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Triathlon Training 101 – Everything You Need to Know to Complete Your First Race

by Taren Gesell

Blog ▸ Triathlon Training 101 – Everything You Need to Know to Complete Your First Race

Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MōTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.

Looking for that next big challenge? Well, you’ve found it with a triathlon. The idea of swimming, cycling, and then running -- one right after another -- might seem crazy enough to make your head spin. However, whether you feel totally out-of-shape or like the fittest person on earth, you’ll find a welcoming and supportive triathlon community. 

The fastest finishers are often the most vocal supporters of their fellow athletes crossing the line near the back-of-the-pack. If you’re not first over the line, you’re still a finisher, and that’s an accomplishment most triathletes speak of proudly. Not to mention that triathlon is a great all-body sport that's gentler on your joints than just running, for example, and will get you in great shape no matter your starting point. 

So, what do you say? Ready to give triathlon a try?

What is a triathlon?

As the name suggests, three events comprise a triathlon: swimming, biking, and running. These are completed one after the other in a single race, in this order. Most triathlons are performed in this order for safety reasons. Imagine trying to swim any length of time after biking and running. It probably wouldn’t end well. Most safety issues happen in the swim, followed by the bike, then the run, which is why it’s traditionally the last leg of the event. Besides, once you’re out of the water, you can dry off and carry on without any more stops for toweling off!

How it all started: The History of Triathlon

The triathlon is believed to have originated in France in the 1920s, when athletes competed in a race called les trois sports (the three sports). It wasn’t really until the mid-twentieth century when formal rules were adopted and another few decades before the sport came west to North America.

The first modern swim, bike, and run event was held in September 1974 in San Diego, California. It was called the Mission Bay Triathlon, and oddly enough, the organizers did not know about the events taking place some 50 years earlier in France. They believed they had created the name. 

According to the World Triathlon Corporation, the first Ironman distance race wasn’t created until 1977 at a running club awards banquet in Hawaii when a debate ensued over which athletes — swimmers, cyclists, or runners — were the toughest.To settle the debate, an all-day race was planned around the island of Oahu, with a 2.4-mile swim (the distance of the annual Waikiki Roughwater Swim, one of the most challenging open-water swims in the world), a 112-mile bike ride (the circumference of the island), and a full marathon run (26.2 miles). You can learn more about the timeline and history of the triathlon here.

Different triathlon distances for all abilities

The primary variable in the triathlon is the overall race distance. Different races cover different distances across each of the disciplines: swim, bike, and run. The four main distances are: 

  • Sprint
  • Olympic
  • Half Distance, also known as Half-Iron (or 70.3)
  • Full Distance, also known as Full-Iron (or 140.6)

The latter two are standard distances that never change. You may see varying distances of each discipline with an Olympic triathlon. Sprint distances can vary widely depending on the location and available space for the competition.

The location and space also dictate what body of water you’ll be swimming in. It could be a river, lake, pool, ocean, or bay. You may end up biking and running on the road or trails. Triathlon is a mixed bag of distances and terrain, which makes it exciting and challenging.

RaceSwimBikeRun
Sprint750m
0.47 mi
20 km
12 mi
5 km
3.1 mi
Olympic
(International Distance)
1.5 km
0.93 mi
40 km
25 mi
10 km
6.2 mi
Half-Iron
(70.3 Triathlon)
1.9 km
1.2 mi
90 km
56 mi
21.1 km
13.1 km
Ironman
(Long-Course Triathlon)
3.9 km
2.4 mi
181 km
112 mi
42.2 km
26.2 mi

How many people do triathlons every year?

Estimates show that more than 4 million people in the United States alone participate in some sort of triathlon-related activity each year, whether that be racing or organized training. The sport could capitalize on a recent boom as studies estimate some 7 million new runners joined the market in 2020. At the same time, cycling sales grew 75%. 

