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Tips & Tricks for Tri-Newbies

Tackling your first triathlon? We answer common questions and share tips for beginners.

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Tackling your first triathlon? Even the best triathletes in the world started somewhere–and made their share of rookie mistakes. Ironman winner Linsey Corbin wore bright cotton panties under her bike shorts—to the amusement of the men behind her in spin class—before learning that cycling shorts are designed to be worn undie-free. Ironman world champion and Olympic silver medalist Michellie Jones wore her bike helmet backward at the same race two years in a row before getting it right. Mistakes happen, and no question is stupid—especially when learning something new.

Here, we anticipate some of the questions and common pitfalls that arise for newbies navigating multisport.

Q: I’m an experienced runner. Why do I feel so awkward when I start the triathlon run?

Running off the bike is an entirely different beast than straight running, at least at the start. You’ll feel strange as your muscles adapt to a different body position and different demands. Begin slowly and allow your body to adjust, and after 15 to 20 minutes you’ll settle into your normal running rhythm. Also note that your triathlon run pace will almost always be slower than your pace in a standard running race.

Q: How will I find my gear in a crowded transition area?

If allowed (check each race’s rule book), tie a balloon to your transition rack or use a brightly colored towel to easily identify your place. On race morning, familiarize yourself with the transition layout and the “in” and “out” entrances and exits for the swim, bike and run. Toward the end of the swim, rehearse in your head what you’ll do when you reach T1. Likewise, toward the end of the bike, rehearse for T2.

Related: Your First Triathlon Training Plan

Q: What and when should I eat or drink?

You’ll learn through trial and error in training and racing what works best for you nutrition-wise. Be sure to take in plenty of electrolytes (via sports drink) in the days before a race—water alone will flush vital sodium and potassium from your system. Eat an early pre-race dinner; something simple to digest that your body is used to. For race day breakfast, eat a few hours before the start and stick to simple foods such as oatmeal, toast and bananas. During the race, consume roughly 300 calories per hour from a combination of energy gels (the easiest to digest), chews or bars and sports drink, and sip some water at each aid station on the run.

Q: I’m scared of the swim. What should I do?

It’s normal to experience mild panic in your first triathlon swim, especially in a mass start. It’s OK to take a break and breaststroke, or even hang onto an official’s kayak (as long as you don’t use it to make forward progress) to catch your breath. Minimize the chaos by starting toward the back and to the side, out of the main pack, until your swim confidence increases.

Top Tri Tips

Use lightweight gloves when pulling on your wetsuit to prevent fingernail tears in the delicate neoprene. One at a time, put each foot in a plastic bag to ease step-in access to the suit. And be sure to use generous amounts of Body Glide or another lubricant on your neck to prevent the suit’s collar from chafing—especially in saltwater swims.

Learn to breathe bilaterally (on both sides) when swimming. This allows you to take a breath whenever needed—especially important if the water is extra choppy on one side.

“Brick” workouts (doing two or more disciplines in succession) are your best bet for getting used to the rapid race-day transition from swim to bike to run.

Test carrying nutrition products in your race kit’s pockets prior to race day to be sure they won’t bounce out as you run.

Leave your cycling gloves at home and forgo socks in a shorter race. But as you go up in distance, your feet will be more prone to blistering on the run. Pack socks for half marathons or more.

At the finish, there’s no need to stop your watch—race officials will record your time. Rather, look up and smile for the camera. You’ll appreciate the nice finish photo later.

Triathlon doesn’t have to break the bank. Having a coach and the latest high-tech gear is nice, but not necessary. Upgrade as your budget allows, but to get started you’ll just need these basics: a race outfit, swim goggles, wetsuit, bike, helmet, cycling shoes (not necessary unless you are using clipless pedals), run shoes—and an appetite for adventure!

Related: Pre-Race Day Nutrition