Beginner’s Guide to Triathlon
Three sports all part of one event is as exciting as it is challenging but with a little help from the experts, you’ll be well on your way to smashing PRs, increasing your distances and perhaps even tackling an Ironman one day.
What is a triathlon?
Swimming, cycling and running are the three sports that make up triathlon and they’re traditionally in that order, though there are some new-age triathlons shaking up the status quo. Regardless, the distances you swim, cycle or run will depend on the event itself.
Sprint: 750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run
Olympic: 1500m swim, 40km bike, 10km run
70.3/Half-Ironman: 1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21.1km run (half-marathon)
Ironman: 3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42.2km run (marathon)
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, there are a few terms you’ll need to get familiar with when you do triathlon. We’ve summarised them so you can sound like a pro at your next tri.
- Training to be the best at one sport is hard enough but add two more into the mix and it takes real dedication to succeed. Brick sessions are training sessions that involve two sports. For example, a 40km ride followed by a 10km run. These sessions can be extended into multiple brick sessions by jumping back on the bike again after your run. The idea behind a brick session is to train your body to immediately switch from one sport to the other. It’s also useful for reducing your time spent in transition, which leads us to the next point.
- After you finish your swim, you make your way to a dedicated area called transition where you’ll find your bike, helmet and shoes. You’ll return to this same place after your bike leg to switch into your running gear. These transition stations are often referred to as T1 (from swim to bike) and T2 (from bike to run). There are a few rules around transition (e.g. when you are allowed to mount and dismount your bike) so look out for them during your next event.
- When you finish a triathlon, your time is split between the three sports and transitions. You can use this information to refine your time through transition or improve your speed or pace in any of the sports.
- While a tri-suit isn’t a barrier to getting into triathlon, once you decide you love it, you’ll be better off with one. A tri-suit is worn for all three sports meaning you don’t need to get changed during transition. It’s a bit like a skinsuit with a quick-drying chamois and chlorine-resistant fabrics.
Triathlon kit and equipment
You don’t need to spend a fortune when you begin triathlon despite what you might think at first glance of the transition zone. There will be deep section wheels, aero bikes and all kinds of fancy gear but If you’re not sure if you’re just getting started, there are some shortcuts you can use until you decide to part with a bit more cash.
At the very least you’ll need a swimsuit, tri suit or swimming shorts before you take the plunge into the deep end. If your triathlon involves open-water swimming, you might be able to hire a wetsuit, which is a great option if you don’t want to buy one straight away. The temperature will be a lot cooler than your local heated pool and wetsuits also help with buoyancy.
A swim cap is optional but favoured by many, particularly people with longer hair while training. Most races provide you with one before the start with different colours pertaining to different start waves. It’ll also improve your aerodynamics in the water and they don’t cost a lot either.
Sorry to point out the obvious but you’re going to need a
road bike which is probably the most expensive piece of triathlon equipment. You could borrow a friend’s bike as long as you feel comfortable on it for your desired distance but you’d be better off getting your own given how much training you’ll be doing on it ahead of the big event.
While most road bikes will do the job just fine you may want to make some changes to the setup. Clipless pedals are great for efficient pedalling and powering up hills without losing contact with the pedals. You’ll need pedals, cleats and shoes to do this and you can achieve this quite cheaply.
In the absence of a dedicated triathlon bike, you can get clip-on aerobars to enable that aero position you see during time trials which reduce wind resistance to help you achieve that all important quick split.
If you’re not using a tri suit, a well-fitting sports bra will keep you comfortable for the bike and run legs of your triathlon. This is a really important item of kit for women and will make all the difference to your enjoyment of triathlon.
After finishing your swim, you’ll need to change into your cycling kit. A microfibre towel will help dry off excess water making it easier to get into lycra. A pair of padded shorts and a jersey are the bare necessities of cycling kit and can double up as your running kit afterwards.
Sunglasses will make a big difference to your ride and you can wear whatever you find most comfortable. In time you might like to upgrade to lightweight sports sunglasses or a helmet visor.
On the latter point, you’ll need a helmet during racing and training. Not only does it offer protection if you come off your bike, but it will improve your aerodynamics and give you a bit more free speed as you tuck into your aero position.
Possibly the easiest of the three in terms of kit and equipment is the final leg of your triathlon. All you need is a pair of trainers waiting for you upon your return to transition. Optional extras you might like to keep handy are a cap if the sun’s shining during your race and a triathlon belt where you can clip on your bib number.
Nutrition during triathlon
For shorter distance triathlons, you might be able to complete the event without any in-race food but it takes time to train your body to do that volume of exercise without refuelling.
Before your race, ensure you’ve had a high-carbohydrate meal a couple of hours beforehand. This will keep your body going for the duration of the event, especially if those carbohydrates are slow release: porridge, bananas and pasta to name a few.
If you feel the need to refuel during your race, keep an energy bar or gel handy in transition. You can eat this on the bike or during the run to power you to the finish line. Make sure you also have a full bottle of water in your bottle cage - you can be surprisingly dehydrated after your swim especially if it’s hot.
After your race, hunt down a high protein meal or shake to help your body recover from exerting so much energy over the course of your triathlon. Recovery is as important as training and by looking after yourself in the hours after the race, you’ll benefit from a stronger body during your next training session.
Nutrition during a triathlon will depend on the person and we recommend you use trial and error to find out what works for you. What works for one, may disagree with the other.
Enter a triathlon
Now that you’ve done your training, brick sessions and tested your nutrition strategy, it’s time to pin on a number. Triathlon is a global sport and has a very welcoming community. Find out if there’s a local club or race in your area and unleash your potential across three sports.
Good luck and we hope to see you in Kona soon!