In 10 years of racing and writing about triathlon, I’ve realized that even as you start to dial your swim, bike and run, there’s still a lot to learn about putting the three sports together. So, I’m putting together my favorite tips for a smoother triathlon, not just a better swim/bike/run. If you’re not new to triathlon, some of these may seem a little ‘duh,’ but a) that’s why they’re my Top 5, because they’re the most basic and important and b) we all need these reminders sometime. I’ll tackle other topics weekly, from base training and endurance riding to trail running—let me know if you have a topic you’d love to see my favorite tips and pieces of advice on! (You can see all the tips here, including the most recent one on nutrition, one on cycling and one on running.)
Practice open-water swimming—including a running start
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Your first open water swim should not be your first triathlon. Even if it’s the day before, even if you literally jump in a nearby reservoir or lake for 1 minute of paddling (with someone keeping an eye on you!), just GET. IN. THE. WATER. And I’m a huge fan of practicing the run and dive into the water, if you want to be going fast in your race—I think a lot of people forget that and practice in open water, but do a tentative walk out instead of a couple of practice runs/dives in. You get more comfortable with the start if you work on that run, plus you make sure that your goggles will actually stay in place. You also want to check out your wetsuit, because swimming in one can feel VERY different. I realized after a few mid-swim panic attacks that I needed sleeveless so I had more freedom (this is the one I use now, and it’s super cheap!) but you might love the buoyancy of long sleeve. Whatever you do, test before you race.
Don’t over-clutter your transition area
It’s tempting to put everything but the kitchen sink in your transition area, but the most sparse it is, the easier it’s going to be when you come out of the water feeling dazed and confused. Have everything laid out in order. A few transition tips:
- Have a brightly colored beach towel that your stuff is neatly laid out on. It’s easier to spot when you’re running in from the water.
- Helmet undone and upside down, shoes loosened and unfastened/untied. Think about every movement counting, and try to plan for the least amount of things you need to do.
- From swim to bike: Start with your helmet, since you get dinged for not having it on when riding. Everything else is secondary.
- If it’s a long day in the sun: Do a quick squirt of sunscreen. Your future self thanks you.
- From bike to run: Take time to tie your shoes if you don’t have the fancy elastic thingies. I’ve seen so many people stopped on the road trying to re-tie shoes and wasting time.
This is a HUGE part of triathlon, especially in the short distances where every second counts. If you’re nervous OR if you want to get faster overall, practice setting up transition at home and doing a couple of brick workouts. No pool? This sounds dumb but… put on your tri suit, goggles, everything, and jump in the shower and get soaking wet. Then run outside to your bike transition zone (barefoot) and do a transition. That way, you know what it feels like to be soaked on the bike, to put on shoes when you have gravel on your feet, etc. You can also practice running while unzipping your wetsuit, which is harder than it looks.
You might not be someone who needs to hear this but… Seriously, be careful of overtraining. I definitely fell into this: I was using a training plan for running, one for cycling, jumping in master’s swim 4 times a week and doing a strength training plan. Turns out, piling a bunch of individual training plans on top of each other does NOT make a good triathlon training schedule. Your body can handle the three disciplines well at first, since you’re getting so much variety, but the wheels will start to come off if you keep it up. So, use a triathlon-specific plan, or work with a coach to build something solid that works for you with your life.
Don’t stress ‘tri gear’
At the very top level, sure, you might want that super aero bike and the triathlon-specific shoes for running and for riding, et cetera. I’ve had super expensive tri bikes and $800 wetsuits, but my current setup that I’ve had the best results on has been my trusty road bike with aero bars and this $130 sleeveless wetsuit. People get way too into the gear and forget the actual training—and not just for your first race! Like I said, I’ve won races on my road bike and without ever using elasticated shoe laces.
Don’t feel the need to jump to Ironman
If I could go back in time, I would tell my younger self that she didn’t need to push up to the Ironman distance so damn early. I did my first triathlon at 20, and my first Ironman at 22. That was a huge mistake—looking back, I was getting much faster at sprint and Olympic distance and I had so much potential in those, but I was so drawn in by the idea of doing an Ironman that I gave up a ton of speed to go long—and overtrained and stressed the crap out of my body in the process. So, take it slow, and if Ironman is in your master plan, know that you have time. 7 years after my first one, I went back to Ironman have finally gotten over a couple brutal years of overtraining, slowly built up, and have a race that was 4 hours (!) better than my first attempt.