Triathlon Guide

Triathlon Guide

Triathlon is an exciting and an enjoyable multi-discipline sport involving a continuous race over various distances in the three disciplines of swimming, cycling and running.

Competitors race against the clock, (and invariably against themselves), which starts as they enter the swim and stops as they cross the finish line after the run. The changeover between each discipline is a transition (the 4 discipline) and is often referred to as T1 for the swim to bike changeover and T2 for the bike to run changeover.

Your first triathlon can be a bit daunting but hopefully this guide will help you tackle the event with the least amount of hassle.  Remember the triathlon is a very friendly event, so if you are unsure of anything on the day, don’t be afraid to ask.  We’ve all been there, and everyone from the elite down will be more than happy to help.

If you have any questions/queries on any aspect that I have not covered, please feel free to contact me ( or telephone (01482) 222169), and I will try and help, and if I do not know the answer I will certainly know someone who does.  Also, having made every basic mistake possible, I can certainly advise on what not to do!!!   


Distances of individual events may vary from race to race but some of the standard distances, shown as swim/bike/run are:

Pool based Sprint   400M/20K/5K

Open Water Sprint   750M/20K/5K

Olympic or Standard Distance 1500m/40K/10K

Middle Distance70.3 (Half Ironman) 1900M/90K/21K

Ironman    3800M/180K/42K

I would recommend you start your triathlon journey with a pool-based sprint distance. The joy of open-water swimming and wetsuits can come later!!


The next step is to find a race (there will be local races on the news page of this website), you can visit the BTA website or look in the specific magazines such 220 Triathlon.  Now commit yourself by entering!!  You may have to estimate your swim time on the form, this enables the organisers to stagger the swim and group together competitors with a similar swim time.  It is worth being fairly accurate (and honest) with your estimation.  If you put a slower time down then you’ll end up getting frustrated at having to swim round slower swimmers, and if you put down a very fast time, then you will end up with fast swimmers swimming over you (often quite literally!!!).  If you are not sure of your swim time, go to your local pool and time yourself.


This was one of the areas that concerned me. I was the proud owner of a 2nd hand, put together road bike. Would I be looked down upon by all these super fit triathletes with their mega fast and expensive ‘steeds’? Well, no!! One of the first bikes I saw was a foldaway commuter bike, which set me at ease. There was a whole range of bikes on display, mountain bikes, hybrid, and bikes with baskets on the front (honest!!), and of course the super fast, and full carbon time trial bikes. No matter what bike you have, you have still got to turn the pedals, you are the ‘engine’!! It still gives me pleasure when I ride passed ‘real cyclists’ with all the gear!!

So any bike will do providing it is roadworthy. Note – the organisers may check your bike, so don’t ruin your day by bringing it to the race in an unsafe condition.


As with most sports, there is specific designed  triathlon clothing.  I tend to wear a one piece tri-suit, which I can swim, cycle and run in, and not have to worry about changing in the transitions.  For a beginner you don’t need to go out and buy any extra kit. I would suggest swimming in a pair of trunks for the guys and regular swimsuit for the ladies followed by biking in a pair of shorts over the top and a cycle top, T-Shirt or vest.  Consider taking a warmer layer to the race in case it is colder when you change. It is not generally recommended to swim in cycle shorts as the thick chamois insert will soak up a lot of water and will feel like an oversized nappy!!  Better to put them on over your trunks after the swim.


The evening before, check you have packed everything you need and re-read the race instructions. Most sprint events require you to register before you start. Check the race details to see if there is a closing time for registration. I always like to arrive at least an hour before my start time, this allows me to familiarize myself with the layout i.e. locate the registration, transition area and the toilets!!!

There is usually a briefing before the race starts. If this is your first race this is worth going to. The race director will talk you through the race, including transition, any changes to the route and other important information to be aware of. You will also get a chance to ask questions. If you’re not sure ask!!


Once you have registered, collected your number, start time etc you can go to the transition area to set up your gear. Before doing so I would recommend that you give your bike a check over. Are the tyres inflated to the correct pressure? Wheels bolt done up? Brake pads not rubbing? (Cycling 15 miles with a brake pad rubbing is no fun – I know!!!). In an easy gear to start cycling?

Most transition areas are ‘secure’, and you will be required to stick a number to your bike frame for identification. Before being allowed into the transition area (and leaving with your bike at the end of the race), your race number will be checked against the one on your bike. 

Transition will usually have racks for you to put your bike on.  You may have an allocated space, in which case this will have your number on, if not find yourself a space.  Firstly, hang your bike on the rack –not sure how – look at what everyone else does! Now lay out your kit.  this is often personal but I usually place my helmet upside down on the tribars with my sunglasses inside ready to put on.  Next to my bike I put down a small towel to wipe off any dirt etc before putting my shoes on, and position my number belt (or TShirt with numbers pinned on), shoes, running cap etc.  Space is normally limited, so don’t spread your kit about too much unless you want it moved by your neighbour.

Now mentally rehearse each changeover to ensure you have all your gear. You don’t want to come dashing out the pool and discover your shoes are still in the car!! Also make a mental note on where your bike is positioned and where the ‘Bike Out’, ‘Bike In’, ‘Run Out’ and Finish Line are. The transition area may look relatively empty but once the races starts it can get quite hectic.

There are some rules about the transition area which must be adhered to. Only competitors are allowed into this area. No riding your bike. No nakedness. No marking your area ie: using flags, Talcum powder on the floor etc. This is why it is important to try and remember where your bike is from different part of the transition. If you put up a marker it will be removed.

