Triathlon Beginner/Newbie FAQ


  • How do you drink water while riding a bike?


I come up from aero position so that my hands are on the brake hoods, I reach down for my bottle and take a sip.  I’ll generally do this at a point where I want to take a break from aero position and/or aggressively pedaling, say, right after I crest a hill.  There are elegant hydration systems that will let you sip a straw from aero position, but for beginner/newbies, you should do what’s cheap and comfortable.


  • How much nutrition do I need on different length rides?


I don’t have a  lot of experience over 50 km, but a lot of gel packets I’ve seen recommend fueling every 45 minutes or so.  It can get more scientific or course, but I like to Keep It Simple, Stupid.


  • Is a trainer the same as logging miles on a bike as far as training is concerned?


Short answer: No, not the same.  A trainer is better in a lot of ways, because you never stop or coast, so it can be worth more in terms of time spent or miles logged.  Still you don’t learn to ‘handle’ the bike on the trainer, and the fact that the bike is held in place means the force is delivered from your muscles differently than if you were ‘free’ on the road.


  • Why is the bike so much longer in the longer triathlons?


I feel the bike is unfairly favoured as an event within triathlon, but I think there is a reasonable explanation.  The swim course needs lifeguards, boats, buoys for navigation.  The run needs signs, aid stations, marshals and other volunteers and generally closes off roads and other municipal resources.  The bike needs some of these things too (and vehicles to patrol the course) but they don’t cause as much disruption overall – the roads are generally not closed for most of the bike course.  From a race director’s point of view, the bike scales the best (most cheaply and safely).


  • Where do you keep all of your food?


This feels like a question for longer course athletes who might  have an on-bike Bento box, but I use gels that I keep in the back pockets of my tri-top/cycling jerseys.  I reach back and grab them, though tearing them open can be challenging.


  • How do transitions work (ie: how to set up a transition, what do you need, play-by-play of each transitions)?


This will be addressed in a future post.


  • What gear is essential and what’s not ?


The rules say you need a bicycle and a helmet to ride that bicycle.  Beyond that, I’d say sunglasses and swim goggles are pretty essential if you want to be able to see where you’re going on the bike and swim, respectively.  A pair of bike shorts or tri-shorts can save your nether regions some discomfort during and after the bike course.  They both have a ‘chamois’ pad that minimizes friction and general wear and tear on that area.  Tri shorts have a smaller one that will dry faster after the swim, and they’re good enough for shorter bike rides in general.


  • What do I wear to my first tri (especially if it’s a sprint tri and not a longer distance)?


This is usually a question for the ladies, and I’m not going to discuss sports-bras or whatnot here.  I mentioned the tri-shorts in the last answer (I feel they’re a good investment, even if you end up hating triathlon, since you can still use them for bike rides).  Most races I’ve been in require a shirt of some kind for bike and run.  If you can get some kind of technical/athletic shirt you’ll be fine (but maybe without pockets).  AVOID COTTON.


  • What tips do you have for the open water swim?


At the race site, you can request to be put into the final wave (for wave based starts) so that you’ll avoid most of the masses.  I like to start to one side of the crowd, preferably so I’ll be on the outside of the turns.  Avoiding physical contact with other swimmers means you can swim your race, your way, your pace, etc.


  • I’ve been reading about getting on people’s feet and riding them if they’re at your speed. Is that right?


People who swim in nice straight lines at consistent speeds without ever pausing are hard to find; they are probably elite or top of their age-group.  To follow them or draft you would have to be in the same category, wouldn’t you?  I’ve seen this bit of advice on the internet, and it’s one of the worst recommendations I can think of.  Remember: avoid physical contact and swim your own race.


  • And do people really swim OVER people?


It has happened to me, when people get their direction of swim really mixed up (i.e swimming at 90 degrees to one another).  I want to put the physical contact thing into perspective for you: anything that touches you during the swim is a human being* trying to accomplish the same thing you are.  It’s accidental and not personal.  Someone can bump into you in the street too, the only difference is you are more comfortable with your feet on the ground.

*if your triathlon is in the Black Lagoon or Shark Infested Waters, I apologize in advance.


