8 Things Triathletes Want You to Know Before Doing a Triathlon

Local triathletes share the tips and tricks they wished they’d known before their first event.

The triathlon, which consists of swim, bike, and run portions, is no walk in the park. Triathletes say not to be intimidated, but also recommend learning the many rules of the race. Photographs courtesy of Flickr users timkelley, jimmyharris, and chrisscott.

Washington is full of smarty pants and type-A personalities, so it makes sense that it’s a hotspot for ultra-competitive triathletes. From what we’ve been told, the multi-sport is extremely addicting—try one triathlon and by next year it’s likely you’ll have blown a few paychecks on a fancy new wetsuit and a $1,000 bike. 

But take it from the pros—competing in a triathlon is no joke. Think of how tired you are after just spending a day lounging at the pool. Now think about swimming for 2.5 miles—then biking for 112 miles and running a marathon right after. Yeah. 

So before you sign up for your first triathlon, read on for insider tips from local triathletes who know what they’re talking about.

There are four sports in the triathlon, not three.
Yes, there’s the swim-bike-run aspect, but Alison Gittelman of Racing Tales says don’t forget about the transition periods between each leg of the event. “A fast transition can move you up several places, while a slow one can drop you to the bottom of your age group,” she says. “Practice transition as if it’s a separate event.” 

Slow and steady wins the race.
You may watch the Olympics this summer and think “fastest” means “win.” Not so for the triathlon, says Ken Mierke, a two-time world-champion triathlete. “Triathletes are not fast—even the fastest triathlete couldn’t keep up with a point guard, a running back, or a sprinter.” So instead of training like a sprinter, Mierke says most of a triathlete’s training should be at a “very easy aerobic pace” to improve endurance, burn more fat, and increase the output of slow-twitch muscle fibers. 

Practice stripping down before a race.
“I wish I had known how hard it would be to get into and out of my tight hydrodynamic race suits and wetsuits,” says pro triathlete Margie Shapiro. For your first race, be sure to know how to unzip and strip quickly—before you end up riding with your shorts on backward for 100-plus miles. Ouch. Another tip: Apply a silicon-based spray to both your skin and the outside of your wetsuit. Shapiro also rubs down her body with Bodyglide

Know the rules, because there are a ton.
There are rules for everything in the triathlon, says Gittelman. Take note of how to rack your bike and where you place your gear. There are also rules for drafting on the bike, the type of wetsuit you can wear depending on water temperature, helmet buckling—the list goes on.

Ride your non-flashy bike with pride. 
“Don’t be intimidated by the bikes you see,” says Jim Alvis, a Transition Triathlon Tri Club member. “There’s no shame in riding the old Huffy mountain bike you’ve had since high school at your first Tri.” 

Take it “easy” on your first triathlon. 
No one ever said you have to start off with the Ironman. In fact, you have to get a few shorter competitions under your belt before you can even qualify for the motherload. “Years ago I thought the only distance was the full Ironman,” admits Alex Korab, co-owner of Transition Triathlon. “It wasn’t until I watched the Olympics in 2000 that I saw there were shorter distances. If I had known that, I would have started way earlier!” 

Make new friends but keep the old.
As a new triathlete, Kristin Andrews trained on her own, but she wishes she had started training with others earlier. “Not only did my training partners push me and challenge me, they taught me things about training and racing that I never knew.” But when you need a break from the sometimes overwhelming triathlon world, you’ll always have your other set of friends, says Transition Tri Club member Beth Bukata: “Getting into triathlons means you get to have two sets of friends: Your spandex friends and your street-clothes friends!” 

Don’t be a scaredy cat. 
Sure, the girl next to you may look like she’s been rocking a wetsuit since birth, but Transition Tri employee Liz Butterfield says not to be put off by the big players. “One good thing about the triathlon world is that it’s very accepting and encouraging of newbies. You’re a triathlete whether you’ve finished a sprint or made it all the way to an Ironman, and you should feel proud of every accomplishment.”

Have you competed in a triathlon before? Offer more advice for new triathletes in the comments section.