With its combination of sports and distances making it accessible to those just starting out,  seasoned endurance athletes, and those transitioning into triathlon from other sports, triathlon is growing steadily in popularity. Moreover, many of the most popular races, such as Ironman courses with fast bike legs, sell out as soon as ticket sales open. Worldwide, the triathlon is definitely a sport on the rise.

How to train for a triathlon

Where to start

One of the biggest misconceptions in the triathlon is that it’s only a full-distance event with no other distances in-between. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Depending on your current fitness level, you may be closer to becoming a triathlete than you think. As I mentioned above, you can choose the distance that suits your ability and confidence level. Here are a few helpful questions to guide you through triathlon training.

What’s your current fitness level?

If you’re already exercising regularly and are at least a confident swimmer, you could be crossing the finish line of your first triathlon in less than two months. If you’ve been hanging on the couch for a while and feel out of shape, then a few months’ worth of training may be necessary before you can dive into your first multi-sport event.

What if you can’t swim?

If you can’t swim or are not confident in your ability to complete that portion of the race safely, take some lessons.

Discover the proven 3-part system to help any triathlete smash the swim my complete guide to triathlon swimming foundations.

The swim is traditionally the most challenging part of the race for beginners. The good news is that it’s also the shortest part. However, it’s best to increase your confidence in the water before participating in a race.

If the swim sounds daunting from a psychological point of view (heading into open water can be scary and/or intimidating), but you’re fine in the pool, then try a few open-water swimming sessions at a guarded lake near you. Getting over that first hurdle of entering the water and going through the motions without the helpful guidance of pool lane dividers is usually the most challenging part.

How much do you need to know about bikes?

A bike can be a bit confusing for the novice triathlete. However, you don’t need to know more than a handful of basics to hit the road for training and racing. The most important thing is knowing how to change a flat tire. Here’s a simple tutorial:

When you’re regularly on your bike once or twice a week as part of a structured training plan, you’ll quickly pick up lots of techniques and skills that will increase your speed and confidence on the bike. Seek out a local triathlon or cycling club and participate in club rides to develop this further. 

Pick your race

You can’t finish a triathlon without signing up for one first! Websites like www.trifind.com and www.active.com will help you find a local race. From there, visit the race website so you can familiarize yourself with the course.

Pay special attention to the course difficulty and cut-off times. There’s no shame in searching for a flat and fast course for your first triathlon. Once you decide on a race, use the date to plan backward. Like I mentioned, if you’re already active, give yourself six weeks or so to train for a sprint or Olympic distance. If you need to build a bit of fitness first, plan three months’ worth of base training and then six weeks after that for a race.

Of course, training for longer endurance events like half or full Ironman triathlons will take longer, so allow ample time for putting in the effort you need to be successful on race day. 

Once you’ve nailed down the right race based on your fitness and time available to train, all that’s left to do is sign up!

Triathlon training questions

Pick your training plan

Once you’re feeling fit, you’ll have your choice of distances for your first race. I recommend starting with either a sprint or Olympic distance. Here, you’ll find a variety of plans I've developed for you depending on the date of your race and how much time you have each week to train.

What are the best workouts to train for a triathlon?

The best workouts to train for triathlon are the ones that build the most fitness without requiring more than several hours of recovery time. In other words, workouts and training should be efficient!

You’ll see three types of workouts in the plans above:

  • Progressive runs and rides - These make up the bulk of any training program. Without them, you’re just exercising and not building fitness. You’ll notice how one workout builds upon the ones earlier in the week, allowing you to increase your fitness levels over time. This style of training ensures you’re fit enough to cover the distance of any race you choose.
  • Brick workouts - A brick means stacking one type of workout on top of another. For example, a brick could be doing a swim workout immediately followed by a bike workout or, more commonly, going from a bike workout immediately into a run. The bike distance varies depending on the race you’re training for, but the run will almost always be short. That helps you get comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling of running after being on the bike. The brick workout is thought to be named for how your legs feel once you hop off the bike and start running. Yes, they do feel like bricks for the early part of the run!
  • Open water swimming - Most triathlons start with an open water swim in a lake, river, or ocean. Chances are you’ll do most of your swim training in a pool. But, you should still make it a point to practice in open water, too. Open water is typically darker than pool water; there’s no line to follow, so you’ll need to practice your sighting skills to stay on course.

