Things have changed some since the days of English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon. Triathlon, for one, came to be known and loved by tens of thousands of athletes around the world. But Bacon’s quote that “knowledge is power” holds the same weight today that it did when he jotted down those words in the late 16th Century. For current and aspiring triathletes, learning about the sport can lay the foundation for a lifetime of fun and fitness.
In the pages of Destination Kona Triathlon 101, you’ll find answers to the many questions swirling around the sport of triathlon. Should I wear socks? Do I need a wetsuit? What the heck do you wear? We hope to take the mystery out of triathlon for those who have never done one. And for those who have, Bill Cosby said it best: “If you’re not careful, you just might learn something. Hey, hey, hey.”
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Triathlon, as most people know it, consists of three sports completed consecutively. Swimming often is first, then cycling and then running or walking. Some triathlons, however, put swimming last. There also are winter triathlons and hybrids that incorporate kayaking or even shooting baskets and flying paper airplanes. It's true. We know the guy who put them on. Nevertheless, there are four main distances: 1] Sprint, 2] Olympic or international, 3] Half Ironman or 70.3 and 4] Ironman or 140.6.
Sprint: Sprint triathlons, as you might have guessed, are short. 300-700 meter/yard swim, 12-15 mile bike and 3.1 mile run. Short and sweet and fast. Sprints offer a chance to get your feet wet without investing your entire 401K or abandoning your family.
Olympic: Olympic or international distance triathlons incorporate 1500 meter/yard swims, 24-28 mile bike legs and 6.2 mile runs. The name does not imply that you must be an olympic hopeful to take it on. Instead, it a common distance in international and Olympic triathlon racing.
Half Ironman or 70.3: Now we're getting up there. You see this label and it generally means a lot of work is coming your way. "OK. So what does that mean, smart guy?" you say. 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and a 13.1 mile run, bub. That's what we mean. Getting up there indeed. Oh, the 70.3 is the total distance traveled. Yes, miles. Yikes! We know.
Ironman or 140.6: Now, some nuts have come along of late and created longer events, but for most people, the Ironman is the Mt. Everest of triathlon. 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile crawl. Yep. Make a day of it.
Most triathlons begin with the swim portion. Some are in open water, some are held at local pools. Some allow wetsuits while others do not. The transition between the swim and the bike is known as T1, or Transition 1.
The first transition is the place to dry off and move on to the bike leg. This is your homebase, of sorts, where all of your gear is kept. Your bike will be propped up on a rack or even leaned against a tree (as happens in some small events). There is a transition area entrance and an exit. Be mindful of the traffic pattern and listen to direction from event volunteers.
The second leg of a triathlon most often is cycling. This is pretty straight forward. Ride for the designated number of miles using pretty much anything with two wheels that lacks a motor (boy, wouldn't that be nice). Be considerate of other participants and know and follow the rules of the road. Do so and soon you'll wheel into T2, of Transition 2.
T2 is usually the faster of the two transitions. There will be a dismount zone before you reach the transition area. Volunteers instruct you on where to get off the bike. Bikes are sent back to the rack and it's off to the run course through the transition area's run exit.
During most events, iPods or other music players and radios are not allowed. This includes on the run. While some events have become more tolerant of earbud use during the run, it's best to check with the race director before using one. Music players are off limits for the bike leg.
Soon enough the finish line will be in sight. You will have completed your first triathlon ... and live to tell about it.
"But, but, but ... what about all the stuff?" You ask. To which we reply: What stuff? Oh yeah, all the stuff we sell in the store. We thought you were talking about, oh, forget it. You're right. The supply of triathlon gear and apparel can be extensive. Don't let it scare you off, though. Because the good news is you really don't need all that stuff. Yep, you heard us right - You don't need it. Read on, dear pupil.
We've told customers from the day we opened that finishing a triathlon doesn't mean breaking the bank. Any fit person could go out and do a triathlon today with little more than cut-offs and a borrowed bike. Like any sport, though, having the right equipment makes it all the more fun. That still doesn't mean buying a $2,000 tri bike, race wheels and the whole nine yards. Want some advice? Sure you do. That's why you came by in the first place, right?
Do yourself a favor and buy a decent pair of tri shorts and a racebelt. If you're feeling rich, throw down on some elastic shoelaces. Out the door, you're looking at shelling out around $70-$80, which is probably about what you paid for that tri you signed up for after a couple of glasses of wine. "What about a bike? I don't have one," you say. Have any friends? Your cheapskate brother-in-law have an old mountain bike in his garage? Plain and simple, borrow one. And before you start panicking, you have got to own a pair of sneakers. My goodness.
OK. We agree. That was a bit smart-alecky. But we're just trying to keep it light. This is triathlon after all. In the coming pages we'll talk more about equipment, bikes, training and clothes.
What do I wear?
What are triathlon clothes?
For the most part, triathlon clothes are the apparel items (shirt, short, etc.) that you wear in a triathlon. These should generally be snug-fitting, clothing made of technical fabric. Some of you older guys out there call it Spandex. Some people know them only as the brand Under Armour. Basically, technical fabrics are synthetic microfibers that help pull fluids away from the body to keep you dry and comfortable. Beyond that, what you wear really comes down to personal preference.
What are tri shorts?
If there is one piece of triathlon-specific clothing that is more mentally vexing for new triathletes than any other, it's the tri short. Why? We dunno, because it's very simple. Think of a tri short as a cycling short without the thick pad. The tri short pad, also called the chamois, contains open cell properties allowing water to drain out. Like the short itself, the pads are made from technical fabrics and are generally only a few millimeters thick. They can also be enclosed in a fabric cover. By the way, there is little difference between men's tri shorts and those for women.
How should they fit?
