Thinking about doing a triathlon for the first time? This post details everything my first triathlon experience, from signing up all the way through race day!
How do I do my first triathlon?
My decision to commit to a triathlon was 100% influenced by a triathlete goddess, my friend Nancy. She is a total beast and offered to let me train with her for a couple of summer races. I was super intrigued in the idea of racing a triathlon, so I thought training and racing with a super knowledgeable friend sounded like a dream!
That's one great tip I can give: if you have a chance to get some tips from someone more experienced with triathlons, you should take them up on it! Nowadays, there's so much information available on the internet, but sometimes there's no substitute for expert guidance.
I should note that both commitments to run a marathon and race a triathlon were made on the same car ride back in October. Obviously, that car ride had a big impact on my life!
How to make a triathlon training plan
The biggest challenge in training for a triathlon is scheduling. With training for 3 activities, it’s a constant juggle of fitting multiple training sessions into one day. Often times it’s doing more than one activity a day, so it sometimes feels like a jigsaw puzzle trying to accommodate work schedules, gym and pool hours, and the weather!
The weather was all over the place in the weeks leading up to my race, so a weekly plan could get ripped to shreds the next morning based on what was happening outside.
However, one of the most important things about training is that you're able to enjoy the activities, because you're going to spend a lot of time doing them. I've been super into endurance sports, so the process of incorporating three passions together is basically a dream I didn’t realize I had.
I really enjoy the time spent doing the same motions over and over, getting to a completely different head space, and feel super good. It’s hard to explain, but if you’re an endurance athlete, you probably know what I’m referring to.
We didn’t follow a true triathlon training program. We were following a marathon training program for most of the months leading up to this, and then tried to fit in two extra bikes and two extra swims during the week as well. I thought it was totally fine not following a specific program for this specific race and, like I mentioned, I was training with a triathlon queen.
What equipment do I need for a triathlon?
Here’s the deal: triathlons can be a real money sucker Even if you borrow gear and find good deals, it is still an expensive sport! That said, there are ways to save on the things you need.
First of all, although you can get bogged down in the extra accessories, it boils down to simple things in the end. You need 1) something to swim in, 2) something to bike in (and on), and 3) something to run in.
Depending on the weather and environment of your race, you can wear a tri suit that gets you through all three activities. After that, you'll need running shoes and a decent water bottle in addition to a bike.
From there, things can get very, very serious and expensive, but it's good to remember the basics.
What do I eat during a triathlon?
Nutrition is a very important part of any kind of training, both for fueling for hard work outs and recovery! There was a lot of trial and error for learning what worked the best for my body during training runs (fried foods were not great, but sweet potatoes and veggies rocked). I honestly kept it simple and stuck to a lot of proteins (chicken, ground turkey, greek yogurt, cottage cheese), carbs (veggies, fruits, grains) healthy fats (avocados, nuts, seeds, oils), and other staples (ice cream, pretzels, waffles, protein shakes, etc.)
I had to learn what my body needed for the bike and swim as well since those activities were new to me. Meal-prepping healthy meals and snacks was the most helpful part in making sure I could fuel my body with good foods and avoid hanger!
Specifically for longer training sessions, my staple meals were a toasted english muffin with nut butter and banana, protein oatmeal with but butter and banana, or waffles and nut butter and banana (I’m sure you can sense a trend.)
During long runs, I used water and Clif Energy blocks. Clif blocks didn’t mess with my stomach, and the salted watermelon flavor was always a pick-me-up! During bike rides, I used water and Nuun hydration and some sort of bar (Larabar, Clif bar, or RXBAR).
Because training for a triathlon was new to me, everything felt exciting! I loved trying new activities and had so much fun incorporating all of them into my week. With that, I gave myself grace during the learning and improvement stages (I’m still in those!) The balance of training for this kind of race is difficult because of the time requirement. I knew would it would take and was committed from the beginning!
NOTE: This race happened over a month ago and I am already having difficulty remembering all of the details!
About the Race
My first triathlon was the TriZou, a sprint triathlon race in Columbia, MO on the University of Missouri campus. This race also featured some other race options, but the sprint race was the perfect first triathlon distance to jump start into the season! The TriZou Sprint was a 400m swim, 14M bike, and then a 5K run.
I committed to this race to see if I liked triathlons. It wasn’t long into training that I realized I was super into triathlons, and committed to more. You might be thinking “Can you really be hooked on something before you even do the race to know if you like it?” and I say, “Yes, absolutely.” I enjoyed everything about training! So throughout the process, I thought about how regardless of race outcome, I enjoyed the experience.
