10 tips for first-season triathletes

by Ed Crotty

When I agreed to train with a friend for a one-off triathlon in 2004 (Dublin City), I never imagined that I would be bitten by the tri bug and still be training and competing 10 seasons later. But I’m still plugging away, still enjoying being fit, making new friends, and still learning new things each year. A lot of these things I could have implemented in my first season, and they would have either improved my time from the beginning, made me look cooler ( :-) ) or simply been more fun. Here are 10 things I’ve learned over the years that I wish I’d adopted from the beginning (note none of these tips are related to swim, bike or run technique, if you are looking for these then I’d advise you to join a tri club to gain access to a professional coach):

Tip #1: Get two basic (and cheap) bits of additional kit before your first race – elastic laces for your runners and a tri suit. When I started out I tied up my runners in T2 using regular laces for the first few races (!!). True, elastic laces will save you only around a minute which you think probably isn’t crucial initially, but you sure look like a complete amateur without them, and they cost less than €5 typically. Similarly a basic tri suit won’t break the bank, and nothing wrecks your karma more or looks worse in T1 than trying to fit a sports top on over your wet torso while still dizzy from the swim. Except of course the ultimate in triathlon cringe – wearing the souvenir race day tee shirt you were just given at registration on the bike and run. You see it more than you’d think!

Tip #2: Arrive early on race day. You’d be amazed at how much time you need to allow before the scheduled race start time. Aside from queuing for registration, you need time to change into your race gear, and time to get to transition from the parking / registration area. You should allow a further hour between the time you arrive at transition and the race briefing. This may sound like overkill, but you should be doing the following: eating your pre-race food (see tip # 3 below); practicing your route from the water’s edge to where you have racked your bike (count the number of racks to your bike, look out for any additional landmarks that can help you locate your bike when you run into T1, etc); practicing running with your bike out of T1 (ask the marshals exactly where the mount / dismount line is located); going for a short spin covering the first few hundred metres of the bike route, then turn around, cycle back and practice dismounting and running back into transition (see tip # 6.2); then going for a short run, again ascertain where you exit transition on the run and run the first few hundred metres of the run course. It’s too late to find out about the course layout at the race briefing as you won’t have time to do any of the above once it finishes. But do listen to the race briefing to confirm what you should already know about the layout.

Tip #3: Pay attention to race day nutrition. This is especially true for Olympic distance (and longer) races. If it’s your first season you probably haven’t figured out pre-race food works for you, as we are all different in this regard. In my case, I eat a decent breakfast (porridge, then egg sandwich and cup of tea in the car on the way to the race). If it’s a late morning or early afternoon race I’ll probably have another sandwich / banana later on , but regardless of race time I always eat a decent portion (large fistful when uncooked) of penne pasta exactly one hour before the race starts. But I stress, this may be too close to race time for you. Or you may not like pasta! Just make sure to eat properly and at the right time, and once you find a formula that works for you then stick to it.

Tip #4: Draft on the swim. Even for first-season triathletes, drafting on the swim (swimming right behind another swimmer or small group) really helps, and is completely legal. As well as making the swimming physically easier, swim drafting takes the work out of navigating yourself, so it’s a double benefit. Of course at the very beginning of the swim you’ll just be trying to stay out of trouble, but once it settles down (usually after around 200 – 300 metres) you should be able to find a swimmer or small group to tag along with. Don’t worry about your hands knocking off the feet of the person you are drafting, as long as this happens only every say five or 10 strokes it’s perfectly acceptable tri etiquette. If you get dropped or find them too slow for your pace, find someone else. It’s worth looking up out of the water a few times to try and spot a swimmer or swimmers to target. Swim drafting is not just for elite athletes, it works for all of us!

Tip #5: Hold your bike by the nose of the saddle as you run through T1 and T2. Up to last season I used to hold the bike by the stem (at the handlebar) because I guess I assumed I needed to “steer” the bike through transition. But you can run much faster if you hold your bike by the nose of the saddle, and actually the bike will stay on course anyway. Just try it in non-race situations! Coupled with running in bare feet (by following tip 6 below) you will run through transition much faster than most other competitors. And again, it looks much cooler :-)

Tip #6.1: Bike shoes in the pedals. Clip your bike shoes onto your pedals and secure them in a roughly horizontal position with elastic bands before the race starts. Then when you mount your bike, put your feet on top of the shoes and pedal a few revolutions before slipping your feet one at a time inside your shoes. (don’t attempt to wear socks on the bike split, you don’t need them and it’s much slower to get them on when your feet are wet). This takes some practice sessions before trying it on race day, but it’s worth the effort, as it will save you time as well as looking the part. Also, it’s a skill that you can master at any level of triathlon, so you may as well learn it during season 1 rather than waiting until season 10 like I did!

Tip #6.2: Flying dismount on way into T2. Similar to tip #6.1, and again you may as well perfect this in your first season. As you approach the dismount line (and you should have familiarised yourself with some landmarks around the approach as outlined in tip # 2), the idea is to open the straps on your bike shoes, slip your feet out of the shoes and onto the tops, do a few more revolutions and then bring one foot over the saddle to position it beside the other foot. Ideally then you will freewheel the last few metres before hopping down onto the road just at the dismount line. Then you are in a great position as you can run into T2 in your bare feet again holding the bike by the saddle. (note this is called a “flying dismount”. You can find lots of YouTube videos demonstrating Tips 6.1 and 6.2 by searching the terms “flying mount triathlon” or “flying dismount triathlon” online).

Tip #7: Don’t encourage your family / partner to attend your races. Well, maybe your very first race. But after that no more! Triathlon is not a spectator-friendly sport, and you will use up all your goodwill credits with your family that you will badly need for training sessions if you drag them to your races too. This is especially true if you have small children and you expect your partner to keep them amused for up to six hours plus travel time, and be enthusiastic about your racing performance, while perhaps glimpsing you for a few seconds in T1 and T2.

Tip # 8: Try not to talk about triathlon to non-triathletes. As time goes on you’ll realise that it’s a pointless exercise, as non-triathletes will for the most part be impressed that you can complete the event at all, and may shower you with meaningless admiration, that is if they’re not bored senseless as you describe all the nuances of training sessions and races one by one. To help you remember this tip, keep in mind the old triathlon joke – “Q: How do you know when you’ve met a triathlete? A: They tell you!” Nowadays I never mention the “t” word when I meet new people or existing friends socially; generally it makes for a better evening for all concerned!

Tip #9: Use recovery milk drinks after hard training sessions. This is another one I am ashamed to say I only started this year. Long run sessions and brick sessions are particularly hard on the body, and recovery milk really does help you recover! I buy the powder version in large containers and mix it with milk (currently I am using “High Five Protein Recovery”). Oh, and if you mix it up with a fork before you head out on your session, all the lumps will have dissolved by the time you get back! If not, you can use a hand blender to instantly achieve the same results.

Tip #10: Bring your wetsuit (and a hanger) into your post-race shower. When you get home from a race or open-water swim you need to have a shower, and you need to wash your wetsuit, so why not combine the two tasks? Also it’s more pleasant washing your wetsuit in warm water, and you can hang it up in the shower cubicle to dry when you are finished showering (hence the hanger). If you live with someone else, just make sure to tell them you’ve left a wetsuit hanging in the shower, to avoid scaring them half to death as they wander into the bathroom unawares, this can be particularly dramatic if it happens during the night!

So there you have it. I hope you find some of these tips useful and get to use them earlier in your tri “career” than I did!