Your first triathlon – what you need to know 

We are coming into triathlon season now and I know there will be so many people out there desperately searching the Internet for as much advice as they can get. And there is a lot of stuff out there – I know because just two years ago I was in that same situation!

It can all get a little confusing, and I’ve noticed other blog posts which say they are aimed at beginners but then talk about aerobars and race wheels, or others which actually would have put me off, which make triathlon sound scary and dangerous, but tell you you should do it anyway.

So hopefully this will be a very simple, very basic guide, that will get you excited for your first race day!

IMG_4715Arriving: there will be a lot of insanely-fit looking people in tight lycra with ridiculously expensive bikes. You are more likely to notice them than the other normal-looking people like you just because of the annoying way the human brain works. Two things about those people:

  1. They won’t be judging you. I’ve found triathlon an incredible sport for its recognition that everyone there is doing something pretty cool, pretty difficult, worthy of respect, no matter how fast or slow you are. When I did my first triathlon, a baby “tri-it” tri that finished with a 2.5km run, several of the members of my mum’s tri club came up to congratulate me. One of them had just won the 70.3 distance race but was more than happy and incredibly genuine in spending a few minutes after her race in congratulating me on finishing my first. That’s the most extreme example, but honestly, no matter how people look or how they are dressed, everyone I have met through triathlon has been so friendly and willing to share advice.
  2. There will be more people like you than you know. My second triathlon was a sprint tri and as we all lined up to swim, the race director asked everyone who had never done a triathlon before to put up their hands. Almost everyone put their hands up. And then he asked who had never swum in open water before. About half the participants kept their hands up!

To keep things simple, the main things you need to know in the transition area are:

  1. You won’t be allowed in without your helmet on.
  2. Check the time when transition “closes” – at most races it will close quite a bit before the start and you won’t be allowed back in so make sure everything you need for the race is in there and that you have everything you will need for the swim! I had a bit of a fright at one triathlon when I realised I had left my swim goggles in transition and it was about to close… I legged it back and just managed to grab them in time – a good warm-up!! (But one you’d probably do better to avoid!).
  3. If you don’t know where to go or what to do, just ask – people are friendly and the volunteers are there to help!

The swim :
This is the bit that scares most people – but don’t let it scare you! The race organisers will have numerous people in kayaks on the water and if you are struggling you can roll onto your back, stick an arm up in the air and a kayak will come over to you.


It is perfectly possible not to be in the scrum at the start – I’ve never managed to actually be in the scrum! Just start towards one side and you will do absolutely fine.triathon swim

Its also absolutely fine to have never swum in open water before. Personally, if you can, I would recommend practicing in open water so you get used to it. I found my first tri swim quite difficult and it was because I wasn’t used to the open water (and it was particularly cold that year!). But you certainly don’t have to, and it won’t be awful if you haven’t. Its still just swimming after all. If you’re from around London, check out my posts on open water swimming with RG Active – I can’t wait to get back in the lake with them this summer!

open water swimming

But really – just swim, remember to look up every so often, don’t stress it.

In terms of kit – if you are from the UK, it’s about 90% certain you’ll need a wetsuit. If your tri is in a shallow lake, towards the end of a warm summer, you’ll be fine, but we all know what English summers are like! It is possible to rent a wetsuit if you don’t want to make the financial commitment at this point. If you have decided to buy a wetsuit, bear in mind that you don’t need to buy the most expensive one – and actually, if you are a weak swimmer, won’t want the most expensive one. People are varying buoyancy needs depending on their skill, so if you are a beginner you won’t want an elite wetsuit!

The cycle:

The one thing you definitely will need to do a triathlon is a bike. Whether you have a ridiculously fancy one or the same hybrid you’ve had for years is of course entirely up to you. People complete triathlons on mountain bikes – but you will probably enjoy it more on a road-bike that fits you properly. If you are buying a bike, get a bike fit. It is always better to have a less expensive bike that fits you than anything else.


The run:

This really depends on whether you come to triathlon as a runner or not. Somewhat counterintuitively, it may seem a bit harder if you are a runner, because you’ll compare it to your normal, non-triathlon runs.

I came to triathlon from no sporting background whatsoever, and I actually don’t find I run any slower in Olympic-distance triathlons. I think it comes from being completely warmed up when you start running. There is a bit of the jelly-legs I’m sure you’ve read about, but I promise it isn’t as bad as it sounds!! And of course, you can always walk/run if you have to. My last Olympic distance triathlon was on a crazily hot day in Madrid (40 degrees C or around 105F). People had been dropping like flies from cramp all over the place and I was having stomach issues after getting my nutrition completely wrong. I ran / walked almost the first 5km before settling into my stride, made some friends and ended up really enjoying the whole thing!


Transitions: the fourth discipline! For beginner triathletes this is a matter of common sense really.  Don’t have too much stuff, and don’t faff. For an Olympic distance:

  1. Wear swimming what you plan to wear for the rest of the race. Personally, I’d recommend a tri-suit. I inherited my mum’s old one and its great. Women – I overheard some girls the other day worrying about whether or not they could wear a sports bra under their tri-suit. You definately can, even if it has an inbuilt bra, don’t worry about it, just wear what makes you comfortable!
  2. Elastic laces for your trainers. Cheap, save so much time in transition AND mean there’s no chance your laces will come untied when you’re racing.
  3. Race-belt. Not strictly necessary, but you will need your race number on your back while cycling and on your front while running. If you attach it to a race belt, you can easily switch it round.
  4. Helmet. Put it on BEFORE you touch your bike!
  5. Don’t stress the time – if it’s cold, put a jacket on. If you hate running without socks, put socks on. Do what makes you comfortable.

Phew!!! I think that’s it for now… What have I left out? What did you wish you knew before your first triathlon? And feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions!




  1. Great tips! An under-10-hour full distance triathlete I know swears by full changes at transition – i.e. cycle shorts and running gear – instead of a trisuit. He claims the comfort is worth the extra few minutes. Horses for courses, I suppose ☺.

    • I think definitely right for long course! I would do the same. But I really don’t think it’s necessary for Olympic and below and for a lot of people would just be more kit to faff around in!

  2. Grwat post, which has inspired a thick question from an “only just thinking about maybe possibly thing a tri” perspective. I get really cold when I cycle. I can’t imagine getting on my bike SOAKING WET and then cycling – so worried about the cold before I even start to think about chafing!

    So – is it as awful as I think it would be???

    • Not a thick question! I have never had a problem with chafing even in a half-Ironman. I think making sure the shorts / tri-suit you wear aren’t/isn’t too short is probably quite important on that front. And in terms of being cold, again, being wet has never bothered me (this was something I was really worried about before). I think if you are wearing a wetsuit, you won’t be dripping wet anyway. And as soon as you start moving, the adrenaline starts pumping and the effort you’re putting in sends heat around your body. I always keep in transition a light jacket or arm warmers that I can throw on if I think it’s a cold day. I usually end up putting my jacket on to be honest and then I have had no problems! My last triathlon however was in 40 degree heat in Madrid so being cold was absolutely no issue whatsoever, the water in the lake felt like a warm bath and the spectators throwing cold water over me was the best thing ever.

      • Thank you so much for your reply. It’s very reassuring – so I guess that’s one excuse for not trying a tri crossed off the list!

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