Tri shorts should be snug - essentially fitting like underwear (not boxer shorts). They can and should be worn in the swim, under a wetsuit if you are using one. They transition well to the bike, drying out after only a couple of minutes of riding.
On the run, the pad is thin enough to not be noticed while providing compression to reduce fatigue-causing muscle vibration. Many tri shorts come in black, but other colors are available. Color provides no distinct advantage or disadvantage. But as they say, black is slimming.
Tri shorts come in different inseam lengths with the preferred average being around 6 inches. Some tri shorts can run 9 inches in length while others can be just 3 inches. Some offer a lower waistband. Deciding which length is right for you is personal. Do you feel more comfortable with more coverage? Do you have long or short legs? Do you like a more free-moving feeling? If the answers to these types of questions are elusive, try an average length of 5 or 6 inches.
What about a shirt or top?
Many people have running shirts. No, not that old cotton T-shirt that rubs your nipples raw and red. We're talking about a decent microfiber top, perhaps one you got for 30 percent off at some marathon expo. Some people wear these in an event. It's loose, goes on with relative ease even when wet and works for both cycling and running. But it's not a tri top.
Triathlon tops generally are sleeveless and have pockets in the back or on the side. Most have a zipper in the front, but some do not. Some offer more vest-like coverage on the shoulders while others are more like a traditional tank top. All are made from technical fabrics that help keep you cool, dry and comfortable.
Tri tops can be either loose or snug, with a snug fitting top being better for the swim portion of triathlon.
For women, many tri tops offer a built-in shelf bra while others without support can be worn over a sports bra. Some women find it necessary to double up, wearing a sports bra and a tri top with built-in support. That is up to you.
So, do I wear a top in the swim?
Yes and no. For girls and women, the answer here is generally going to be "YES". If you are using a wetsuit, wearing tri shorts and a tri top can decrease transition times because you will not have to change or try to put on clothes while you are wet. In triathlons that involve pool swims, tops for guys can be optional. Not wearing a top in a pool swim means you'll have to put one on before heading out on the bike. Doing so when wet can be challenging.
How should they fit?
Tri shorts should be snug - essentially fitting like underwear (not boxer shorts). They can and should be worn in the swim, under a wetsuit if you are using one. They transition well to the bike, drying out after only a couple of minutes of riding.
Wearing a top during the swim generally means more drag, but comes the added benefit of a quicker transition. Remember, we're talking about a few seconds here, which may or may not make much difference to you.
Handy tip: In pool swims or non-wetsuit events, fold the bottom of the shirt inside itself so it looks like a half-shirt. This can hide the pockets, thus reducing drag in the water.
What about a trisuit or one-piece?
The trisuit, tri-suit, tri suit, triathlon suit, one-piece, unitard ... is another clothing option. By and large, tri shorts and separate tops are most popular. They offer versatility, allowing someone to wear different top-bottom combinations. One part also can be replaced if damaged or worn whereas a whole trisuit has to be replaced if the bottoms wear out. Additionaly, using the restroom can be a challenge (for women, especially, because of the built-in support) while wearing a trisuit. That said, it's a great and preferred option for many people.
Some folks like the compressed feel of trisuits. It offers a sort of completely held together feel, they say. Trisuits also do not separate like two individual pieces, keeping that gut from being exposed to your adoring fans. That connectedness also means they can offer a little less drag in the water. Thus, trisuits can be particularly good for pool and non-wetsuit swims.
Do I wear underwear?
Most people do not.
My coach, brother, priest ...said I shouldn't wear socks. Should I?
This is a personal choice. Some people say putting on socks - either in T1 or T2 - is a waste of time. For others, sockless endeavors lead to blistered feet and generally slower rides and runs. Can the time it takes to put on socks make a difference? Yes. Seconds matter sometimes when it comes to overall wins and age group placing.
It's usually about this point people say: "Well, I'm not trying to win." In that case, put on the socks if it makes you feel better. If you have calloused, leathery feet that could walk a mile over hot coals without difficulty, then forget about it. Like we said, it's a personal decision to which there is no right or wrong answer.
Are there ways to put on socks faster?
Yes. If you're going to wear socks, getting into them can be a challenge when you're wet. One solution is to put baby powder in your socks to limit the sticking points. Another way is to wipe off your feet with a small towel.
What's a racebelt or bib number belt or race number belt?
A racebelt is an elastic strap with a quick-connect/release clip to which you secure your bib number. There are a couple of different securing mechanisms. Some racebelts have short elastic cords attached to them with barrel clips or toggles that hold the race number in place. On others, small buttons or snaps are used to affix the number. Another model uses a hook sort of system. Among the folks at Triple Sports, the preference seems to be for the barrel clip/toggle mechanism. But this also can be a personal choice.
So, how the heck do I use the racebelt then?
Before the event, fasten the bib number to the racebelt. If you're paranoid, like some of us here, use a couple of safety pins as well. Place the belt in your helmet, on your handlebars or somewhere near your bike. After the swim and upon returning to your transition area, use the clip on the racebelt to secure it around your waist or step into it, pulling it up around your waist. Now you're ready for the bike.
Can I just pin my number to my shirt and then put on the shirt after the swim?
Yes. Keep in mind that sometimes it is nice to move the number to the back and then return it to the front later in the event. Some event directors require participants to wear the number on the back during the bike portion and the front during the run. A racebelt facilitates the process. And in the end, it's only $8-$10, making a racebelt one of the least expensive things you'll buy and use the most in the sport of triathlon (you can use it for running events, too. No more rusty safety pins!).
What about a hat, visor and sunglasses?
Sunglasses are a near necessity during the bike leg. They keep bugs, wind and the sun out of your eyes. Hats are nice during the run leg to shield your head and eyes from the sun while keeping stinging sweat at bay. Visors can allow heat to dissipate a little quicker than a hat while offering the same eye protection from the sun.