You’ve finished laying out your kit, so now off to the start!!


You should go to the poolside changed ready to swim at least 15 minutes before your allocated swim start time.  Don’t forget your goggles (and nose clip/ear plugs if needed)!! Try to remember to keep stretching whilst you are waiting. You will not normally be allowed to warm up in the water. You will be called forward in your wave, be given a swim cap and final instructions for the swim ie what lane, number of lengths, direction of swim (clockwise/anti-clockwise), overtaking rules (always a source of amusement to me as I never seem to overtake anyone in the swim!!) point out pool exit. You will also get the chance to ask any questions. You will be instructed to get into the water (no jumping/diving).  You will then normally be told 30 seconds to go, 10 seconds to go, 5-4-3-2-1-GO!!! Your triathlon has begun!!

At many of the pool based races there will be someone there to count your lengths but keep count yourself. They will usually signal when you have 2 lengths to go. If you disagree with them, don’t bother arguing. The counter will have the final say. Mistakes can happen, although rarely, so don’t let it spoil your race, just get on and swim the extra lengths.

Once out the water, make for transition (T1). You may be required to leave your hat behind, make sure you do. Be careful not to slip when leaving the pool, and also be careful on any temporary mats as these may also become slippery when wet.


As you run into T1 (changeover from swim to bike), concentrate on what you have to do now. Find your bike (don’t panic!!), throw down your goggles and prepare for the bike.  My own routine is: put on number belt, sunglasses, helmet – YOU MUST FASTEN YOUR HELMET BEFORE YOU TOUCH YOUR BIKE – take my bike and head for the exit. You must not get on your bike until you reach the mount line.


At all times on the bike section please take the utmost care.  It might be a race but it is not worth taking unnecccesary and potentially dangerous risks to save a couple of seconds. Watch out for Marshals, they are there to help you get round the course safely. They are not there to stop the traffic for you, and so you must obey the rules of the road especially at traffic lights. If the lights are on red and you do not stop you face disqualification, but worse you or others could get seriously hurt, and also put the future of the race in jeopardy. Cycle racing is exciting but be sensible.


Another rule that will be new to you in Triathlon is drafting.  This is basically slipstreaming a fellow competitor on the bike to gain advantage from their efforts. You need to imagine a zone 3 metres wide by 10 metres long around each competitor. You cannot get inside the zone of the rider in front unless you are overtaking. If overtaking then you get 30 seconds to get passed that rider, if you cannot get by then you must drop back outside the zone. Once passed, it is the overtaken rider’s responsibility to drop back out of the draft zone. If caught drafting you will be penalised and if repeatedly caught you will be disqualified.  There are two main reasons for banning drafting. Safety – riding close to someone at speed on unknown roads can be difficult, the slightest wobble or unexpected breaking can cause wheels to touch and the next thing you’ll know is that you will be in a tangle heap on the ground and at best nursing some road rash and weeping over the scratches on your bike, and at worst, well lets not go there!!! Cheating – it is definitely possible for a good cyclist to create turbulence that will allow less good cyclists to benefit. So cycle safely and fairly.


When you reach the end of the cycle, dismount where instructed and head back into the transition area. REMEMBER TO RACK YOUR BIKE BEFORE YOU UNFASTEN YOUR HELMET!! After that change your shoes if you have different shoes to run in, maybe grab a drink and off you go on the run. Make sure you know where you have to exit the transition area.


Once out on the run your legs may feel a little strange and heavy after the cycling.  Don’t worry this will soon wear off. Also, don’t be ashamed to walk if you get really tired. There are no complex rules for the run, just follow the route and listen to any instructions from the marshals.


100 metres from the line, you can go for the big finish. Hands in the air, a big smile on your face, cross the line and ……you are a TRIATHLETE!!  Congratulations!!!  Grab yourself a drink (water or a sports drink – the glass of wine can wait!!). Put some warm clothes on and soak up the atmosphere. Many races now offer reasonable priced post-race massage. a great way to wind down and reward yourself after a race.


So, you have finished your race, and hopefully it was a very enjoyable experience and you will go away and plan your next one. Remember, though that one of the most important parts of the race are all the volunteers who give up their time (and who are normally there before you arrive and are still there when you have gone) to help marshal and organise these events, without them  you could not have done the event.  Take the opportunity to say thank you as you pass them on the run and the bike, or as you leave. If you do have any issues/concerns, then contact the organiser. If they don’t there is a problem then they cannot do anything about it.  


The following can be modified to suit you but will give you an idea of the items you may need:


BTA License or BTA Levy

Swimming Nose Clip and/or ear plugs (if needed)

Swim goggles

Swim Hat – normally supplied

Two towels – one for floor in transition, the other to use

Loose change - for changing room lockers, drinks machine etc

Bike- it would be a handicap without one!!!

Bike tools and pump including basic spares, ie inner tube, tyre levers, repair kit

Helmet – no helmet, no race

Sunglasses – if needed

Race number – normally collected at registration

Safety pins

Race number belt


Swimwear – either trunks (men) regular swimsuit (ladies) or tri specific clothing

Bike/Running top

Bike shoes – if needed

Running shoes

Socks – if needed

Sun cap – if needed

Long sleeve top/arm warmers for early/late season events when it can be cold

Other bits and bobs to have in the car or in transition

Warm clothes to change into after the event

Plastic bag to keep clothes dry in transition – in case of rain

Food/drink including drink to take on the bike

Bananas, energy bars, gels etc to eat in transition, or out on the bike/run and/or afterwards

Suncream – always optimistic for good weather!!

Money for tri-store stands/and or massage at the race venue.