What do I need for my first triathlon?

by | Jan 24, 2021

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So you want to do your first triathlon? Awesome! Don’t be scared or intimidated by this three-sport undertaking. While there are certainly a lot of tips and tricks – some of which you’re about to read about – triathlon isn’t nearly as scary as the people crawling toward the finish line of an Ironman make it seem.

Ok, the absolute, MOST important thing to know is how this sport spells its name! It’s not ” triatholon ” or ” triathalon “, it’s spelled ” triathlon “.

While we’re mostly kidding about spelling of triathlon being the MOST important thing, if you spell it right, you’re way more likely to find useful information. Like the amazingly informative article you’re about to read below!

When you’re done, check out some of our favorite gear we’ve covered in our companion article: Triathlon Gear Buyer’s Guide Spring 2021


Now let’s get into the good stuff!

Triathlon History and Distances

Let’s be honest, there are likely a lot of people who were swimming, biking and running as soon as bikes were invented [History: Pedal Your Way Through The Bicycle’s Bumpy History].

There are mentions of earlier triathlon-esque sports as far back as 1902 however, the first time swim bike and run showed up in any modern, organized fashion was on September 25, 1974 in Mission Bay after being dreamed up by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan at the San Diego Track Club.

While there are things like duathlon and swimrun (aka, ÖtillÖ of Ö till ö), triathlon consists of a swim, bike and run as well as the transitions in between the legs – aka T1 (swim-to-bike) and T2 (bike-to-run).

The type or distance of triathlon a person may choose to do varies, particularly at the sprint distance, but typically falls roughly in line with these races:

Sprint Triathlon:

This is a fantastic race for beginners. It will allow you to experience the sport without having to be an experienced triathlete and to figure out some of the tricks of the trade. It will help build your confidence to see if you want to go to a longer distance.

Swim: This can be in open water such as a lake or ocean or in a pool – which can present some challenging logistical conditions. The distance of swim can be very short (possibly below 400 meters) but if we’re using the “traditional” sprint distance, it will be 750 meters.

Bike: In a traditional sprint, the bike will be 20 km (12 miles) although again, it can vary depending on the course.

Run: Again, this can be variable (particularly for kids) but again, in the traditional sprint triathlon, it will be 5 km (3.1 miles).

Olympic Distance Triathlon:

Don’t be afraid of the term “Olympic Distance Triathlon”. All that means is that it’s the same distance(s) raced in the olympics and in much of international ITU (International Triathlon Union) racing.

Believe it or now, while it is about double the distance of most sprint races, this is still a good race for many beginners to learn the ins and outs of race day.

Unlike the sprint distances, an Olympic distance race’s distances are fixed and you’ll notice that they’re all roughly double a sprint distance – which is the pattern as we increase the miles of longer races.

Swim: 1500 meters

Bike: 40 km (~25 miles)

Run: 10 km (6.2 miles)

Long Course or Half-Ironman Triathlon:

Now we’re getting a quite a bit longer in terms of the miles – and amount of time – an athlete will need to endure on race day.

While the shorter distances can involve clubs and the like for camaraderie and training help, as the distance bumps up significantly, finding a group of local triathletes to train with will help make your life a LOT easier and less boring!

Swim: 1.2 miles (~1.9 kilometers)

Bike: 56 miles (~90 kilometers)

Run: 13.1 miles (~21 kilometers)

Ironman Triathlon:

Sometimes called Iron-distance since Ironman itself is a brand which is quite protective of its trademarks.

While it certainly wasn’t the first triathlon, Ironman is kind of considered the granddaddy of them all – particularly because of the high-profile of the Ironman World Championship which takes place every October in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

The brainchild of Judy and John Collins, the idea was to include parts of existing events: The Waikiki Rough Water Swim race, the Around Oahu Bike race (while shaving 3 miles off the bike distance to fit) and the Honolulu Marathon – all without a break.

While an Ironman is mathematically twice the distance of a half-Ironman, I can assure you – as someone who’s done multiple Ironman events – the toll it takes on your body and the preparation required is far more that simply double.

This is not a race which should be taken lightly and the goals which you set throughout training may have to shift.

As a beginner race, this is probably not a great idea. However, Gearist’s own Jay did an Ironman for his first ever triathlon. He also trained his butt off so that’s a huge consideration.