Do I need a heart rate monitor?
No. Will a heart rate monitor help you train and race efficiently? Yes. Heart rate monitors are excellent tools to keep you on pace and prevent blowups from overly quick starts. A heart rate monitor, however, is just one tool to determine your effort. If it runs out of juice, you should be able to continue training or racing by paying attention to your internal measures and guidelines.
Do I need a triathlon or road bike?
No. At least that's the short answer. Most anyone can complete a sprint and even an olympic or international distance triathlon on just about any bicycle. Hybrids, mountain bikes, folding bikes, road bikes and tri bikes can all be seen on most shorter event courses. Mountain and hybrid bike riders will work harder than their skinny-tire counterparts. But, in many cases, it's better than dropping a bunch of money on a sport you don't know whether you'll even like.
What's the difference between a tri bike and a road bike?
The main difference is in the seat tube angle. Most tri bikes have a steeper or more forward sloping seat tube. This allows riders to get into an aerodynamic position. It also utilizes different parts of the leg during the cycling portion of triathlon, setting up the body for a comfortable and energetic run. But there are some other differences.
Road bikes most often have more traditional, curved under, drop-style handlebars. Nowadays, shifters and brake levers are integrated and rest near the top of the curve of the handlebar. Some road bikes have three chain rings in the front while tri bikes generally have only two. Tri bikes also are outfitted with aerodynamic handlebars, or aerobars, on which shfters are placed at the tip out front. This allows riders to remain in an aerodynamic position while maintaining the ability to shift. But with that said, there are some options for transforming a road bike into a tri bike.
Can I put aerobars on my road bike?
Yes. We've even installed them on hybrid bikes. Ideally, you'll want to put on a shorter, "jammer" aerobar to allow for proper forward position on a bike with a shallower seat tube angle. Nevertheless, one of the most popular "clip-on" (i.e. removable) aerobars is the Profile Design Airstryke. Its flip-up arm pads allow for access to the top of the handlebar. It also can be adjusted forward and backward to customize positioning.
Do I need cycling shoes and clipless pedals?
No. Will they help? Yes. This is another common question for new triathletes.
Plenty of people come to triathlon from cycling. But many people do not. This means that the idea of locking your feet to the bike can be a bit intimidating. If that's the case, don't do it. Wear your running shoes and use good old fashion toe clips or ride regular platform pedals.
What's the deal with goggles?
There's no deal. They're just goggles. Goggles come in many varieties. In fact, it seems like new manufacturers are turning up everyday. But there really isn't much too these things.
Goggles are mostly made from plastics and silicone. Most have silicone gaskets, which allows for a nice seal around your eye socket to keep water out. Some have more of a cupped eyepiece, while others have lenses that lay flatter. Some have a sort of pully strap system while others use a type of tab-lock mechanism. And then there are the masks.
We get asked about these all the time. Masks offer a nice seal while minimizing a lot of the pressure smaller goggles can bring to the face. They offer a wider field of vision and often are preferred for open-water swimming or racing. Keep in mind that these are not the huge snorkle masks you used to bring to the Holiday Inn pool during summer vacation. While some are bigger than others, most made for endurance swimming trend toward a lower profile design.
What about fogging?
Moisture causes fogging. While your goggles might not leak, water vapor from sweat or moist skin coats the interior of the lens, making it tough to see. Goggles fog up. Period. There is no sure-fire way to avoid it. Most goggles come from the manufacturer with an anti-fog coating. That lasts for a few months, depending on the amount of swimming you might doing. Goggle makers have anti-fog spray that works pretty well.
Do some goggles fog less than others?
Not really. Perhaps with the exception of Sable goggles
I feel helpless. Can't something be done about this?
OK. OK. Take it easy. First, it's a good idea to rinse your goggles with clean water after every use. Don't worry about drying them off. In fact, poking a towel into the lens can actually rub off some of the anti-fog coating, increasing the possibility of fogging. Try using a goggle case. It'll help keep hair and grime out of the lens cup. And try not to leave goggles in your car. Even in Minnesota (summer, of course), cars can heat up like an oven, deteriorating many aspects of your water-bound specs.
Do I need a swim cap?
In training, swim caps can be optional. Now, if you're toting around Crystal
Gayle-style locks, you'd be well advised to get a cap to reduce drag. Plus, you don't want all that mane getting sucked into the pool filter drain. Ouch!
There are really three types of swim caps: 1) Latex, 2) Silicone, 3) Lycra. Latex swim caps usually are the least expensive, but don't last as long. They can also be murder on longer hair, pulling and plucking out strands like a Colonel Sanders worker takes care of feathers. Silicone caps offer a sturdy fit and slick feel that will last and last and last. And they're a litte easier on your up-do. Lycra caps are made from fabric and seem to offer a snug, but not stiflingly tight fit.
Will my hair stay dry if I use a cap?
Your hair will stay drier. But unless you seal the thing around the base of your neck, water is getting in.
What about size?
It's not the size that matters. Most swim caps are unisex and one size.
What about on race day?
You'll get a cap at most events. Some are color coded based on your particular wave, age, gender or both. This is for organization and safety. We all know you want to start with the elites. But you're blinding yellow cap will stick out like a sore thumb. In dark water, too, lighter swim caps can be seen better.
You've heard the stories. Maybe your buddies have even seen it in real life. Maybe you've seen it in the movies, you rascal you. But is it true? Do perfectly normal people climb into rubber suits with strangers and jump into an otherwise placid body of water? Yes. Well, except for the normal people part. It is a triathlon wetsuit and you will want one.
Triathlon wetsuits were designed for swimming. They were designed for speed and buoyancy. Yeah, yeah, they were designed for warmth, too. But who cares? This is legalized cheating we're talking about. Wetsuits give all that and, after you get used to feeling like you're being strangled, can give you a sense of comfort in the water that you might otherwise not have.
