Congrats! You’ve spent the last month training through peak and now you’ve dutifully finished your taper. You’re very much looking forward to seeing the results of your training. Maybe you have a coach helping you along the way, maybe a fellow triathlete, or maybe you’re the brave solo type and went at it alone (which is exactly what I did). Regardless, I’d like to share a few tips that have worked for me since my first race, and maybe save you a little unnecessary pain.
The sheer volume of random things I had with me with for my first tri (Reston Sprint Triathlon) was laughable. I sat down and wrote a list of all the things I thought might happen to me during the race and tried to have whatever I needed for every contingency. I arrived to the race site with a large bag of things which I never used and was hard to store. I now race with the bare minimum, not for weight reasons (but it does help), but for simplicity.
Bike, helmet, shoes, etc.
Bike – I’m not going to get into choosing these. You need a bike, borrow something from a neighbor or a friend. You absolutely do NOT need to spend $2000 on a new tri bike for your first race. I was passed by a child on a BMX as I struggled on my road bike. The engine matters more than the bike. If you decide you love triathlon, support your local bike shop and buy one there. I rode a Fuji road bike I caught on sale from Performance Bikes when it was still a local bike shop.
Helmet – You need a helmet that fits well. The blue one in the picture is a mountain bike helmet. Go to your local bike shop and have them help you buy one. Good helmets aren’t cheap. Consider it insurance for when you eventually dump your bike. You will dump your bike, we’ve all done it, typically shortly after we transition from flat pedals to clips and forget to unclip at a stop. One thing to keep in mind, helmets (and carseats) have expiration dates. They’re good for one crash or whatever the date on the sticker says. My most recent helmet is a Bell Stratus MIPS.
Sneakers – You need sneakers. They don’t have to be anything fancy. If you decide you love tri or just love running then go to your local running store and have them do a gait analysis for you. They will put you in a pair of shoes that are designed for your particular running style/gait. I started in Brook Ghosts until they changed the design such that my foot didn’t fit anymore. Now I use Altra Escalante or Escalante Racer shoes. They’re wide and have a large toebox.
What to Wear
For my first triathlon, the Reston Sprint Triathlon, I went super simple. I wore a pair of speedos jammer shorts and a spandex t-shirt for the swim. In T1 I pulled a pair of running shorts over the jammers, added some socks, and then took off for the rest of the race. The shirt was snug and held my heart monitor strap in place while I swam and dried fast once I was on the bike. As the bike course is reasonably short, and it is your first race, the lack of specialized clothing really is just fine. I’ve seen someone run the entire race in swim trunks with no top.
For the next two years worth of triathlons, mostly sprints, I wore tri shorts and stuck to the same spandex top. The tri shorts are similar to standard cycling shorts except the padding is about a third of the thickness. It allows you to swim and then climb out of the pool and not feel like you’re trying to ride or run in a wet diaper. I liked the fast drying of tops for those rides, that is, until I tried my first olympic, the Reston Olympic.
The Reston Olympic is in mid September lake swim triathlon in Reston, Virginia. The air temperatures in the early morning are cool and the water temperature is sometimes wetsuit legal. On that particular morning I finished my swim, ran to my bike and threw on my helmet, socks, and shoes. I made a cursory effort to dry off, then ran to the exit. In the brief period between the bike rack and the exit I realized that riding wet that morning would make for a miserable ride. I actually turned around, ran the bike back to the rack, and swapped my wet top for my post race clean/dry shirt and a running jacket then proceeded onward. From that point forward I made it a point to keep extra dry clothes and/or a jacket for the ride.
At some point I bought a race singlet and used it a few races. I liked the simplicity of the single article of clothing, the padding was equivalent to a pair of tri shorts, but the top had the same rear pockets that a cycling jersey had. On the bike, that’s super handy for stuffing gels and whatever else in. In the water, they turned into a pair of drag chutes. One other downside to the singlet, you basically have to strip to use the facilities.
Today I ride in a tri kit. I wear tri shorts and a tri top. The tri top is tight fitting, typically has a 3/4 to 5/8 zipper down the front, and is sleveless. On cool mornings, I’ll pull a proper cycling jersey over top of the tri kit for the pockets and the warmth. If I get too hot, I unzip the cycling jersey and/or the top underneath. I stage gels in the cycling jersey pockets so that I have them on me during the ride. Sometimes I ditch the jersey for the run, sometimes I don’t.
To sock or not to sock, that is the question.
Some people do, some people don’t. I wear them. I take 30 seconds post swim to dry my feet and get the gravel/sand/whatever off my feet and put my socks on. If I competed at a level where every second counted, maybe I’d skip the socks and use rubberbands to hold my shoes in place in the clips for a flying mount, but I don’t.
