22 Ways to Take the Stress Out of Your First Triathlon

[triathlon start image]

It’s triathlon season! Shout it with me, people: IT’S TRIATHLON SEASON!

I haven’t always been such an overeager pain in the ass about this sport. I used to be scared — really scared — before triathlon races. I knew what I was doing as a runner, but triathlon was just so … complicated.

With running races, it’s simple: get a bite to eat and hit the porta-pot ahead of time, and beyond the actual running, there’s not a whole lot that can go wrong. But triathlons are a different beast, with not just three sports to worry about, but also the transitions and plenty of logistical opportunities for bigtime screw-ups that bodies of water and racks of bikes add to the mix.

Before my first few triathlon races, my hands would shake as I quietly set up my bike in transition area, and instead of confidently rehearsing what I needed to execute during the race, I’d focus on everything that could go wrong:

  • What if I have a panic attack during the swim and hyperventilate?
  • What if I forget where I put my bike and wander around transition like an idiot?
  • What if I drop a water bottle and get dehydrated?
  • What if I make a total ass of myself?

Sound like you?

Fears like these prevent a lot of runners from ever jumping into the triathlon game, and it’s a shame. In addition to providing runners with more strength than ever before (cycling is an excellent cross-training activity), accomplishing the mental challenge of triathlon gives an athlete more tricks in their wheelhouse for breaking through “the wall” of their next road race. On a personal note, triathlon has given me confidence I didn’t have before, introduced me to friends around the world, and led me to a new career with No Meat Athlete and print magazines Competitor and Triathlete. Triathlon has changed my life – literally. All because I took a chance on a new sport.

It’s with runners like this in mind — those who really, really want to be triathletes, but don’t know where to start — that I, under Matt’s intense, borderline over-protective supervision (I say this with love, and by “love,” I mean “a skinny vegan ultrarunner breathing down my neck”) put together the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap, due to be released (fingers crossed!) in the next two weeks or so. This newest Roadmap breaks down the admittedly scary process of navigating the road to your first sprint triathlon — everything from what to wear, to how to train, to what to do on race day … with an accompanying section on nutrition that recognizes that you’re going to do this on a plant-based diet (just like in the Marathon Roadmap and Half Marathon Roadmap).

If it sounds like the Triathlon Roadmap was written just for you, sign up to get updates and we’ll send you a few excerpts and let you know as soon as it’s available.

If you’re almost to race day …

But what if you’ve already gotten comfortable on the bike, learned to swim pretty well, and it’s just a matter of putting it all together on race day?

For you, I’ve got this special excerpt from the Roadmap, a final send-off before you go and officially make yourself a triathlete.

Honestly, race day doesn’t have to be scary. In my time as a triathlete, I’ve been through everything I listed above (and more), and each time learned something very important — these “awful” events are never as bad as how I imagined them. With time, I’ve learned how to mitigate each event so it doesn’t wreck my race completely. (Except for making an ass of myself. I’ve just embraced that one.)

I’m not the only one who has discovered there is a learning curve that comes with triathlon. While compiling the Roadmap, I’ve collaborated with lots of triathlete friends who have shared their own lessons learned, and a few of the tips here are theirs.

If you want to skip to the head of the triathlon class, here’s your cheat sheet:

22 Tips for Your First Sprint Triathlon

1. When you rack your bike pre-race, count how many rows separate it from the exits and mark it on the back of your hand. When you’re running from the swim or after your bike leg, count out loud how many rows you’ve passed until you reach your spot. It will make finding your spot easier amidst the hundreds of bikes.

2. If you wear sunscreen, apply it at least 5 minutes before you go for body marking. Applying lotions and sprays immediately before or after marking degrades the ink, causing smearing and fading.

3. If you are able to warm up in the water before the swim start, start with some easy strokes, but add a few seconds of harder efforts toward the end of your warm-up, to signal to your brain and body that it’s go time.

4. If you start panicking, don’t flip on your back and gasp for air. Instead, slow your swimming and blow bubbles in the water. You know how people tell you to breathe into a paper bag when you’re hyperventilating? This is the aquatic equivalent.

5. At the end of the swim, don’t stop swimming just because you see the bottom of the lake! Instead, swim until your fingers brush the ground, then push yourself up and exit the water. It’s much faster than trying to run through armpit-deep water.

6. To avoid penalties and fumbling around with a helmet while you run in and out of transition, put it on before you take your bike off the rack in T1; take it off after you’ve returned your bike to the rack in T2.

7. If you’re worried about forgetting your bib number in transition, buy a race belt. Turn the number to your back while riding, then slide it around to your front for the run.

8. Tuck small, loose bike items (sunglasses, gels, race bib) into your helmet pre-race — you’re less likely to miss them in your helmet (as opposed to laying on the ground).

9. If you wear socks on the bike or run, roll them down to the toes before placing them in your transition setup. It’s hard to tug socks onto wet and/or sweaty feet, so this step can save you time in transition.

10. Keep at least two bottles of water or sport drink on your bike. Though most people will only require one bottle for a sprint triathlon, it’s possible you may drop a bottle somewhere on the course. You’ll be thankful for a backup.

11. To drink from a cup while running, pinch the lip of the cup so it forms a spout. This helps direct the water into your mouth with less dribbling.

12. During warmer races, some run aid stations may have ice cups for the athletes. Don’t be modest — a small scoop of ice in shorts or a sports bra can make a big difference in your comfort!