Swim: 2.4 miles (~3.9 km)

Bike: 112 miles (~180 km)

Run: Full Marathon – 26.2 miles (~42 km)

[HISTORY OF IRONMAN TRIATHLON]

Triathlon Training

How an athlete prepares for race day is dependent on a TON of factors including:

  • What is the race distance?
  • When considering a race, do the courses play to my strengths?
  • Is there an open water or pool swim?
  • If it’s open water, is it a river or ocean where currents and potential waves are a factor?
  • Do I need a wetsuit?
  • How many weeks do I have to train?
  • And plenty of other questions which need to be considered…

For now, let’s say that it is a great idea to get your hands on Joe Friel’s book, The Triathlete’s Training Bible.

Also, don’t forget to bookmark Gearist and/or SUBSCRIBE TO GEARIST ON YOUTUBE so you can check out a piece we’re working on for later this year specifically on triathlon training plans and programs.

And now…what gear do I need for my first triathlon…

There are four – that’s right, I said four – primary areas we’re going to focus on: swim, bike, run AND nutrition.

How an athlete fuels during a triathlon of any distance can greatly affect how successful a beginner experience (or even a veteran experience) someone has and that nutrition is very often overlooked.

Before we get into it though, there are three things which you should use for basically the entirety of an actual race: watch/computer, sunscreen, anti-chafing balm. Now, let’s get into it.

Swim

For all triathlon swim legs, whether in a pool, river, lake or ocean there are a few pieces of gear which you’ll always need:

Goggles: There are a lot of different styles of goggles to choose from. Some are very minimal – my personal preference since roughly the age of 12 has been the classic Swedish Goggles (aka “Swedes”) – while some, like the TYR Rogue, border on being full-face diving masks.

Try out a few different types of goggles to find what fits you, gives you the range of sight you need and what you like.

Swim suit: Ok first, you will need a swim suit of some sort, regardless of whether or not you’re wearing a wetsuit (more on this in a second). There are a lot of ways to go with what you choose to swim in:

  • Board shorts: which create a TON of drag and will 100% slow you down, even if you’re already slow.
  • Bikini: there are some fantastic, workout or race-focused bikinis these days.
  • Briefs (for dudes): aka, “Speedo”, “budgie smugglers”, “banana hammock”, “nut hut” and so on. Fast and familiar. Keep in mind though that much of the time you’ll want to ride and run in the same thing to save time so chafing is a major consideration.
  • Jammers: Same basic material as the aforementioned Speedo but with cycling short length legs.
  • Tri suit (aka, speedsuit): Typically made up of a jammer-length bottom and a frequently sleeveless tri top of the same material. The shorts will have a chamois (“shammy”) similar to cycling shorts but much thinner so as to shed water more easily, post-swim, and so that they’re more comfortable for the run leg.
  • One-piece tri suit: aka, a “onesie”. Literally just a two-piece tri suit with separation anxiety.

The next couple of things are sometimes optional and sometimes not so learn what is required and set your plans accordingly.

Swim cap: Many races will require swim caps. This is to better identify athletes by category (age group, relays, etc.), often by number (your race number or “bib number” will be written on it) and sometimes to create more visibility. In races where a swim cap is not required, it’s up to an athlete’s preference.

Additionally, if the water is super cold (or if you’re simply sensitive to cold) you can wear an additional neoprene cap under your race cap for warmth (Check out this neoprene cap from Blue Seventy).

Wetsuit: Like swim suits, there are many different types of swim suits. These range from two-piece wetsuits to full-sleeve to sleeveless to sleeveless with short legs and so on. They can also vary in terms of warmth and bouyancy. Selecting the right wetsuit for triathlon comes down to preference and understanding water temperature.

The governing organization for many races in the US have certain rules on when you can use a wetsuit based on water temperature, and even what type of wetsuit. It’s a little technical, but rules nonetheless. Here’s what USAT (aka, USA Triathlon, the National Federation for triathlon in the United States) has to say in the rules about wetsuits:

Full USAT Wetsuit Rules

4.4 Wet suits.

Each age group participant shall be permitted to wear a wet suit without penalty in any event sanctioned by USA Triathlon up to and including a water temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit. When the water temperature is greater than 78 degrees, but less than 84 degrees Fahrenheit, age group participants may wear a wet suit at their own discretion, provided however that participants who wear a wet suit within this temperature range shall not be eligible for prizes or awards. Age group participants shall not wear wet suits in water temperatures equal to or greater than 84 degrees Fahrenheit. The wetsuit policy for elite athletes shall be determined by the USAT Athletes Advisory Council. The AAC has set the wetsuit maximum temperature for elite athletes at 68 degrees for swim distances less than 3000 meters and 71.6 degrees for distances of 3000 meters or greater. Any swimmer wearing a wetsuit with a thickness measured in any part greater than 5 millimeters shall be disqualified.

