In the last 15 years triathlon has grown from an obscure event that attracted only elite athletes and those daring enough to attempt a full distance Ironman into a thriving age group sport in line with marathon and gran fondo events. The great influx of participants has seen the calendar of open age-group triathlon events increase exponentially. There is a triathlon taking place every weekend somewhere in Canada in the USA over the course of a summer with participation reaching into the thousands at some events. Those who have completed a triathlon know that it is an event unlike any other requiring an athlete to transition through three different sports which require vastly different equipment, fitness, and strategies to complete the distance. While triathlon continues to grow, there are those who are reluctant to tackle “Les Trois Sports” due to a perceived inability to complete one or all of the disciplines involved in triathlon. The swim is often the toughest challenge for most. Swimming is arguably the least familiar of the sports. Most people know how to ride a bike and running for the vast majority of us is an innate ability, but swimming is something not everyone learns growing up or is particularly comfortable with. But is triathlon really that hard? Is it only suited to the super fit and the athletically gifted? This post will cover some of the things you need to know to complete a triathlon and help dispel some of the myths that have become barriers to participation in triathlon.
What To Expect at a Triathlon
The Transition Zone (T-Zone)
When you arrive at a triathlon the first thing you’ll likely notice is the large transition area where athletes store their bikes and gear bags. This is the area you will enter after finishing the swim to get your bike and the area you will drop it off before heading back out on the run. You’ll notice athletes not only storing their bikes but also setting up a small area beside their bike with all the gear they will need for their triathlon. Athletes have many different ways of organizing their gear and you should practice at home how you want to setup your space. Remember to be conservative with your space, there will be lots of other athletes who need to pack their own bikes and gear in. A good rule of thumb is to limit your space to the area taken up by two pairs of shoes.
Things You might need in the T-Zone
Race Numbers (for the bike and run) on a race belt.
Garmin (for bike and run)
Try to line up everything you’ll need in the order you’ll need it. Place your cycling shoes first then your running shoes in front. Put the gels you’ll need for the bike in your cycling shoes (rest them in the heel cup so you don’t have to waste time dumping your shoe). Do the same with your running shoes. You will have bottles already on your bike but put an extra bottle into one of your running shoes. You won’t take this bottle on the run with you but in the event you run out of water on the bike or it’s excessively hot, you will have an extra bottle to take a few gulps before heading out onto the run.
If you have TT bars or clip-on aero bars place your helmet on your aero bars with the straps open and resting on either side of the bars otherwise place your helmet on your seat. Drape your race number and belt over your handle bars. Fold your towel in half and lay it over your wheel. Alternatively you can fold your towel to match the size of your two pairs of shoes and rest it on top of your shoes. (You can also put a small towel down if the T-zone is on pavement or dirt so you can lay your wetsuit on it after you finish the swim) Place your hat over your running shoes and your sunglasses in your cycling shoes pointing upward with your gels. Some people like to keep their Garmin or cycling computer on their bikes but sometimes in the haste of transition they will forget to turn it on and press start. A good way to get around this is to put it on your cycling shoes forcing you to acknowledge the unit making you less likely to forget to start it. You can also turn off the auto-off feature so you don’t have to wait for it to start up and pair with the sensors.
Registration and Sign In
Normally you drop your bike off in transition first so you have your hands free when you head over to registration. Check the tech guide for your event to make sure you can enter the T-Zone before sign-in. When you get to sign in, you’ll be given your race numbers, which will usually include stickers that need to be affixed to your bike and helmet (the tech guide usually will indicate where to affix them). Then you will get your time chip. If you’ve done a timed event before you’ll likely be familiar with this with the exception that in a triathlon the timing chip is usually an ankle band rather than something that clips on your shoe or bike’s fork. After receiving your timing chip there will usually be a handful of people hanging about with markers, they will ask your age and race number to mark your arm and calf. They put your race number on your arm and your age and gender on your calf typically. After sign in is a great time to get your last bathroom break but be mindful of lines.
The Swim Start
After you sign-in and set up your T-zone space you’ll likely head down to the swim start. If you’re wearing a wetsuit make sure to put it on as close to the water as possible. Even if the water is cold the sun can make wearing a wetsuit out of the water incredibly uncomfortable. Get your suit on and jump in the water (if allowed) to get a few warm up strokes. It’s important you get in the water and swim around a little before the start to get your suit wet and get used to the water. It will also help ease any anxiety you have about the water and the swim. If you have to take your timing band off to put your wet suit on, make sure to put it back on again. Similarly, when you strip your wet suit off after your swim, make sure the band didn’t come off with the wetsuit.
Swim starts typically have two different varieties. The first is a beach start and the second is a water start. At a beach start the athletes line up according to their wave (waves are usually indicated by swim cap, so if you’re unsure just line up with other people wearing the same colour cap as you). A water start is when you wade out into the water, usually waist deep and wait for the gun. This typically only found in areas where the shoreline has no convenient beach area.
The start will usually be in waves with the Pros heading out first and then succeeding waves according to age group. When you enter the water remain calm and focused. If there are a large number of competitors it can be overwhelming at first trying to swim alongside everyone else. They don’t call it the human washing machine for nothing. Sometimes it is better to wait 10 seconds after your wave starts to enter the water, particularly if you are a slower swimmer. Just like in a running event you will likely start out harder than your comfortable pace due to adrenaline and the energy of everyone else around you. Focus on your stroke, find your comfortable pace, and for the first few minutes continuously assess your effort level. It is better to go too slow than too hard in the first 100m or so. Focus on your breathing and remain calm.