Wetsuits are made of neoprene rubber, which is cellular or contains air bubbles. This makes the material float. It is so floaty (is that a word?), in fact, that it will sit right on the water's surface even with you in it. No, we didn't mean to imply, er, oh never you mind. The inside is covered with a nylon or polyester jersey material. The outside is coated with a Super Composite Skin (SCS), making it hydrodynamic (i.e. fast in the agua). Most wetsuits have tapered legs for easier exit. Some will have small channels on the forearm for added "water purchase" with each stroke. Features vary by wetsuit as does price.
You: Speaking of price, why the heck are these things so expensive? I mean, I can go down to the local wholesale membership club and get a wetsuit for $75. You've got me spending $200 or $300 or more.
Us: Okay, settle down. We know this stuff can add up. There's no reason to get all worked up. The big difference between a wetsuit you buy at a warehouse club or big box store and the one you'll get from us is that ours are designed specifically for swimming. The less expensive models you've been eyeballing are designed to be used for activities above the surface of the water. Sure, they'll keep you warm if that Back Scratcher doesn't work out and sends you into the deep. But try swimming at length in them and feel the drag. It's really like dragging an anchor when compared to swimming in a triathlon wetsuit.
You: What's the big deal with buoyancy?
Us: Well, buoyancy floats you on the surface, which means less drag in the water. Less drag in the water means greater speed. Ain't that what we're looking for in the first place? We'll answer that for you: YES! While it varies from swimmer to swimmer, we're talking about saving as much as 10 seconds per 100 meters just by wearing a full sleeve wetsuit. Oh, now we've done it. We've opened the door to the next section.
Sleeveless Vs. Full Wetsuits
Budding triathletes wonder about this all the time. Should I get a sleeveless wetsuit or full? What about those with the short legs? The bottom line? More rubber equals more speed. You'll be faster in a full sleeve wetsuit than a sleeveless. How much faster? Generally a few seconds per 100 meters. But you'll still be plenty faster than the guy going al fresco.
Sleeveless suits have less rubber do not offer a tight seal along the side of the torso where the sleeve would go, allowing more water to get in and, thus, more drag. That said, a lot of accomplished swimmers like sleeveless suits because they can maintain a "feel" for the water. The choice really is yours to make. Keep in mind as well that Sleeveless wetsuits are a little easier to get into and exit from and can feel slightly more comfortable in warmer water. However, if the water is too warm for a full wetsuit, it's too warm for a sleeveless.
Now that we've got you sold on a wetsuit, you're probably wondering when you can actually use these things in a race. The official rule from USA Triathlon allows participants to wear wetsuits if the water temperature is 78 degrees or lower. From 78-84 degrees, wetsuits are allowed, but age group participants wearing one are not be eligible for prizes. Water that is above 84 degrees is way too hot for a wetsuit and they are not allowed. You'd be a piece of macaroni, buddy-boy.
On the other side of the scale, wetsuits can keep you warm in pretty chilly water. How chilly? Some of our folks have swum early season in San Francisco Bay when the water temps hover in the early 50s. The bigger challenge in that is keeping your face warm. Neoprene caps can help with your head, but your face is just kind of stuck out there. Try sticking with the pool. Ah, the pool. Yes, you can use your wetsuit in a chlorine treated pool. Just rinse it out really well after each use to help prolong the life of the rubber. Okay, you get one more here: The lifespan of a wetsuit can be 5-10 years, generally speaking.
Wetsuit Sizing & Fitting
After fitting countless people in triathlon wetsuits, we here at Triple Sports have learned a few things. And as is common around here, we like to pass that information along to you. This information and more, of course, is included with every online wetsuit order. If you're lucky enough to be in our town, we can help size and fit you in real life. We have done just that for hundreds of your contemporaries. In any event, read on.
When selecting a size, follow the manufacturer's guidelines using the charts provided (located near the bottom of each wetsuit product page). Each manufacturer has different guidelines. All sizes, therefore, might not be equal. Weight should be used as the primary factor in selecting a size for all brands. For example, if your weight makes you a medium but your height makes you a small, choose the medium. If you have any questions or doubts, we'd be happy to help walk you through sizing.
Wetsuits need to fit tight, very tight. If they do not, a great deal of water will pool in ill-fitting areas of the suit. You will be dragging around pockets filled with water, which will slow you down and sap your energy. We do not know of any triathlete or swimmer who wants to lose more energy in an event or in training by using a wetsuit. All you guys want speed and buoyancy, which a triathlon wetsuit provides.
So, how tight is tight? Very. Remember? Your wetsuit should be tight in the crotch. Tight like those Saturday Night Fever disco pants or the ones your old Uncle Leo wears. Remember the white belt? We do. But we digress. Putting on a wetsuit for the first time can be a bit disconcerting. You might be thinking: "Am I really supposed to swim in this thing?" Well, yeah. And you will be happy you did. So how tight is tight? Yep, very. Now you?re getting it.
There, of course, is a learning curve when it comes to wearing a wetsuit. With practice getting into one comes greater comfort. For many of us, getting used to the tight fit takes time. But how tight is too tight? Okay, if you put on the wetsuit and the little vein in your forehead or the ones in your neck (like the ones that popped out of Dad when we kids did something real bad) break the skin and your face turns three shades of red, the wetsuit could be too tight. For women in particular, the neck can seem very tight. This is normal and acceptable. Well, except for that whole vein popping thing.
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1. Use Bodyglide or a similar, natural lubricant. Put it on your neck, ankles, wrists - anywhere the wetsuit might get hung up.
2. Wear socks or put a plastic grocery bag over your feet to aid in pushing the foot through the leg. Additionally, angle your foot downward while sliding it through the leg.
