Your Triathlon Questions Answered

Worried about cycling in your pants? Here are the answers to the triathlon questions you might be afraid to ask


Posted: 24 November 2009

Q. Do I have to ride my bike in a pair of briefs?

A. You can change from your swimwear into your bike gear in the first transition from swim to bike but there are far less time-consuming options. One idea is to invest in a tri-suit, which can be worn for all three disciplines, but if you don't fancy an all-in-one number, there are also two-piece suits available which do the job just as well.

Suits you

Tri suits are worn underneath your wetsuit and are made of quick-drying fabric so that once you're out of the water onto the bike course you won't feel soaked to the skin. It means that, in theory at least, you can peel off your wetsuit post-swim, run to your bike in transition, put on your bike helmet and shoes and off you go. Nudity during a transition and topless cycling or running leads to instant disqualification, so wearing a suit is vital.

Q. Should I use tri bars?

A. If you are new to triathlon there is no point buying tri bars as they are not essential kit. However, if you are already a self-confessed tri-addict and are looking to save a few seconds every mile then it's worth reading on.

Getting aero

The more upright you are the more wind resistance and drag you will create, which will slow you down. A pair of tri bars, if positioned correctly, will allow you to ride in a narrower, flatter and therefore more aerodynamic position, enabling you to ride faster for the same effort. In short, it's free time.

If in doubt, seek expert advice and get used to tri bars in training before racing with them. There is also a trade-off between speed and comfort: you might be able to ride a few miles in a very flat position, but if it affects your breathing or causes neck and back pain you'll find a more upright position is preferable. The secret to tri bars is to see what works for you.

Q. What if I get a puncture?

A. Don't attempt to continue cycling as you could damage your bike. Always race with a saddle tool bag with inner tubes, tyre levers and a multi-tool. Also have a small pump attached to your bike frame. It should not end your race, so you need to know how to fix one.

Getting inflated

  • Take off the wheel. Then take off the valve cap and unscrew the valve to deflate the tyre.
  • Remove one side of the tyre from the wheel and take out the inner tube while keeping the other side of the tyre around the wheel.
  • Feel the inside and outside of the tyre to check for the debris which may have caused the puncture.
  • You will then need to put the new inner tube inside the tyre and put the tyre back on the wheel using your tyre levers.
  • Pump up the tyre and put the wheel back on, ensuring you have tightened the quick-release levers properly.

Q. Will someone swim over me?

A. The opening metres of the swim in a triathlon can sometimes be a little frantic, but this depends on the size of the race and the standard of the field. Remember, though, that triathletes tend to be a friendly bunch who aren't swimming over you for any malicious reason, it's just part of the fun of racing.

The big event

In events where competitors start in waves of 150 or more, things can become hectic and it is possible you may find someone swimming over you, under you or even across you. The swim usually becomes calmer after the first 100m or so as the faster swimmers pull ahead and the field becomes more spread out.

Smaller races

It is highly unlikely that you will encounter problems at small-field events, and the majority of UK sprint-distance races tend to be about this size. This means there is usually space for each swimmer, but do prepare yourself for things to be busy at the start.

Q. How do I avoid drafting

A. Drafting is the name given to taking shelter behind or beside another competitor while on the bike. It is illegal in most triathons and penalties (usually a two-minute time penalty) are given to any participant caught drafting. British Triathlon rules state that the draft zone is viewed as a rectangle measuring seven metres long by three metres wide which surrounds every competitor on the bike course. The front edge of the front wheel defines the centre of the leading three-metre edge of the rectangle. A competitor may enter the draft zone of another competitor but must be progressing through that zone and a maximum of 15 seconds is allowed. If an overtaking manoeuvre is not done within 15 seconds, the overtaking cyclist must drop back.

Avoiding the draft

In races where waves of 100 people or more start just a few minutes apart, the bike course often becomes congested with the result that it can be difficult to stay out of another competitor's draft zone. This situation often arises on fast, flat bike courses. If you find yourself caught in a large bunch of cyclists, do all that you can to get out of the pack safely. This might mean letting the pack pass you or putting in an effort to break away. If you don't, you will be penalised.

Q. Will my commuting bike embarrass me?

A. It is very common to see commuting bikes at triathlons that are popular with first-timers, such as the Blenheim Triathlon or the Eton Super Sprints. If you are new to the sport it makes sense to use your own tried-and-trusted bike before splashing out.

Pimp your ride

You can upgrade your bike to make it more suitable for racing too:

  • Slick road tyres are best and should be 1-1.5 inches wide for race conditions.
  • Inner tubes that are pumped to 100psi or above will certainly speed you up.
  • Cycling shoes and clipless pedals are far more energy efficient than toe-clip pedals and trainers. They take some getting used to, though, so give yourself a few weeks to practise with them.