Goggles and swim cap
If you wear goggles when you swim, you should continue to do so. Same goes for the swim cap, nose clip, or anything else you routinely use while training. You should be training exactly like you race, except for maybe going as far as wearing tri shorts for every swim, but you should try that once or twice. If you wear glasses (I do), there are several fairly inexpensive (~$20-$30) googles made by Tyr and Speedos that have optical correction on them. You might not think you need them for a short sprint swim, but you’ll be potentially blind while you run from the transition area to the pool and back. I wear my corrective lens googles to/from the pool now and strip the cap and goggles off when I get back to the bike.
Bibs, number stickers, and/or timing chips.
If you forget these your race is done before it starts. The bib is needed for the run portion, the stickers go on the bike, typically the main tube by the fork or on the saddle stem, and on the front of the helmet. Exact placement varies by race venue rules. If you don’t have or plan on buying a running belt, pin the bib to a shirt ahead of time (it’s easier when you’re not wearing it) and bring the shirt.
As to the timing chip, some races give them to you at packet pickup, some hand them out race morning at the bike check-in. If you get it early, put it on when you get dressed. It goes on your left ankle. If you leave it at home, you’re done.
Body Markings – On race morning, once you’re inside the transition area, you’ll typically see a line in front of a volunteer with a handfull of sharpies writing on people. The bodymarkers will write your bib number on your arm(s) as well as the back of one of your calves. Your age on 12/31 of the year will be written on the other calf. This is typically a quick procedure done either on the way to the bike rack or immediately after racking your bike (bring your bib with you to get marked if that’s the case).
There’s another option that I’ve personally never tried but I’ve seen on others and it looks really cool. The company at https://tritats.com/ makes temporary tatoos of numbers that you can use to mark yourself ahead of time. A 200 pack of numbers (20 x 0-9) is currently on sale for $40.
Note: If you’re inked, the volunteers will do their best to find someplace to write your numbers. I have ink on my left shoulder/upper arm so the volunteers just write the numbers on that arm closer to my elbow.
Extras that I use but you may or may not want to.
Bike Pedals and Shoes – About 20 years ago I borrowed a friends mountain bike with the intent of riding the local trails. The bike lacked pedals for whatever reason so I went to my local bike shop and bought a pair of mountain bike clip-in pedals and shoes. I rode the bike for a week before my friend took it back and I was left with the shoes and pedals. Fast forward 16 years later when I bought my road bike (also lacking pedals) and I used what I already had on the road bike for my first race.
Mountain bike shoes are flexible, reasonably comfortable, and can look like normal street shoes. You can run in them but you’ll make a clicking sounds as you run as the clip hits the street. Road bike shoes, especially carbon, will have a rigid sole and make it difficult to walk let alone run in. Both will attach your feet to the bike, both increase power available by allowing you to pull up on the pedal during the stroke, and both will typically result in at least 1 fall as you learn how to release the shoe from the pedals.
In reality you need neither for your first race. If your bike has the stock flat pedals just use those. It will save you a change of shoes and otherwise simplify things. If you do want to go the shoe and clip-in pedal route, be absolutely sure to practice clipping in/out repeatedly over several days (weeks?) before you consider racing in them. Today I use Sidi brand carbon sole shoes with Shimano brand SPD-SL style pedals.
Headbands – I sweat like crazy under the lightest activity. As such I always wear a bandana or a neck gaiter as a headband to absorbe the sweat. I put it on before the bike helmet and I leave it on for the run. I occasionally forget to do so on training runs when I’m in a rush, and on those days I’m stopping every so often to wipe the sweat from my eyes with my sweat soaked shirt. It doesn’t work.
Hats – Depending on the length of the run and the temperature, I will occasionally wear a light colored hat. It goes over said headband. If the aid stations offer ice, I’ll dump a cup into the hat and put it back on my head. The cold water on my scalp and neck make things a little more pleasant. I’m looking at you Eagleman 70.3, the June Half Ironman that takes place on the surface of the sun in Cambridge, MD.
Bike Gloves – I don’t think it’s really as important on the shorter races, but a little padding on the palms of your hands can make the difference. They’ll also keep your hands warm on a cold morning. I have a pair of lightly padded fingerless gloves I found on sale somewhere.
Sunscreen – I’m really bad at wearing sunscreen (almost never) but if you tend to burn easily or want to protect yourself from sun damage, be sure to lather up. If you’re going to put it on your face and you sweat easily, you’ll need to figure out how to deal with the potential issue of sunscreen in your eyes. You’ll want to reapply after the swim and the bike and/or whatever cadence works for you.