Will you become healthier from triathlon training?

Yes — the aerobic exercise that constitutes the bulk of a triathlon can improve both physical and mental health. 

One potent way aerobic exercise can boost mental health is by alleviating stress. 

An ACSM review of the research on exercise and stress suggests that even short bouts of low-intensity cardiovascular exercise can give you a break from the stressors of everyday life. 

Additionally, exercise helps the body handle stress in ways that improve overall health. Regular well-managed exercise reduces the stress hormone cortisol and stimulates feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin.

Considering that the American Institute of Stress reports that more than three out of every four visits to primary care physicians are due to stress-related illnesses, taking up triathlon can be an effective component of a stress management program. 

Will triathlon training make you strong?

Past thinking assumed that endurance training countered the goal of building muscle. The thought was you could either build muscle, or you could become an endurance athlete, but you couldn’t do both. However, more recent studies have shown that endurance training, aka aerobic exercise, builds muscle and strength. 

Additionally, triathlon training includes strength and conditioning work that keeps you injury-free and ensures that you develop the muscular support needed to get you up the hills and through the toughest parts of race day. You cannot train for an endurance event and neglect strength training, so you'll definitely get stronger from triathlon training.

Triathlon lingo

A triathlon can be intimidating at first, but your confidence will start to increase once you get the hang of training. You can bolster your confidence by understanding the sport’s lingo, phrases, and terminology. By doing so, you’ll be able to talk freely through training, recovery, and on race day, and impress your friends, too!

Understand the terminology of the workouts and triathlete lingo

Essential triathlon words and phrases to remember:

  • Active recovery: Very low-intensity exercise or activity after hard training or racing, e.g., easy cycling.
  • Aero: Short for aerodynamic. Your bike position can be aero, your wheels, your bottle, your helmet, etc.
  • Aerobars: Bars attached to the front of your bike, allowing you to lean down and over to ride in an aero position.
  • Age-grouper: General term for non-professional triathletes. Triathlon race results are typically divided into different age groups.
  • Base: Refers to training base or base period. Your general fitness level upon which you'll add increasingly specific fitness as you get closer to a race goal. 
  • Bonk: A condition in endurance sports where depletion of glycogen stores results in sudden and severe fatigue.
  • DNF: Did Not Finish.
  • DNS: Did Not Start.
  • FTP: Functional Threshold Power refers to the maximum average power output, measured and expressed in watts that you can sustain for 60 minutes at a given point in time.
  • Fuel belt: Elastic belt used to keep your nutrition and race number in place without having to pin it to your clothes or carry items in your hands.
  • Gels: A source of energy (mostly simple sugars) that are quickly absorbed and thus optimal for workouts. Squishy texture and available in a variety of flavors.
  • HR: Heart rate.
  • Open water swim (OWS): Swimming outside of a pool, typically in a river, lake, ocean, or bay. 
  • OTB: Off The Bike is usually used in the context of running after cycling.
  • RPE: Rate of perceived exertion. A subjective rating of intensity and effort level.
  • T1: Transition One refers to completing the swimming portion and beginning the cycling portion of a multi-sport event.
  • T2: Transition Two refers to completing the cycling portion and beginning the running part of a multi-sport event.
  • Taper: Short period before the race where training volume is decreased, so accumulated fatigue disappears just in time for the race without losing too much fitness because of decreased training volume. 
  • Transition: The section of a multi-sport course set out to hold competitors' bikes and running gear for the different stages of a race.
  • Zones: Can refer to heart rate or power zones specifically (e.g., as %-range of maximum HR/power) or general training load zones.

What does "brick" mean in triathlon training?