With all that said, here’s one more WETSUIT PSA story which is a must-read from my personal experience

Several years ago I was the swimmer in a half-Iron distance triathlon. The water was cold enough to be “wetsuit legal” so I wore one. Being first out of the water, and being that I was done for the day as soon as I tagged-in my bike-leg teammate, I got to watch all the other athletes race into and out of transition.

As I spectated, I saw a woman doing her quick change out of her wetsuit and into her cycling shorts.

Now, in Ironman and Iron-distance races, there tend to be separate changing areas or tents for men and women.

This is largely because many an athlete in a race as long as that likes to wear a full-on pair of cycling shorts since 112 miles is a long way to ride with a super-thin chamois (padding). As such, there is a lot of nudity so the changing areas are a nod to privacy.

In the shorter distances, these changing areas aren’t a thing and all changing is done out in the open.

While this particular woman had remembered her sports bra or bikini top, she had clearly forgotten to wear any sort of bottom under her wetsuit. So, until she got he cycling shorts on, it was the good ol’ birthday suit from the waist, down.

Tips:

  • If you’re wearing a wetsuit, it’s a good idea to practice getting out of it quickly. Some races will have wetsuit “peelers” who will have you get your wetsuit to your hips and then simply flop onto your back. They will then take over and peel your wetsuit the rest of the way off.
  • Also, if you’re wearing a wetsuit, use anti-chafing balm. Put it around your neck as well as wrists (in a full sleeve wetsuit) and ankles. This will prevent chafing and will help you get your wetsuit off more easily. Unsure what to use? Check out Body Glide.
  • Especially in an open water swims, get in the water ahead of time. This will not only let you know how cold or warm the water is, but it will also get the psychology of swimming in open water out of the way for people who may have a bit of fear and anxiety about it.
  • Learn to “sight”. If you’re swimming in open water, you’ll need to be able to use landmarks to navigate. On most open water swim courses there are going to be large buoys marking the swim course. Much of the time there will be large, pyramid-shaped buoys at the turns with smaller buoys spaced roughly every 100 meters in between. “Sighting” means looking up from swimming to find one of these or another landmark (frequently, literally on land).
  • This is something you should practice both in a pool as well as in open water BEFORE your race. Get your head up high enough to account for chop and stay relaxed.
  • A triathlon swim leg can get a bit tumultuous, particularly at the start and at the turns. First, know whether the swim is a beach start or water start. In any swim start, it can get quite violent with your fellow racers jockeying for position. Feet and arms go everywhere and it’s VERY common to get kicked or slapped in the face by an errant limb.

    Image by Russell Holden from Pixabay

    A typical beach start for a triathlon swim.  If it’s your first time, stay towards the back so you’ll be relaxed and won’t get knocked around. This should be your view!

    • With a water start, you’re going to be simply floating near the starting line with all the other racers (sometimes you’ll be in a group, sometimes a mass start). When the gun goes off, it’s every man and woman for themselves. If you’re a “rubbing is racing” swimmer who is quite fast, be toward the front. If you’re not a strong swimmer, it’s probably a good idea to stay out of the melee.
    • With a beach start, you’re going to start – as the name would imply – on the beach. When the gun goes off, it’s a mad dash (run) into the body of water. You’ll need to practice this, which will include some shallow dolphin dives to get going. As I mentioned above, the turns of a swim course can get a little hairy. This is because everyone near you is going to try to swim the best tangent or line around the buoy. So, unless you really want to add time and distance to your swim, you’ll be bumping and grinding here as well.

      Image by David Mark from Pixabay

      Once you’re in the water, the swim can get a little rough with legs and arms flying around. If you’re not comfortable, stay to the side or the back of the pack.

  • Watch out for getting sea sick. This is much more a challenge for some people than others and certainly much more of an issue in a larger body of water like the ocean. Being sea sick SUCKS any time but the last thing you want to have to deal with in, say, and Ironman is feeling like garbage during a 2.4 miles swim and probably a good chunk of the bike. If you’re unsure whether you’ll be one of those blowing chunks, get in and swim in choppy water for at least 20 minutes to find out.
  • Bi-lateral breathing. Seriously, a lot of people can (or choose to) only breathe on one side when swimming and that’s ok. I would strongly suggest though, learning to be comfortable on either side.
  • The reason for this is that if you’re in an ocean swim, you may be breathing away from the beach. If this is the case, that can mean that you’re opening your mouth into the waves every single time you breathe. Learning to breathe on both sides while swimming gives you tools to deal with any situation

Bike

When it comes to triathlon in general, there are a lot of nice-to-haves with only a few must-haves. One of the must-haves is a bike.

