Introduction to the Triathlon

Hello! Sam at Grapefruit & Granola is training for her first triathlon, and last week she asked readers for answers to a few questions about what to expect as a first time triathlete. I responded with a comment, but I realized that there are probably enough things to discuss to warrant a new post. Disclaimer: I have only participated in Sprint Triathlons, and I have certainly never won, so I am no expert; however, I have completed 6 of these shorter triathlons, and I think I have lots of advice to share, especially for beginners.

Basics of Triathlon
Many people know that triathlons involve three different sports: running, biking, and swimming, but that may be all you know! When I signed up for my first triathlon, I didn’t even know the order of the three different parts: swimming, biking, and lastly, running. People are often most intimidated by the swim, but if you train consistently, you will have no problem tackling all three components of the tri.

Types of Triathlons
The next thing to discuss is what length of triathlon you are going to participate in. I mentioned that I have only participated in Sprint Triathlons. These are the shortest triathlons you can do, and are perfect for beginners. There isn’t a set standard for each of the distances, but generally you will swim 300-750 meters, you’ll bike between 10-15 miles, and the run is almost always a 5k (3.1 miles). The other variation you will face is whether the swim is an open water swim or in a pool. Open water swimming can certainly be intimidating, and I think it’s more difficult than lane swimming in a pool, but you shouldn’t be scared away!  For your first triathlon though, I would recommend trying to find a triathlon with pool swimming just to increase your comfort level.

The other triathlons have defined distances for each of the three legs, as can be seen below:

Olympic Distance
1500 meters (1.5 km)
24.85 miles (40 km)
6.2 miles (10 km)
Half Ironman (70.3)
1.2 miles (1.9 km)
56 miles (90 km)
13.1 miles (21.1 km)
Ironman (140.6)
2.4 miles (3.86 km)
112 miles (180.25 km)
26.2 miles (42.2 km)

What to Wear
My first triathlon was at the end of my sophomore year of college. I hadn’t really exercised at all in two years, but I had been a swimmer and a soccer player in high school, so I figured I’d be fine. I was setting up my bike in the transition area (more about this later), and talking to my then-boyfriend about what I would wear (10 minutes before the race starts is a good time to decide, right?). I said, “Maybe I’ll wear sweat pants during the bike since I’ll be going quick and may get chilly.” The guy setting up next to me advised me not to wear pants on the bike or they might get caught in the chain (duh, I should have known that), and said I’d probably warm up once I started riding (which I also would have known if I had trained at all…). Basically, I was clueless. Now, I have the clothing part mostly figured out, and hopefully I can help you! 🙂
For my first several triathlons, I simply wore a one piece bathing suit with a sports bra underneath. I would suggest a thin sports bra (the one I wear for tris is mostly mesh) so that it dries out quickly once you are done with the swim. I have also seen people wear just a sports bra and compression shorts, which is another viable option. If you are doing an open water swim, you can wear a wetsuit if the water is below 78 degrees (check on the specific triathlon’s website for their rules, but this is the USAT standard). I have never worn a wetsuit (simply because I don’t have one and the races I do are in the summer, so it’s usually not too cold), but I have heard that they do increase your buoyancy significantly, which will most likely improve your swim time. Lastly, you’ll wear a swim cap; in every triathlon I have ever done, they provided this with your bib at registration. I always bring an extra one just in case because it would annoy me to have to swim without my hair under a cap. 
If you are wanting to make an investment into triathlons, you can buy a trisuit, which will be worn for the entirety of the race. Having one garment to wear for all three events is extremely convenient–I found mine at an end of season sale and have been really happy with it. There are two different types: one piece and two piece. I have a one piece, that is sleeveless. The only downside to this is if it is chilly outside, you’ll most likely need to add a layer on top during the bike portion.
Me on the right in my tri suit (with shorts on top before the race started)