As I mentioned earlier, a brick means stacking one type of workout on top of another. So, a brick could be a swim workout, immediately followed by a bike workout, or more commonly, going from a bike workout immediately into a run.

Another common thought around the brick workout is that it gets its name for the feeling you’ll have in your legs once you hop off the bike and start running. 

Triathlon Gear Checklist

Triathletes don’t travel light, and understandably so. We train for three sports and compete in one race, all requiring different pieces of equipment. However, for your first time, all you need are the basic pieces of gear.

Swim essentials

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. 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, the sleeves restrict mobility in the shoulders, a sleeveless wetsuit is a better option. Ideally, try out both designs in training and get comfortable with your top choice.

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

  • timing chip
  • swim cap, which is typically provided to you by the race organizers (but bring your own swim cap just in case); and
  • a good pair of goggles.

Bike essentials

Once you toss your wetsuit, swim cap, and goggles to the side, there are a few things to remember in T1 before you head out on the bike. Here are the essentials:

  • 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… and it’s not a situation you want to be in if you’ve flown cross-country for a race and you find yourself bike-less in T1.
  • Socks. You’ll have your tri suit under your wetsuit, so clothing is already accounted for, except for your socks.
  • 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. 
  • Helmet. Safety first, plus it’s required for all racers.
  • Sunglasses. A decent set of shades prevents your eyes from tearing up in the wind. They’ll also provide a layer of protection from any dirt, pebbles, or insects that come near your face.

Run essentials

Getting in and out of Transition 2 (T2) (bike-to-run) is usually much faster than T1 (swim-to-bike). Here’s what you’ll need for the final leg of your race:

  • Running shoes. Once you rack your bike, take off the helmet and bike shoes, you'll simply need to change footwear.
  • Hat, visor, or headband. You can put your headwear on as you move (and you’ll get better and quicker at this with practice!).
  • Race number. Don't forget this! In some races, you'll be disqualified for crossing the finish line without it, and race marshals aren't always on hand to remind you of it as you exit T2.
  • 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 gels in the fuel belt before the race to save valuable time on race day.

Transition essentials

Critical items you don't carry but should be placed near your things in the transition area include:

  • 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 a plastic bag or two, which you can use for this purpose if you don’t want to buy a dedicated transition bag.
  • Towel. The towel comes in handy here to dry your feet and clean any dirt or sand accumulated on your way out of the water. You might even bring two: one to stand on while getting ready and wipe your feet and the other to dry the rest of your body.
  • Sunscreen. Depending on the day’s temperature and how sunny it is, you may want to throw on a layer of sunscreen. Even if it's a cloudier day, it's always a good idea to apply some to protect you from the wind.
  • Change of clothes. It’s probably best to change out of your sweaty tri suit before hopping in the car for the drive home.

Post-race tips

After you cross the finish line, the first thing you must do is CELEBRATE! This is a huge accomplishment and you deserve to feel proud. What’s even better is that you’ll be rewarded with a medal plus free food and drinks, so keep moving and allow the volunteers to treat you like the first-place finisher.

As you head toward the food area, you may not be especially hungry. This is normal. Your stomach just went through the race as well. It is important, however, to eat at least a small snack with some protein and carbohydrates. This helps the recovery process so that you won’t feel totally sore for the next week.

The last thing you want to do is sit or lie down right away. Keep moving! This keeps the blood flowing toward your muscles. The more you move now, the less miserable you’ll feel the following day.

Once your stomach settles down and you feel like you can handle a larger meal, have at it! This is your reward, so dive into all those things you felt like you couldn’t have while training. Pizza, ice cream, chips -- whatever it is -- savor it because you earned it!

What and when to eat and drink for your triathlon

A triathlon burns plenty of calories. It can also leave you feeling pretty depleted if you fail to adhere to basic nutrition and hydration guidelines. Two areas you’ll want to pay close attention to: 1. training and race day nutrition and 2. hydration. 

Workout nutrition and hydration

For a workout lasting 60 minutes or less, you don’t need to eat or drink anything. If your training session is longer than that, it’s important to have some carbohydrates, which provide sustained energy.