In fact, people have done triathlons on a road bike, tri bike as well as a mountain bike, BMX bike, commuter, fixed gear bike, beach cruiser, penny farthing (you know, those old-timey bikes with the massive front wheel) and a unicycle among others.

Here’s the basic thing though; if it’s your first race and you don’t want to drop a lot of money on a new bike, use what works. Keep in mind that a bike does need to fit you or, the farther you go, the less comfortable you’ll be.

Image by elihudelvalle from Pixabay

This guy looks fast on his tri bike, but in reality you can use most any type of bike. The important thing is to be comfortable, so find something that works for you.

Also, keep in mind that a mountain bike with suspension of any sort will be far less efficient since part of your effort will be to make the fatter, knobbier tires roll but also to compensate for the action of the suspension.

If you want to channel your inner hipster and place your jort-clad butt on a fixie (fixed gear bicycle) or single speed bike, be aware that hills are going to be a MUCH larger problem – and so is chafing.

Apparel:
There are really just a few things you’ll need to wear on a bike but they can greatly affect just how well a person wants to perform and how comfortable they want to be.

  • Shorts:
    • If you swam in tri shorts or a speedsuit, you’ll just keep that on. For me, anything shorter than an Ironman and I’ll be wearing a thin-chamois (padding) tri short.
    • If you’re wearing something like basketball or boardshorts, BEWARE THE SEAMS. Sitting on a seam in your crotch for an hour on the bike (while wet from the swim and sweating that much more) will lead to chafing. Don’t do it. If you do, please do us a favor and record a video of your reaction to your first, post-race shower and send it to us. It’ll be hilarious and we love a good laugh.
    • When I do an Ironman or Iron-distance race, I do not – DO NOT – want to do all 112 miles in anything less than a full-thickness bike short. I’ve done it before and it was ok, but generally, I’ll take the 30-seconds it takes to change for the comfort it brings.
  • Top:
    • For many races, a top is required for all racers. This is typically made clear in the rules or details of each race. Be aware that you can roll the top up to get more air to your torso or unzip to do the same. This can be a tri top which caters to triathlon or a standard cycling jersey.
    • In the event of a cold race, it’s a good idea to have a cycling jacket which you can wear to keep the cold at bay. Check the weather for race morning and be very aware of the forecast temperature at the start and finish of the race.
  • Shoes:
    • Think I skipped over socks? Nope, you just don’t “need” them, necessarily.
    • If you don’t know how to or simply don’t want to buy bike shoes, you certainly don’t need to. Whatever running shoes you plan on wearing will be fine on standard, flat bike pedals.
    • If you want to wear cycling shoes, go for it. They will make you more efficient and save you time. There are such things as “tri shoes” for cycling which have features like drain holes in the bottom which also increase ventilation. They typically will also include a velcro closure which can be done with one hand as well as a pull tab on the heel counter.
  • Gloves: Honestly, this is your call. I tend to wear them on half Ironman distance races and longer. Do what you like and what you’re used to.
  • Sunglasses: Yes, sunglasses. The last thing you want to be worrying about is what’s in your eye or something like that. Wear them, put them in a pocket, do whatever. Just have them and use them. Thank me later.
  • Race belt: This is a simple, cheap, elastic belt with a clip to which you can attach your race bib. Having this allows you to put on your bib once, in T1, and not have to worry about it any more.

Equipment:

  • Bike Helmet: You MUST wear a helmet. There are several types of helmets you can use but the two main categories are aero helmets and everything else. According to USAT, the rules regarding helmets are pretty specific. In reality, you’ll be good with mostly any bike helmet bought from a repudable retailer that’s properly fastened. Read the full rules below.
    USAT Helmet Rules

    5.9 Helmets.

    (a) Type of Helmet. All participants shall wear a protective head cover, undamaged and unaltered, which meets or exceeds the safety standards of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and which is clearly labeled by the manufacturer as satisfying such standards. Helmets manufactured prior to March 10, 1999 must meet or exceed the safety standards of (i) the American National Standard Institute (ANSI Z-90.4), (ii) The Snell Memorial Foundation (Protective Headgear for Bicycle Users), or (iii) ASTM F-1446 or F-1447, and which is clearly labeled by the manufacturer as satisfying such standards. Removal of helmet cover, if required for that helmet to meet such safety standards, shall constitute an impermissible alteration in violation of this Section 5.9(a). Any violation of this Section 5.9(a) shall result in disqualification.

