I can perfectly remember my first steps as a triathlete. It was both so exciting and so scary. Everything was new to me, the only gear I had was a mountain bike, and I had no idea where to start training.
In this article, I will guide you through your journey to becoming a first-time triathlete and answer all the questions you might have in the process.
Let’s dive into it.
Disclaimer: The Triathlon Tips of My Tri World are reader-supported. When you buy through links, I may earn an affiliate commission.
1. PICK THE RIGHT RACE FOR YOU
The first step I recommend you to take is to choose a race. Knowing your goal will make it easier to pick the right gear and focus on a specific training plan.
There are a couple of things you should look for:
- Distance: I would highly recommend that you start with a short event like a Super Sprint (0.25 mi swim – 6.2 mi bike – 1.6 mi run) or a Sprint distance triathlon (double the distance). It is long enough that you will get challenged, but not too long that it would require a lot of preparation. For details about all the different triathlon distances, check out this article.
- Date: Try to find a race ideally 2 to 4 months after you start training. I personally think it gives you enough time to get fitter and not enough time to worry too much about it.
- Pool vs. Open Water swim: The vast majority of triathlons are in open water (lake, sea, river). Be aware that swimming in those environments with hundreds of people around you is really different than your standard pool training. As we will see in step 5, you can definitely practice it. If you are not really a confident swimmer, one option is to look for a triathlon with a pool swim.
- Local race: Travelling to different locations for races is one of the aspects I love about triathlon. I would, however, not recommend it for your first race. It adds some complexity that you don’t really need (transport, hotels, luggage). The easiest option is definitely to find a local race.
2. CHOOSE A GOOD TRAINING PLAN
Having a good training plan is crucial for your development as a triathlete. There are thousands of them available in triathlon magazines or on the internet at different price points.
The quality and complexity you get vary greatly. Keep in mind that none of them will be specifically tailored for you. For that, you would need to have a triathlon coach or use an advanced training software. As a beginner triathlete, you don’t really need any of those two yet.
I have gone through hundreds of training plans over the years, and the ones I am still recommending for beginners are the ones from Joe Friel’s book Your First Triathlon: race-ready in 5 hours a week (Amazon affiliate link).
My wife and I used this book for our first triathlon year. The plans are easy to follow and contain good workouts. He created four versions per distance (Sprint and Olympic): a general one, a triathlon plan for experienced swimmers, cyclists, and finally runners. We were not particularly strong in any of the three disciplines, so we opted for the general one.
You should definitely experience different types of plans and workouts over the years, but for your first race, I find it best to stick with the plan you chose until your race.
3. INVEST ONLY IN A COUPLE OF USEFUL GEAR
You really don’t need to break the bank for your first triathlon. You will already have the majority of them, and for the expensive items, the best option at this stage is to rent them. Let’s go through the list of the gears you will need in your first triathlon:
- Tri-suit: It is the only gear you will use from the start to the finish line of your races. Apart from looking more like a triathlete, a tri suit will make your life easier during all the transitions. You won’t need to worry about changing clothes.
Check this article I wrote for more details about tri suits.
- Swim goggles: There are relatively inexpensive. Make sure to buy a pair fitting your head form. If you are wearing prescription glasses, be aware that prescription swim goggles also exist, I wrote an entire article about them.
- Swimcap: it is generally provided by the race organizer and mandatory in most races.
- Wetsuit: Depending on the race location and the weather, a wetsuit might be compulsory. My wife and I personally rented one for our first races.
- Bike in good condition: As I wrote in the article “Don’t Worry About Which Bike To Use For Your First Triathlon,” you only need a bike that is working properly, no need to invest in a brand new one for your first triathlon. I personally used my mountain bike. If you don’t have a bike, you could borrow one from a friend or rent one. Just make sure it is fitting you and in good condition.
- Helmet: simply mandatory in all triathlon races.
- Cycling shoes: Only if you already have clipless pedals, otherwise simply use your running shoes.
- Bike repair kit: It is worth investing in a basic repair puncture kit. After buying it, you should also practice using it 😉
- Race number belt: Depending on the models, it will cost you between $10 to $15.
- Sunscreen, sunglass, hat (or visor): Obviously only for sunny days. If you forget those, you might regret it after being a couple of hours under the sun. Also, make sure you apply the sunscreen once you have your race tri-suit on and not only a t-shirt (speaking from experience… 🙂 )
- Running shoes: make sure you already ran in those shoes before the race.