A sports drink is optimal because it provides carbohydrates and electrolytes in one simple bottle rather than having multiple pieces of fuel to carry with you or unwrap as you go.

Once you’ve found a brand or product you like, train with it consistently. This will become your go-to fuel during a race. 

After your workout, it’s key to replenish what you’ve burned. Try to have a small snack within 15-30 minutes of your workout. This shouldn’t replace an entire meal, rather it should help jumpstart the recovery process. Your post-workout snack should include protein and carbohydrates.

Race day nutrition and hydration

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

That means you've trained 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. 

In the morning of your perfect race, aim to optimize 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, in your bottles, and also in your fuel belt to finish strong without your stomach begging you to pull off the course.

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

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; 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 are required to make up 25% of that in calories. Check that you have a steady intake of at least 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. 

How to hydrate for your triathlon

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 consume both on a regular basis, depending on the timing intervals that work for you -- for example, every 20 to 35 minutes for your bars or gels, and maybe every 10 to 15 minutes for your hydration. Be sure to check the recommended intake on your nutrition products and test timings in training to figure out your preferred strategy.

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.

How to carb load for triathlon

There are a lot of misconceptions around carb-loading. I can tell you what it’s not. It’s not stuffing your face full of pasta the night before a big race. It’s a multi-day process that helps maximize your muscle glycogen (essentially your muscles’ ability to keep working) and carbohydrate stores before the race. Proper carb-loading takes place three to four days prior to the race. 

Your body’s glycogen levels are constantly fluctuating as you train (deplete), eat (replete), and train again (deplete). As you wind down your training leading into a race, there's less and less depletion of your glycogen stores. That's when it’s easier to continue to increase your glycogen by consuming more carbohydrates.

Proper carbohydrate loading means taking in four to five grams of carbs per pound of body weight each day for three or four days leading into a race. For example, a 165-pound triathlete would consume between 660 and 825 grams of carbs daily over that time. 

The carb choices you make should be minimally processed. Think more fruits, potatoes, and rice over donuts and gummy bears. Don’t worry, carb loading a few days before the race won’t add body fat. It will add a few pounds to your frame, but that’s water weight that comes in handy on race day.

Day-to-day nutrition and hydration

What you eat and drink every day significantly impacts your performance during training and in your race. If your diet consists of mostly processed foods, it’ll be hard to maximize your potential. A diet full of fruits, vegetables, and quality protein amplifies your fitness. It’ll leave you feeling and looking good too.

Can you lose weight while training for a triathlon?

Triathlon burns a lot of calories, which is why it’s a popular choice for people who are trying to lose weight. There is an old saying that you can’t out-train a bad diet, which in theory, is correct. If your day-to-day eating habits don’t place you in a caloric deficit, you won’t see much progress in terms of weight loss and body composition.

From an exercise standpoint, if you’re looking into triathlon with the intention of shedding excess fat from your body, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology declares that “AT (aerobic training) is the optimal mode of exercise for reducing fat mass and body mass.”

Resistance training, like lifting weights, increases muscle mass and may stimulate your overall metabolism and the speed that you burn daily calories. But this metabolic boost from lifting weights peaks within a small range —approximately 5-to-10%. Endurance training, on the other hand, can burn upwards of 1000 calories per hour.

So, if you’re training for a triathlon and spending most of your time exercising at a low intensity, the majority of those calories are coming from fat. During high-intensity exercise, or HIIT Workouts, the effort is mostly fueled by accessing carbohydrates from stored muscle glycogen. But, following this type of workout, you'll burn more fat (and more calories overall) in the following 48 hours through what’s called post-exercise oxygen consumption

A proper triathlon training program integrates both low-intensity exercise, measured bouts of high-intensity exercise, and even time lifting weights. This is why for most folks, taking up and sticking with triathlon leads to being leaner, resulting in better overall body composition.