    (b) Chin Strap Violations. The helmet must be securely fastened at all times when the participant is in possession of the bike, which means from the time they remove their bike from the rack at the start of the bike leg, until after they have placed their bike on the rack at the finish of the bike leg; (i) If a participant moves the bike off the course for any reason, the participant may not unfasten or remove the helmet until after he/she has moved outside the boundary of the bike course route and has dismounted the bike; and he/she must fasten the helmet securely on the head before returning onto the bike course or before remounting the bike. Any violation of this Section 5.9(b) which occurs while the participant is in the transition area, unless corrected, shall result in a variable time penalty. Any other violation of this Section shall result in disqualification. This Section 5.9(b) shall be enforced at all times while at the event site on race day.

    • Aero bike helmets. As the name implies, an aero helmet is meant to be more aerodynamic and therefore, make the triathlete more efficient – which ultimately means faster. While in the past as well as currently, many aero helmets had a sort of tail – leading to their frequent nickname of “sperm helmets” – there is a bit of an evolution in which some aero helmets have a much shorter profile. Note: aero helmets can often be a bit warmer than a standard helmet so be sure you get a good feel for it on your training rides. You can find a many different aero helmets HERE.
    • Standard bike helmets. While you can wear any cycling helmet which fits the USAT rules above – including BMX helmets and your kid’s fancy unicorn bike helmet – what we generally mean as a “standard” bike helmet is something like the Oakley ARO5. They’re comfortable, cool and lightweight and probably what 80% of triathletes (and probably 100% of your cyclist friends) will be wearing.
  • Bicycle: Above I mentioned the wide variety of bikes which can be used in a triathlon.For the sake of not getting too far afield, I’m going to be using a road and/or triathlon bike (also known as a time trial bike from normal cycling) for our examples. I do this because, with just a few differences in geometry, the cockpit and frame tubing shape, they’re the most similar to each other and also the most likely to be used by an experienced triathlete. Also, with this being a “What do I need for my first triathlon?” article, we’re not going to get into things like frame geometry and tube shape.
    • Bike fit: Listen, what ever bike you choose to ride in a triathlon, get a good bike fitting. They’re not super cheap – expect to pay at least $200 – but a good fitter will make you efficient and comfortable on your rig. Seriously, go get a bike fitting. It will make that 1980’s Schwinn roadie much easier to deal with.
    • Spare tube/tire: Depending on what type of tires/tubes you use (more on this below), you may need to repair a flat. Have the necessary tools to do so including either a hand pump of C02 because you are not allowed to accept help from spectators.
    • Water bottles and cages: In races shorter than a half Ironman, you should be able to just have two water (or sports drink) bottles pre-set on your bike on race morning and they’ll get you through the bike leg with no problem. On longer races however, pre-set two bottles with whatever you want to drink but DEFINITELY make sure you’re not attached to those bottles because you will absolutely throw them away at one of the aid stations to replaced by another bottle.
    • Pedals: As I mentioned above in the shoes section, you can certainly use your running shoes and flat bike pedals. However, a good pair of clipless (yes, they’re called “clipless” even though they clearly “clip” in) pedals will mean for a faster and more efficient ride. Cleats for the different types of pedals ARE NOT interchangeable so make sure you’re got the right cleats for the pedals. The main types of road pedals (and cleats) are:
      • Look Keo
      • Time
      • Speedplay
      • Shimano
    • Saddle: Also known as the bike’s seat. Be sure you try out a bunch of different saddles and find what fits you and your riding style and position best. Bear in mind that a ton of padding is typically not super comfortable over a long race. It’s far more important to find a saddle which hit you in the right places. For me, I ride an ISM PM 2.0 almost all the time. It’s a noseless saddle with a split-rail design. This takes pressure off the perineum and allows much more blood flow. Basically, it means far less numbness in the junkal region [More on this from ISM]. Yes, I said junkal.
    • Tires: I say this with all the care for my fellow athletes I can muster but please, PLEASE learn how to change a bike tire. Honestly, it can be a dangerous thing to be on a ride by yourself and not know how to fix a flat and get home. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, there are three main types of tires (or tyres, if you prefer): clincher, tubular and tubeless. On all three you can find the same tread pattern (or lack thereof) so the difference comes on what’s inside. In short:
      • Clincher bike tires: Your standard tire with a tube inside. The tire “clinches” the wheel (rim) from the inside with a harder “bead” of rubber.
      • Tubular bike tires: The entire tire is round so, the tire itself IS the tube. These are glued to the wheel/rim. Tubulars tend to get fewer flats since there is no tube to puncture, per se.
      • Tubeless bike tires: These tires are pretty much like your car. They seat into the rim the way a clincher does but when they do, they’re almost air tight. To get them all the way sealed there is typically some liquid latex put in during mounting. This seals the bead and any possible punctures.
    • Bar tape: This may seem like a silly thing to consider but there are varying amounts of grip, thicknesses and amounts of cushion for bar tape. Find what works best for you and go with it.
  • Your bike. The single most expensive piece of gear to a triathlete is their bicycle. While you can certainly borrow a bike or find something super cheap (or free) – just know that a bike which fits, is comfortable and efficient can take a lot of stress out of the miles you’ll be covering. Find a friend who’s a cyclist or triathlete and try their bike (if they’re close to you in height). Don’t just try one bike, try many and find what feels best.