- Towel: for the transition area
- Nutrition & water bottle: take some nutrition and a bottle of water with you. Please don’t overdo it for short-distance events.
- Post-race clothes: Apart from sweat, you might be completely wet or muddy. Make sure you have some warm clothes waiting for you after the race.
4. KNOW THE BASIC RULES
In all triathlon races, there will be a race briefing, which is mandatory to attend. They will go through the basics rules of triathlon. If you don’t respect them, you can get time penalties or even get disqualified.
I have checked the rules of the ITU and the main triathlon federations and wrote a specific article covering each of the three sports:
Below are the basic rules you should know on top of your head:
- swimming breaststroke is allowed
- you can rest during the swim as long as you don’t make any forward progress
- fasten your helmet before taking your bike out of the transition rack and remove it only once your bike is back on the rack after you completed the bike course
- mount your bike after the mounting line in transition
- you should respect the drafting distance on the bike
- you can receive help during the bike from another participant as long as he can continue the race afterward
- dismount your bike before the dismounting line
- no headphones
5. FOCUS PARTICULARLY ON SWIMMING
Swimming is by far what worries most of the beginners. As you read in the rules section, you can absolutely swim breaststroke, and actually, a lot of triathletes are doing it. It is not the fastest swim stroke, but who cares? You are probably not targeting a podium on your first race anyway.
I have tried to learn freestyle on my own through Youtube videos and books, but nothing comes close to swimming lessons. As a beginner, you should try to get 1-1 lesson or in small groups. You really need someone to correct your technique. My wife and I have done group lessons where one coach has more than 20 swimmers. It is more frustrating than anything else.
Check as well if you have a tri club around you. That’s actually where we got the best swim lessons.
If you pick an open water race, you should definitely practice swimming in a lake. It is a completely different feeling. You don’t have a line at the bottom of the lake to keep you swim straight. Have a look at the below video from GTN on how to sight in open water:
If you struggle to sight, don’t panic. In my first triathlons, I was simply alternating freestyle and breaststroke and used the latter to put me back in the right direction.
6. DO A COUPLE OF BRICK SESSIONS
A brick session is simply a workout that combines two of the three sports. It is a good idea to include some in your training plan (if not in there already), so you know what to expect on race day.
The transition from swimming in a lake to biking is generally not a big issue, but it is worth practicing. The second (bike to run) is the one you should focus on. Most triathletes (me included) feel kind of weird for a couple of minutes. It feels like you would have some jelly legs.
The best is to do a couple of those brick sessions, so you know exactly what I mean and what might happen to you on race day. Check your pace as well. I used to go way too fast in the first mile without realizing it and paid it later on in the race.
7. PRACTICE YOUR TRANSITION
In most short races, the transition area for both T1 (swim-bike) and T2 (bike-run) will be at the same place. It makes it easier as you will have all your gear in the same place.
You don’t need to spend too much time rehearsing the transitions, but it is a good idea to try it a couple of times.
It should be clear what you need to do from leaving the water until you are on your bike. You could combine steps 6 & 7 and do your own small triathlon. I guarantee you will learn a lot out of it 😉
Here are my steps for T1 and T2. Feel free to copy me or adapt them:
While running to the transition area:
- Remove my swimming cap and goggles
- Remove the top part of my wetsuit
- Look for my bike (I have analyzed before the race how to get there)
In my transition zone:
- Remove the bottom part of my wetsuit and put it in the box (or bag)
- Put my race belt on
- Put socks on and cycling shoes (you could go without socks as explained in this article)
- Tie my helmet and put on my sunglasses
- Take my bike out of the transitions and mount it after the mounting line
- Dismount my bike before the dismounting line
- Attach my bike to the rack
- Remove my helmet (it is forbidden to do it before your bike is on its rack!) and put on my running cap
- Switch shoes
- Turn my race belt, so the number is showing up in front
8. AVOID READING TOO MUCH LAST MINUTE TIPS
You should definitely listen to the experience other triathletes had in their first races and what they learned out of it. It will be nearly impossible to apply everything they recommend to you.
The closer you are getting to your race, the more you should avoid getting advice. It will confuse you more than anything else. If you want to read some useful last-minute tips, have a look at the 7 ones I wrote. If you read and apply them correctly, it will be the last 7 tips you will read before your successful first race 😉