Everything You Need to Know for Your First Sprint Triathlon

Triathlete swimming
Rolf Brenner / Getty Images

Months ago, you signed up for a sprint triathlon, whose short distances seemed like the perfect introduction to the sport: nearly a half-mile swim, 12.5-mile bike, and 3-mile run. Since then, you’ve followed your training and nutrition plan and are feeling good. However, when you get on-site, the questions start flooding in: What should you eat? How do you set up your gear? What should you do if you get kicked in the face during the swim?



For all the day-of advice you need, we spoke with Matt Poole, a professional surf Ironman, and Seb Gallery, an organizer for the second-largest triathlon in the Southern Hemisphere: the Big Husky Triathlon Festival. From race logistics to biking etiquette to warm-up stretches, they cover every facet of sprint tri preparation.

1. The Day of the Race, Don’t Eat or Wear Anything New

Both men stressed the morning of your first tri isn’t the time to experiment. Make sure you’ve tested out your gear ahead of time, ideally for a few weeks. Wearing new shoes, a tri suit, or wetsuit can mean ungodly amounts of chafing and discomfort that’ll take away from your performance.

You also want to eat a breakfast you’re familiar with. Poole likes eggs with avocado, sourdough toast, cereal, and coffee—a meal that have protein, fats, and carbs that are easily digested. However, he says that some of his competitors like heavier breakfasts and take pre-workout supplements, indicating there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to nutrition. If you’re not hungry when you wake up, set your alarm a little earlier so you can get adequate fuel in before the start. You’ll struggle immensely if you don’t eat.

And if you’re traveling for the triathlon and staying in a hotel, go to the grocery store and pick up some staples (especially if the hotel’s complimentary breakfast isn’t available when you wake up). Gallery recommends eating a few pieces of bread with peanut butter (or Vegemite) and a banana.

As for hydration, he says a rookie mistake is to drink too much before the race or to drink just water. During the week before the race and the day of, he recommends two liters of liquid per day, supplemented with electrolytes, which you can find in hydration powders (we like Klean Hydration and Nuun Sport.) He also says to stop drinking fluids an hour before the race starts (and not to worry if you have to pee in your wet suit—everyone does it). On the bike leg, athletes occasionally bring two water bottles in case you drop one. Bike routes inevitably become a water bottle graveyard.

2. Use Landmarks to Remember Where Your Gear Is

In the morning darkness, when you set up your bike, it may be the only one on the rack; but after you get out of the water, it’ll be lost in a sea of ’em, so make sure you know where it’s parked, especially in relation to where you’ll be transitioning from. Don’t get creative, though: You can’t tie a balloon to the bike rack. Just take a mental note if it’s near a tree, or count the rows.

That said, don’t be afraid to lay your gear out under your bike to make transitions smoother. Hang your helmet on your handle bars with your hat, sunglasses, and chews/goos nestled inside; unroll your socks and put them in your cycling shoes; bring a hand towel to quickly dry off your feet; and keep your running shoes tied so they’re easy to slide on post-cycle. (Gallery also recommends Lock Lace). Also note in many tris you can suffer a time penalty if you start pedaling before your helmet is on. You want to keep your transitions quick, but don’t rush in and out like a maniac.

3. Anything You Forget, You Can Probably Buy or Borrow

“You’re not alone when you forget things,” says Gallery, who says he’s had to buy a race belt—the fabric strip that holds your race number—at least 60 times. At any triathlon there’s a vendor expo that offers most everything you’ll need, and your competitors may also be a valuable resource. “It’s a fantastic community,” says Gallery. “At almost every race I’ve been at, a competitor ends up lending wheels or tubes because someone’s burst a tire.” If you’re scrambling to find gear, though, make sure you’re sorted in time for the safety briefing, which is typically 15 minutes before the first heat. That’s when they’ll cover any last-minute race changes and talk you through the course. If you have any questions after that, which Gallery says is unlikely, ask for the race director.

4. If You’re Nervous About the Swim, Place Yourself Accordingly

Gallery points out that, if you really start hurting on the cycling or running legs, you can always stop to catch your breath, which doesn’t seem like an option for swimming. However, according to Gallery, “We have heaps of water safety, so if you do need to stop and take a bit of a breather, you can put your hand on one of their crafts and have a bit of a chat, then off you go. There’s no penalty for that.” If you’re extra nervous about getting jostled in the water, start in the back of the field and to the right. If the course has a swim barge, officials will stagger the swimmers, letting small groups from each heat go in timed increments; this is great because it gives you some extra space. If your entire heat starts together—you’ll be treading water—things will be more clustered and chaotic. Odds are high you’ll get kicked in the face, someone will swim over you, and you’ll feel hands hitting your feet and legs. Try to keep your cool and focus on your strokes, edging toward the outside edge of the swimmers if things are too hectic.

If you’re worried about overheating or not having enough shoulder mobility, you might consider forgoing a wetsuit—don’t. “Wetsuits reduce drag by raising your hips and increasing your buoyancy, so they’re a good investment,” Gallery says. Gallery swims in a Zone 3 wetsuit, but also recommends Blueseventy, Orca or TYR, and says that something in the $500 range is likely to be good quality. Two words of caution, though. First, if you’re thinking of going sleeveless, know that the suit is more likely to take on water, making you less buoyant. An excellent brand that offers full-sleeve wetsuits that won’t impede your movement, consider ROKA. Second, if you’re competing in a competition hosted by USA Triathlon, there are rules about the maximum water temperatures in which you can wear a wetsuit: You can wear one in water temperatures up to and including 78 degrees F for any race. You can wear one at your own discretion if it’s greater than 78 degrees but under 84 degrees, but won’t win any prizes or awards. That said, no suit thicker than 5 millimeters is ever allowed; you’ll be disqualified.

5. Stay Warm and Mobile Before Your Heat

Once your gear is prepared, it’s time to do the same for your body. If you’re able to use your equipment, Poole recommends warming up in reverse order (run, bike, swim) so you’re optimally prepared for the first leg. And, he recommends stretching to get the whole body ready. Going in and out of a deep lunge will stretch your hamstrings, hips, and quads. Then, a good cat/cow will get the spine moving. Take your time stretching your shoulders, too.

Once you’re nice and warm, you can focus on the reason you’re there in the first place: to swim, bike, and run farther than you thought possible.

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