Tips:

  • Don’t try to do a flying mount. You will fall. It will hurt. It’s not worth the two-second savings.
  • Don’t try to start with your shoes pre-clipped in to your pedals. You will crash. It will hurt. Maybe once you’ve got a few races under your belt you can try this but ONLY after a ton of practice.

    Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

    Don’t try anything crazy when getting on your bike. No flying mounts or anything. Walk it out of the transition area safely,  just like this competitor.

  • Don’t do that one-foot, flying dismount thing either. Again, you will fall (although, of the three things listed, this is probably the easiest). It will hurt.
  • Learn to drink and eat while riding. You’d be amazed at how difficult it can be for many people to simply reach down for their water bottle while riding. Practice makes perfect so practice on all your training rides.
  • Learn how to watch your gears so you know where you are in terms of resistance. This will help you better handle hills and the like.
  • Learn the rules of of the road. Typically speaking, drafting is not allowed in USAT sanctioned events with the exception of professional events – and if you’re reading this, you’re probably not a professional triathlete… yet. From USA Triathlon, the rules are:
    USAT Drafting Rules

    5.10 Position Fouls.

    In accordance with the Rules as set forth in this section, a participant is not permitted to position his/her bicycle in the proximity of another moving vehicle so as to benefit from reduced air resistance. While on the cycling course, participants shall not work together to improve performance, efficiency, or position by teamwork or other joint conduct. A variable time penalty shall be imposed for any violation of this section. This section shall not apply to off-road triathlons and duathlons and shall be excluded from enforcement at those events.

    a. Drafting. Except as otherwise provided in these Rules, while on the cycling course, no participant shall permit his/her drafting zone to intersect with or remain intersected with the drafting zone of a leading cyclist or that of a motor vehicle. With respect to a motor vehicle (including authorized race vehicles); it is the athlete’s responsibility to move out of the vehicle’s drafting zone or to continually communicate to the vehicle to move away.

    Drafting of another competitor or motor vehicle is prohibited on the bike course. ”Drafting” means to remain within the draft zone (as described in 5.10b) for longer than the allotted period of time. An athlete may enter the draft zone of another athlete, but must be observed to be progressing through that zone. A maximum of 15 seconds will be allowed to pass through the zone when overtaking another cyclist. Riding beside someone could result in either a blocking or drafting penalty. Drafting violations cannot be protested or appealed.

    b. Definition of Drafting Zone. The term “drafting zone” shall refer to a rectangular area seven (7) meters long and two (2) meters wide surrounding each bicycle. The longer sides of the zone begin at the leading edge of the front wheel and run backward parallel to the bicycle; the front wheel divides the short side of the zone into two equal parts. With respect to a moving motor vehicle, the “drafting zone” is a rectangular area extending one (1) meter to each side of the vehicle and fifteen (15) meters behind the vehicle. For the purpose of these Rules, a motorcycle with race-approved media or race officials shall not be associated with a Drafting zone as otherwise described in these rules.

    c. Right-of -Way. A participant is generally entitled to assume any otherwise proper location on the cycling course provided that the participant arrives in the position first without contacting another participant. When taking a position near another participant, however, a cyclist shall not crowd the other participant and shall allow reasonable space for the other participant to make normal movement without making contact.

    d. Blocking. Cyclists must keep to the side of the course and not block, obstruct, or impede the progress of another participant.