- The race happened right in the middle of prime race season so there wasn’t much of a taper or recovery time. The week leading up to the race served as just a typical training week.
- The weekend before the race I ran a half marathon (and set a PR of 1:47:07!) and still felt like my legs were a little tired going into the race. Since this was my very first triathlon, and the one of shortest distance, it was mostly used as a “training race” for later triathlons. I went into this race hoping to learn and have a fun experience!
- The race was in Columbia, MO, which is only a 90-minute drive from Kirksville. With such a quick commute, we left early afternoon on Saturday to allow for plenty of time for pre-race activities.
- We went by packet pick-up, got some coffee, and checked out the course. We walked around the start/finish and transition areas to get a feel for race-day — doing this helped to alleviate pre-race jitters! For dinner we went to (the now-defunct) Ingredient True Eatery, and it was perfect. I ordered my lucky pre-race meal of chicken/bacon/cheese/veggie sandwich with sweet potato fries, and it was delicious!
- Dinner was followed by a pint of ice cream too, because it just sounded good, and I can eat what I want. A dear friend, Meagan, hosted us in her home so we stayed up late chatting and enjoying good company!
The Morning of the Race
- OUTFIT DECISION: During training, I learned that triathlons require special clothes. There are “tri kits” that come in either a one or two-piece set that athletes typically wear during a race. The kit is waterproof, fitted, and meant to be worn throughout the entire race to avoid an outfit-change. I invested in a pair of Sugio shorts that I biked/ran in a few times before the race. Nancy let me borrow one of her Zoot tri tops, which I wore for the first time on race day. Other than the tri shorts and tri top, I used running socks, running shoes, and a helmet.
- MEAL: Soon after waking up the morning of the race, I ate a toasted english muffin with peanut butter and banana. We arrived at the race a few hours before it started to allow time to get our bikes ready and set up our transition areas. Right before the race actually started, I had a mini Kind bar!
- HYPE: This race required a lot of extra hype because of the extra amount of time to kill in the morning. For running races, I usually show up 10 minutes before the race starts and it’s totally fine. However, you can’t mess around at a triathlon because you have to set up your transition area before it closes, get all of your gear organized, and then go to the actual starting point for the swim. All of that extra time meant I had to intentionally listen to more music and talk positive to myself!
What is the order of a triathlon?
My first triathlon featured a pool start, which is super rare for triathlons. This meant that before the race started, all of the athletes just sat in the bleachers. When the race actually “started” it was anti-climatic because it was just a rolling start. Basically, athletes lined up in order of expected swim time.
So I got to chat to people while I waited in line for the swim. I made friends with a couple of athletes next to me, two of which were also racing their first triathlon! The pool swim was as I expected and there was nothing surprising to me about it.
All athletes swam snake style throughout the pool. I was terrified of getting passed for self-seeding incorrectly so I just swam as fast as I possibly could. That might not have been the best strategy, BUT, I didn’t get passed and I finished in my goal time!
As soon as I got out of the pool, I made the trek towards Transition 1! Basically, I had to get out of the pool, run across the deck, follow the sidewalks, and run towards the opposite end of the outdoor track. I would guess it was maybe about a .3ish miles? This is a long way without any shoes and in cool air! Once I made it to my bike, I dried off, put on socks and shoes, and snapped on my helmet. I drank some water, grabbed my bike and ran it out of the transition area. I hopped on a little too early (I thought I crossed the timing line) and got yelled out (whoops), which made things a bit awkward. However, it was my first race and there were a lot of fellow beginners so they didn’t penalize me like they could have!
As soon as I started biking I was chilly. The air was still very cool and I was soaking wet, which didn’t feel great. This was only uncomfortable for the first 10 minutes until I warmed up.
The beginning of the bike course had a lot of twists and turns to get off of campus and onto the main roads. Some of the turns I took a little too quick for comfort, but all was well. After getting off campus, it was basically HILL CITY. Really though, the course had some killer hills.
My goal was just to keep pedaling, so I definitely had a lot of gear shifting throughout the course. The entire bike was two laps, so the second lap went a lot smoother because I knew exactly what to expect. The only thing I didn’t really like about the bike course was the fact that the roads were not completely closed, but you can't always control everything.
