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The Ultimate Triathlon Race Day Checklist

by Jim Gazzale

Blog ▸ The Ultimate Triathlon Race Day Checklist

Jim Gazzale

Jim Gazzale has spent time in various cities around the United States as well as Internationally writing content for print, digital, and broadcast news outlets. His work has been seen in more than 230+ countries worldwide. Jim is also the owner of SENS Fitness, an online weight loss and endurance sports coaching company. His signature “Wine and Weight Loss” program helps men and women lose weight and get into race shape while drinking wine and eating whatever they want.

Everything you need to remember so that you can race with confidence at every event

Imagine it: race day is looming ever closer… that long-awaited finish line… the transition areas are all neatly set up… you come out of the swim, jump onto the bike, then onto your run leg. Triathlon race days are full of excitement and build-up.

They can also be a logistical nightmare. Triathletes are notorious for carrying a lot in their kits, and rightfully so. You are training for and racing in three sports, each requiring significantly different pieces of equipment with little to no crossover. 

How can you make sure you have all you need on race day and ace your event with confidence? By following this triathlon race day checklist, you’ll be confident you haven’t forgotten anything so that your focus remains on racing well and enjoying the atmosphere on race day.

Below, we cover:

  • Swimming, biking, and running checklists with all the must-have items;
  • Nutrition essentials for race day;
  • Miscellaneous extras you don’t want to forget;
  • Race day countdown.

Triathlon Kit Checklists for Race Day

Before you set off to your race, start mapping out your kit list and get all your triathlon gear ready with time to spare. We also advise testing every item in your kit before race day. You don’t want to wait until your big race to find that a pair of brand-new socks causes blisters or that you actually hate the gels you just bought last week!

Then, especially if you’ve traveled to your destination, lay everything out the night before the race and go through your checklist for each sport. Don’t forget to check your nutrition and the items you’ll need during transitions. Finally, visualize your perfect race. 

What’s happening? How do you feel? Most importantly, which equipment helps you go fast and makes you the most comfortable? Now is the moment to choose between the same types of items and order your nutrition according to preference. Also, think about timing if you’re doing a longer event: will the weather likely change? Should you have different layers available during transitions? How will your stomach feel after 2-3 hours of biking? Will you crave savory snacks or not feel able to eat at all?

Swimming Checklist

Swimming will be the first leg of your race, so let’s start there. First, what will you be wearing? 

  • Tri suit, yes, but will it be one piece or two pieces? Personal preference should prevail here, but remember that many athletes prefer one-piece suits for simplicity and a lower likelihood of chafing thanks to fewer seams. Since one-piece tri suits started being built with breakaway zippers, making it much easier to go to the bathroom during the race, one-piece tri suits have become the standard. However, two-piece tri suits can feel more flexible and cooler on a hot day.
  • Wetsuit USA Triathlon (USAT) rules allow athletes to wear wetsuits if the water temperature is 78 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. If the water temperature is in the range of 78.1 – 83.9 degrees Fahrenheit, competitors may wear wetsuits but will not be eligible for awards. Consider what end of the field you may finish, your personal preferences, and the type of race you’re doing.

Wetsuits also vary in design, as they will either feature full-length sleeves or a sleeveless cut. Again, it’s advisable to rely on personal preference to ensure you’re wearing a comfortable and functional kit. Keep in mind the water temperature when making your decision and the mobility of your shoulders (full-length sleeves constrict your range of motion somewhat, and they take some getting used to).

If the water is too cold for your comfort, a wetsuit with full sleeves is probably best. However, if you lack mobility in the shoulders and feel restricted by the sleeves, a sleeveless wetsuit will be your best option. Ideally, try out both designs in training and get comfortable with your top choice.

  • Swimskin Depending on the water temperature, you’ll have a few options. If wetsuits aren’t allowed we recommend using a swimskin, which reduces drag making you faster, and because your body is kept taught it’ll feel more buoyant.  

The three additional essential items in the swimming part of a triathlon are your:

  • timing chip
  • swim cap, which will most likely be provided to you by the race organizers (but bring your own swim cap just in case); and
  • a good pair of goggles, we recommend mirrored goggles because they reduce glare from the water making it easier to sight.

All three are required for the safety and enjoyment of your swim.

BONUS TIP: If you’re wearing a wetsuit or swimskin you should store anything you need for the bike in the back pockets of your tri suit. This eliminates one thing you’ll have to do in Transition One (T1) and makes sure you won’t forget much.

Cycling Checklist

The number of items to remember increases as you move on to the next part of your race.

  • Bike Don’t forget your bike because without it you’re not going anywhere! You’d be surprised at the number of triathletes who skip this critical step!

