16 Dec 2021
10 min read
So, you’ve made the decision to take part in your first triathlon. Firstly, congratulations! While combining swimming, cycling, and running may seem a little daunting at first, the vast majority of new triathletes have a fantastic time during their first race and soon return to sign up for more fun.
It’s easy to catch the triathlon bug. However, it’s not always easy to know where to start. If you’re not yet sure where or what distance to race, this easy-to-follow guide will give you some practical advice for choosing your first race. We’ll also give you some advice as the kit you’ll need, and even how much training it’ll take.
Generally, the best advice is to pick a short distance for your first triathlon. This will give you a chance to ‘try out’ the sport. Shorter triathlon distances are also great for getting used to the more unique elements of triathlon such as transitions.
Super Sprint (400m swim, 10km cycle, 2.5km run) or a sprint distance (750m swim, 20km cycle and 5km run) are popular choices for first time triathlons. Times vary, but as a rough guide, a super sprint triathlon might take a novice triathlete around one hour, and a sprint triathlon around two hours. Our guide on triathlon distances shows the full range of distance options.
Those new to the sport don’t always take on short distances first. At every Ironman, there are a few entrants who hold their hands up to it being their first race. You might also be entering a local race, or racing with a group of friends. This may dictate the distance you’re racing despite it being your first time out.
There’s not only the distance to consider, but also the terrain. A shorter, hilly, off-road triathlon with a trail run could be far more taxing than a pancake flat event, on smooth roads, over a longer distance. Whatever distance and course you choose, the key is to be prepared as possible, especially by having completed enough training.
Deciding how much you want to pay for your first race is up to you. While triathlon is not as cheap as some sports, you can save your hard-earned by picking a local race from a smaller brand. Typically, the further you want to race, the more you’ll have to pay. For the cheapest races, look for GO TRI, an initiative set up to try and get people into the sport. These events are typically over short distances and subsidised. More generally, you might be able to take part in a local sprint race for around £40-£50. Iron-distance races can be four times that amount and more. If you go for a branded race, you’ll pay top dollar for entry. This can be anything up to around £500, or even more.
While you might enjoy a challenging run-bike-run duathlon in winter, triathlon is really a summer sport. The weather on the day can make a big difference to how much you enjoy the experience. So, for that reason, planning when (and where you do your first race) is important. The bulk of triathlon events in the UK tend to start in May and run through to late September. If you’re looking to race outside these months, perhaps consider a trip abroad to sunnier climes. It’s also worth considering your training in the build-up. Training through spring and early summer for an event might be a lot more favourable to slogging it out in the depths of winter.
If you’re based in the UK, there are hundreds of events you can do every year without having to travel abroad for your first triathlon. To compete in the UK, you won’t need to fly or ship your bike, or sort out accommodation, so it is likely to be cheaper. However, you also won’t be guaranteed to have the sun on your back, a warm swim, or a smooth road surface to pedal on. So, whether you compete overseas for your first triathlon, or stay in the UK is down to personal preference. Just be advised, that there is already a lot of logistics to think about for your first tri and travelling overseas adds to this.
While making an Iron distance triathlon your first triathlon is unlikely to result in you performing your best, if you are truly motivated by Ironman, and have a limited window in which to compete, then it wouldn’t be right to talk you out of it. The challenge with Ironman is the amount of training it takes to get in shape to swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and run 26.2 miles. Even if you do use signing up for an Ironman as your training motivation, it might, therefore, be worth slotting in some shorter distance events during the build-up. While you could simulate distances during training sessions, nothing quite matches the experience of being in a race environment with other competitors.
You should be able to find and enter almost any triathlon online with a quick search.
The British Triathlon website has a page listing thousands of UK events. You can search them by date, time or location. Popular listings websites such as Race Check, Find A Race and Let’s Do This also provide information for hundreds of endurance events. And not just triathlons! There are also duathlons, swim-run races and other multisport events you can take part in.
There can be a lot of kit and equipment involved with triathlon. For your first race however, it’s unlikely you’ll need it all.
Our gear guide for your first triathlon will take you through everything piece-by-piece, but here’s a quick rundown of the minimum kit you’ll need:
While the list above might not be as extensive as you’d think, most triathletes will pack many more items for their races including wetsuits, caps or visors, a track pump, more snacks, puncture repair kits etc. Use our guide as a checklist so you don’t miss anything.
There are many ways to train for your first triathlon. There are few rights and wrongs, but there are some guiding principles…
One of the cornerstones of any training programme is consistency. First, work out how many sessions and hours you can commit to training each week. Then, try to stick to it. Ideally, for a first triathlon, you should be looking to train at least three-to-four times a week. If you can train at least twice per week in each discipline, that’s a great start. Not all sessions have to be really long (over two hours), but frequency is your friend here.
You’re training for swim, bike and run, so build in time for all three in your training programme. Don’t neglect your weakest one (even if you enjoy it the least). This might take a bit more planning, particularly when it comes to swimming, and booking pool time, but you want to be on the start-line for your first triathlon confident you’re competent in all three disciplines.
Don’t just train at the same pace every session. Try and mix up your effort levels so some sessions are harder and others stay easier. Studies have shown that this is the best way for endurance athletes to improve. The more you train, the more time you need to recover too, so you can’t go hard in every session. If you’ve pushed yourself hard in training, it can also help you stay mentality strong when it gets tough in a race too.
Ramping up the volume or intensity too quickly is a common mistake among those training for their first triathlon. You’re keen to get going, and, as you feel yourself getting fitter, you’re keen to do more. Be patient though. Upping the volume or intensity too fast may not give your body enough time to adapt and can lead to injury. A good rule of thumb is to not increase your training load (a mix of time and intensity) by more than 10% a week.
Practising going from one discipline to another – particularly bike to run – is a great way to not only make transitions smooth for your first triathlon, but also makes for more efficient training. The feel of running after a hard bike ride can be a bit strange until you’re used to it, so brick sessions are also a great way of stimulating how it will feel in a race.
Whether you opt for a coach, join a club or dive into the thousands of web articles, insights on training for your first triathlon can be both invaluable and motivating as you start your journey. There is lots to learn and so you’ll get lots of useful tips. Just be wary of taking everything onboard and keep it simple. While advice is generally well-mannered, there are a lot of ‘experts’ out there and it can be conflicting and overwhelming at times.
This one comes down to personal choice. Having a coach for your first triathlon can have many advantages. They can
No, you don’t need a trisuit for your first triathlon, but you might find it beneficial. A trisuit is designed to be worn for the whole race, including under the wetsuit in the swim (if wetsuits are being used). This often makes it time-efficient through transition while still allowing enough comfort on all three legs of the triathlon. However, it’s not your only option. You could wear a swimsuit and then add layers, such as a t-shirt, jacket, if needed for the bike and run. Alternatively, if your first triathlon is a long distance event, you may wish to change into cycling gear such as bib shorts with a more comfortable chamois, and then change again for the run.
If you’re racing a British Triathlon sanctioned race, you’ll need a race licence for insurance purposes. You can get this by becoming a British Triathlon member. There may be different rules for racing abroad, so it’s worth finding out from the race organiser when you enter. In some countries, such as France and Italy, a medical certificate is sometimes also required to prove you are healthy enough to participate in sporting events. If you don’t have an annual race licence you can typically buy a day licence or day membership to race events at the cost of around £6.
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