Q. Do I have to wear a wetsuit?

Chances are that wetsuits will be compulsory in an open-water race in the UK. Wetsuits are only forbidden when water temperature is above 22°C and open-water swims are not permitted when the water is below 12.5°C. For weak swimmers especially, a wetsuit can be a huge bonus. It will improve your buoyancy in the water as well as your body position. The result? You swim faster for the same effort.

A second skin

It does take time to get used to swimming in a wetsuit so make sure you try it out before race day. Ask if you can test it at your local swimming pool or, better still, go to an open-water swimming venue.

When buying a wetsuit, seek expert advice if possible so you buy a suit that fits you perfectly. It needs to be tight yet comfortable. It is also worth practising getting out of the suit so you don't waste valuable time in transition battling with it. Lubricate your ankles, knees, shoulders, elbows and neck with a product such as Body Glide to give yourself a headstart when removing the suit.

Q. How can I conquer my fear of open-water swimming?

A. It's perfectly natural to feel apprehensive about swimming in open water, particularly if you're new to swimming or triathlon. It is, after all, totally different from tackling a length at your local pool. But it's different in many positive ways. With a little practise you will conquer your fears and may even come to regard the swim as the most exhilarating part of a triathlon.

Out in the open

The key to overcoming your trepidation about racing in open water is experience. By practising at one of the many open water swimming venues across the UK, you'll become familiar with swimming in murky water as well as gain access to professionals who will be able to offer advice on everything, from which wetsuit to use through to one-on-one coaching sessions. There are also scores of triathlon clubs that run their own open-water sessions with qualified coaches.

Explain that you are an inexperienced open-water swimmer and the coaches will ensure you are eased into it gradually. The first session might involve simply becoming used to wearing a wetsuit in the water, so that by the second session you feel ready to attempt swimming a few metres. Many triathletes soon find that swimming in open water is more enjoyable than swimming in a busy, chlorinated 25m pool and thoughts of not being able to touch the bottom will be the last thing on your mind.

Q. I'm a five-hour marathon runner, should I even be thinking about a triathlon?

A. Often triathletes are racing the clock rather than each other so no matter what standard you are, there's a place for you in the sport. The fact you have experience of marathon running will stand you in great stead for taking part in a multi-sport endurance event.

Every triathlete has his or her strengths or weaknesses, and it is this which often makes triathlon such an addictive sport: as soon as you cross the finish line you will be thinking of ways to improve your swim, bike or run to make sure you perform better at the next race. Ultimately, triathlon is not about being a brilliant swimmer, cyclist or runner, it is more about successfully combining all three sports.

Q. How can I get through the transitions successfully?

A. Transition - the so-called fourth sport - can make or break a race, but with a little preparation it should not slow you down.

  • Familiarise yourself with the layout of the transition: where will you be running in after the swim? Where is the bike exit? Where is the run exit?
  • When setting out your equipment look for landmarks or guides to lead you back to your bike. Lay down a brightly coloured towel to make it easier to spot your gear.
  • Set out your kit in the order that you'll need it. Start with your bike helmet, sunglasses and bike shoes; then your running shoes, visor or hat; then any energy drinks or gels.
  • Ensure your water bottle is on your bike and that your bike is running smoothly.

Fact or Fiction?

Scores of myths abound in triathlon, which could leave you more than a little confused. Here are a few of them unravelled...

Fiction: "All triathletes are super-lean, endurance freaks who treat their bodies like temples"

Elite triathletes train for 20 or more hours a week and have body fat readings as low as five per cent, but age-group triathletes come in all shapes and sizes and are all ages and abilities. Although some are precious about their training and their physique, the majority are well-rounded people who enjoy a fun challenge and are highly likely to tuck into a burger and a beer as a post-race reward.

Fact: "I've heard you get jelly legs on the run"

One of the joys of running out of the second transition from bike to run is the jelly legs feeling you will inevitably experience. This is simply your muscles becoming used to doing a new activity, as cycling and running use different leg muscles. If you haven't experienced this feeling before, it can be tempting to think it won't go away, but hang in there, take shorter, faster strides and the feeling will eventually subside as you settle into the run.

Fiction: "You need to eat mountains of pasta before a race"

It is a good idea to carbo-load in the days leading up to a race, but don't go crazy eating plates and plates of stodgy stuff. At least three days before your race, ensure you eat regular, high-carbohydrate meals
and drink at least two litres of water every day. Keeping your energy stores topped-up and staying hydrated is important. Don't overload on fibre as the race nears - try white pasta and bread instead of brown - and avoid alcohol if possible.


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Discuss this article

It takes me ages to double knot my running shoes which lace system is the best - locks or spring laces?
Posted: 02/07/2012 at 13:12

try a few of them and see which one suits you best

fwiw - I've used locklaces for years and never seen a need to change as they do the job.  


Posted: 02/07/2012 at 14:59

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