Work from the bottom up, pulling up on the suit from inside. The material is more durable. It's also easier to work the suit up incrementally from the bottom rather than trying to pull it up after it is almost entirely on.
3. Pay particular attention to the fit in the crotch while pulling up the suit over your hips. The suit should fit very tight in the crotch. That allows the material to be pulled up and fit properly on your shoulders and upper torso. To do this, pull up on the inside of the suit after you've got it up around your waste. It's similar to putting on pantyhose. Just watch those fingernails. They're murder on the SCS coating.
4. Once in the suit with it zipped up, you can lean forward, pulling up on the folded material that bunches around your stomach. "Walk" that material up your chest using your thumb and forefinger. This will shift the material in place, making for a more comfortable fit.
5. For additional fit in the shoulder, you or a friend can slowly pinch and move the material on the arm up and back on the shoulder. The end result will force your shoulders back slightly and offer a more comfortable fit and feel. This should feel like you're sitting up properly, just like your Mom always told you to do.
6. Take your time. While you'll want to take off the suit as fast as you can in transition, the more time you spend putting it on the better the fit and performance you'll get
7. Test out your wetsuit at least once before your event. On raceday, surrounded by dozens or even a few hundred others, panic can set in. Remember, it is all mental.
The wetsuit is your friend and will give you buoyancy. If you feel panic coming on, get to the side of the field and float on your back. Seriously, these things are like being atop an air mattress or a couple of those water noodle thingies. In the end, the more familiar you are with the wetsuit and how it works, the more comfortable you will be when you climb into the water on raceday.
People understand swimming. People understand cycling. People understand running. So, anyone who has watched Sesame Street knows that people also understand transitions. The problem with that reasoning is that it is wrong. While newcomers to triathlon can grasp the workings of each individual sport, transitions remain the most vexing part of this trifecta.
Very simply put, transitions are the spaces between each of the sports of triathlon. There is the first transition between swimming and biking known as T1. And there is the second transition between biking and running known as T2.
Every triathlon needs a transition area. That's the home base, of sorts, where athletes keep their gear for each leg of the event. Some races assign space in transition based on age, gender, both or bib number. Race directors at other events take a more general admission approach, leaving you wild-eyed triathletes to cordone off your spot.
For the pros or some of the more competitive folks around here (ahem, Mom), the glory of race victory or the agony of defeat can come about in transtiion. For most of us age groupers, though, transitions are memory exercises. We need to remember to grab everything needed for that particular leg before heading back out on the course. Leaving something behind can ruin a race. But that's why we're here - to keep you on the straight-and-narrow path.
Setting up your transition area should be intuitive - based on the order in which you'll need your stuff. First off, rack your bike. You can do this by the rear of your saddle, the nose of your saddle or even your handlebars. Event directors like when you alternate bikes, facing one bike toward the left of the rack and the other toward the right. This helps keep your neighbor from grinding your stuff into the ground. It's a good idea to make sure your bike is in the gear you want it for the start and that your tires are fully inflated.
At some events, such as Ironman, participants must drop off bikes a day before or in the days prior to the event. This may cause some worry, but in reality it is a very organized approach. With the bike already in place, there is no worrying about loading your bike in the back of your Honda Civic at 4 a.m. Race directors usually provide security, too. But if you're paranoid, feel free to lock it up. Some people also drape a towel across the top of the bike. Doing so not only keeps your baby warm and comfy, but also can keep dew from soaking your saddle through the dark of night. With the bike out of the way, let's talk a little about the rest of your gear.
To the left or right of the bike, lay out a small towel. Believe it or not, a hand towel works great. Now, you'll see people putting out that old 21-square foot beach towel emblazoned with Garfield The Cat. That's fine. After all, who doesn't like Garfield?
But keep in mind that transition areas can be crowded. As more and more people get into the sport, the less space we will all have for our stuff. Just try not to be a transition area hog. If you need a bigger towel for drying off, put a separate one at the front of the transition area.
On the towel, place your running shoes, hat, socks and whatever else you need for the run portion near the back, if your run or walk leg comes last. If you're using your running shoes for the bike, put them closer to the front for easier access. Next, lay out your race belt, sunglasses, bike gloves, helmet and anything else you might need for the bike portion. A good way to do this is to place your glasses, gloves, etc. in your helmet for easy access. There are, of course, variations to this layout.
Some people like to bring an extra water bottle or small tub to wash off their feet. Others like to bring their stuff in a five gallon bucket or plastic milk crate and then use either for a seat during transitions. Some people put there helmet and cycling gear on the handlebars for quick access. Some people bring a lawn chair, generator and television set to relax before the grueling bike leg. What you do, is your choice.
With your transition area prepared, you can now have your number written all over your body. At most triathlons, volunteers will mark your race number and age on your arms and legs. "Body marking," as it is called, makes it easier for officials to see who you are from many different angles. It's also a way to show off that you are a real triathlete for a few days after your event.
Plenty of volunteers make bodymarking a pretty tame process. But if you're not a morning person and are going to get all huffy because you have to wait a spell, you can always bring your own marker (a Sharpie works great) and have a friend or relative draw on you. Just make sure you know where all the numbers go and remember to do it before putting on your wetsuit.
With your transition area set up and body marked, take a minute or two to look around the transition area. Find out where you'll enter the transition area after the swim and where you will exit and return during the bike leg. Be sure figure out where you'll exit the transition area for the run, too.
Determine where your transition area is located. Sometimes it helps to count the rows from the point where you'll enter from the swim. Some people even tie a balloon to the rack near their bike to help guide the way. In the end, knowing the flow of the transition area can eliminate confusion, making for more peaceful, speedier transitions.
