The Dream Star's Corner

Dare to Dream...and DO!
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Monday, September 24, 2012

Beginner Triathlete Lessons Learned: How to Prepare for and Survive Your First Triathlon

I learned a few things along the way as I journeyed from clueless newbie to triathlete. I think I still have a lot to learn, but for those athletes out there who are starting from zero, there are so many things that more experienced swimmers, cyclists, runners, and triathletes just neglect to share with you. I wanted to write a blog post about the things that I wish someone told me or explained to me a bit more and also some of the things I learned along the way that really worked well for me.

1. Train with someone.

Triathlon is a hard sport. Regardless if you're coming from a swimming, biking, or running background, putting these three things together and then creating and following through on a cohesive training schedule is a lot of work. Having someone around to kind of hold you accountable and to check in with you really gives you that added push to get your stuff together. Also, you get a sense of what it's like to swim, bike, and run in a group. I took my first spill on the bike while riding with others. I learned a lot on that first group ride. I'm not fast. It's not safe to try to go fast on a bike when you still need to learn how to control the bike and when you're new to learning how to use your shifters. It's important to train with a group who is knowledgeable about bike safety. Also, here's something no one told me: when riding on a road, the lay of the road tends to decline along the edges. If your tires get caught in a groove in that decline, you will ride off to the side of the road and you will crash. Stay to the right as much as possible but be mindful of where your tires are.

2. Learn about bikes.

I'm so glad I didn't listen to my parents. My parents both have hybrid Schwinns and told me that it didn't matter where I bought my bike...a bike is a bike. That's not true. Not saying I was going to be a natural born Lance Armstrong on two wheels, but I figured there was a reason why some advanced triathletes owned $12,000 bikes and some owned $3,000 bikes, etc. My budget was not in that range, but first things first, I had to learn WHY these bikes cost so much and then find what worked for me. Yes, it's true - you could complete your first triathlon on any old bike but I wanted to at least learn about road bikes and how to shop for one since the triathlon was taking place know... a road. After learning about road bikes, I made the decision that I didn't need all the things that a $3,000 bike or even a brand new shiny $1,000 bike had to offer. I just needed a bike that I could learn on and get used to. I bought a $500 bike from Craigslist and that worked out just fine. But learning about road bikes FIRST can help you shop more effectively on your own.

3. Be prepared to put money into your bike.

Regardless if you bought a new bike or a used bike, be prepared to spend more money. You may want to change the seat or the pedals (for clip in) on your new bike or maybe the used bike you bought is in decent shape but needs some adjustments or a new shifter (like mine did). Just be prepared to spend more money. Then there are mandatory accessories like the helmet, bike rack, and gloves. I know gloves aren't required but I found them useful.

 4. Buy the right gear and find an economical way to do it.

You need a lot of stuff. I bought the REI Membership card and that was one of the wisest decisions I made. I had to pick one place that potentially carried most of the things I needed so I didn't have to run all over the place looking for things. The staff at REI was always super helpful and patient. Yes, I could've shopped online and got some better deals on lots of things, but honestly, do you really want to buy a tri suit online when you've NEVER tried one on before? When you're trying to figure out how to fit in 4 to 7 workouts in a week, the last thing you need to worry about is waiting on some piece of equipment or apparel to arrive only to send it back because it didn't fit or work out the way you expected. I liked the instant gratification of just shopping in person. Besides, I got most of my stuff on sale which worked out great. Also, they have this really cool membership benefit where you receive a check equal to 10% of your total annual purchase amount at the end of the year. You can spend it on anything! I'm looking forward to that.

5. Link up with a REALLY REALLY REALLY GREAT local bike shop (LBS).

Your local bike shop should be a place near your home or near your favorite riding route. It's a place to go to ask questions, buy tools, cycling gear, or even the place where you decided to buy your bike. I take my bike to Race Pace Bicycles and I've never regretted it once. The staff is SUPER friendly, down to earth, and professional. It's where I got the crash course on bikes and where I took my bike for repairs when needed. I bought my travel tools there and some other things like my helmet and gloves. When I'm ready, I will definitely buy my first new bike from that shop. In the off-season, I will make arrangements to have the proper adjustments done on my current bike done there and a formal bike fitting when I'm ready to buy my new bike. It's a really awesome place. The people at your LBS should be knowledgeable and helpful and shouldn't ever make you feel stupid or like you're in the way. They shouldn't put any pressure on you to buy stuff from them or make you feel like you need to buy something whenever you step foot in the store. To me, this is how you gain more customers - by being honest and helpful at all times.