    e. Passing. A participant who approaches another cyclist from the rear or from another unfavorable position bears primary responsibility for avoiding a position foul even if the cyclist being approached alters speed. A participant must not attempt to pass another cyclist unless adequate space is available and the athlete is confident of their ability to successfully complete a pass of the other cyclist within the allotted time. A maximum of 15 seconds will be allowed to complete a pass through the draft zone of another athlete. Participants who enter the draft zone of a leading cyclist must make forward progress and complete a pass in the allotted time. Failure to complete a pass in the allotted time or exiting the draft zone anywhere other than the front of the zone will result in a drafting penalty. Cyclists must not pass on the inside (closest to side of the road) of another cyclist. Passing another cyclist on the wrong side will result in a penalty.

    f. Position. Except for reasons of safety and when no advantage is gained, all cyclists shall keep to the right of the prescribed course unless passing.

    g. Being Overtaken. When the leading edge of the front wheel of one cyclist passes beyond the front wheel of another cyclist, the second cyclist has been “overtaken” within the meaning of these Rules. A cyclist who has been overtaken bears primary responsibility for avoiding a position foul. An overtaken cyclist must drop out of the draft zone of the passing cyclist by continuously making rearward progress and completely out of the draft zone of the passing cyclist within 15 seconds. Overtaken cyclists who remain within the draft zone of the passing cyclist for more than the allotted time will receive a penalty. The overtaken cyclist shall first move completely out of the drafting zone of the other cyclist before attempting to re-pass the other cyclist. Re-passing by an overtaken athlete prior to dropping out of the draft zone will result in a penalty.

    h. Exceptions. A participant may enter the drafting zone without penalty only under the following conditions: (1) When entering the drafting zone from the rear, closing the gap, and overtaking all within no more than 15 seconds. (2) When cyclist reduces speed for safety reasons, for course blockage, for an aid station, for an emergency, when entering or exiting a transition area, or when making a turn of 90 degrees or more; or (3) When USA Triathlon or the Head Referee expressly excludes a section of the bicycle course from the position foul rules because of overly narrow lanes, construction, detours, or a similar reason.

  • I said it above and I will implore you again, dear reader: LEARN HOW TO CHANGE A BIKE TIRE. It’s not that hard and, if your tire / wheel combination presents any unique challenges, you’ll find them.
  • Lube your chain. Don’t over lubricate it but don’t neglect it either. This will make you SO much more efficient and waste much less energy than a dirty chain.
  • You’ll see some people with plastic bags covering their saddles if there is rain before the race. I myself have done this in the past – I no longer do. The reasoning behind it (as far as I know) is to keep the saddle (seat) dry. Here’s the thing though, if you’re wearing the same thing you just had on during the swim leg, it doesn’t make a bit of difference since your wet butt is about to make the saddle wet. Even if you’ve changed into dry shorts it won’t make a difference either. With bike saddles being leather of vinyl, it will be dry after a wipe of the hand. If you still think it makes a difference and it makes you feel better, go nuts (but it’s kind of like keeping bags on your car tires before you out to drive every day).
  • Watch the chafing. This is something of a theme here but seriously, the longer the race, the more chafing you’re likely to find. Ask any Ironman athlete and they’ll be more than happy to regale you with their stories of chafing and the process of getting dressed afterward. Again: Body Glide.
  • If there are hills coming out of T2, don’t blow yourself up trying to hammer. During those first few minutes, you should give yourself a bit of a window for warming up your legs. There is no sense in slamming your body full of lactic acid out of the gate.

Run

When I did my first triathlon, probably one of the most interesting things was the feeling in my legs upon leaving T2 and heading out onto the run. With that first race I’d ever done being a sprint triathlon, I’d only ridden roughly 12 miles after a rough swim in the Pacific Ocean.

As I began running out of T2 I was surprised at how rubbery and weird my legs felt. It was an odd combination of lactic acid while simultaneously having to start using different muscles from the bike and also using the same muscles in different ways. Regardless, my mindset after exiting T2 has always been one of maintaining discipline for a couple hundred yards, until my legs felt more normal.

As for the gear with running in a triathlon, it’s pretty straightforward. However, as with the swim, there are a lot of “optional” things.

Shorts: If you want to, put on some running shorts. Otherwise, you’re probably going to remain in the same shorts you wore on the swim and run.

Top: Again, you’ll very likely keep on the same outfit you’ve been in the whole time – especially in a shorter race. Don’t overthink it.

Socks: If you’re wearing socks, many people change socks for dry ones if they’ve become wet from water, sports drinks or sweat. Otherwise, keep ’em on and save some time.

Running shoes: I have some pretty strong opinions on running shoes and technique but for now let’s put it this way; run in what you like and don’t use new shoes on race day. A couple of other points:

There are such things as “tri-specific” running shoes. These are typically lightweight and have “drainage holes” cut into the soles, ostensibly to allow water to drain out. In my opinion, these holes do nothing. I mean, MAYBE they do something if you’re dumping buckets of water on your head or if you sweat prodigious amounts, constantly. Even then, your socks would be so saturated that they themselves would hold on to just as much water so why bother. If you like drainage holes though, go nuts.