Surviving the swim - the underwater body checks, the foggy goggles, the blinding sun, the people-eating perch - provides a huge mental lift for many people. Triathlon swimming can be terrifying and so many of us just want to get through it. Well, most do make it and enter T1 feeling exhilarated.
Take it easy while exiting the swim. Walk or move into a slow jog toward transition. If you're wearing a wetsuit, start getting out of it by unzipping and pulling the top down around your waist. Since you're a student of triathlon, you'll have remembered how many rows you have to pass to find your bike. Finish taking off your wetsuit at your transition area.
In transition, concentration is key. You will be all hopped up after surviving the swim. The roar of the crowd will stir emotions you never even knew existed. Revel in it, but resist the urge to throw yourself through the transition area like some kind of nut. Be deliberate. Think about what you're doing step by step.
Remove your wetsuit and set it neatly at the back of your transition area. Some folks like to lay wetsuits over the bike rack crossbar. However, this can take up lots of space and bring on the potential for damage if someone returns their bike to the rack where your wetsuit is placed.
Put on your sunglasses and helmet, making sure the strap is securely connected. Put on your race belt with your bib number already attached. Now climb into your shoes or, if you are more advanced and have practiced, take off with your shoes already connected to the bike. Walk or jog your bike to the transition area exit and across the mount line for the start of the bike leg.
The start of the bike can be crowded and chaotic. Unlike you, some others are not students of triathlon and have not taken the time to put their bike in a nice, easy gear for a quick start. Other athletes can and do steer into your path as they struggle to pump their pedals to stay upright. All the excitement can also lead to tunnel vision, giving some participants the idea that they are the only ones in the event. Watch out for these folks as you wheel onto the course.
Many bike courses consist of loops to keep local road closures to a minimum. Now, you're a terrifically talented, natural athlete and all, but there might be some people out there who have been at it a little longer. Professionals at some events can occasionally completed the first loop by the time the rest of us are just beginning. Be on the lookout for these guys when wheeling onto the course. They can be coming very fast and the last thing you want to do is steer into their path.
Moving from the bike to the run is generally the faster of the two transitions. For one, there's no rubber suit to remove. But there also isn't a heck of a lot of equipment needed for the last portion of the event, which makes for simpler transition.
By the second transition, or T2 as it is also known, you might be getting a little tired. The good news is that you're two-thirds of the way done. But the bad news is that your brain might be getting a little squirrely. Keep your head in the game and remember: Be quick, but deliberate.
Walk or jog your bike back to your transition area. Do you remember what row you're in? Good. We thought so. That's why you're in the front of the class and these others are, well, you get the drift. There are several ways to rack your bike.
One, by the rear of the saddle. Two, by the front of the saddle. and finally, by the handlebars. Any option will do in T2. Hey, that rhymes.
With your ride back in the stable, remove your helmet, grab a hat or visor and energy gels or food (if you need it) and head for the exit. Nope, leave the music player behind. They're off limits in any USA Triathlon event. Of course you'll want to slip into your running shoes first, if you went all Hollywood in T1 with your fancy, schmancy cycling shoes.
Unlike the bike, there aren't a ton of rules during the run. You can draft, if you think it will do you some good. Just don't step on any heels. And be careful not to go out too fast. Avoid littering, which can get you disqualified. Stay on the course and whatever you do, avoid crawling, another offense that will get you the boot. Sheesh, we sound like your junior high vice principal. Some "pal", huh?
Without doubt, the swim leg is about the most terrifying part of a triathlon for newcomers to the sport. Unless you were a collegiate swimmer or a mermaid like Daryl Hannah in the movie "Splash," you're probably not all that excited about piling into an open body of water with a few dozen or even hundreds of your closest friends in rubber suits. Rest assured, with our guidance and tips, you'll decrease that anxiety level to 11 on a 10-point scale.
One of the first things to understand is this: You will not die. Some have wished for death after quite lengthy swims, but it wasn't something thrust upon them. In any event, the aforementioned declaration holds true for both open water swims and those held in pools. The aforementioned statement also comes with the disclaimer that it may be false. OK, now that our lawyer has left, we can get down to business.
Now, where to start ... how about the beginning? The best way to feel confident in the water is to practice being in the water. This sounds silly, but it always is surprising to hear from folks who have yet to get in some swim training just a couple of weeks before their event. Many people just want to "get through" or "survive" the swim, offering qualifications such as "Well, I'm not going to win." Fine. But all of us, we suspect, want to do the best we can and getting through the swim can be a lot easier with a few laps under your belt. So, like they used to say in college, "EVERYONE INTO THE POOL!" Well, you must not have gone to Arizona State, then.
We know what you're thinking: "I can't swim." Right? Be honest. Fine. Whatever. Just know that many communities offer swim lessons. There are 2,663 YMCAs around the country, many of which have pools and swim lessons. And then there are all of the fitness clubs and community centers out there offering the same thing. If that doesn't work, get a book or a DVD. When some of us here started swimming, nose and ear plugs were the only way to get through the ordeal. And look at us now. You have to start somewhere.
The great thing about swimming is that it doesn't take that much equipment. That said, what is it that you do need? A swimsuit, goggles, a towel and, perhaps, a swim cap. Let's start with the suit.
Swimsuit: We know you love your cutoffs, but a genuine swimsuit is really going to do wonders for your form. And the lifeguard won't heckle you for clogging up the pool filter. Try to get a suit that is 100 percent polyester. It will last much, much longer than any Lycra-nylon blended suit. Sure the upfront cost is a bit more, but you'll save money in the long run.
