What can I expect for my first Triathlon?

So I’ve been running for a few years and have a bunch of 1/2 and 1 full marathon under my belt. I live in Melbourne FL now and decided doing some tri’s would be more fun than just running. I signed up for a Sprint mainly due to my horrible swimming skills and the short time to prepare (Battle of the Bridges 8 Oct)

So I ran out and got myself a decent road bike (Terk) and have really just started swimming about 3 weeks ago. I’m not concerned about the bike or run portion of the tri as I know I can power through those no matter what happens but I’m concerned about the swim. I’m really just now beginning to master freestyle swimming where I can properly stroke, breath, and keep my heart under 1M bpm.

So the swim is 1/4mi, bike 12mi, 3mi run.

Any tips or advice for a first timer? I’m planning to pretty much ignore my times and focus on becoming familiar with the transitions and various etiquette etc… I’m going to try to get in a couple of open water swims before then if I can.

Is there any bike or swim etiquette I should be aware of? Any tips on surviving the mob at the beginning when we hit the water?


Stay out of the crowd even if it means swimming a bit wide (Getting swum over and kicked by those who swam for swim teams in their youth is a real problem.). Try to swim straight. (I am absolutely sure that my first tri swim was three times as long as it was supposed to be as a result of the sawtooth pattern I inadvertently swam.) Train for efficiency not speed. (Not that I ever succeeded in getting to either.)

Defnitely get in some open-water swims. There will not be a black line to follow, and no wall to push off of. In fact you will likely not be able to see the bottom. Start in the back of the pack - let the crowd go in first. Otherwise, you will get kicked and smacked around. Not fun.

On the bike, you may not be allowed to draft - check the event rules.

Good luck!

I was wondering about that. At what point do you cross over from “riding behind somebody” to “Drafting somebody”?

I found this, which should help. (edit - see section 5.10 Position Fouls)

It’s a little more permissive than USA Cycling time trial rules, which makes sense since a tri is a mass start event.

If you are new to cycling, it’s not likely that you would draft anyway. In order to draft effectively, you need to be closer to the other rider than an inexperienced rider will be comfortable with. And if you are experienced enough to ride that close, then you wouldn’t be asking the question to start with because you would know when you are getting a draft.

Practice your transitions, not for speed but for getting everything sorted out so you don’t forget anything

Use Trislide (armpits, neck, ankles, thighs)

Double caps (cap, goggles strap, event cap with number)

Practice the “swim, breathe, pop a look at the buoy” process.

Don’t worry about a slow swim - enjoy it. If you do, time enough for developing some speed next time.

Listen for faster riders on the bike - they will yell “on the right” or “on the left” to let you know they are passing if it is tight. Hold your line, don’t panic and let them pass - it is safer for everyone.


My Wife is an IronMan and I help out at the races. Like si_blackely says, practice your transitions. But not for time so much as making sure you have all your gear (at least at first). A simple thing like a towel to dry off your feet before you put your socks/shoes on can be very helpful.

As has been said, stay in back of the pack on the swim. One advantage is besides not being in the washing machine is you will to a small degree get pulled along.

You shouldn’t have to worry about nutrition for a sprint distance.

Do Triathlons use lots of volunteers? When I was newly involved in Eventing (which is a sort of horse triathlon) I learned a lot by volunteering at an event.

I got a chance to observe how the event flows and how people with different levels of experience organize themselves – I saw things I liked, and things I definitely wanted to avoid doing – both are valuable. Plus the Official Rules Guy (called the Technical Delegate) would brief all the volunteers on key rules and What To Do if a violation is observed.

So, if its an option for you, I would recommend it.

I’ve never done a triathlon, but my SO used to do 4-5 per year and it happens we were just talking about this.

She said the most common mistake she saw was people who really killed themselves on the swim. She pointed out that the difference between a completely leisurely backstroke and a bust-your-ass crawl is going to be maybe 5-8 minutes on a sprint distance, and you can easily make that up on the bike ride if you get out of the water fairly fresh. She said she has actually recommended the backstroke to some triathlon beginners depending on their circumstances (and no, I don’t know her criteria). Just remember that it’s a two-hour race and ten minutes extra in the water isn’t that big a deal. Apparently, my SO often saw people finish in the bottom who would have finished in the middle or even in the top quarter if only they’d taken it easy on the swim.

Also, she mentioned that the transitions are the hardest part because you’re using different muscle groups. (Or something like that: I’m not an exercise person.) Apparently it’s lots of fun to watch the transition area because some people run like their legs are jelly for the first couple hundred meters. So I guess I’d support the others’ advice to work on those.

Forgot one other fun thing she mentioned.

She said she always saw $4000 superlight super-aerodynamic bikes in the transition area…

…with five-pound lock brackets, ten-pound rear grocery racks, lights, bells, fenders, etc. She was always puzzled by people who would spend an extra thousand dollars to make their bikes six ounces lighter, then load on three pounds worth of extraneous gear.

OP: what bike did you get? A 1000?

I don’t do triathlons (I can’t swim), but my running partner does. She hates the swim leg, despite really enjoying swimming in general, because it’s so chaotic and nasty. You get kicked, you get people swimming over the top of you, you run into groups who want to swim together four-abreast, etc. She always finds it very disorienting and nerve-wracking. I think the advice to stay behind the pack while in the swim is a good one.

I used to do triathlons, and we used to say: The race starts when you get out of the water.

The first part of the swim can seem terrifying. There’s so much splashing and kicking, and your heart starts racing. Just relax and stay away from other people. Especially in a sprint, you hardly have time to find your rhythm before the whole thing is over. I’m a decent swimmer, but if I pushed myself too much, I’d often cramp my calves, and that would absolutely ruin the bike part.

