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A beginners’ guide to triathlon

Written by Fiona

March 06 2019

So many more people are keen to try triathlon as a sport. The club that I belong to, Glasgow Triathlon Club, has more than 500 members with an almost even split between men and women. The club has seen a huge growth in membership in recent years.

This blog post has come about because people often ask me questions about the sport. It’s great that so many people are keen to try a triathlon. Many people apologise because they believe they are asking silly questions but they are not. There is a lot to know about the sport such as what kit to buy, what to wear and when, how to do your first race etc.

My aim is to help newcomers to triathlon with some of the finer details. Some of these questions have been asked by friends and followers of my blog and others have been things I have learned as I have progressed in the sport.

What is the order of the sports for triathlon? 

Swim, bike, run.

What distance should I go for first?

This depends on what sort of sports you have done before, how fit you are and how long you have to train. Some people do an Ironman as their first triathlon race, while others start, very sensibly, with a novice distance.

What is the difference between novice and Ironman?

A novice race (also called a fun or super sprint) usually comprises a swim of between 200m and 400m swim, then a 10km to 20km cycle and then a 2.5km to 5km run.

A sprint distance race is 750m swim, 20km cycle, 5km run

Standard distance (also called Olympic distance) is 1500m swim, 40km bike, 10km run

(You see a pattern here?)

A half Ironman or 70.3 is 1.9km swim, 90km cycle and a half marathon run

Ironman includes a 3.86km (2.4 mile) swim, 180.25 km (112-mile) bike and a full marathon run.

Can I do a novice distance triathlon a few times?

Of course you can. You could do novice or fun events for the rest of your racing career but most people find they want to try something a little longer.

Do I have to be able to do the crawl to take part?

No, you can swim breaststroke, doggy paddle, backstroke or the crawl, or a mix of all of these in most novice race events. The crawl tends to be more efficient once you have properly learned the technique but many people do a mix of the crawl and breaststroke when they first start racing.

What is freestyle?

Another name for the crawl.

Do I need to dive in?

It is unlikely that a novice triathlon will call for you to dive into the pool.

An open water swim triathlon with competitors in the water. Most British events require you to wear a wetsuit because the water is cold.

How do I know my estimated time for a swim?

Get in a pool and swim the distance as if you were in a race.

Can I estimate a quicker time for a race?

If you over or under-estimate you will simply annoy people in the same lane as you in the race. Organisers group together people of a similar ability so they can swim in the same lane without too much frustration.

Can I start with an open water triathlon?

Yes, of course. Open water swimming triathlons are popular but you will need a wetsuit to do these races in the UK and it is a good idea to practise open water swimming first. It feels quite different from a pool.

How can I train for open water swimming?

In Scotland you can swim in many lochs without permission and without paying. Find a friend who is more experienced and ask if you can go with them to swim, or join a group of swimmers who regularly swim open water.

You will find all sorts of swimming groups and triathlon clubs doing open water swimming.

In the rest of the UK things are a bit different and you normally need to attend an organised session in a lake. There are a growing number of these sessions but swimmers are not given the same freedom as the Scottish Outdoors access Code affords swimmers in Scotland.

I like my trisuit for practical reasons but it took a while to feel less self conscious. In my first triathlons I added a top over the trisuit for the cycle and run.

Do I need a trisuit?

You do not need a trisuit but it can make a triathlon easier and quicker. A trisuit is an all-in-one outfit (or you can buy two piece suits) that allows you to swim, cycle and run without changing outfit.

They look like a swimming costume but have longer legs and a lightly padded area of the butt.

It’s totally fine to wear a swimming costume and then put on cycle kit over the top for the bike section. Most people choose to then run in their bike kit.

Do I wear a trisuit under my wetsuit?

Yes. This means that when you exit the open water swim you peel off your wetsuit, remove your swim cap and goggles and go straight to the bike section of the race.

Will people think I am ridiculous in a trisuit?