Goggles: For many people, goggles are the root of all evil. They leak, they fog, they suck. Right? Well, they don't have to. Goggle fit has more to do with the shape of your face. That said, find a shop (ah, hello?) that has goggles out of the package and available to try on. Most goggles come with anti-fog coating, which wears off over time. Reapply it with an aftermarket anti-fog solution. Try to keep your fingers, spit, dirt and other gunk out of the lens to help keep fogging at bay longer. A goggle case can help. Avoid the cheapos. We see lots of folks who want a new pair of goggles after first trying "a cheap pair of" they picked up from the big box retailer. Kaimans are great as are Speedo Vanquishers or Sable Goggles. But there are lots to choose from, including larger masks, which can stay on better during events.
Lens Color: Lots of folks come to us with the notion that getting a pair of clear goggles will allow them to see better in a lake, ocean, river or other open body of water. That may be true, if you happen to swim in Lake Tahoe. For the most part, though, lakes and other open water areas are cloudy. Check out our guide:
Clear: Mostly indoor, dark early morning or evening swimming.
Blue: Low light, indoor, early morning/evening, foggy or overcast.
Amber + Yellow: Same as blue, low light.
Tint: sunrise, mid-day or otherwise bright conditions.
Mirror: Very sunny, sunrise start or otherwise very bright conditions.
With that out of the way, what's left? Oh, yes, you in the back. Right, thank you. You may go back to your doodling. Swim caps. As mentioned in earlier in our course, swim caps often are provided at events for use during the event. Bring it home - your grandkids will love it! Or use it during training. Free caps work in both situations. Still, though, we like to give you some stuff to chew on. So, here she goes:
Silicone: These caps offer durability, flexibility and a smoothness that is more comfortable than latex.
Latex: More rigid than silicone, latex caps offer utilitarian appeal and cost about four times less than silicone. Though, they wear out faster, seem to pull hair more and are not an option for those with latex allergies.
Lycra: These fabric caps can offer comfort, especially for those with very thick or extremely plentiful hair.
So, now that you've got all the gear figured out, you're ready to hit the washing machine that is the triathlon start. A lot has been said about these things. In fact, one guy at a Tri 101 clinic told a group of horrified newbies that a kick in the swim actually broke his collarbone. You could feel the fear grow in the room. There are solutions, however. For one, check out this video.
Yep, very funny, we know. Nevertheless, it represents a good point in the swim, which is: Be prepared. There will be contact. But in many cases, the contact is incidental - not bone crushing. People will touch your leg or hit your arm. Or you might hit someone's leg or arm. In mass swim starts like Ironman, the contact likely will occur more often. In wave starts, thinner fields promote less contact, but watch out for the faster waves that come from behind.
Like you, most people are nervous about the swim. Therefore, when the gun sounds or the race director bellows that it's time to go, everyone sets off for the first buoy. When everyone gets there is when the trouble ensues. Not wanting to swim more than necessary, most people want to round the corner right at the buoy. The problem is that everyone gets caught up, like when traffic comes to a standstill during rush hour at every freeway entry ramp in the country. There is a solution: Stay to the outside. You may swim a little farther, but you won't get caught in the pack at every turn.
In a pool swim, athletes will generally kick off from the wall every 15 seconds or so after seeding themselves or being seeded based on time. This allows for a fairly orderly swim. Some events have you travel down one side of the lane, return on the other side of the same lane and then duck under the lane line to repeat the process until the desired distance is completed. At other events, athletes with go down one lane, duck under the lane marker and come back up in the next lane over. And still other events will have you swim back and forth in your own lane the whole time while other athletes wait their turn. The exact manner depends on the event and will be explained by the race director before the start.
It's been said that everyone swims in a circle. The size of the circle depends on the person. Some circles are barely noticeable, while others are about as small as a dime. That's why there are lines in the bottom of the pool. In open water, though, the lines can be hard to see. Enter sighting.
Sighting simply means looking up every few strokes to see that you're heading in the right direction. How often you look depends on how far off course you become and how quickly you get there. If your circle is small, for example, you'll need to sight more often. Large circle swimmers, less so. What's more, you only have to peek over the water's surface to look forward. Bringing your head entirely out of the water isn't really necessary and could strain your neck. Ouch!
Nearing the end of the swim, it's a good idea to slow down a bit. Try to catch your breath and become more oriented. You could lose a few seconds, but you'll be less likely to fall over or pass out entirely when exiting the water. Keep in mind that you made it. And here you thought you'd endup in the back of the meat wagon. Shame on you. Have a little faith in yourself. With an attitude like that, you'll never make it through the bike and the run.
You survived the swim. Perhaps that surprised you, but we knew all along that you could do it and make it through the first transition. But before you get all carried away, popping the champagne and wheeling yourself onto the course, there are a few things to remember on the bike. Those just happen to be rules, safety and rules - not necessarily in that order. Sounds fun, huh? Well, it is. But it can also be a bit dicey. So, USA Triathlon - the sport's governing body - put together a rule book to help keep you and your fellow participants safe.
Helmets: You must wear one. And you have to keep the chin strap buckled at all times, too. A good rule of thumb is to have your helmet on and buckled whenever you are touching the bike.
Drafting: Triathlon is not NASCAR or even the Tour de France. You cannot draft. That is, unless it is an ITU event. But don't worry about that so much. Most triathlons in the United States are USA Triathlon sanctioned and, thus, do not allow drafting. What that means is that there must be three bike lengths between you and the person in front of you. There are exceptions, such as in crowded areas, narrow parts of the course or when safety is at issue.
Blocking: You are blocking if you ride on the left side of the bike lane when not passing. Like the fast lane for automobile traffic, the left lane in a triathlon is for passing. No problem, right?
Littering: You don't need Woodsy Owl to let you know littering is wrong. But most littering in triathlon is unintentional. An unsecured gel or energy bar wrapper, a tissue and even a water bottle launched from a rear cage can transfom into streetside debris in an instant. If it does and it comes from you, you have to stop and pick it up or face disqualification.
