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Essential Triathlon Tips

By Shaun Wadham, Level One Triathlon Coach, Registered Fitness Leader

If you are about to undertake you first triathlon, one thing you will quickly learn is that race day can be a very confusing and trying ordeal if you don’t have a good action plan.  With a small amount of planning though you can ensure that your day is an enjoyable and stress free one. This article, I hope, will give you a greater insight into how to best organise yourself, from several days before a race to the finish line

Checklist

If you are about to compete in your first triathlon or it has been a while since your last race, one thing you will quickly learn (or relearn) is that there are a lot of items you need to take with you to the race.  The best way to remember everything is to go through the race in your head several days before and write yourself a checklist of the items you will need as you go.  Then on the night before the race (or the night before you go away if you have to travel to an event) lay everything in your checklist out and then pack it in your bag.

Swimming Checklist

Essentials for the swim are:

  • Swimmers  
  • Goggles  
  • Wet suit
  • Towel
  • Bike/triathlon pants
  • Race top

I think the experience of swimming in cold water early in the morning without a wettie would be the biggest factor in people thinking twice about doing another triathlon.  Whilst a triathlon wet suit is expensive (approx. $550+) if you are planning on competing regularly I think it is essential.  If you can’t afford a whiz-bang suit pull out your surfing or water skiing suit and take it with you. Apart from the warmth factor a triathlon wet suit also makes you a hell of a lot quicker in the water.

Many people, especially in races of Olympic distance or less, and even some in the longer races wear only swimmers on the bottom for the entire race to avoid losing time in transition.  If you choose to do this make sure they are not the ones you have been training in for the past six months.  Apart from the fact that it will look like you have dropped a load in your pants, you will be a lot more comfortable in new ones. Many people also substitute swimmers for a pair of triathlon shorts, which are similar to bike pants and unlike swimmers have padding in the bum region (less than cycling shorts though) for comfort on the ride.  They are also short in the leg for easier running.  Both types of pants are usually worn under the wet suit during the swim.

Race tops usually come in a few varieties and are usually made of Lycra or sports fabric.  Some have a zip down the front so you can cool yourself down and pockets in the back or sides so you can carry sports bars or gel.

Regardless of the clothes you wear you should aim to keep the same ones on for the entire race, including under your wetsuit in the swim.

A towel, positioned near your bike, is a good idea.  You will be swimming in salt water most of the time, which can lead to
chaffing on the ride and run if excess salt and water is not removed following the swim. Try Vaseline between your legs to prevent chaffing, as it can be very painful.

Riding Check List

Essentials for the ride are:

  • Bike
  • Racing tyres
  • Bike shoes
  • Seat post bag
  • Water bottles
  • Floor pump
  • Frame pump or gas
  • Spare tube
  • Helmet
  • Socks (optional)
  • Tools (tyre changing levers, Allen keys)
  • Vaseline  
  • Sunglasses

Although less durable and more expensive, racing tyres are a good idea for races as they are faster than training tyres.

A spare tube taped to your seat post or put inside you seatpost bag is a must in case the dreaded flat tyre occurs. This is a better option than a puncture repair kit because of the time factor and the chance of not putting the repair patch on correctly when you are in a rush.  Also, ensure that you have tyre-changing levers in your seatpost bag and a hand pump on your bike.

The number of water bottles you have on your bike will depend on the distance of the race. Aim to consume 750-100mls of fluid per hour of exercise to prevent dehydration, which is potentially dangerous and reduces performance.  Whatever you do though make sure they are filled up with a drink you have tried during training sessions. Don’t experiment during the race.

A floor pump is a good idea pre race as you can get almost twice the pressure in a tyre as you can with a hand pump.  This equates to less rolling resistance on the bike and quicker times.

Up there in importance with a wet suit on race day is a good quality, correctly fitted, aerodynamic helmet.  This protects your head.  Enough said.

Running Checklist

Essentials for the run are:

  • Socks
  • Hat
  • Running shoes with elastic laces
  • Orthotics (If you use them)

Socks are very much a personal preference but help to prevent blisters.  This becomes more important the longer the race is.  Elastic laces in shoes are also a good idea because you can just slip your runners on instead of wasting time doing up the laces.

Other

  • Energy bars/gels/fluids for the race
  • Spare jocks for after the race
  • Sunscreen

The requirements for every race will differs slightly depending on the size of the race and individual needs but the above check list  is a good start.