So, if you’re continuing to envision your perfect day after a successful swim, you rip the wetsuit off, and then what? You’re in your spot for transition, so think about what should be laid out in front of you for changing, having a quick snack, and getting yourself comfortable for the bike ride.

  • Socks You’ll have your tri suit under your wetsuit, so clothing is already accounted for, except for your socks. Socks tend to be used in Ironman events, and some people even use them in half-Ironman events, but they’re rarely used in shorter races.
  • Towel The towel comes in handy here to dry your feet off and clean off any dirt or sand accumulated on your way out of the water.
  • Bike shoes From there, you can slip into your bike shoes. Whether you wear socks on the bike or not depends on your preference, the length of the race, and the type of bike shoes you have. You can use tri shoes or road cycling shoes, both are totally fine.
  • Sunscreen Depending on the day’s temperature and how sunny it is, you may want to throw on a layer of sunscreen. It’s always a good idea to apply some also to protect you from the wind on a cloudier day.
  • Helmet and sunglasses Finally, put your helmet and sunglasses on, grab your bike off the rack, and run toward the “BIKE OUT” sign. Your nutrition and hydration should already be on your bike, leaving you with nothing extra to grab.
  • Nutrition We recommend having all your race nutrition stored either in the back pockets of your race kit, or secured to your bike in an aerodynamic bento box.
  • Hydration Have all your bottles of fluids already set up on your bike before the race starts. Between your forearms mounted horizontally, or at a 45 degree angle in behind your seat are the most aerodynamic spots for your fluids.

Running Checklist

Carrying on visualizing, you’ve now had the best bike ride of your life, and you’re on pace for smashing your personal best. As you’re coming back into transition, start game planning your strategy to get out on the run as efficiently as possible. This includes a quick transition, helped by your pre-race prep.

Your bike-to-run transition traditionally doesn’t take as long as your swim-to-bike transition. In fact, many pro athletes jump off the bike and head into the run with just a quick change of shoes, especially if they don’t need to change out of a comfortable tri suit. In a shorter triathlon, you could probably do the same. 

  • Running shoes Once you rack your bike, take off the helmet and bike shoes, you’ll simply need to change footwear, apply a quick layer of UV protection, grab any other items, and head toward the run course. We recommend using elastic laces in your running shoes for a quick change because your feet will likely be damp and sticky after the bike.
  • Hat, visor, or headband You can put your headwear and fuel belt on as you move (and you’ll get better and quicker at this with practice!). We actually like a hat set up in transition with everything you need for the run, then in transition you can just grab your hat and start running knowing you’ve got everything you need for the run in the hat.
  • Fuel belt The advantage of using a fuel belt during your triathlon is that it has a spot for your race number, as well as holders that keep your nutrition secure as you run. Much like equipping your bike with nutrition and bottles beforehand, place your run nutrition in the fuel belt before the race to save valuable time on the day.

For longer distances, such as half or full Ironman triathlons, logistics may be slightly more complex in that you may want to take more food or drink with you. This could involve carrying a small running hydration belt instead. However, unless you’re doing an extreme triathlon where you need to be self-sufficient, remember, aid stations will be available on the way, so you don’t need to bring too much with you.

  • Race number Don’t forget this! In some races you’ll be disqualified for crossing the finish line without it.

Nutrition Checklist for Triathlons

The first rule of race day nutrition: nothing new on race day!

That means you should’ve been training with the products you’ll use during your race. Unfortunately, many triathletes fail to adhere to this golden rule and suffer the consequences, either by having GI distress or simply not being able to stomach some untried brand of gels. 

Race day morning

It’s the morning of your perfect race, which means optimizing your race day breakfast. Kick off your day with a tried and tested breakfast that not only gives you energy but that you can digest. Then, make sure you have tried and tested nutrition on your bike and in your bottles, and also in your fuel belt so that you can finish strong without your stomach begging you to pull off the course. Your breakfast should be carb-based and be eaten roughly four hours before the start of the race.

The second rule of race day nutrition is: keep it as simple as possible

During the race

To perform well during the race, you need to replace:

  • Roughly 25% of the calories you’ll burn;
  • Enough fluids to keep you from losing more than 3% of your body weight. Roughly one bottle of fluids from a light electrolyte drink is a good starting point. If you begin to get gassy and burp, drink less. If you get thirsty, drink more. If your stomach gets upset, switch to water; and
  • Enough electrolytes to keep your blood pressure stable. 

So, think about how much you normally expend during your long training bike rides and runs. Then calculate roughly how much food and drink you’ll need to consume to make up 25% of that in calories. Check that you have a steady intake of at least 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. 

Hydration

When it comes to hydration, it’s important not to wait until you’re thirsty. Instead, sip a light electrolyte drink regularly on the bike, aiming to use up one large bottle every hour.