13. Seeing your friends and family on the course can be a huge boost to your spirit! Before race day, print out a map of the course and identify places they might want to spectate — it’ll give you something to look forward to on the course.

From Laura Kloepper of Frayed Laces:

14. Lube everything, and I mean everything. Otherwise you will chafe in places you didn’t know existed.

15. Take an extra second to confirm which end of your helmet is the front and the back. Yes, it happens. Don’t be that person.

From Jason Bahamundi of Cook Train Eat Race:

16. Stay in the moment. Don’t worry about what just happened or what is coming up. Focus on the here and now.

17. Forget all the gadgets and just race. If you enjoy it there will be time to pick up those items, but for your first just race and see if it is something you are willing to invest in.

From Toby Baum of Ironman Dad:

18. More does not always equal better. Too much gear. Too much training. Too much nutrition. Too many races. Too much of everything. Most triathletes go way overboard with everything. Keep it simple. Often, less is actually more.

19. Your dentist has been preparing for this day for years. Don’t waste all those years of dental appointments and flossing. Put them to good use — smile!

From Kristen Seymour of Fit Bottomed Girls:

20. Don’t sweat the, uhh, sweat. In my first tri I was worried about hugging the big group of friends and family who’d come to cheer me on because, well, I was gross. The thing is, if somebody cares enough to show up, they care enough to hug your stinky, sweaty, medal-wearing ass.

21. If there’s free massage afterward, take advantage. It is a lovely, lovely perk.

And perhaps most importantly:

22. Treat your family and friends to a post-race breakfast — they supported you through your training and at your race. In a way, it’s their big day, too!

About the Author: Susan Lacke, No Meat Athlete’s Resident Triathlete and Competitor.com contributor, is the author of the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap: The Plant-Based Guide to Conquering Your First Sprint TriathlonSign up to get the latest on its release.

Photo Credit: Sangudo via Compfight cc



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  1. I would add the following that are not so much about racing but being an all around good member of the triathlon community:

    23. Thank the volunteers. They are up as early (if not earlier) than you and often are there later. On top that they do it for little more than a cup of coffee and without them there would be no race.

    24. Stay for the awards ceremony. You now have know the what kind of time, dedication and work it takes to finish a race. Give the winning age groupers their moment by staying and cheering for them.

    25. Thank the race director. These people put in a ton of work for the love of the sport and deserve to be noticed for it.

  2. What perfect timing! Tomorrow morning is my first Sprint triathlon. Thank you so much for providing exactly what I needed today!

  3. Great tips! Love the tip about putting little things in your helmet in transition. I forgot my Chomps in transition at a tri last weekend, and was starving on my bike! If I’d done that, I wouldn’t have forgotten! Thanks for the suggestion for next time!

    • Most of us have done that at some point. Heck, I STILL do that if I’m not careful when I set up my transition. It’s hectic during the race, so it’s important to set everything up ahead of time, when you’ve got your wits about you.

    • I like to throw an extra gel in each pocket of my tri top before pulling my wetsuit on. the items stay in place under the wetsuit and are there for the bike and run if I feel my nutrition has been below par for the day.

  4. My first race is tomorrow as well. A nice ready to fortify my game plan. Thanks Susan!

  5. Rebecca Richardson says:

    Thanks for the great post! I am a seasoned Triathlete and even got some pointers from it. It is good to have NMA finally being represented by Triathletes! Can’t wait to see the roadmap.

  6. I think the biggest thing to add to this lest is to have fun and soak in the day. If you have fun and enjoy the day you will come back for another triathlon.

    Remember even the PROS had to start out as a rookie and they still to this day have bad races as a pro. I had a national pro offer to buy 2 tubes from me at my last race because he forgot his saddle bag at home, I told him I’ll only charge a hug and a photo.

    Welcome to the great sport sport of triathlon.

    • Great thoughts Daniel. You are right that even the pros were rookies at one point. I think as newbies it is easy to be hard on ourselves if we don’t live up to OUR expectations.

  7. Jacob Garstka says:

    So I was wondering if you guys had “No Meat TRIathlete” shirts? I would LOVE to have one!!!

  8. #4 …don’t flip to your back to breathe… Thank you! Yesterday while at swim practice, I panicked and chose to rest at the edge of the pool. I imagined what to do on race day (coming up on Sunday!) and I was going to flip and breathe. But Susan says no! So I won’t.

    Now I have to email my friends to make signs for me 😉

  9. Love these tips . . . especially about lubing everything. I learned this (the hard way) after my first marathon and fortunately have not had to re-learn this lesson. I think saving money can also help take the stress out of Tri training. We posted an article here about how to save some money in your training: http://simplefamilyfitness.com/triathlon-bikes-on-a-budget/

  10. Thanx..great tips especially for someone that known absolutely nothing about triathlons.
    Just a Question ? How does the change over with clothes work? I really need to cycle and run in a sports bra, and don’t want to end up running in cycling shorts…possibly worse than putting a helmet on back to front!!!
    Thanx and good luck to all the first-timer’s.

  11. Hi there,

    I’m doing my first sprint tri in the UK next month.

    It’s an indoor swim – where and how do people get changed from swimming trunks into riding gear?

    thank you

  12. Ursula, just swim with your sports bra on. You’ll be wet anyway so it wont make any difference that way. I find I swim slightly faster with the sports bra!

    Jim Callender. You don’t just put your bike/running gear over your trunks (or if you’re feeling flush buy a trisuit).

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