6. Take swim lessons.

If nothing else, swim lessons should help you to feel super comfortable in the water. I can't stress it enough - if it weren't for my swim lessons, I probably would've freaked out during the open water swim in my triathlon. But because of a great teacher who simply told me "Relax! Get used to water being in your face, in your ears, in your's gonna get all over! Water EVERYWHERE!! HAVE FUN!" I simply relaxed and found a method that worked for me to just get through the swim. It didn't bother me to have water in my face. I knew what to do in case something went wrong (like floating on your back and calming your breathing) and I learned that in my swim class. I took basic swim lessons at the local YMCA. Now that I know how to swim (for the most part), I know I need to work on technique. So now I will look into registering with a private swim coach. I don't think a new swimmer needs that kind of concentrated (and expensive) attention at first. And why not save yourself some money by going to the local Y? For $49, I have access to the pool, the weight room, and all of the exercise classes which included spin class which came in handy when I was still shopping around for a bike. And in all honesty, my shoddy performance during the swim is no reflection on the Y. I simply didn't practice enough. I had access to the pool but didn't go as much as I should have. That's the truth.

7. When the time comes, rent a wetsuit (if that's an option).

Depending on the time of year your first triathlon is taking place, you may or may not be able to wear a wetsuit. If you can, I highly recommend that you get one. They help you float, and keep you warm, and like I mentioned in this post, wetsuits are awesome. Rent one if you aren't sure if triathlon is for you. No use in shelling out $150+ for something you may never use again. I rented one for around $60 from and didn't have one issue with the company or the suit. They came highly recommended from more experienced triathletes who simply don't see a need to buy their own suit.

8. Use a backpack or triathlon transition backpack to carry your triathlon stuff.

This is something I did not do and I wish I did. The triathlon club that I belong to gave us a long talkin' to about this very thing but for some strange reason, I only focused on ONE piece of advice from that discussion. The tri club member presented his backpack:

Example. Not the actual bag.
And also mentioned that he sometimes carries along a crate to help him organize his things. Kinda like this:

I opted for the crate idea instead of buying the backpack (I don't think these things are mutually exclusive). But here lies the problem. When it's 5:30 a.m. and dark, and you have to get all of this stuff to the transition area along with your bike, how do you carry a crate and your bike to a location this far away?

Yeah...when you find out, you let me know. It was miserable. So please don't try to cut corners. Spare yourself the hassle and buy an oversized backpack or a triathlon pack. And I saw some people throwing their backpack on and riding their bikes to the car after the race. I envied them so much. 

9. Arrive at transition when it opens.

If the Race Director says transition opens at 5 a.m., get there at 5 a.m. Time flies early in the morning and every minute counts. Transition will have an open time and a close time - meaning you will not be allowed back in for anything. So to save yourself the aggravation of rushing, just get there early. Trust me, you won't be sitting around and waiting, and doing nothing for long. The list of things to do before the race is pretty lengthy - much different from a running race where it's okay to show up at 7:50 a.m. for a 8:00 a.m. race start (if you're as lucky as me and you don't have to go through a potty ritual each time).

10. Buy and bring throw away flip flops. 

We found ourselves standing on this sandy/grassy/questionable area while waiting for our wave to start in the water. There were shards of glass buried in the sand and some other random rocks, pebbles, and pieces of broken asphalt. You never know where you will have to stand before the race. Best to have a pair of throwaway $3 or $5 flip flops to wear before the race that you don't mind "losing" after you exit the water. If they are still there when you exit, then score! Pick them up and keep on going. If not, then there's no loss. 

Do you guys have any other tips and tricks that you'd like to share??


  1. That's great Kay! I tore out a article in the Womens' Running magazine for Triathlon Training for Runners. It had the same kind of info. It did give a suggested bike for first time Tri'ers along with apparel and then the upgraded gear for competitive racing. That is where I have my schedule for my swimming :-) I can't wait to do a tri and it is outstanding that you already did one!! Great job!!

    1. I will cheer you along the way as you train for your triathlon. You will do great!!

  2. Great write up Kay. The only thing I would add is practice transition in your garage or back yard.One less thing to worry about.

    1. That's some really great advice. I practiced donning and doffing the wetsuit in the parking lot of the beach that I use to practice open water swimming.