What you really need to know for your first triathlon

what i learnt during my first triathlon

Having spent the last few years watching my colleagues branch out from pure running and try their hand at triathlon, I decided to get on board this year and have a go myself, ploughing straight in at an Olympic distance event (1500m swim, 40K bike, 10K run). I did just enough training to be sure of getting round, but - just like running - I discovered that there are plenty of small details to get right that can make your race go a whole lot smoother. Here’s my rookie rundown on what I learnt:

1. Learn how to get your feet in and out of the pedals.

Sounds obvious, right? Several times in the first couple of weeks I came off the bike (fortunately at a very low speed and with no traffic around) after braking, going to put my feet down, remembering they were clipped into the pedals, wobbling profusely, and finally falling to the floor in excruciating slow motion, much to the amusement of passers-by. Digital Editor (and cycling don) Ben Hobson rolling his eyes and explaining to me that you can loosen the tension on the back of the pedals so your feet come out easier was advice very much appreciated.

Related: Make yourself a triathlete

2. Buy cycling kit one size up.

I am a size medium in running kit, so naturally, I got size medium in cycling kit. It’s safe to say, they don’t fit the same. I had failed to take into account that cycling kit is supposed to be tight fitting so you’re more aerodynamic. Fortunately when I did get the right size, it was worth the wait. Dhb does a small but brilliant range of cost effective but technically very competent cycling kit. I wore the Dhb Blok tri short sleeve top and shorts (wave).

Buy now - Dhb Block tri short sleeve top, £27.50

Triathlon kit

Buy now - Dhb Block tri shorts, £25

triathlon kit

3. Sunnies are a good idea even on a cloudy day.

Unless you’re the bionic man (or women) you won’t ever be going fast enough on the run to be bothered by bugs. But on the bike you are, and I quickly learnt that sunnies keep the little blighters out of your eyes when you’re zooming round the park. I wore Bollé Aeromax sunglasses which stayed put, were super comfy and didn’t fog up once.

triathlon kit - bolle sunglasses

4. Use carrier bags to get your wetsuit on.

So simple, but so life-changing. As soon as a wizened old triathlon vet passed this nugget on to me and I started putting bags over my feet so the tight ankle sections would slip on easier, I cut at least two long minutes of frantic struggling from my preparation time for swims. The same friend remarked that my wetsuit (the Advance, £152.10, zone3.com) was remarkably robust since I was manhandling it on a frequent basis, and it didn’t snag, stretch or tear once.

triathlon kit

5. Put your race timing chip on your left leg.

Never even thought about this until race day. As I wriggled out of my wetsuit after the 1500m swim, an eagle-eyed race official strolled over and said: ‘your first tri is it?’ When I replied in the affirmative and asked if it was my slow time that had alerted him, he shook his head and pointed at my ankle. ‘You’ve got your chip strapped to the wrong leg,’ he remarked. Having your timing chip on the right leg would allow it to get caught in the bike chain. Crisis averted at the last minute.

6. Go generous on swim cap sizing – you don’t want it riding up over your ears.

It’s uncomfortable, and let’s face it – nobody wants to look like Frodo Baggins coming out of the water.

7. Practise bike handling. A lot.

I don’t mean fancy stuff like peeing off the side of the bike like the pros do, but you can save time elsewhere. Changing gears, cornering, drinking on the move at speed, keeping your legs tucked in so you don’t look like Charlie Chaplin out for a Sunday ride.

Bike brand Giant will be especially pleased to hear I didn’t answer any calls of nature while pedalling since they were kind enough to lend me a TCR Advanced 0 bike with a carbon frame that was featherlight and very beginner friendly. It also came with electronic gears, and one charge was enough for six months of use. They took some getting used to but having gears shift silently and seamlessly instead of clunkily and reluctantly, was incredibly reassuring and gave me the confidence to switch up or down at the slightest change in elevation.

Related: How cycling can help your running

8. Remember where your stuff is in transition.

I must have been warned about making this rookie error half a dozen times and I still did it. I lost my bearings both in between the swim and bike, and the bike and run - and as a consequence wasted a whopping 15 minutes in total. Next time I’ll be writing my stall position on my wrist in black marker.

9. Practise running in your bike shoes.

Ideally you'll master the art leaving your shoes attached the bike and doing them up once you're on the bike (not as tricky as it sounds), but being new to this whole thing I elected to put my shoes on in transition. I was like Bambi on ice, skating precariously along the transition zone in my cleated shoes, pushing my bike and hoping I didn’t go crashing to the floor.  I was so worried I slowed to a walk and lost at least a minute here. If you’re a beginner like me you don’t need to spend big bucks. Mine were the Dhb Trinity £56.25, wiggle.co.uk.

triathlon kit - dhb shoes

And if you’re wondering what the difference between triathlon bike shoes and normal cycling shoes is (as I did) it’s all about how easy they are to get on and off your feet. Triathlon bike shoes are wider and have different fastenings (mainly one large strap) so you can get them off faster.

10. Sign up to another one before you have time to think.

For a good fortnight after the race I was buzzing with a sense of achievement and had discovered that actually, although I’m never going to be a water baby, cycling is something I could get into and I’d enjoyed the whole experience. I’d not sucked at it but left plenty of room for easy improvement: perfect. I talked with triathlete friends about entering another one. And then talked some more. And then, time passed and I fell back into my comfort zone of pure running races. But I regretted not going with the momentum so have made an early new year’s resolution that 2019 will once again see me wandering frantically up and down a transition area somewhere wondering where I left my kit.