Running belts. I actually wear two from bike through the run. The one above my clothing has my bib attached to it and can hold several gels if I were so inclined to use it for that. The other belt has two pockets on it, one of them usually has my car key, driver’s license, and a credit card in it. The other has my cell and a gel or two in it. You can’t use the cell on the course in any capacity (no selfies, no tunes, no calls/text, can’t even carry it) as it would result in a penalty ranging from time added to your score to a disqualification, but I carry it so that my kids can follow me as I race, and for the peace of mind knowing that if I happen upon an accident, I can stop racing and call for help. I put the belts on after the swim. I wear the bib backwards while I’m on the bike then flip it forward on the run.
Bodyglide – So, while it should not be at all required for your first tri (please find a pool swim for your first event), eventually you’ll get to a point where you’ll be entering races where the water is cold enough that you’ll want a wetsuit. When that happens, Bodyglide, or something like it, is your friend. Beyond the wetsuit, it also comes in handy if your tri clothing is rubbing you wrong. Again, not at all required but you’ll be glad you have it. It lives in my bag now.
Electronics – If you want to track your heart rate on your phone or watch you’ll need a HR chest strap of somekind and you’ll need to remember to bring it. Same goes for the tri watch if it’s not your everyday watch. You’re unlikely to forget your phone.
If you don’t have any of that and/or don’t care, don’t worry about it, you don’t need it at all. That said, something like a cheap Casio digital watch with a stopwatch function (~$20 at Target) would be really handy mounted on your bike handlebars for timing the ride.
You can also use something like the Strava app on your phone to track the ride and/or run even without a chest strap. You’ll get pace and distance data which is more than enough.
For my first race I used the stopwatch for the ride. I was primarily concerned that I’d lose track of which lap I was on. As I passed the start at the end of my first lap I made a note of how long it took and knew roughly how long I should expect to finish. Today I have a Garmin watch and Garmin heart strap but an Apple watch + Wahoo strap would work fine too.
Road ID – I call this my ‘If found on road unconscious, please call this number’ insurance policy. I have a tag on my watch band and on my left running shoe. The tag provides first responders with my name, blood type, birth year, an emergency contact number, and an 800 number they can call to get my full medical history. It costs around $20 for the watch tag/shoe tag/ dog tag and there’s a yearly subscription to maintain it.
It’s an incredibly important topic that you’ll want to do some research on if you continue beyond your first tri. There is one big rule, everybody is different, everyone’s body has different needs.
Race Morning – My early morning pre-dawn race breakfast is always a cup of coffee with protein powder and half and half used to wash down a protein bar. I’ll sip a second cup of coffee on the walk or drive to the race site but I rarely finish it. The only variation to my breakfast is the brand of protein bar. This happens to be the same breakfast I eat during the week. It’s important not to do anything different on the morning of the race. Use training days to experiment with food.
At the Race – I’ll occasionally bring a banana to eat in transition twenty to thirty minutes before race start. I usually have upwards of an hour for the banana to hit my bloodstream before I’m actually in the pool. Of course this also requires me to remember to buy said bananas.
I have two one liter bottles on my bike, one has Skratch Labs Sports Hydration powder added and the other is water. I’ll have a third liter of water in a one liter bike bottle and a packet of Skratch in my bag. Things happen, lids don’t seal right, bottles get spilled, etc. If I’m thirsty before the race, I’ll drink from the third bottle while I’m in transition.
There are pairs of Gu brand energy gels in my cycling jersey and running belt pockets. Each has one caffeinated and one uncaffeinated gel in it. I don’t use all four, I just like having options. Ironically enough, I can’t stand the taste of any of the flavors, but my stomach can deal with them providing they’re washed down with water and not a sports drink. It took me a few different brands of gels to find one I could tolerate which is important at longer distances.
As for timing, I tend to go by feel on the short races, at a set time interval on the longer races. At the start of the bike I’ll drink a little water and then take a big swig of Skratch. On the bike I’ll make sure to drink a quarter of the Skratch bottle every lap, usually on the same straight section of road. Coming off the bike, I’ll eat a caffeinated gel, wash it down with water, and then take off. On a short run course I try to only drink water.
The catch is that we all absorb food at different rates. I know from trial and error that it takes about 20-30 minutes for Gu or Skratch to hit my bloodstream. This means the last 30 minutes of the ride, I’m fueling my run, and that banana I may have eaten before the swim is fueling the first bit of my ride.
On your first race, if you think that the ride will take you more than ninety minutes, then I’d eat a gel thirty minutes in so that you’ll have it for the last third of the ride. I’d consider eating a second gel at the 2/3 point in your ride to prep for your run.
The most important thing is that you’ve worked out the timing for yourself and are not just blindly following my numbers. The second most important part of this is that you practice in training.
Transporting your gear
You have a couple options ranging from a 5 gallon bucket (no, really, a bucket) to custom triathlon backpacks and everything in between.
The bucket – Pros -It holds a finite amount of stuff, you can flip it upside down and sit on it to put your socks/shoes on.
