Tips for Your 1st Triathlon

First, let me preface this by saying that I am by no means an expert at triathlons or triathlon-racing.  With a measly ONE Olympic-distance triathlon under my belt, I am still very much a novice.  But, there was SO much that I learned in just that one triathlon that I wish I could have been prepared for or done differently on race day and I hope that my insight, however basic it may be, may help someone else.

Some of these may seem like common sense to you, but my mind was on a million things in the weeks leading up to this race (plus it is not my target triathlon this season), so I didn’t fully prepare the way I should have.

Please (!!) if you are a seasoned triathlete, weigh in here and add your two cents – especially if I say something that you feel is inaccurate.

WetsuitI’ve practiced taking my wetsuit off twice.  Each time was fairly easy so I had the mentality of “How hard could this be on race day?”.  Well, I was wrong.  I hadn’t practiced it when the wetsuit was wet. Nor when my arms were slightly fatigued.  Nor when I was out of breath from running from the water to T1.   Recommendation: Wear your wetsuit in the shower, do some jumping jacks and take it off.  It will get you used to how it will feel on race day. Also, use some sort of lubricant on your wrists/ankles so it is easier to slide off (Amanda, an Ironman, recommends Pam cooking spray)

Simulate Race Day: So this one may seem so easy on the surface.  I’ve done so many swim/bikes and bike/runs in the last few months.  But, I’m a dilly-dallier.  {My husband calls me LDD – little dilly-dallier}.  I often finish a bike ride, go back in my house, drink a glass of water, check on the boys, and THEN slowly make my way back out to run.  There is usually a 5 minute gap in between the two.  I had not yet practiced a bang-bang transition. My transition times show my inexperience and lack of practice.  Recommendation: Before you go on your ride, have your running shoes, nutrition, water bottle, and whatever else you may need for the run.  Start getting in the habit of going smoothly {and quickly} from one to the other.  Work on cutting down the time.  

Transitions: I hadn’t thought about how to set up my transition until the drive to the start on race morning.  I had NO idea how to lay anything out, in what order, etc.   Recommendation: Practice laying everything you will need on your towel – shoes, socks, nutrition.  Practice going from one to the next and see what feels comfortable (in regards to where you have things and how you have things).  Figure out what works best for you so that on race day, it’s not a surprise. 

What to pack for transition: Several people have asked what I packed for my transition.  This is not the fool-proof list, but it worked for me:

  • Towel 
  • Sunscreen
  • Nutrition / Hydration
  • Swim: wetsuit, googles, spray / lube for your extremities (to help slide the wetsuit on/off)
  • Bike: shoes, socks, helmet, sunglasses (+ repair kit, spare tire, etc)
  • Run: shoes, fuel belt (w/ number)
  • Extra: socks, googles, running hat, watch
  • Flip flops for post-race
  • Note: If you do a race with lots of sand, you may want a bucket w/ water to quickly rinse your feet off before you put your shoes on

Plan your Hair: Don’t laugh at this one! One issue I ran into on race day was this: my hair.  Here’s why.  When I swim, my hair is in a bun fairly high on my head – I keep one strap from my goggles over it and one strap under it.  When I bike, my hair is in a pony-tail so it can fit under the helmet.  On race day, I finished the swim, went to put on my helmet and realized I had to take out my hair and lower it/put it in ponytail.  It didn’t take a huge amount of time, but it flustered me and could have easily have been fixed.  Recommendation: Think about race day and practice how your hair will be from one event to the next.  Find one that can be used in all three disciplines so you don’t waste time dealing with on race day…or you will look like me in transition:


Open Water SwimTry to get at least one open water swim in before race day.  It will be one less thing to worry about.  Not only will you have one less thing to worry about, but you can practice sighting as well (I swam a bit extra because I am not proficient at sighting!).  Additionally, wearing a wetsuit can be somewhat constricting – it took me about 10-15 minutes in the water during my warmup to feel comfortable.

Stay in the BackIf you are like me, then the thought of getting grabbed, swum over, or caught in the middle of hundreds of other swimmers makes you wish you could skip the swim portion altogether.  Swimming is, without a doubt, my weakest discipline and my goal is to come out of the water relaxed and in control – not try to be 1st female (which I can’t do even if I wanted).  When my wave was called, I stayed to the back and side of the group as we lined up on the beach.  When the gun sounded and most of the other females went sprinting into the water, I took my time.  This allowed me to forego the craziness that is often seen at the swim start.  There were still other swimmers around me, but it was manageable and not the chaotic scene I was envisioning.  Recommendation: If you are uneasy about the swim, stay at the rear and side of your wave start.  You may end up adding a minute or two to your time, but comfort and confidence wins out.