Optional running gear

  • Speed Laces: These are elastic shoelaces meant to save time in getting your shoes on in T2. The first time I used speed laces, I used the whole slide-lock thing as in the directions. Later on I found that the absolute best way to use speed laces was to simply lace my shoes like normal with the elastic laces themselves, tie them in a knot and bow as normal and then simply pull my shoes on…as normal. The laces stretched enough to allow my foot in while still keep my shoes perfectly tightened. Don’t overthink it.
  • Visor or hat: Yes. Put on a visor or hat. Thank me later.
  • Sunglasses: Just as on the bike, save your eyes a bit and keep your sunnies around.
  • Anti-chafing balm: By this point in many races, your skin may not be super happy in some places. If you’ve managed to maintain control of chafing by applying when you have the chance in both transitions, you should be good to go. Otherwise, let modesty go out the window and shove your hand down your shorts or shirt to take care of trouble spots.
  • Race Belt: If you used it on the bike, you’re good to go. Otherwise, now may be a good time to slap one on and save time.
  • Hydration belt: I have kind of a mixed take on hydration belts in a race setting. First, pretty much every race will provide a map in advance on their website which will show you where the aid stations for both the bike and run legs are. With that information, you should be able to just use the hydration on the course as opposed to carrying your own. This will save you from carrying the extra weight of your bottles. on the other hand, sometimes people have very specific hydration needs and desires in which case, do your thing.
  • Headlamp: In a particularly long race where you’re likely to be running on roads or trail after sundown, you can certainly use a headlamp if you’d like. You shouldn’t need to since the course will be well-defined but it can’t hurt.

Tips:

  • Don’t blow up. This is actually kind of good advice for all the legs of a race of any distance. There’s nothing worse than “bonking” before the finishe line and coming back from that is extremely tough. Until you know your body under race conditions, listen to what it’s trying to tell you (other than, “Hey, how about some wings after this?”).
  • Drills. Whether it’s transition drills or getting your running legs under you, practice the hell out of this stuff either by yourself or with a friend.
  • Walk the aid stations. Yeah, I know, you’re a pro at that funnel trick with a paper cup. If your legs are all jelly-like though, you should pay more attention to not falling over and walking for a few seconds is a good way to do that.
  • Finish line pose. Yep. Surprise us.
  • Pro tip: if you’ve just done an Ironman, maybe don’t jump at the finish line. Your legs are SHOT. This guy knows:

Nutrition

I won’t get into nutrition too much here because this is a very personal thing to each triathlete. What I want to drive home is to practice. Practice drinking water and sports drink and when to do each. If you use sports gels, know how much you need and when. If you’re a heavy sweater, know your sweat rate and how to replenish fluids and electrolytes.

Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU from Pexels

Practice eating and drinking on your bike. It can be harder than it looks when you’re caught up in the race. 

In my first ever Ironman in 2009, I stopped (STOPPED) sweating at about miles 60 on the bike. This is an incredibly bad thing. By the time I’d gotten my body back to the place where I was sweating enough to actually cool myself off, I was past mile 15 of the run. It was a tough day and it was almost completely because I drank exclusively water for the first 50 miles on the bike and since I’d sweated out all my electrolytes, none of that water was being absorbed.

Just as a race website will provide information about where aid stations are located, they will often tell you exactly what nutrition (sports drink, gels, fruit, chicken broth, etc) will be on the course. Try to find out those things and use them. It will give you a good head start on your nutrition plan and may save you from having to carry a bunch of unnecessary things through the entire race.

Want to get really into it? Hire a nutrition coach who can help you develop a precise plan of action.

Summary

The first thing I want to say in summary is this…..

DO NOT DO ANYTHING NEW ON RACE DAY.
Seriously, don’t. That is all. Know what you’re doing and stick with what works.

Triathlon is a fantastic sport. Not only will it help you to get, or stay, in shape but it will also give you a huge appreciation for your fellow amateurs and how hard they train. Yes, it can be expensive and yes, it’s VERY helpful if your family is on board and supportive. But just know that it is addicting and almost every single person I know who’s done a triathlon crosses the finish line and asks, “When can I do another one?”

Check out some of our favorite gear we’ve covered in our companion article: Triathlon Gear Buyer’s Guide Spring 2021

Questions? Comments? Let us know below!

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