Passing: You must be able to pass the person in front of you within 15 seconds. To help you do this, the person being overtaken must fall back if the front of your wheel goes beyond the front of his or her wheel. This, of course doesn't always work out that way. We humans being the competitive beings that we are will occasionally pump the pedals harder after noticing someone coming up slowly from the rear. That can make passing all the more challenging to complete in that 15 second window.
What happens when you break one of these rules? Well, at every triathlon they have this little jail where all the naughty boys and girls are held to reflect on their crimes - sort of. At some events - usually longer ones such as Ironman - there are penalty tents where time penalties received for violating certain rules must be waited out. But for most events, time penalties are added to the finishing time, which can knock someone out of contention for a top placement. You may not care about that. But some people do. If you accumulate enough penalties, usually three, disqualification is the result. There is some good news, however.
As triathlon has become more popular, race marshals - as they are known - appear less and less likely to assess penalties for the everyday participant. They might tell you otherwise to keep you on your best behavior, which you should be anyway. But the fact of the matter is that most of us are just weekend warrior types out for a good time. Start kicking people out of events for minor goofs and watch the sport go down the drain. Makes sense. With that said, just follow the rules, alright?
Before heading out on the run there are a few odds and ends to cover. Get off your bike at the dismount line. Usually plenty of volunteers will be on hand pointing at this line just outside of the transition area while yelling at you to dismount before crossing it. Takes the mystery out of the whole thing, doesn't it? This area can get a little crowded. Realize that if you crash into someone or fall over because you waited too long to get out of your pedals, your time will suffer - and probably your ego. Therefore, be deliberate, cautious and thoughtful when heading back into transition. No ghostriding your bike in haste, kicking your neighbors stuff out of the way. You don't want your event to end here - either by injury or disqualification. And you certainly don't want the red-faced embarrassment that comes with ending up on the ground in front of all your adoring fans.
Running is simple. Right? There's no specialized equipment. A pair of shoes is about all you need. Well, shorts, shirt and, perhaps, socks can help keep you from getting tossed in the clink for indecent exposure. But you get the gist of what we're saying, here. And unlike the bike there aren't a ton of rules of which to run afoul. But there a couple.
Litter: We just talked about this on the bike. Same is true on the run. Don't do it. It's tough enough volunteering. Having to sift through the bushes to pull out your sticky gel packet isn't a welcome task. Save your trash for aid stations.
Stay The Course: Do not cut corners or take short cuts. Like your mother used to say: You're only cheating yourself. Another element to this point is knowing the course. It is your obligation to know where the course will take you. Cones, signs and volunteers can help, but might not always be visible or on hand for guidance.
Music: You're out of luck if you want Bono and the boys to keep you company during the run or any other part of the event. Music players simply are not allowed. Will you see people using them? Probably. Might they be assessed a time penalty? Perhaps. It's sort of a silly rule for the run. The bike, we can understand. But all in all, it's a safety thing. And around USA Triathlon it's safety first.
With all that said, you have come to the end. Your fans and family - maybe they're one and of the same - will be cheering wildly as you plow toward the finish line. The guy on the loudspeaker will be calling out your name. The glory of it all will be almost overwhelming. Live it up. Enjoy it. Get a bagel or a beer to celebrate. And it's never too early to start thinking about the next one.
Someone much wiser than most of us here once said: A journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step. We, of course, thought: 1,000 miles?! That's way too far. Let's just grab some Doritos, sprawl out on the sofa and get in a little Tube Time. So, we did and look at what happened to us! Just look at us! In any event, you people being the overachievers you are instead thought: Let's go! And here you are. Well, the good news is that you don't have anything close to 1,000 miles to travel and the moving you do can be done in the water, on a bike and on foot. We knew you'd be happy.
There are lots of reasons to tackle a triathlon. The challenge. The fun. Bragging rights. Tight clothes. You've always wanted to wear a racebelt. We can help.
We've included a training plan that can help prepare you for your first sprint distance triathlon. It's a 12-week program with a maximum swim of 700 meters, 12 mile bike and 30 minute run. The event you decide to do may incorporate distances different than those in the training plan. Just use this plan as a guide and modify it where necessary. That also means that you should feel free to move around the days to suit your needs.
Before you begin, consider a couple of things:
 Be in good health.
 Find a bike, but stay out of jail.
 Make mistakes and learn from them.
First: You should be in good enough health to be physically active in the first place. Triathlon elevates your heart rate, creating potentially dangerous conditions for some people. Just use commonsense and, if need be, get the advice of your health care provider.
Second: Don't worry too much about the bike. If you don't have a bike, borrow one from a friend, relative, neighbor, whatever. Just make sure that the person knows you are borrowing it and that before borrowing it you don't have to saw off a lock or cable. If you belong to a fitness center or gym, feel free to use the stationary bikes. They work just fine. Realize, though, that you'll need to find a bike at some point before your event arrives.
Finally: Don't get too wrapped up in this stuff. You're not training for the Olympic Trials or anything. It's supposed to be fun. Make mistakes. They help you learn.
As for the plan mechanics, it's all pretty straight forward. It starts slow, especially with the swim. Many people who start out in triathlon have a hard time making it across a 25 meter pool once. For others, this is a breeze. Know that we designed this plan for people starting from scratch. Change whatever you like to make it more challenging. And since when did you get all hardcore all of a sudden? The stuff here is for people just starting out. Take a chill pill, dude.
OK, swim distance is indicated in either y (yards) or m (meters). They're about the same. The bike training is measured in miles. Don't worry if you don't have a bike computer to tell you the distance. Before you head out on the bike, map out a route to determine the general distance. For the run, "m" stands for minutes - not miles.
We've also tossed in a couple of bricks - back-to-back bike + run training sessions - in weeks 7 + 8 to give you an idea what it feels like to transition from one sport to the next.