The easiest way to incorporate fueling on the bike and run is to take in both on a regular basis, depending on the timings that work for you–for example, every 20 to 35 minutes for your bars or gels, and every 5 minutes for your hydration. Be sure to check the recommended intake on your nutrition products and test timings in training to figure out what works for you. 

Note: An easy hack is to set timers on your watch to remind you to eat or drink every 15 minutes, for example. 

  • Calculating your nutrition To make calculating your nutrition requirements easier, we’ve created a custom race nutrition calculator you can access for free. You’ll be able to calculate a customized caloric intake and race nutrition schedule automatically. You can also check out our triathlon nutrition calculator to help you calculate calories, choose the right products for you, schedule them into your race plan, and avoid stomach issues altogether.
Triathlon Nutrition Calculator

Getting these calculations exactly right is critical. It determines how much hydration and nutrition you need to carry in your bike bottles and fuel belt. The calculations will also help you game plan your strategy for aid stations. Do you have everything you need in your bike bottles and your fuel belt, or do you need to supplement with what’s on offer when you reach an aid station? Also, can you optimize the weight you carry by taking less, thereby going lighter and faster, by relying on the aid station top-up?

If you want a system that allows you to nail your race nutrition plan, no matter your ability level, and achieve your personal best, check out the Triathlon Nutrition Foundations ebook.

Items You Won’t Want to Forget on Race Day

With all the “essentials” out of the way, there are still a few things you’ll want to have on hand to make your race day more manageable. Remember, triathletes rarely travel light! With equipment for three sports, you’ll most likely want a bag (or several!) to carry it all in. 

  • Transition bag. There are plenty of companies, like ROKA, that offer transition bags with enough space to carry everything but your bike. The race organizers will also provide you with a plastic bag or two, which can be used for this purpose if you don’t want to buy a dedicated transition bag.
  • Race number. You’ll also want to keep your race number on the checklist. It’s easy to forget it and yet such an important small piece of your race day kit. If you leave the transition to start your run without it, you may be disqualified. As we mentioned above, there should be a dedicated spot on your fuel belt for the race number. Stick it on there ASAP so you won’t forget it!
  • Triathlon watch. One other important piece of equipment you should have is a dedicated sports watch, preferably with a multi-sport or triathlon feature. This allows you to stay on track with your race-day nutrition, hydration, and pacing so that your vision of the perfect day becomes a reality.

Here are some of our suggestions for the best triathlon watches for beginners, women, large wrists, and small wrists.

Race Day To-Dos

Preparing for race day may feel overwhelming. That’s normal! There are a million and one things to remember, but hopefully, with the checklist and the race day to-do list provided here, you can rest easy knowing that everything is accounted for on race day morning. Here’s a race day countdown that frames all you need to know for the big day.

Wake Up / Race Morning

Ideally, it’s best to wake up early and eat 4 hours before your start time. Remember to stick with a known breakfast combination, not trying anything new on race day!

Examples of good race day breakfasts are:

  • Two small pieces of whole grain or sprouted toast with nut butter, jam, or honey
  • Whole-grain cereal with a dairy-free milk
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Leftover pasta (but watch the serving size, it’s very easy to over-serve dense pasta)
  • My personal favorite (because it’s such a slow-digesting source of energy) is plain, natural, slow-cooked oats with UCAN SuperStarch powder mixed in
  • UCAN SuperStarch bars

Try some of these before your long rides or runs to pick your favorite for race morning.

Don’t bother drinking fluids specifically to hydrate at breakfast, as that will come later. You can have coffee if you want as it won’t hurt your performance. 

Two hours before the race start (Between breakfast and race)

At this point, just about everything you need to do is done. There’s just one last thing I like to do after breakfast and before the race for nutrition.

While your hydration levels are likely full at this point, and you don’t need much more in the way of fluids or electrolytes, some people get a dry mouth, and some people (like me) have nervous energy before a race. 

To keep your hands busy and your mouth lubricated, so you feel comfortable and relaxed before the race, fill a small disposable bottle with 8-12 ounces of a light electrolyte drink. You’re looking for something without any calories but with a small amount of electrolytes, something like a Nuun, Base Salt, or UCAN electrolytes.

Sip this bottle whenever you want to, but don’t feel as though you must finish it. I recommend a disposable bottle so you can sip the bottle right up until it’s time to start the process of warming up, and you can then ditch the bottle in the garbage or with a race volunteer.

Congratulations, you’re now ready to race!

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Jim Gazzale

Jim Gazzale has spent time in various cities around the United States as well as Internationally writing content for print, digital, and broadcast news outlets. His work has been seen in more than 230+ countries worldwide. Jim is also the owner of SENS Fitness, an online weight loss and endurance sports coaching company. His signature “Wine and Weight Loss” program helps men and women lose weight and get into race shape while drinking wine and eating whatever they want.