If you can wear the same thing on the bike that you did during the swim, that is ideal. When I used to wear a bathing suit, I would simply pull compression shorts on over the suit during the first transition. The other thing you need on the bike that you didn’t need during the swim is the number bib that the race provides. Typically this needs to be on the front of your body. For this, if you have the funds to purchase it, I would suggest getting a bib holder. This is a belt that you put your bib on so that you don’t have to pin it on. Some also have space to hold gels or other fuel, which can certainly be useful. When I first got my trisuit, I didn’t have the bib belt, and I didn’t want to waste time trying to pin the bib onto my suit, so I would throw a tank top with the bib attached on top of my suit. That also worked rather well. If you decide to go this route, make sure that the shirt is loose–trying to wrangle a tight shirt with a pinned-on bib onto your wet body is not an ideal situation. 🙂 
Me on the right with a tank on top of my trisuit (because my number was pinned on it)
Also remember that biking is typically chillier than running (since you are going much faster so you get more wind), so you may need a t-shirt, long sleeves, or gloves. This is totally weather-dependent, and you can ask others around what they are planning on doing–I have found that triathletes are extremely friendly to first-timers. If it’s really cold, you may also want to wear a hat under your helmet.
Wearing a t-shirt over my trisuit, as well as gloves because it was a little chilly
Many people have clipless pedals on their bikes, which non-intuitively means that their shoes clip directly into their pedals. If you have these pedals, you will obviously need to wear your biking shoes for the bike portion. I recently made the switch to clipless pedals, but I have not yet used them in a triathlon. For all of my previous races, I just biked in the shoes I planned to run in (benefit: saves you time in T2!).
You should be able to run in the same clothes that you biked in (unless you have to change your shoes as previously discussed). This is basically down to personal preference and you usually will know what clothes you prefer to run in based on the temperature during the race. The only thing I would say is to not wear anything new on race day!
When you first arrive to the location of your triathlon on the day of the race, you will go to your transition area. These are organized by your bib number. Typically, there will be bike racks that hold 10-15 bikes, and these are numbered. You find the number that you have been assigned, and that is your transition area. I always bring a small towel to lay on the ground next to my bike. This sets a clear area that is my space, and makes sure that none of my items are getting all dirty laying directly on the ground. I put my bib (whether on a shirt or on the bib holder), helmet, sunglasses (if you’re wearing them), a towel, socks, and shoes on the small, laid-out towel. 
Setting up my transition area
T1: Between swimming and biking
You will run out of the water, and into the transition area after you have finished swimming. The first thing to do is locate your stuff, but that should be straight-forward since the bike racks are labeled, and you have already been there. When I arrive to my area, I grab my towel and dry off a little bit (quickly!). I then focus on getting my feet as dry as possible, and pull on socks and shoes. Next I pull on a shirt, or put on my bib holder. Lastly, I pull on my helmet and my sunglasses. That’s it! You will have to grab your bike and walk/jog it out of the transition area (no riding in the transition area); then you can hop on and start the bike portion.
T2: Between Biking and running
If you don’t have clipless pedals, this is an extremely quick transition. You get off of your bike before you enter the transition area, then walk/jog it back to your area and put it back on the rack [ok, pause for a funny/embarrassing story: in one triathlon that I did, I was one the first one back to my bike rack from the biking portion. I quickly tossed my bike onto the stand, and…it collapsed!! I was so freaked out and was screaming for help. Eventually (ok, it was probably only like 15 seconds, but it felt like forever), a volunteer ran up and helped me set the bike rack back up. I set my bike on it and all was good. He said it actually is somewhat common and not to worry about it. So there you go, even if something embarrassing happens: 1) it has probably happened before, and 2) you will get past it]. If you need to change into running shoes, do that as quickly as possible; otherwise, just run right out of the transition area.
Random Tips
If you are a girl, I highly recommended braiding your hair for the triathlon. If you are able to french braid it, that is great because it stays even better. I say this because I used to have three different ways I liked to wear my hair for each of the three different events. I’d pile my hair on top of my head and shove it under the swim cap for the swim. Then, I’d have to put it in a low ponytail for the bike so that I could put my helmet on. I didn’t like running with it in that low ponytail, so I’d typically pull it up into a higher ponytail that wouldn’t brush up against me as much. Changing your hair during transitions takes up time, and if you can avoid it, that’s ideal.
I convinced my friend to let me french braid her hair before the tri 🙂
I personally don’t take in any calories during a Sprint Triathlon. It is usually about an hour and a half of exercise, and that should be possible to do without extra calories. I always make sure to eat a good breakfast, and sometimes will eat a banana about a half hour before the race. However, I know that many people like to consume calories during the race to keep their energy levels up. One way to do this is to have a sports drink in a water bottle on your bike. You can drink this during flat parts of the course, or whenever you aren’t working too hard. Even if you don’t have a sports drink, this is a good time to rehydrate with some water. Another time to consume calories is when you are leaving T2 and about to run. I know many people will take a gel at this time. There is usually at least one aid station during the run, so you can grab some water if you are feeling like you need a drink.

Honestly, it’s all going to work out, so the biggest thing is to not freak out. The most important things are to train properly, and to make sure to bring everything with you on the day of the race. I suggest making a checklist so that when you pack you are positive that you have everything that you will need. No Meat Athlete created a post with 22 tips for your first triathlon that you should check out as well!


2 thoughts on “Introduction to the Triathlon

  1. Wow this was really informative. I met a guy at my church that does them regularly and after hearing I was a runner started including me in his tri planning lol. Still have yet to try one but this was very very helpful to understand all that goes into these events.


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