Triathlon 101: How to Survive Your First Triathlon

As I am approaching my next triathlon, I’ve been reflecting on my training lately and how much I have learned since I started my journey to swim/bike/run. I thought it would be fun to write a Triathlon 101 blog post about everything I didn’t know before my first triathlon. Let me start by saying I am no expert and still have much to learn, but hope that I can help anyone out there who is considering a triathlon.


Most triathlons start with a swim, unless the race is a reverse sprint, which typically ends in a pool instead of starting in an ocean or lake. I would highly recommend a reverse sprint for your first triathlon because it’s much easier to swim in the pool. If your race is open water, be sure to grab a buddy or two to start training. You want to become very comfortable with open water swimming so you don’t go into panic mode during the race.

IMG_6650.jpg-smPlus, you will likely have feet in your face during the race, so keep your cool by practicing rhythmic breathing. Just like in running, make sure you train in everything you plan to wear during the race, so if you plan to wear a wetsuit make sure you train in it.
imageSwimming is the hardest part for most people when they attempt their first triathlon. It’s not a bad idea to take a few swim lessons or join a local masters swim group.


The second hardest triathlon sport for most people is cycling. I never realized how much I needed to practice on the bike until my second duathlon – hello hills! There is still a ton of room for improvement, but I have found that cycling is a lot like running. Hill repeats and time trialing will become your frenemy.

IMG_6030-sThe reason this sport is so expensive is mostly due to the bike. Road bikes and triathlon bikes are super expensive. And then you will want a helmet, bicycle shoes, cleats, clipless pedals. (Yeah, nice road bikes don’t come with pedals). However, you can race in a triathlon without a road or triathlon bike. I have seen many people on mountain bikes. Granted, you will be working twice as hard on a mountain bike.

IMG_1135-pIf you don’t care about name brands, Bikes Direct has great entry level road bikes for around $600. Be sure to get fitted for a road/triathlon bike before you buy anything! Any bike shop will be happy to help you find the right frame size for you. You can also look into buying a used bike, but be careful with Craig’s List. A LOT of people switch out the components on otherwise nice bikes with crap.


Running is the easiest, least expensive of the three sports. Yet after swimming and biking, your legs will feel like lead.

IMG_6053-sMake the race a little easier on yourself by incorporating brick training in your workouts. Brick workouts are when you perform one sport immediately after the other. During tri training, I include one brick workout per week, which lately, has been a 12 mile bike ride followed by a 5k run.


Transitions count! Transition time is included in your total race time, so it’s important to practice transitioning between each of the sports. I try to get to a race two hours before the start to set up my transition area.

20131208_072633.jpg-smOn a towel, I lay out my bike shoes, running shoes, socks, bib belt, fuel, upside down helmet, a rag for my runny nose, and a water bottle to clean off my sandy feet. Note that not everything I listed is shown above because I have learned since my first race!

What to Wear

Most people will be racing in a Tri Kit. They look a little something like the picture below. Tri kits can be two pieces or one piece. And yes, you wear it for all three sports. You may also want to invest in a bib belt that you can clip on after the swim! You would wear the bib on your back during the bike ride and on your front for the final run.

(Picture Source)

Race Distances

Triathlons range in distances. You can race in anything from a sprint triathlon to a full Ironman 140.6. When you enter the world of triathlon, you will likely find distances of Sprint, Classic, Olympic, International, 70.3 or Half Ironman, and 140.6 or Full Ironman. Distances defined here.

Triathlon Check ListLet’s face it… your first triathlon is a learning experience (and I’m still learning!), so try not to take it too seriously. As you will come to find, a lot of triathletes are very serious athletes and can be known for their cockiness.

IMG_1143-pDon’t let them intimidate you. Respect the sport and have fun!

6 thoughts on “Triathlon 101: How to Survive Your First Triathlon

  1. Great tips Jillienne! I did my first try in open water in the nice chilly Atlantic. It was so dark and people were all over the map. One girl cut me off swimming out to sea instead of parallel to shore as the course dictated. I was so much slower on the swim than I had practiced! Even though biking is my favorite, it was pretty difficult and hilly. And you’re right, the run was the easiest and I had the most adrenaline there with a 7 min mile pace!
    FitBritt@MyOwnBalance recently posted…The Busy Girl’s Guide: The Best Meal Prep ServicesMy Profile

  2. This is absolutely going to come in handy as I head to Boise! Thank you for breaking each leg down and for sharing your experiences as a beginner. I am SO nervous about the swim and making it out alive without a bloody nose or lip. Also, when you transition from swim to bike, are you ever cold on the bike? I can imagine you are still a little wet and am wondering how the breeze on the bike feels.
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    • I’m always the most nervous about the swim, and yes, sometimes I do get cold on the transition from the swim to the bike. For my first triathlon, I brought a jacket because it was 30 degrees outside. You could also have biking sleeves waiting for your in the transition area. If you plan to wear a wetsuit, that should keep your core temperature up so you aren’t so cold after the swim.

  3. Nice post Jillienne and I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this. I always struggled with the swim and it stopped me from getting into triathlon racing for years. A handy tip which you listed above is to go get a few lessons before you do your first race. On race day watch what others are doing. I had no clue at my first race, but nor did a lot of other people. It was funny at the time. There was this one guy who had all the gear and looked like he knew what he was up to. When he started putting on his wetsuit there were at least twenty other people who followed him like a sheep. It was funny but very exciting at the same time. My first race is something that I will remember for a very long time. For all the people out there new to the sport take Jilliennes’ point about enjoying it – don’t be too serious, challenge yourself but remember to have some fun.

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  4. Pingback: So You're Training for a Triathlon? Tricks of the Trade {Guest Post} -

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