So now it’s the night before your first triathlon and you have everything on your checklist neatly packed in your bag. Now what?  The following paragraphs will focus on what to expect during a triathlon and provide some essential tips to ensure you breeze through the race.

The Night Before

It is advisable the night before to consume a meal high in carbohydrates and low in fat and protein to ensure you have a full tank of gas during the race.  Good choices are tomato based pasta dishes, fruit, bread, lollies, etc.  Consuming meals high in protein or fat the night before may leave you feeling flat during the race. It is also important to consume lots of water or Gatorade the night before.  The rule is that if your pee is yellow you probably need to drink more.

Race Day

Wake up!

If your race starts at 7:00am then you should try to get up a couple of hours before hand and put something in your stomach.  Don’t overdo the food intake though.  A couple of pieces of toast or a Weetbix are enough.  If the thought of eating solids early in the morning makes you sick try a sports drink or some type of liquid meal replacement like Sustagen.

Toilet

If there is one piece of advice that everyone should take note of it is to go to the toilet before you get to the race. The lines are long and the whole toilet scene is average to poor.

Check In

Try and arrive at the race site about an hour before race start.  This will give you ample time to register, prepare your transition area and warm up.

Transition

Once you have registered make sure your transition area is well organised and then have a look at all the people rushing around with panic and fear on their faces.

Pump up your bike tyres with a foot pump on race morning.  If bike check in was the day before the race (i.e. Noosa) and you pumped up the tyres hard that day you might find that they have popped due to expansion in the heat.

Have your helmet and sunglasses positioned on the handlebars of your bike and everything else laid out on a towel such as shoes, socks, Vaseline, etc.

The Swim

When you enter the water to start the race make sure you have a warm up swim to get the blood pumping and ease the nerves.

It is absolutely crucial to self-seed yourself at the start of the swim.  Unlike lap swimmers at the pool who will gently tap you on the feet if you are have chosen the wrong lane to swim in, triathletes will just swim straight over the top of you.  This is no fun I can tell you from experience. Whilst the first 100 or so metres is a bit hectic the good news is that everyone spreads out fairly quickly and you only have infrequent encounters with fellow swimmers thereafter.

It is also important to look up every so often and sight the buoy you are swimming towards to ensure that you are still on track.  To do this properly you need to have good anti fog goggles that are tight on and don’t leak.  Don’t rely on someone else to navigate for you.  They might have retired and be heading back to transition for all you know.

Upon exiting the water immediately unzip your wet suit and pull it to your waist as you are running to your bike to save time.  Falling over and embarrassing yourself is a distinct possibility here so take it easy.

The Ride

When you mount your bike is the next prime opportunity to fall over and embarrass yourself so proceed with caution.  As you head out onto the bike leg remember that a lot of your blood is still in your upper body. With this in mind it is important to have your bike set on a relatively easy gear at the start to allow your legs to spin quickly.  This will aid in the redistribution of blood to the legs.  If you go out too hard on the ride with inadequate blood and oxygen in the legs, lactic acid will accumulate in the legs and you will be forced to slow down later.

I will leave a discussion on what to eat and drink on the ride and how much until another article but this is a very important issue and varies greatly depending on the distance of the event.

On the ride try and stay seated as much as possible, even going up hills, and keep your legs spinning at a cadence of 85-100rpm.  Riding at this cadence reduces the amount muscles need to work to maintain any given speed, meaning you will conserve energy and less lactic acid will be produced.

Towards the end of the ride you should get out of the saddle, put the bike into a small gear and keep the legs spinning and also have a stretch.  This will help redistribute blood to running muscles and make the transition to running smoother.

The Run

Make sure that you take your helmet off before you start running otherwise you will look like an idiot.  This is easy to forget or is it just me? The only other thing you need to do is change your shoes, as you should be running in whatever you rode in, clothing wise, to save time.

Start off on the run at a moderate pace to give your body time to redistribute blood to your running muscles.  Start of too fast and you will be forced to slow down later to eliminate accumulated lactic acid.

You should aim for negative splits on the run and, for that matter, all the legs.  This means completing the second half of the run faster than the first half.  Research has shown that when races are split negatively or at least evenly better performances or PB’s result.

The Finish

Enjoy the moment, smile as you come run down the home straight, marvel at your achievement and high five the little tackers on the sidelines.