– Cons – It holds a finite amount of stuff. Space is also limited in transition. You’re supposed to fit your equipment under the front tire of your bike. You’ll wind up storing your bucket somewhere away from your bike which defeats the purpose of being sat on.
Reusable shopping bags – Pros – They fold almost completely flat, they hold a decent amount of stuff, and you can use more than one if you need to.
Cons – There aren’t any really. Don’t use paper bags, they will fail structurally when they get wet from you dripping on them.
Duffel bags – Pros – Depending on the size, you can fit varying amounts of gear in them, they fold flat when empty.
Cons – Depending on the size, you can fit too much stuff in these and you wind up in a situation where you can’t keep it near the bike. Mine was cavernous and over packed. The lack of inside pockets force you to dig through it in a hurry if you’re relying on its contents at transition.
Backpacks – This is a favorite that I see at all the races. The bag is worn with one or two straps and the bike helmet is clipped onto the strap leaving your hands free for the bike. Backpacks usually have multiple pockets allowing for segregation of gear.
Cons – They’re usually too big to stash under the bike at the rack.
NOTE: There’s one magical condition that occurs if the race has open, first come first serve racking in the racks. Get to the race site EARLY and grab the first slot on the inside end. If you’re really lucky, the race uses a parking lot with grassy curbs that butt up to the bike rack. If you can score that inside position, you’ll have the grass as your staging area easily giving you 10x more space and a curb to sit on as a bonus. I’ve succeeded at this a few times and it always made waiting for the start a bit more pleasant.
Putting it all together
I was fortunate enough that I could walk to my first race. The event was held at a local pool about a ten minute walk from my house. Walking somewhat restricted how much gear I could bring with me, but it really didn’t help.
For my very first race I loaded a stupidly large and heavy duffel with the following:
⁃ Old mountain bike helmet (it was expired but I didn’t realize it at the time)
⁃ Mountain bike gloves from Trek
⁃ Mountain bike shoes + mountain bike pedals on the bike (I happened to have had them already)
⁃ A full size bike pump
⁃ A stupidly heavy bike toolset to fix almost anything
⁃ 2 1L + 1 32oz Bike bottles all filled with Gatorade
⁃ Race Belt with gummy bears + iPhone
⁃ Bib Belt + bib
⁃ A huge beach towel
⁃ 3 Bananas of which I ate 1
⁃ HR Chest Strap + wrist monitor (worn for everything after the swim)
⁃ Dry clothes (shorts, shirt, and socks)
As I walked to the race site I wore:
⁃ Waterproof digital watch (left wrist)
⁃ Sneakers + Socks
⁃ Speedos Jammers with shorts on top
⁃ Spandex top with race shirt on top
I’ve been racing for a few years now. For my most recent race in April of 2022 I packed the following (listed by event) in a Speedos Tri specific backpack:
⁃ Helmet, gloves, carbon shoes
⁃ CORE Foundation bike jersey with pockets loaded with Gu (1 caffeine, 1 decaf)
⁃ 3 1L water bottles (1 Skratch or Vitargo S2, 2 H2O) and a spare Skratch packet.
⁃ Garmin bike computer – in my left shoe
⁃ Socks – in my right shoe
⁃ Repair kit in a small water bottle holder containing 2 spare tubes, 2CO2 cartridges, a pair of latex gloves, a handi-wipe, a small folding alan wrench, a chain link tool.
Swim (pictured above)
⁃ Corrective Speedo goggles, Speedo cap, off brand nose clip (not pictures)
⁃ 1 caffeinated Gu
⁃ Altra Escalante neutral gait zero drop shoes
⁃ Road ID shoe tag on the left shoe laces
⁃ Garmin run pod on the right shoe
⁃ Stryd running power meter on the left shoe
⁃ Race belt for the bib
⁃ Running belt for my phone/keys/ID/Gus (1 caff, 1 decaf)
Worn to site
⁃ Garmin Tri strap (HRM-Tri)
⁃ Garmin Tri watch (Fenix 6)
⁃ Oura ring
⁃ Tri shorts (typically Voler brand but I wore the RST Core shorts that race)
⁃ Tri top (also typically Voler but also RST Core top)
⁃ The cycling jersey listed above for warmth
⁃ The Altras listed above w/out socks.
⁃ The race shirt/jacket/etc also worn for warmth.
In the car:
⁃ The large bike pump for a last minute top-off pre race
⁃ The large bike repair kit with an extra tube
The backpack has compartments and I’ve assigned one to each event. Before that I’d gotten into the habit of putting each event’s equipment into a gallon size Ziplock to make it easy to grab what I need. While it worked for me, it may not work for everyone.
Thanks for taking the time to read this far. I’d love to hear any questions or comments about what you’ve read. You can reach me at karl.majer at karlmajer.com.