If you do more triathlons, you can get more aggressive on positioning yourself in the swim, but even when I did an IronMan, I stayed pretty far to the outside until the pack thinned out a bit. What I find about swimming is that it takes awhile to find your rhythm, but once you do, it’s a breeze. Stay out of the fray and it can actually enjoyable.

They do use volunteers. If you can, volunteer for one in your area. It’s an interesting look at the other side of the race.

If you’re unsure about the swim, stay out of the middle of the pack at the start. Those people will get swum over and jostled around by the other swimmers. Everyone’s on an adrenaline rush, a lot of people are doing stupid things with their pacing, and it’s hard to see. It’s not unlike the beginning of a running race where the pack kind of starts, slows down, and even occasionally stops for that first mile or two while everyone sorts themselves out. The swim is kind of the same, but has an extra dimension of movement, less visibility, and the potential of drowning.

Because you’re not going for time, don’t worry about perfect transitioning, but do think about what you need on each leg and create a checklist to make sure to bring it with you.

Enjoy it. Triathlons are fun and triathletes are good people.

Yeah, practice your bike/run transition - both short repeats 2km bike/.5km run and longer distances, up to the full distance.

Do the last section of the bike in a lower gear, spinning your legs a bit, and standing up a bit to stretch out a bit, otherwise you will dismount and collapse.

Oh, check the rules, you may be required to wear a wetsuit. Practice swimming in a wetsuit. Mine arrived just before my first event. I found it too restrictive, panicked a bit, and never settled into a good freestyle. After a few training sessions I was fine.

A few things not mentioned:

  1. You can ask the race director to put you in the last wave. Most races now start waves based on age, so terrible swimmers that are men 35-40 start first and then have 8 more waves swim over top of them.

  2. Learn the course! Print the bike and run maps then go out and bike the entirety of both. Chances are the race will also have a longer event at the same time, you don’t want to make a wrong turn and have a 12 mile ride become 56, or a 3 mile run into 13.1. Or god forbid a 400m swim into 1.8km. It happens a lot.

  3. Learn the transition area: know where the swim finishes and goes into transition. learn where your bike is (bright towels help) and where the bike out is. You also bring your bike back to the same spot so know where that is when coming from the other direction. Then learn where the run out and finish line are. All that only takes a few minutes but you’d be amazed how many people run around in circles trying to find the “run out.” I’ve seen people run back into transition after the run.

  4. The swim will have one or two buoys that you MUST swim around marking the outside of the course. But other than that you can swim any where you want. So if you want you can swim on the “inside” of the course (probably not useful since the swim isn’t long enough).

  5. Practice swimming without goggles, and practice “siting” which is swimming with your head up looking for the buoys. Don’t be that guy the kayakers have to go after.

  6. Practice running out of the water a short distance. Most people aren’t used to being horizontal for a while, then having to stand and run, many fall down. On that note, you are allowed to hang on to stuff (like kayaks) during the swim, but you can’t be propelled. So if you get tired hang out for a bit then finish the swim.

  7. Go to the pre-race meetings, the race director usually has really important information that you’ll need.

  8. If you’re not able to get on your bike quickly, move well to the side at the bike mount so people aren’t crashing in to you.

  9. Since you’ll be passing a lot of people on the bike make sure to politely say “on your left” so they don’t swerve a pot hole and take you out. Also remember you are required to pass quickly and move back to the right side of the course. Staying to the left is considered “blocking.” Drafting is NOT allowed (at most races) I swear to god if I see you go by me in a peloton I will kick you square in the nuts.

That’s about it.

Nearly all triathlons that are USAT do not allow drafting. The rule is that you must stay to the right side of the course and must be 7m behind the cyclist in front of you.

When passing you have 15sec to make the pass then must move back to the right. If you are passed you are the one responsible for ensuring the 7m gap. So if the guy pulls in front of you, you have to slow down and make that separation.

Couple other general bike rules are things like

  • you can’t drop garbage or equipment except at certain zones which aren’t likely to be in a sprint. That includes water bottles and clothing.
  • you’re not supposed to get outside assistance, so if you flat you’ve got to fix it on your own with your own gear
  • most roads are still open to traffic and you must obey traffic laws, especially never crossing the center line
  • if you do flat or stop make sure you get off the course so you don’t kill someone.

As I said, don’t draft. You’ll see tons of other guys doing it, don’t be one of them. Except in the swim draft all you want.

I certainly saw some of these sorts of bikes at my sprints, too. They were usually the ones going past me, and arrived in expensive cars - who knew Mercedes did a bike rack for an SLK.
But I saw a lot of £1000-ish midrange tri bikes, too. Some of them were the ones I was passing on my somewhat too heavy 1 3/4" wheel hybrid bike that I purchased for daily commuting in the mid 90s. Highly satisfying. Hard tyres, good lube, and keep the gearing down for a 90-100 rpm spin rate. I swim ok, cycle hard and plod on the run.

Whats an avg cruising speed for a novice cyclist in a race like this? I will have been biking about 2 months by the start. I can currently sustain 18-20mph on flat with neutral wind, less or more depending on wind.

Oh, someone upthread asked me what bike I got. It’s a 2012 Terk 1.1. Paid about $600 for it. It’s very nice and smooth but I can tell that I will probably upgrade next year if I really get into this. It’s only got 2 gears in the front and the shifter up front doesn’t take sometimes, which can be frustrating to say the least.

I assume you have yourself a Trek, and not one of those cheap Chinese knock-off Terk bikes. :slight_smile:

I would say your average cruising speed will be around 15-17 MPH. You have to factor in your starting and stopping somewhat, and going slower if you have corners, headwind, etc. You may want to have that shifter looked at - if you are stuck in the smaller chainring, you will have a hard time reaching maximum speed.

Lots of good advice in this thread, BTW.