Honest advice for avoiding common mistakes in your first triathlon from Jesse Thomas.
“WAA. WAA. WAA. WAA. WAA. WAA,” exclaimed my alarm. 4:30 a.m., good Lord. I’d gone to bed about three hours ago, and was fairly hungover from a party the night before. Soooo tired. Forget it. Some other time. But something gnawed at the back of my brain and kept me from falling back asleep. After 10 minutes of tossing and turning, I relented. I spun around, dropped my feet to the floor, grabbed my gear and headed out the door.
In a few hours, I would start my first triathlon—a sprint-distance race called the “Tri For Fun” in Pleasanton, Calif. Some of my friends had raced triathlon, and I felt like I needed something active to balance the grossly unhealthy long-day/late-night/early-morning mid-20s guy working for a startup in San Francisco lifestyle I’d somehow become accustomed to over the previous three years.
I drove in silence for about an hour. As I neared the course, the pounding in my head slowly made its way down into my heart—yes, cheesy, but it’s true! For a guy who spent the majority of his life racing at a fairly high level, I was really nervous. My last race was the 3,000m steeplechase at the U.S. Track and Field Championships—quite a different stage than the Tri For Fun. But that was four years before, and there were plenty of other reasons for self-doubt. Sure I’d ridden my bike a fair amount, and I knew how to swim—at least I thought I did—but like most beginners, I’d never put all three together in one day, much less one workout. I’d never swum with a gigantic group in a lake, and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to “transmission” or whatever it was called.
But somehow, I survived. There were lots of mess-ups, ranging from open-water scream-crying and “how the hell do I put on this wet top?” to dehydration, blistered feet and “I shoulda had one more pre-race Porta Potty stop.” But overall, like with many of us, the experience I had sparked an addiction that eventually became a big, awesome part of my life.
For the beginners out there, I tried to remember a few of those things I wish I’d known before my first triathlon. I also polled some of my Twitter and Facebook followers. Some are important, some are not, and most are funny because they’re true. I hope they make all you beginners ease into your Triathlife a little more smoothly.
- Leave time for one more No. 2 after you put on your wetsuit. In every race, no matter how many times I’ve already gone, I always have to go one more time as soon as I put on my wetsuit. And if I don’t, it catches up with me on the run.
- Go easier than you think you should go—I got a ton of comments from readers about “Jello Legs” on the run and “Jello Arms” on the swim. What I tell all beginners is that with the excitement and adrenaline at the beginning of the swim and the bike, it’s almost impossible to go out too slow. So do what my wife tells me to do and “wewax.” You should feel like you’re just on the edge of too easy until the last half of the run. Then you’re probably pacing yourself appropriately.
- Transitions aren’t that bad. Don’t freak out, just do the following:
- Slow down. You’re not going to lose or not finish because of a slow transition time. But you do both those things if you forget to put on a shoe or leave transition without your bike.
- “Remember where you left your bike” (@matward77). A colored towel or balloon works for this. Some people think the balloon is nerdy, but I say people that think that are nerdy!
- “A shoes-off-bare-feet-on-top-of-shoe dismount is best left to those who actually practiced it” (@Caener). It’s even worse if your family is filming it.
- “You don’t need to lock your bike in transition” (@nathankillam). No matter who you are, you will never have the most expensive bike.
- Most readers, myself included, were really nervous about the thing we had the least experience doing—open-water swimming. A few tips:
- “Do MORE lake training … it’s vastly different from pool training” (@JaneyKr). I totally agree. It’s a different process sighting, trying to swim in a straight line and being around lots of people. You’ll survive without practice, but it will be more pleasant if you get some time in beforehand.
- “If the venue allows, a warm-up swim is so important, if only to calm down before the start” (@ianrmaclean). It also helps you get over that initial shock of feeling the water for the first time and readies your body for a big rush of adrenaline at the start. If you can’t get in the water, at least jog for a few minutes, and be mentally ready for the shock of the water entry.
- There will be a “dizzy feeling between swim exit and T1” (@tri_bass). This is totally normal when your body goes quickly from horizontal to vertical. To avoid a face plant, just slow down, get your bearings and walk the first few steps.
- “The zipper on your wetsuit goes in the back” (@adamfurlong). Love this. It happens. Every race.
- “Wear something under your wetsuit” (Rusty Pruden). It would be a long race if you forgot.
- “Race nutrition isn’t just for fast folks” (@Ediebeedy). No matter what your distance, you need to do some planning for race nutrition and hydration. The basics are 200–400 calories an hour through food (Picky Bars are good), and one to two bottles of electrolyte drink or water an hour. Practice makes perfect, but that’s a simple place to start.
- There are a bunch of skin lubricants out there on the market. Buy one of them and put it on any part of your body that comes into contact with anything else. There is no place you will regret having skin lubricant. Trust me.
- “Don’t listen to spectators yelling, ‘You’re almost there!’ You’re not” (@chicbuilder). As funny as this is, it illustrates a great point. No matter what your level, experience or distance, there will be multiple moments in the race where you think you will fail. This happens to beginners, seasoned amateurs and pros alike. I’ve written about the importance of positive mantras (“You can do it!”) to get you through these times, which is a terrific strategy to employ. But in general, it’s most important to understand that the race is long enough that there will inevitably be times of doubt. Focus on one buoy, mile or step at a time, and you’ll get through it.
- Most importantly, relax and enjoy yourself. Just like my first experience, you’ll probably be a little excited, maybe a little hungover and definitely a lot nervous. You’ll probably forget most of the amazing knowledge given to you in this article, and make a few unique mistakes that no one thought were possible. You’ll have big highs and big lows. But you’ll finish, sweaty, smelly, thirsty and hungry. And most surprisingly, after the nipple chafe subsides and the sunburn retreats, you’ll be excited to give it another go. Good luck!