Beginners FAQ

We have compiled a list of Frequently Asked Questions that beginners may have about the sport of triathlon.  If you have a question that is not answered here, feel free to post it on our Discussion Forum -- coaches and team members will be happy to help!

What is the distance of a sprint triathlon?
There are lots of different distances of triathlons.  You might have seen coverage of an Ironman Triathlon on television, which is a 2.5-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run (a marathon).  Only the fittest triathletes attempt this distance, after months or even years of training.  Most beginning triathletes participate in a sprint-distance triathlon for their first triathlon.  The swim portion of a sprint tri can vary anywhere from 300m to 800m.  The bike portion can be 10 to 18 miles long.  And the run is typically a 5K (3.1 miles), and can be even shorter.

What should I wear?
Whatever makes you comfortable!  If you're comfortable, you'll go faster.  There are all kinds of choices: Women can swim in a one-piece swimsuit or a two-piece suit.  Many women put on a pair of running shorts over their swimsuit before they get on the bike.  Some women put on running shorts and a tank top or t-shirt over their swimsuit.  Many women who race in a one-piece swimsuit will wear a sports bra underneath their swimsuit.  Many women wear a tri singlet (tighter-fitting and sometimes with pockets) and tri shorts (they look like short cycling shorts and have a thinner pad that's designed to dry faster) for the entire race.  

Most men swim in a Speedo-style suit or tri shorts.  Some put on a pair of running shorts over their swimsuits before they get on the bike.  Some put on a tank top, singlet, or t-shirt before they get on the bike.  Many wear a tri singlet (tighter-fitting and sometimes with pockets) with tri shorts during the entire race (including the swim).

Some people dress for speed, others dress according to their level of modesty.  Again, as long as you're comfortable, you'll have a better race.  If you'd like to dress for speed, less is better.  Some men and women complete the entire race in only a swimsuit.  Some swimsuits have a tiny bit of padding built in to the bottoms, and these are called tri-suits.  For a sprint-distance race, however, you may not need any padding.  Just make sure your saddle is a comfortable one!

What equipment do I need to train for a triathlon?
Swim cap
Available at local sporting goods stores, including our sponsors Lane Four and Jack and Adam's

Bicycle that fits properly
Helmet (a MUST!)
Comfortable cycling shorts or a comfortable saddle
Water bottle and cage
Gloves if your hands sweat a lot
Spare tube and tools to change a flat tire
Available at local bike shops, including our sponsor Jack and Adam's

Well-fitting running shoes (very important that they fit properly for your needs)
Comfortable running shorts
For women, a good sports bra
Running hat
Available at local sporting goods stores, including our sponsor, RunTex

What happens to my bike while I'm swimming?
Your bike will be set up on one of many bike racks in the transition zone.  Some transition zones are organized by race number or age group; others are first-come, first-serve.

What does transition mean?
Some people say a triathlon consists of four sports swimming, biking, running, and the transition.  The transition is the period of time between each sport. The time between the swim and the bike is called T1, and the time between the bike and the run is called T2.  The time you spend in transition is counted towards your overall time for the race.

All races will have a transition zone, with row after row of bike racks.  Each athlete will place his or her bike on a bike rack , with just a little bit of space between each bike.  You will place a towel right next to your bike, and all of the gear you will need during the race must fit on your towel.  Examples of items you'll place on your towel will include:  running shoes, helmet (a MUST), cycling shoes if you use them, your race number (must be worn during the run), sunglasses, socks, any clothes you'd like to put on over your swimsuit, etc.

What is a wave start?
Many triathlons with an open water swim (in a lake, ocean, or river) will have wave starts.  It is safer to start the athletes in waves rather than all at once.  Often, there are about 5 minutes between each wave.  Waves are typically set up by gender and age group.  There might be anywhere from 40 - 100 people in a wave.  So for example, a race with 200 - 300 people might have 4 waves:  Men under 40, Men 40 and over, Women under 40, and Women 40 and over.

What is it like to swim in open water?
The biggest difference between swimming in open water and training in a pool is that there are no lane lines!  And there is no side to hang on to if you get tired: 

Some open water courses are out-and-back, and others look more like a loop.  Either way, the course is marked with buoys.  It is important to sight (look up and see where you are) every so often so you swim fairly straight.  