Ease into the RunYou probably have been told this already.  Heck, I was told this.  I do this on all of my practice bricks. But, alas, on race day, my mind was cloudy and I took off entirely TOO fast. My first mile was 7:22.  I barely saw 7s again for the remaining few miles.   My brick yesterday was different.  I biked 30+ miles.  When it was time to run, I let my legs loosen up for the first 1/2 – 3/4 of a mile.  1st mile was 8:19.  Last mile was 7:18.  Average was 7:40.  Huge difference AND the best is that I felt strong, happy, and confident whereas on Saturday I felt defeated by the end. Recommendation: Give your body a chance to transition to the run.  Don’t go out of T2 trying to set a mile PR.  Start slow. End happy.


Not happy

Practice / Warmup SwimOften, races will have an open swim time the day prior to the race.  If you can’t make it, then definitely get in and do a warm-up before the race starts.  Warming up is important, but it’s also good to get a feel for the water temperature and conditions.  I felt 100x more confident after I came out of the water after my warm-up on race morning.

Bike Mechanics: Some races will have a bike mechanic in transition on race morning.  I had every intention of taking my bike to the mechanic on race morning but we were running SUPER late.  Having a professional give your bike one last minute check cannot hurt.  And will give you peace of mind for later in the race.  They are there for a reason.  Use them!

Any tips for first-timers?

What was the hardest thing you dealt with during your 1st triathlon? 

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    28 thoughts on “Tips for Your 1st Triathlon

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    2. Thank you SO MUCH for this. I felt a little silly google-ing “how to do you hair for a triathlon” but it is comforting to know I’m not the only person who is wondering about this! For strategy and style reasons…obviously :)

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    4. Thanks for the tips!! I’m doing my first (sprint distance) tri in a month, so this is really helpful! Just this week I realized I need to work on the hair aspect. I was planning a single french braid, but found it uncomfortable under my bike helmet, gonna try two braids for my brick this week!
      Kimberly recently posted..More Tri LessonsMy Profile

    5. Michele – great post! This is my second season as a triathlete, and I wouldn’t consider myself an expert by any means :-). One tip I would give is with the hair. I find the best solution is two french braids. With two, the hair stays in place better than with one, and it works well to transition from swim to bike to run. Another reccomendation is that if your helmed has a nob on the back to tighten or loosen it, open it all the way up in transition. Then, once you get on the bike, reach back and tighten it up. This way you aren’t as worried about getting your hair under the helmet quickly.

      Best wishes for your Half IM and Lake Placid!
      wornoutsoles recently posted..Breaking the Cardinal Rule – Hudson Crossing Triathlon Race ReportMy Profile

    6. ha ha ha..I should have sent you my post on Transitions. I had a picture of how I lay everything out and I even did a video on how to remove your wetsuit, he he. GREAT point about the hair!!! Having not quite shoulder length, layered, curly hair, I had to experiment with the best way to wear it. I now wear it in two low pigtails with the layered bits held down my about 15 hair clips. 😀 It totally works though. Easy to tuck into a swim cap, bike helmet just sits on top and for the run, all I need to do is pull on my visor.
      Phaedra @ Blisters and Black Toenails recently posted..Good Things Come in Threes: The 2013 EditionMy Profile

    7. Great, tips, Michele! Skimmed through other comments to try not to duplicate: when I lay my stuff out in transition, I also practice putting everything on, to ensure it’s laid out so it’s fast, i.e. helmet isn’t backwards, sunglasses are open, inside helmet. This also ensures my ponytail is low enough! I use a product called TriSlide that I spray all over to get my wetsuit on/off easily. Don’t forget to bodyglide your neck, as the wetsuit tends to rub a lot there. If there are wetsuit strippers, I use them! Otherwise, I get the suit all the way down to my waist while running into transition, then pull it all the way down once I’m at my bike, and step out of it. Put your bike in a low gear (small ring) for the start of the bike. Put talcum powder in your bike shoes. DO NOT sit down in transition! I have to disagree with having your bike checked over by the mechanic. They are there to help with problems, such as not being able to get air in your tires. There are always really long lines for the mechanic and if everyone goes there to get their bike checked out, it will be much worse. Get it checked at your bike shop the week before. :)
      Alison @ racingtales recently posted..Ironman 70.3 Raleigh – The Perfect RaceMy Profile

    8. These are great tips. I’ll definitely be saving this for future reference…the thing that I totally didn’t think about before hearing you mention it is the hair issue. I wear my hair up high like you do for the swim and low for the bike, so I need to solve that problem…

      I’m loving so much following your journey in this training! I’m so excited for you! And congrats on your big brick this past weekend.
      meghan @ little girl in the big world recently posted..Vacationing in the KeysMy Profile

    9. Thanks Michele. This is really helpful and I’m marking it so I can come back to it before my first race in July. All of your tips were helpful, and the thing about the hair is really good. I hadn’t heard that mentioned before and I do the same thing as you. I’m getting more and more excited the more I hear you talk about this. I’m loving following you and Page into IMLP and IMCDA.
      Meghan recently posted..National Running Day DealsMy Profile

    10. Great article…. I’ve done a few tri’s and found what you wrote similar to my experiences. The open water swim is a must. If you do most of your swimming in a pool, it’s really easy to see if you’re swimming in a straight line. When you get to open water, it’s so much different. I am do three strokes and then breathe, but in the open water I switch to two, break and look up, or do two-three sets of three strokes and look it. Although this may seem pretty quick, I found I got off track very easily (I can’t run in a straight line either so I should have figured I couldn’t swim either! :) I also just wear a tri top and bottom for the swim, bike & run.