In my opinion, this is the harder of the two transitions because my legs felt like jelly as soon as I got off the bike. I hopped off the bike and ran it towards my transition area. I apparently forgot how to rack my bike because I struggled to get it to stay on the rack, I eventually figured out I was putting it on backwards…. BUT, once it was racked, I was good to continue on with my transition.
I didn’t need to change my shoes (most triathletes have bike shoes, but I just used my running shoes) so my feet were good to go. I took off my helmet, snapped on my race belt, and threw my hair up in a messy bun. After a few drinks of water and waving hi to my supporters (Alan and Meagan were right by the transition area), I was making my down the track towards the running course.
I have the most experience with this activity so I felt the most confident going into the run. Because of my ongoing marathon training, the thought of 3.1 miles felt like no big deal! I had only practiced a brick workout of a bike-swim once prior to the race, so I knew my legs would feel like jelly.
The course provided a lot of hills and there were one or two water stops along the way. The course also felt very random as I was running — some parts were on little sidewalks or through parking lots. If it weren’t for the fact that there was an occasional arrow or person I would catch up to, I would have doubted I was even on the course. People were also pretty spaced out because of rolling start so most of the run I was by myself.
Though I didn’t feel worried about the run, I did not really practice pacing. I’m more of a long-distance runner so I am comfortable with going slower to conserve energy. Since it was only 3.1 miles, I picked up the pace and kind of went for it. I never checked my watch or attempted to pace, so I went off of how I felt, which essentially means I moved as quick as I could!
What should my goal pace be for a triathlon?
My paces were faster than I expected. This could have been caused by the fact that I experience adrenaline and race faster than I practice (this is typical of runs) or because I set the bar lower than I should so I can exceed the goals I set for myself. My swim time was what I expected, but my bike and run were faster.
I ran a lot faster than I thought — in fact, this race was the fastest mile I have clocked since 7th grade! (This is a side note that I never sprint. I could probably set a 5K personal record right now since I can run faster than I think, but running fast miles is not very enjoyable to me). Because this was a “sprint” race, I truly felt like I was sprinting the whole time!
I was winded most of the race, which wasn’t my favorite feeling, but it probably meant I was working hard and pushing myself. Regardless of the reasons and why, I raced great and was stoked for my times.
My First Triathlon Results
To my surprise, I placed in my age group! I was not expecting to place AT ALL, but was certainty hyped to find out the news. The immediate thing I realized about triathlons once I received my results is that there are endless opportunities of ways to improve.
Every opportunity and transition provides strategies to speed up rates and cut back on time. It’s easy to see how people spend their whole lives racing, trying different strategies, and improving! After analyzing my results, I want to speed up my transitions for the next race. I definitely took my time because I didn’t want to forget anything.
Also, I looked at the results of the girl who placed above me in the race, and all of my activities were faster than her, BUT, my transitions were slower, which is why she came out on top. Honestly, I don’t expect to have these rates at my upcoming triathlons because of the longer distances, but I will take them for now!
Physically, this race didn’t seem to take a big toll on my body. Though I exerted a lot of energy, mostly experienced through breathing heavy from all the sprinting, I didn’t feel completely empty. I pushed myself, but there wasn’t a time when I thought I couldn’t finish.
What I learned from my first triathlon experience
Triathlons are a big deal! There’s so much that goes into training and race day. You could spend months training and preparing, all to have something completely throw off the race experience (a flat tire, broken goggles, wet socks, etc.) Because of all the variability, there’s so much room for improvement!
There are things to learn, strategies to try, and new ways to train. It’s certainly never boring with all of the juggling that training and race day requires! Also, you sleep really well during training and after a big race.
From a fellow beginner, I think this is a great beginner race! The “sprint” distance is the perfect way to ease into triathlons and learn throughout the experience. The race attracts a lot of beginners so the atmosphere is welcoming and supportive!
There are a lot of experience triathletes who do the race as well, mostly to kick-off the season. The entire triathlon community coming together is great to be a part of! Also, the pool swim is a game changer if you have the scaries about an open water swim.
Ultimately, whatever you choose for your first triathlon, my bet is that you'll be looking to sign up for another one when you're done.
Want more adventures?
If you're reading through until the end, you're probably an adventurous type. Maybe you'd like to join me on an adventure trip! You can find out more about adventures with Jordo's World right here on the site.
Also, because this is primarily a recipe blog, I'd be remiss if I didn't share a few of my favorite easy, healthy recipes (great for fueling your triathlon training!):