How to manage triathlon transitions

Your final race time includes your swim, bike, and run splits plus the time it takes you to clear both transitions, T1 (swim-to-bike) and T2 (bike-to-run). The clock doesn’t stop, so you should try to be as swift and efficient as possible with your transitions.

The most important piece of advice for getting in and out of transition quickly is to be organized. Your first few races will be learning experiences. Once you get the pro

cess down, you can start fine-tuning your transitions in an effort to save a few seconds (or even minutes) off your total time.

Most races have a single transition area. Consider this your home base for the race. Here are some tips for quick and easy transitions:

Swim to bike

  • You may be light-headed after the swim. This is normal. Your body is going vertical after being horizontal. Walk from the beach into the transition area if you need to.
  • Pull off your goggles and cap as soon as possible, or as you walk to transition. This saves time in the transition area. If you can pull your cap and goggles off while moving, all the better! 
  • Find your bike. Part of your pre-race checklist is to envision your path through transition to your bike. If all else fails, match your race number with the proper bike rack and head that way. Some races make this more obvious than others, so take a good look around when you rack your bike before the race.
  • Use your towel. Dry your feet and ankles first. This will make it easier for you to slide your socks and bike shoes on. Don’t worry about drying yourself head-to-toe right away, especially in good weather when you might just naturally dry off quicker. 
  • Check your bike. Make sure both of your tires are still inflated, and that your water bottles are on your bike.
  • Check your chip. Make sure your timing chip made it safely out of the water. If it didn’t, find a race volunteer and ask for instructions.
  • Drink something. Get yourself hydrated before hopping onto your bike. It’s easy to forget this while swimming, but you do sweat and get dehydrated, even in the water.
  • Put on your helmet and sunglasses. Be sure to clip the strap on your helmet. This is important for your safety and easy to forget.
  • Check around you. Is there anything left on the ground that you might need? It’s okay to leave your wetsuit, swim cap, and goggles on the ground (but pay attention to race rules as to where they can be left and make sure you’re not creating obstacles for other athletes, either).
  • Run next to your bike until you reach the mount/dismount line. The line is impossible to miss. If it’s your first race, don’t be afraid to go a few feet past the mount line and hang off to the side so you don’t get caught up in the rush of other riders.
  • Have fun!

Bike to run

  • Your legs will feel heavy. Don’t be alarmed, this is normal and a badge of honor in triathlon. This feeling will go away in about a mile.
  • Re-rack your bike and take off your helmet. Simple and straightforward.
  • Switch to your running shoes. Easy enough.
  • Check your timing chip. Make sure it’s still there.
  • Drink something. Give yourself another sip of sports drink before you start running. It’ll most likely be a mile or so before the first aid station.
  • Grab your race number. The night before, put your number directly on your race belt which clips around your waist.
  • Grab your hat.
  • Check around you to make sure you have everything you need.
  • Head to the run course. Only a few more miles left.

Everything you need to know about your triathlon race day

The race day nerves typically start the night before, which is why I created the Ultimate Triathlon Race Day Checklist so you can relax knowing you won’t forget anything. Expect your nerves to reach a fever pitch when you wake up race day morning. Here’s what you’ll want to do.

When to arrive

Get there early! Expect traffic and road closures heading to the race start, so avoid all stress related to that if you can. Leave yourself enough time to get there. Arriving an hour before the race is generally a safe bet, but giving yourself more time isn’t a bad thing.

What gear to check before the race

As you enter the transition area, double- and triple-check the following before heading to the race start:

  • Spread your towel on the ground so it’s accessible after the swim.
  • Rack your bike.
  • Lay out your bike, running shoes, sunglasses, helmet and hat or visor, and any fuel you plan to use on the course. You can place them next to your towel.
  • Put on your timing chip. It should be included in your race day packet.
  • Check that your bike tires are inflated. If you haven't brought your own, chances are someone next to you has a pump, so ask them to borrow it. If not, there will be bike mechanics on hand who will be glad to help.
  • Take one last look at your area to make sure everything is set before leaving.