      The best experience I ever had was signing up for a small sprint tri at the local community college. I just wanted to get a “feel” for everything. I think the swim was 400 meters, bike 16 and run 3. It was so helpful and I wasn’t worried about my time, just getting down my transitions, etc. It helped me for my longer tri’s and get all my nervous energy out.

    11. This is all such helpful information! I’m hoping to jump into training for a race in the near future, once I get my platform back since I have a newborn :)…I’m just wondering if you could do a post on keeping up with your milk supply, pumping and training? ( I Know this might be a TMI topic, so I completely understand) I’m just curious because I want to be smart about getting back into endurance exercise!

    12. Great tips, Michele! I was lucky to have some local triathlete friends walk me through the day and the transition, etc. One tip I used was to lay everything on your towel in transition, but leave a little space at the edge to dry off your feet. I also had a lot of people say braids were the way to go. And some kind of laces (like Lock Laces) that enable you go get your sneakers on without tying saves some time, too!
      You did awesome for your first tri! And now you won’t have the stress of wondering what this is all about for the full.
      Laura @ Mommy Run Fast recently posted..5 by the 5th Link up and what’s nextMy Profile

    13. A couple more to add to the list:
      – Transition – don’t just practice laying it out and making sure you get your bricks in. Spend an ENTIRE workout in the week of your race just practicing transitions. I set mine up in my garage/driveway just like race day and lean my bike against a railing or my car. You can do this with the wetsuit or without, but if you do it without, I’d spin in circles about 10 times to simulate that dizzy feeling of coming out of the water, find you bike gear, hop on your bike, take a quick spin around the street, and come back to do it for the run. Repeat that at least 3x until you’ve got it down pat.
      – Mechanicals – Going to the bike tech on race morning or the day before is good, but I’ve come to find out that lots of people don’t even know how to change a flat. Most bike shops offer free classes to learn. Spend the time to learn how to do it, because there is nothing worse than waiting for on course bike support, or worse yet, a DNF because you couldn’t change your flat.
      – In/Out of transition area – when you get to the race site, walk from the swim exit to your rack, and from your rack to the out location so you know where you are going. Also, make note of any hills right out of the bike out. Too many people put their bikes in their big ring, get to a hill, and really struggle to get up/work way too hard. Set your gearing according to the bike out area, so it is easier to get into your pedals and safely make it out of transition.
      LesserisMore recently posted..Man Down – Finish Photos Tell The StoryMy Profile

    14. All good tips – for me, in terms of keeping it even simpler, I just wear my tri top (with built in bra) and tri shorts (or a one piece tri suit) the entire time – under the wetsuit and on through the rest of the race. That way I just need to deal with what is on my head and what is on my feet. In terms of learning / tough experiences, my worst was also at Quassy in the Griskus Olympic swim a few years ago – first open water wetsuit swim and I didn’t warm up or adjust to how it would feel – ensuing panic caused me to roll over onto my back and then breaststroke the entire thing, ugh. I have since realized that getting in the water and warming up, adjusting to the feel and getting my body ready to swim makes a HUGE difference….

    15. These are some great tips! I practiced laying everything out on my towel prior which definitely helped. I also planned ahead with my hair (because it matters!) and did a single french braid because it fits under the cap, under the helmet and is okay to run with (there was also a pound of hairspray holding it in place). Something I didn’t think about was wearing my tri top under my wetsuit. I thought it would be easy enough to throw on after my wetsuit was off…nope….wet skin, tight top makes for 1 minute spent solely on putting a shirt on. You did awesome on your first tri ( mine was last weekend too…ekk!) and I am pumped to see how you do at IMLP, at least you have these great lessons you learned to carry you into the race!
      Laura recently posted..Keuka Lake Sprint Tri (My first!)My Profile

    16. AWESOME tips! One thing that works for me is simple racing attire. For the swim, I wear a pair of tri shorts and a TYR sports bra style top. If the race is wet suit legal, I wear those underneath. Then I just pull on my sleeveless top before the bike, and I’m ready to go. It’s a 1/4- zip tri top, so the material is very breathable & great for hot races! The top works for the run too, so there’s very little to do in the bike-run transition. I love the tri shorts. They’re quick-dry and have just enough padding to make it through the bike but aren’t too bulky for the run.
      Nicole @ Work in Sweats Mama recently posted..Hilly Hellacious or Bucolic Bliss?My Profile

    17. Great tips and great lessons learned! One more thing on the Pam…I actually spray all the way up to my knees. Also, when in the last mile of the bike, gear down to your small ring and spin to help your legs get ready. Start thinking about the transition and going through it so that you are ready to go. And I just skip socks for the entire race to save time. It’s the little things that add up!
      misszippy1 recently posted..Summer must-havesMy Profile