The wave start can be tricky if you're uncomfortable being shoulder-to-shoulder with 40 or 70 other people, just count to 10 or 20 when the bullhorn sounds and let everyone else get out on the course.  Or stay to the outside of the pack.  Most triathlons will have safety canoes and kayaks out on the water, along with lifeguards.  If you ever feel like you're having trouble during the swim, just wave your hands and a rescue boat will be at your side soon.  Open water swimming can sometimes be wavy or choppy, depending on weather conditions.

Why do I have to race in the swim cap they gave me?
Everyone must wear a swim cap for safety reasons.  A swimmer is easier to see in the water if they're wearing a swim cap.  All athletes who start in the same wave will have the same color cap on.

What is a pool swim like?
Triathlons with a pool swim will seed the athletes in order of their estimated swim time.  The entry form will ask you for your estimated swim time, and it's important to be as accurate as possible.  All athletes will be lined up on the side of the pool in the order of their swim times (fastest first).  They will then be allowed to enter the water at one end of the pool, with about 5 - 10 seconds between each athlete.  Swimmers will go down and back in the first lane, then go under the lane rope and go down and back in the second lane, and snake their way through all the lanes in this fashion until they are at the other end of the pool, then they climb out and begin T1.  If you end up swimming faster than the person in front of you, you may end up passing them.  Or you may get passed by someone faster than you.  If you must pass, simply go to the outside of the person you are passing (towards the middle of the lane), but be aware of swimmers coming from the other direction.  If you are being passed, stay as close to the lane rope as possible.

I have a mountain bike: is it OK to ride that?
Absolutely!  There are lots of triathletes who ride mountain bikes.  You may want to consider adding slicks if you can afford them.  Slicks are smooth tires, which would be faster on the roads than the nubby tires that come on mountain bikes.

Why is bike fit so important?
Are your knees bumping into your chin?  Do you risk serious injury every time you try to get off the seat of your bike?  It is important that you can adjust your seat so that there is only a slight bend in your knee when your foot and pedal are at the 6'clock position.  It is also important that you are able to stop and get off your bike without injuring yourself.  Bikes come in all sizes, and the seat post can be adjusted somewhat to make sure the height of your bike is correct for you.  But besides the height, there are other important factors to consider, for example:  does your seat need to be adjusted forward or back?  Is your seat level?  Are the handlebars too far away or too close?  If your bike is not fitted properly for you, you risk serious injury after prolonged riding.  Take your bike in to a local bike shop and have them take a look for you (one of our sponsors, Jack and Adam's, will be happy to help).

What is a tri belt?
It is required that triathletes wear their race number (sometimes called a bib) during the run portion of a triathlon.  Some athletes put on shorts and/or a t-shirt over their swimsuits after the swim and simply pin their bibs to their shorts or shirts before the race.  For those athletes who race in tri suits (or their swimsuits), there is nothing to pin their bib to.  They use a race belt, or tri belt, which is a very simple stretchy band with two plastic prongs that hold a race number.  As these athletes leave the transition zone for T2, they clip the belt (with the bib already attached) around their waist, and off they go!

Why is hydration so important?
It is important to drink water, and plenty of it, during training and during a race, especially here in the Texas heat.  Even becoming slightly dehydrated can impair your performance by a surprising amount.  Sports drinks are formulated to be absorbed by your body better than water, but be sure to train with whatever you think you'll use on race day.  Do not introduce anything new on race day!  It is important that you consume a full bottle of fluid during the bike portion of a triathlon.  If you are uncomfortable removing your bottle and drinking while riding, be sure to practice during training so you can stay steady while you drink.  Or you can use a backpack-style hydration system.

Training sounds impossible: how will I come up with enough time?
You can prepare for your first triathlon by training four or five days per week.  If you are currently working out every other day (or can make the time to do that), you will be fine.  Just make sure to spread your workouts between swimming, cycling, and running over the week.  It's helpful to keep a training log to see which sports you have done and to monitor your progress.  It also helps to train with a group.  Tri Zones Training offers several training options, and we invite you to join us.

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