Where to go

Knowing where to go at what times is helpful. You can follow the crowd or read through the athlete guide so that you’re prepared. 

Any last-minute instructions will be shared by the Race Director while you’re setting up in the transition area before the race. Keep your ears open for any last-minute changes that could affect your race.

What to do after you finish

After you cross the finish line, keep moving forward. You’ll get your medal, free food and drinks, and then the opportunity to relax for a bit. Once most, if not all, the racers have cleared through the transition area, you’ll be allowed back in to collect your bike and belongings. At longer races, this might not happen until the next day, in which case you can head to your hotel and just relax and enjoy the post-race bliss.

Triathlon Rules

With three different disciplines and transitions between each, the rules of a triathlon can be obscure and complex, even intimidating for a big race information pack. However, most of what you need to know is fairly straightforward.

Swim

In the swim, you’re allowed to do any stroke you like, draft off another swimmer's feet, and even grab onto a lifeguard’s kayak or paddle board. So long as you don’t use the kayak or paddleboard to make forward progress, you can hang there as long as you need before you get going again. That's a good way to catch a break if the open water and racing atmosphere overwhelms you. 

Wetsuits are most often legal with a caveat around the water temperature, as I mentioned above.

There are only a few things you can’t do during the swim. Using flippers isn’t allowed, nor is taking longer than the allotted cut-off time. Cut-off times for sprint distance triathlons are generally at the race director's discretion. 

Cut-offs for each discipline at half and full distances must be met to continue racing. Generally, athletes competing at the half-distance triathlon have 1 hour 10 minutes to complete the swim and 2 hours and 20 minutes in a full-distance triathlon. Always check your race event information / website / race pack for your particular race’s details. 

Bike

On the bike, you’re permitted to fix your own flat tire. In fact, it’s encouraged that you do so on your own. It’ll be a time saver rather than waiting for race support to come. If you don’t know how to fix a flat or don’t have the proper tools, you can pick your bike up and run with it. You cannot abandon it on the side of the road, however.

The most common rule infraction on the bike is "drafting." You cannot be within 10 meters of the bike in front of you. If you want to pass a slower rider, which requires you to enter the draft zone, you must make your pass within 15 seconds or risk receiving a penalty.

You’re also not allowed to ride without a helmet or listen to music. Obviously any sort of motor on your bike is prohibited and you can’t toss your trash along the course. There are designated areas for offloading your nutrition wrappers.

Run

Like with the swim, there aren’t too many restrictions once you get off the bike and onto the run. So long as you’re under your own power you can run, hop, skip, roll, or walk your way to the finish. 

What you can’t do is listen to music or accept any outside support from spectators along the course. You can be disqualified for taking a water bottle or food. High-fives are cool though, so grab a few of those as you make your way towards the finish line.

Transitions

In transition, you’re allowed to take as much time as you want, so long as it doesn’t interfere with you making the course cut-off times. Feel free to take a seat, grab a bite to eat, catch your breath, or even change clothes entirely. It’s all allowed.

What’s not allowed in most races is getting totally naked in transition. Some things are just better left unseen, you know what I mean? 

The only other thing you really can’t do in transition is get on your bike before the mount line or get off the bike after the dismount line. For safety reasons, this area will be clearly marked. If you hop on too early or hop off too late, you risk receiving a penalty.

Race your first triathlon in full confidence

Now you have all the tools and knowledge you need to get through your first triathlon in confidence. From choosing the best kit for you, to being familiar with how it all plays out on race day and knowing the best advice on eating, drinking, training, and recovering, this 101 guide will provide you with the first steps to get into the sport.

If you really love triathlon and stick to it for the longer run, you’ll gradually become interested in upgrading your bike, potentially investing in some gadgets and additional tech to better understand your performance, and fine-tuning your nutrition and hydration strategies. So keep reading our blog and coming back to the website for more details on that. Until then, happy training!

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Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MōTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.