Triathlon: What You Need

There are lots who immediately dismiss the idea of participating in a triathlon.  So this is for the curious, to cover what you do need to participate.

You Do NOT Need to Be a Good Swimmer

This is the most common issue for people.  LOTS of people I’ve met in triathlons are there in part to confront their fear of the water.  The swim portion of a Sprint triathlon is between 500 and 750 meters, depending on what’s available.  Open water courses are pretty straight forward – you pass buoys/markers in a loop (there could be repeats depending on the course).  Pool swims tend to either have you grouped in a lane of 4-5 people to swim laps, or run you in a snake-like fashion along ropes to provide an experience closer to what you’d get in an open water course.  Organizers always provide course maps, so you know what to expect (and can practice on the course beforehand if motivated).  Pool swims are easier than open water – typically 25 meter lengths (but can be 50 m), you get a little rest every time you push off the wall to start the next length.

Honestly, you don’t want to be the fastest person in the water.  Sure, best time in the event but there’s still two others.  And drafting is allowed in triathlon swimming, so conserve your energy for the other two events.

All you need for swimming is decent form.  A few lessons, personal or in a group, and some practice is all that’s needed.  Breath control is as important, if not more, as your stroke.  Water can be rough and choppy due to weather or competitors (maybe both), so ideally you want to be comfortable breathing on both sides to avoid swallowing water.  As you practice more, you’re bound to get better at recovering from swallowing water – coughing mid-stroke.

Regarding a Wetsuit

A wetsuit isn’t necessary if your triathlon starts with a pool swim.  Depending on the temperature, open water triathlons can also be “non-wetsuit” as you’d risk overheating.  For an open water swim, you won’t know the wetsuit status definitively until a couple of hours before the swim starts.

Lots find that a wetsuit improves their swim time, due to buoyancy and form improvement.  However, it means you have to get out of the wetsuit in T1, when transitioning from the swim to the bike.  Some use Pam, others use BodyGlide to make getting out of the wetsuit easier.  It’s a really good idea to train by exiting the water, and trying to get out of the arms while running up the beach so you only have the waist and legs to deal with at your bike.  Triathlon wetsuits are thinner material than surfing/etc – the inside is can take a lot of wear, but not the outside.  Tears can develop, but they are easy to patch yourself.

About that Bike

You don’t need a fancy carbon fibre bike, with carbon fibre, deep dish rims and aero handlebars.  All you need is a working bike, without a kickstand or toeclips.  As you walk through the transition area, you’ll see the entire spectrum of bikes – mountain, hybrid/commuter, cyclocross, road, triathlon and time trial (TT).  Lots are there just to have fun.  Some triathlons will require you to take the bike to a specific shop to get “certified” that the bike is in proper working form, along with a helmet.  Not all, but it’s a good idea to get the bike tuned up about a month prior to the triathlon – you don’t want to be caught last minute, and it’s good to ride a little prior in case something is amiss.

You should have gear for patching a flat:

  • spare tube
  • pump
  • patch kit
  • ~1 foot/30 cm of duct tape, folded up for lining holes in the tire
  • Optional: CO2 inflator and cartridges

Most store this in a bag under the saddle/seat, but you can store it in a cycling jersey.

Practicing changing a tube would be a really good idea.  I have a story of an Ironman who took upwards of 1 hour because they didn’t know how.

The Run

One of the biggest surprises I had when talking to someone who did Ironman’s was that lots walk the run portion.  You do not need to be a runner, and after two events you’re going to be really tired.  Walk, walk/run – whatever gets you over the distance.  The Sprint distance run is 5 KM, which takes 30 minutes on average.

Equipment?

The bare minimum would be a swimsuit you can bike and run in, swim goggles, a bike and helmet, and running shoes.  Rules require that the chest is not bare, regardless of gender.  There are trisuits – one and two piece, made of material similar to cycling and have minimal chamois.

Most events prefer or even require that you not bring your gear in a large plastic tub/container – takes up too much space/etc.  But you usually can leave your bag in the transition area, as long as it is off to the side and out of the way of traffic, without concern of theft or tampering.  Lots bring bicycle pumps with them, and are happy to share if you ask.

Nutrition?

Everyone is different, as some can tolerate things others can’t.  That’s besides allergies and food sensitivities.  Gels are pretty common, along with various fluid setups in a water bottle or two.  Most events have at least one aid station on the run to provide water and maybe a drink sponsor.  This is one of the things you’ll have to investigate yourself to see what works best.  Depending on the distance and temperature, the importance of salt (and iron, moreso for women) is not to be underestimated.

Conclusion

You don’t need to be super fast, fit, or sponsored to give triathlon a shot.  Lots are there to have fun, and are generally social/pleasant to deal with.  There’s always some spot on the course to discuss and bond over, maybe pick up tricks for how to do things in the future.  And most triathlons provide a relay option, so you can organize a group of three where each does one of the events.