swim to cycle, or from cycle to run - as the fourth discipline in the triathlon. This should tell you that transitions are incredibly important and can shave quite a few minutes off your time.

Most importantly, you’ll want to make sure you're prepared and that everything is organised at your transition area. For most races, you’ll have the same transition spot for swim to cycle, and from cycle to run.

Here are a few tips to make the transition as smooth as possible:

Swim to Cycle

  • You might feel a little dizzy when you get out of the water. Don’t worry, this is normal - especially for your first sprint.
  • First take the goggles off your eyes, but keep them on your head until you reach your bike. This will keep your hands free to wipe the water from your face.
  • There will probably be hoards of bikes, making it quite difficult to identify your bike right off the bat. Tie a brightly coloured balloon around your bike so it’s easier to find.
  • Get changed into your cycling gear as fast as possible, while standing on a towel. This will accelerate the drying of your feet, and get rid of any sand you picked up on your way out the water.
  • Use a second towel to wipe your face dry, and don’t waste time drying your body - that will air dry while you cycle.
  • Put your socks on last, because you want to give them as much time as possible to dry on your towel. It will be easier to put socks on once your feet are dry.
  • Make sure everything on your bike is ready - for example, that your tyres are still fully inflated and that your water bottles are ready.
  • Get your race number ready and make sure your timing chip is still intact after the swim.
  • Put on your helmet, and remember to clip it in.
  • Run with your bike to the line. Be sure to listen to the instructions, and only get on your bike where they tell you.

Cycle to Run

  • Your legs will probably feel like bricks, but don’t worry this should go away a few kilometres into the run.
  • The first thing you should do is refuel, in order to absorb energy as quick as possible. A sports drink will most likely be sufficient for a sprint triathlon.
  • Park your bike and remember to remove your helmet. Many athletes forget to do this, and then have to carry it with them the whole way.
  • Quickly switch to running shoes. Before the race, you could make sure the laces are undone and ready to simply slide onto your foot.
  • Make sure your chip and race number is still intact.
  • Grab a hat and dash off!

Final Thoughts

Getting into triathlons can be intimidating at first, but it can also be incredibly rewarding when you cross the finish line of your first race. The event has a reputation for being especially welcoming and supportive to beginners. You’ll likely find everyone from the first finisher, to the aging plodder cheering you to the finish line. With a few weeks of dedicated training, you’ll get racing fit in no time!

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