5 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Triathlon

By Carrie Barrett – April 1, 2016
photo by Jenny Sathngam

They may say that ignorance is bliss, but in the world of triathlon, knowledge is power. Knowledge and lots of practice, of course. 

There's no doubt that the sport can be intimidating. Those triathletes make it look so darn easy as they whiz through the race course in a feat of determination and focus. Like a blur, they are out of the water, flying on the bike, and floating through the finish line. Three vastly different sports come together in one huge dizzying event. There are transitions, aid stations, wetsuits, run shoes, timing mats, and finish lines. For a newbie, it can feel ridiculously overwhelming and cumbersome, but knowing a few trade secrets from veterans will go a long way in alleviating some anxiety. 

As nervous as you may feel, though, know that the 2,000 others who race with you are feeling the same thing.  Any veteran triathlete has their own humorous story about their first race experience. We've all made mistakes and just because there are a lot of elements to the sport doesn't mean it can't be fun. 
Here are a few tips gathered from local coaches and triathletes about things they wish they knew before their first triathlon. 

1) What in the World Do I Wear?

Long-time triathlete Kristen remembers her first triathlon with an embarrassing chuckle. She swam in a two piece bikini and then freaked out because she didn't know what she was supposed to wear on the bike and run! Needless to say, she ended up changing clothes in a port-a-potty during her transition to the bike. While some people can get away with racing in a simple bathing suit (and I'll try not to hate those people because they can), by and large, both men and women race in what is known as a “race kit.” These are outfits designed specifically for triathlon. The light material dries easily on the bike, the shorts often have a small padding (or chamois) built-in for cycling, and many brands even have a built-in sports bra for women.   

Let's face it, running around in tight spandex and lycra isn't really on anyone's bucket list, so that is why it's important to try on different brands if you can. I've definitely learned that tri kit sizes are not “one size fits all” because I have a closet full of different kits ranging from small to extra-large.

2) What Do I Eat and Drink?

Whether you're a rookie or a professional, dialing in the right nutrition and hydration plan is paramount to a successful experience. Months of training, pool time, and running can go right out the window if you haven't formulated a plan on what to eat and drink during your event. It's equivalent to starting the Daytona 500 with a half-tank of gas and no planned pit stops. Your car might be the prettiest and most sponsored one out there, but no one will know if it's towed off the track due to lack of fuel.

Keep it super simple at first, especially if you're going shorter distances. Aim for 30 to 40 ounces of water per hour (particularly in the hot months). That's at least two bottles per hour. You may choose to experiment with an electrolyte replacement sports drink since most races have those available on the course. However, take note that many of these products are also laden with sugar, and unless you are fueling up for a long day or have practiced with these, they can often add unnecessary calories and potential stomach distress.  

The numbers of calories to consume will vary from person to person but generally fall into the 200–400 calories per hour range. If you're racing a short-distance triathlon, you may need nothing more than a sports gel or quick snack to get you through the entire event. Other athletes rely solely on liquid calories, like Carbo Pro or Tailwind, both powders you mix with your water. For many, these are easier to consume and digest than solid forms of food.  

If you have a Garmin or other sports watch that tracks your calories burned, start to pay attention to how much you're burning each hour when training. Are these watches totally accurate? Who knows for sure? I suppose we never really know if our bathroom scale is truly accurate (I'm hoping it's not), but if you've plugged in your proper profile data, at least you will have consistency with the feedback. If you burn 200 calories in a 30-minute run, then, on average you burn about 400 calories per hour. Start by taking in about 50 percent of that amount per hour and adjust from there. 

The shorter the race distance, the less you will need, but don't attempt to race over an hour on an empty gas tank.

3) How Fast Should I Go?

Ask yourself what you want to accomplish when you race. If this is your first race and your goal is to enjoy the process and finish something you once thought impossible, then take any speed or time expectations out of the equation. Most importantly, have fun and bask in the glow of your accomplishment! Heck, don't wear a watch and see what happens. You may actually surprise yourself with how fast you go when you just listen to your body.  Unless you're well-versed and trained in the world of power meters and heart rate, my advice is to simply enjoy your day. You'll never be the fastest triathlete you know, so you may as well have the most fun, right?

A good general rule of thumb for beginners involves measuring your rate of perceived exertion. If you feel yourself breathing really hard and struggling to catch your breath, slow yourself down. This goes for all three disciplines, including the swim. Pace yourself and get your breathing under control. This ensures more calorie absorption, consistent pacing, and a satisfying finish.

Another question to ask yourself out there is, “Is this a pace or effort level I can sustain for the entire race?” If the answer is a resounding “heck no,” then slow yourself down. Remember, whether you're racing a Sprint or an Ironman, you still have to manage your effort levels to last throughout the entire course.

4) Practice in Open Water and Try A Wetsuit if You Plan to Wear One on Race Day.

USAT Coach Jeff Raines remembers first-hand what it was like hopping into the open water in his wetsuit for the first time. “I felt super constricted and wasn't prepared for that immediate panic feeling.”  Alas, when you're used to swimming in a pool, total and sudden immersion into a murky lake with hundreds of others can bring out unprecedented fear in anyone.

Prior to race day, swim in open water to gain a feel for what it's like. Trust me, it is much different from staring at a black line in a clear pool. Fortunately, Austin isn't short on open water options with gems like Barton Springs, Quarry Lake, and Lake Pflugerville. Practice, especially, your breathing patterns and sighting. It's easy to swim off course in open water when there isn't a wall for breaks at the end of every 25 yards. This takes some getting used to, but you'll be thankful you practiced in advance.

Likewise, if you plan on racing in a wetsuit, make sure you try it out prior to race day. Wetsuits are tight and heavy on compression and buoyancy. Visit a local triathlon store (Austin Tri-Cyclist and Bicycle World are two of them here in town) and try on different wetsuits. Like race kits, every brand has a different fit and feel. Some shops will even let you try them a time or two to make sure the fit is correct. Take advantage of these awesome services, but don't wait until the week before the race to do so. 

5) When in Doubt, Ask A Triathlete—They Love to Talk About the Sport.

Triathletes love to talk triathlon, and there is no shortage of advice, wisdom, and tips out there. (Sometimes too much!) Every athlete I've ever met has been generous with their time and willingness to help out a fellow triathlete. Anyone who has raced the sport for any amount of time has an embarrassing story about things that go awry during a race. It's those stories, by the way, that make the best memories. You'll never have as much fun as you do when you're a beginner. Embrace that feeling and know that after you cross the finish line, you'll be the one who gets to dispense your experience and inspiration to the next batch of rookie triathletes. 

Triathlons are an exciting challenge, but above all, they are fun and empowering. Enjoy your training and use these tips to make race day as stress-free as possible!


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