When you get out of the water, you might feel a little dizzy. Your body has acclimated to being horizontal and it will take a minute or two to get used to being vertical again. A good way to alleviate this problem is to put your feet down when the depth of the water is just below your chest. The water will help you balance and the dizziness should be gone by the time you hit the beach.
When you’re heading to the T-zone unzip your wetsuit and get your arms out. Unless there is a designated spot or wetsuit peelers on hand, avoid stopping along the route to the T-zone to remove your wetsuit. There will likely be dozens of other people around you. Be courteous to the other athletes. When you get to the T-Zone pull your suit off, fold it up, and place it next to your shoes.
Remember to always put your helmet on and fasten it closed before you un-rack your bike. You cannot leave the T-zone with your bike without your helmet being on and fastened. Before you leave the T-zone do a mental inventory of the things you’ll need for the bike. Don’t rush. Rushing will only save you a few seconds and could potentially mean you forget something that causes you to lose far more time than that. It’s good practice to stop and take 3-5 deep breathes to relax yourself before heading out on the bike. After you have your cycling shoes on, pull your runners forward into the spot your cycling shoes once occupied.
Don’t run to the mount line unless you are comfortable running in cleats and have scoped out the terrain of the T-zone and corridor leading to the mount-line. It’s a good idea to get anti-slip cleats if you’re using road cleats (e.g. Look style pedals and cleats).
Don’t start out on the bike at the pace you intend to ride at. Pedal easy for the first few hundred meters and take stock of yourself. How are you feeling? What’s your HR at? Are you breathing heavy already? The longer the triathlon the longer you can ride easy to recover from the swim. 10minutes of easy pedalling won’t count for much over a 5 hour Iron-distance bike leg.
As you start to feel recovered and relaxed start to increase your pace gradually to race effort. Don’t accelerate from the mount-line out of the saddle up to speed. Find your rhythm and then settle into your race position before starting to increase effort.
When you’re coming to the end of the bike leg, reverse the process you did when you started out. Start decreasing your effort in the last few minutes before the run. There’s is no reason to come to the dismount line at full speed or to sprint. You won’t save time here. In the last 3-10 minutes (depending on the length of the bike leg) you should be gradually decreasing your effort and bringing your HR down 10-15 beats.
When you get to your racking spot, rack your bike first. Remove your helmet and place it back on the bike in the same spot you had it before. Take your cycling shoes off. Put them into the spot you had your running shoes (remember you slid your runners forward before heading out on to the bike course). Take a few sips of water from your spare bottle and take a gel if that’s part of your nutrition strategy. If you’re using a race belt to hold your number, you’ll probably have to turn your numbers to the front (they’re usually on your back for the bike leg). Put on your hat if you plan to run with that. Once again, take a few deep breathes, do a mental inventory and assess how you feel.
Your legs will likely feel sluggish for the first part of the run. If you haven’t done sufficient brick workouts, you might even have some spasms in your calves in the first few km. Once again, take the first few minutes of the running easy and then gradually ramp up to race effort. If you are doing a sprint Triathlon or Try-a-Tri, you can gradually increase your pace throughout the entirety of the run (5-10seconds per km every km). This will likely give you the best split for your run. If your plan is to run 5:30min/km for the 5km run, start at 6:00min/km and increase your pace 10second per km every km so that when you cross the line you are running 5:10min/km. If you start at race effort or harder you will likely crack by the halfway mark. But if you start slower and build to race effort, by the time you hit 4km you’ll likely feel motivated to push through the pain knowing the end is just around the corner.
Always sprint for the finish line even if you’re the last person in the race.
How To Prepare
Most people know how to ride a bike and almost everyone can run (or at the very least walk). If you’re doing a Sprint or Try-a-Tri you can usually get sufficient training just by riding and running a few times a week. A reasonably fit person can usually finish a Try-a-Tri without much training. The issue for most people is the swim. Either they don’t know how to swim or swimming in open water makes them anxious. The pool is a great place to start but try to do as much open water swimming as you can. For most short events, you will have plenty of time to complete the swim leg even if you need to doggy paddle for some of it. If you know someone who can swim well, ask them to help you with your swim stroke. You can also find adult swim classes at your local pool if you need to learn or refresh on the basics. You don’t need to have perfect form but being able to swim 3-3:30min/100m is a good baseline. If you’re nervous about open water swimming (OWS) start out by swimming along the shoreline in shallow water. Every time you go start further and further out until you are swimming in water that is just a little bit over your head. Continue to swim along the shore so that if you panic you will only have to swim into shore a few meters before you can touch bottom again. Once you get confidence doing that, try swimming out and back with a friend (it’s never a good idea to go OWS alone).
Some triathlon events take place in water that never goes above your head. The Iron Girl triathlon in Grimsby, ON is a great example. If you’re uncomfortable swimming, you can actually water run the swim leg at this event. Other events like the Barrelman in Niagara Falls and the Montreal Esprit triathlon have lane markers visible at the bottom of the swim channel making the swim feel more like a pool. Talk to your local triathletes (or bike shop) to see if there are events that have swims like this in your area.
Whether it’s your first triathlon or your 10th there is always something to learn about how to better handle the rigours of triathlon. Experiment with different T-zone setups and practice them. It doesn’t hurt to setup your T-zone gear in your front yard or a park and simulate running up and switching from one sport to the next. The most important thing about successfully completing a triathlon is to remain calm and focused. Assess yourself, assess how you’re feeling, be conscious of your swim form and pace. Even though it’s a race there is lots of time to relax, take stock of things and continue on. Always think ahead. Plan and visualize your transition while you’re finishing your swim and bike. Most importantly, have fun.