  • I’ve heard to keep swimming until you do two strokes in the sand/dirt? Is that right?


That one is new to me, but it could work.  It depends a little on what your stroke is like (do you pull with bent arms close to your body, or are you a straight-armer?) and how long your arms are.  If I could touch the bottom with my hand, I would consider getting on my feet generally speaking.


  • And dolphin diving in? How far do you go?


Ah, dolphin diving.  You push off the shallow bottom in a dive forward into the deeper water, glide, then repeat.  I used it a fair bit in the Wasaga Triathlon.  It’s faster than swimming or running through the water, so the short answer would be as far as you can.  It consumes some energy (especially from your legs, which you probably want to save for bike/run) though.  After you’re more than waist-deep, I’m not sure there’s that much to be gained from it, but it’s something that can vary from person to person  Weak swimmers try to avoid using their swim stroke at all costs, in my experience.


  • I don’t have a bike! What kind of bicycle can I get away with begging/borrowing/stealing?


If you’re in a Sprint race (or less) basically anything with two wheels will do (your race may have specific rule)… but I must warn you.  The heavier the bike, the slower you will go, and the longer you will be spending out there on the bike course.  You’ll tell yourself you’re just participating to complete not compete, but every time you get passed (especially by those on expensive bikes who make it look like you’re standing still).  People passing you will alert you with ‘On Your Left!’ to avoid any potential collisions so stick to the right. The bike is the longest (in both distance and time) event and it’s one where your equipment makes the biggest difference – you might see a $10,000 bike at the race site.  So if you’re on a hybrid, commuter or mountain bike, enjoy the ride and make peace with the constant ‘On Your Left!’ announcements.


  • What kind of bike speed is a good pace?


Not a straightforward question.  It depends on the bike (see above) and the course (hills, wind).  Best bet would be to use a heart-rate monitor and stay below your lactate/aerobic threshold.  I use 85% of maximum, though I’ve seen the formula of 220-Your Age out there too.  While you can have bursts above that line, you generally want to be below it if you want to make sure you have enough energy for the run.


  • What kind of time should you shoot for?


Hopefully your training has given you some idea of how fast you can go for the distances you’re planning on going.  What kinds of speeds/paces have you seen during training?  Are they ones you could keep up for the distances planned? If so, divide the distance by the speed!  The adrenaline of race day might make you a little faster, but some of the realities of racing in the real world (open water, wind, heat, crowds/bottlenecks) can level that out.  Until you get good with transitions they’ll be around 4 and 2 minutes respectively, though it can vary depending on how the transition area is laid out.


  • Does everyone fuel primarily on the bike?


I can’t speak for ‘everyone’, but the bike is the longest portion (in both time and distance) and there are portions where you’re simply spinning away fairly mindlessly, so the multi-tasking of grabbing your fuel and sticking it in your mouth is pretty feasible.  It’s also the middle portion so it makes sense from that perspective – you can’t fuel during the swim and shouldn’t have to anyway, and during the run, you may be close enough to the end that the extra fuel calories aren’t really wanted.  If you don’t like the idea of fueling on the bike (or doing the whole multi-tasking thing in general), you can fuel in transition.  It will make your transitions slower, but let’s face it, it’s the one time you’re not as busy…


  • Is music a no-no (I was gonna bring my iPod on the run only?)


Big No-No!  I was on a race and my only sunglasses were a pair of Oakley ROKRs (sunglasses with Bluetooth headphones).  I wasn’t using them for listening to music, just as sunglasses and I was asked to remove them as I headed out for the run (luckily they hadn’t been noticed for the bike portion).  There are marshals in transition to enforce rules (mostly no bike riding in transition and keeping helmets on) so ditch your iPod/MP3 player.  I know how big a motivator music can be, but learning to run to nothing but the sound of your own inner determination is a valuable life lesson.

For more of my beginner tips, see my post Lessons Learned From My Rookie Year.

For other good beginner resources, look at:

Swim Bike Mom (check the tab that says ‘Newbies’)

Two Tri – Beginner Triathlete Training and Everything You Must Know