No. Everyone looks the same pretty much. There will be thinner people and fatter people but a trisuit is what most people wear for triathlon so it doesn’t really matter what you look like.

If you feel self-conscious add a jacket or loose shorts for the cycle/run but you’ll waste time in transition.

Buy trisuits to suit your gender because they tend to have a different cut and design to suit your physique.

(There are always a lot of questions about trisuits!)

Trisuits and a two-part trisuit. 

How do I go to the toilet mid-race if I am wearing a trisuit?

You should not need to go to the toilet mid-race during a shorter race. If it’s a longer race you will want to wait until you can use one of the toilets dotted along the route. That means you can take the trisuit down in privacy behind a closed door.

If it’s a longer triathlon you could choose a two-piece trisuit for quicker toilet access.

Note, this is a question that more women ask than men!

Trisuit under the wetsuit.

If it’s a pool-based triathlon do I wear only the trisuit?

Yes. You can wear the trisuit for the swim, cycle and run. You’ll need goggles, too, and most races supply a swim hat that you must wear.

You might like to try an off road triathlon.

Can I wear my surfing wetsuit for triathlon?

Triathlon wetsuits are more flexible in the shoulder area to allow you to swim more fluidly. They are generally made of thinner and lighter weight neoprene too so this makes them a better choice for racing.

Can I get fully changed in the transition area?

If you feel the need to do so you should be aware that there is a strict no nudity rule in the transition area. You will have to make use of a towel or over-the-head towelling robe for changing if you plan to strip off your swimsuit, for example, and get into cycling kit.

Any tips for quicker transitions?

A race belt on to which you fix a race number is useful. This means, whatever you are wearing you have the race belt around your waist and simply need to adjust for each discipline.

You wear the number at your back for the cycle and at the front for your run.

Race belt.

Have everything laid out for each discipline so you know what can easily access it in transition. Lay your bike kit in one area and your run kit in another area.

Practise transition and think through what you will put on/take off before you do the race.

Make sure you have practised the bike-to-run part of the race. This is called a brick session. Your legs will feel strange when you go from the bike to the run and you should know how that is before a race.

Most newcomers will choose to wear trainers for the cycle and the run. It is easier to wear just one pair and far quicker in transition.

If you are used to wearing clip in cycle shoes you will know they are a benefit in terms of powering your bike but that means you need to change from bike shoes to running trainers.

Elastic laces save time in transition because you do not need to tie them.

Elastic laces in your trainers will help you to quickly pull them on. Most people do not bother with socks or cycle gloves for a short triathlon, unless it will be cold.

A little talcum powder in your trainers helps your wet feet to slip into the shoes more easily.

Join a triathlon club and ask members and coaches for tips. They are usually very helpful, especially at my club, Glasgow Triathlon Club.

What about wearing a bra?

Most women wear a sports bra under their trisuit because they run can be painful without one. Some trisuits and tops have built-in bras but they are not usually very supportive.

Choose a sports bra that is comfortable and quick drying.

Bikes in a triathlon transition area.

What about the bike?

Entry-level triathlons can usually be completed on any bike. A mountain bike, hybrid, racer or even a shopping style bike will be fine. It’s up to you. If you want to make sure you have the right triathlon bike see this blog What bike should I buy for a triathlon?

Are there strict racing rules?

Most entry level triathlons will have all the race rules you need to know on their website or in competitor information. There are not many rules but it’s important to follow those that are detailed.

For example:

  • Races will require you to wear a bike helmet.
  • You do not wear the bike helmet for the run.
  • You must not draft (that is ride in the slipstream) of other riders unless the race allows you to do so. Most don’t.
The run section of a triathlon.

How can I improve my racing?

Enter a few triathlons and give it a go.

Novice triathlons in Scotland to try

Here are a few novice and super sprint triathlons to start out with:

What’s next?

Sprint distance triathlons are a 750m swim, a 20km cycle and a 5km run. Most people progress to these after a novice distance event.

Once you get into racing here’s an essential kit list for triathlons.

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