Swim, bike, run with Macmillan

If you want to challenge yourself, then a triathlon could be the perfect event for you.

Triathlon is growing in popularity and so there are more opportunities for newbies to experience the sport than ever before. In most triathlon events you could expect to find 25% of competitors are first timers so don’t feel like you are alone. With a range of distances and loads of beginner-friendly events, there is a triathlon out there to suit you.

What happens in a triathlon?

The swimming leg

The swimming leg of a triathlon can take place in any body of water. Depending on the event you choose, you could be swimming lengths in a local pool, paddling in a river, bobbing in a lake or even splashing in the sea. If you’re swimming in open water then you’ll probably need a wetsuit.

Any stroke goes so don’t be afraid in taking your time and breast stroke if that’s more comfortable. Just don’t flip in to backstroke as this can be interpreted as asking for help.

You may be interested to note that a lot of events host Women Only waves.

The bike leg

The longest part of the triathlon is the bike leg. Whether you’ve got a road bike, a mountain bike, or need to a hire a bike, the middle portion of your triathlon can have you cycling round a city or enjoying breath-taking countryside. Helmets are always required!

It depends on which event you choose as to whether the roads that you’ll be cycling on will have other traffic. If you’re nervous about other traffic, look for closed road or quiet road events.

The running leg

Once you’ve ditched your bike, you’re ready to run. How far you run depends on what distance you’ve chosen.

Make sure you’re trainers are comfortable and fit properly. Your legs will feel a bit weird going from cycling to running but it will get easier as you go.

The transition

Transition is often called the fourth disciple of triathlon. It’s here where you transition between your swim-to-cycle and your cycle-to-run and where your kit will be.

Before the race, you’ll need to rack your bike (set it up on one of the racks) and arrange your kit. There will be marshals around in case you have any questions (don’t be afraid to ask!)

What are the distances?

Super Sprint – This is a great distance for those looking to dip their toe in the water without the distance being too daunting.

Sprint Distance – Despite the name, you don’t have to sprint. Probably the most popular distance for triathletes, the sprint distance provides a challenge, but at the same time isn’t something that needs to consume your life in order to prepare for.

Olympic/Standard Distance – at double the distance of the Sprint event, the Olympic provides a good challenge for people looking to push themselves that little bit more. With more miles going through those legs on the bike and run, this will be a challenge.

Whether you’re doing a triathlon or duathlon, as the distance increases you’ll need to pace yourself more and consider hydration and nutrition.

The distances for each triathlon vary slightly but here’s a breakdown of what the distances mean:

  • Starter Tri = 200m (swim), 12km (bike), 2km (run)
  • Super Sprint = 400m (swim), 10km (bike), 2.5km (run)
  • Sprint = 750m (swim), 20km (bike), 5km (run)
  • Olympic (Standard) = 1500m (swim), 40km (bike), 10km (run)
  • 70.3 / Middle Distance / Half-IRONMAN = 1.9km (swim), 90km (bike), 21km (run)
  • IRONMAN / Iron distance = 3.8km (swim), 180km (bike), 42km (run)

Triathlon FAQs by RG Active

Am I fit enough to do a triathlon?

Triathlons come in many different distances, starting with ‘Super Sprint’. As long as you’re not injured and you allow yourself enough time to get some training in you’ll be ok.

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Do I need to wear a Trisuit?

While a trisuit is designed to be worn in all disciplines in a triathlon, you don’t have to wear one if you’re not comfortable doing do. It’s important to be comfortable while racing though, so make sure that the clothing you use has been tried and tested in training first.

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Do I need a triathlon wetsuit?

Triathlon wetsuits are very specific to the requirements of front crawl swimming, as they are cut to fit more tightly like a second skin, while allowing good movement through the shoulders and often additional buoyancy in the hips and legs. They’re also covered in a rubber material to add additional warmth and improve speed in the water.

Surf wetsuits can be worn, however be aware that they are a little more difficult to swim in as they aren’t as flexible around the shoulders and don’t offer the same buoyancy in the water that corrects your body position for swimming.

There are many entry level wetsuits available on the market now, with options to rent too if you don’t want to commit to buying one.

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I can’t swim front crawl very well; can I still do a triathlon?

Of course, you can do breaststroke or front crawl/freestyle, whichever you prefer, or a mix of both. While freestyle is a quicker stroke, many first-time triathletes swim breaststroke.

It’s worth training with some freestyle as much as possible, as you will still improve and you may even surprise yourself on the day and be able to swim more of it than you thought.

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I’m really worried about swimming in open water, what can I do?

Many people are apprehensive about swimming open water for the first time. The combination of swimming in a wetsuit, which feels tight and restrictive, the murky water, cooler temperatures and generally not being able to touch the bottom, or be close to the edge. These are all things that you can lean to overcome with practice.

RG Active recommend you start getting into open water as soon as you can before a race, to give yourself plenty of time to adjust. Look to start at least a month prior to your event, having one of your swims each week as a dedicated open water session, you’ll be a lot more comfortable come race day.

Coached sessions will focus on things like wetsuit fitting, adapting to open water swimming and open water skills such as sighting.

If you’re still really worried, then you can consider a pool based triathlon for your first race, to get you involved and build up to an open water event once your confidence has developed.

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Do I need a fancy bike?

You see people racing on all sorts of bikes in triathlon, and while there are those seasoned few that fly past on super-bikes that probably cost more than their cars, you can race on pretty much anything you like. The only limitations are that your bike must not be a fixed-gear (track) bike and it must have two working brakes. People often ride on hybrid bikes, or even mountain bikes or anything they can borrow, for their first triathlons.

If you then catch the triathlon bug and decide you want to do more, you can look at buying a proper road bike. With a great selection of entry level bikes, cycle purchase schemes and second-hand options, there’s a bike out there to fit any price point.

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Do I need a GPS watch or tracking device for training?

In short no, you don’t need a tracking device to be able to get fit and ready for a triathlon, a simple watch and notebook can be enough to keep a track of how you are progressing by keeping a note of how long it took to complete a certain distance or route and noting how you felt during your session.

However, if you like a gadget there are plenty of options out there to provide athletes with a plethora of information from training and racing. Before you rush out and buy something you may not need, consider the easiest and usually cheaper options; with the increase in wearable fitness trackers like the iWatch, Fitbit etc, more and more people are able to track exercise and daily activity.

But one easy tracking device most of us have is our smart phone. Equipped with a GPS you can download any fitness tracking app such as ‘Strava’ or ‘Map My Fitness’ to track simple aspects of your training like; duration, speed and distance. This will give you a basic idea of the volume of training you’re doing and allow you to monitor and make small adjustments to make sure you’re progressing.

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What race nutrition should I be using?

Shorter races, like super-sprint and sprint distance will need little to no mid-race fuelling since they are short enough to be complete on the energy stores within the body, as long as you’ve eaten well in the days leading up to the event. For these distances, ensure you keep hydrated with a bottle on your bike, perhaps with some electrolytes mixed in. Most races have aid stations on the run course if you need a little more. If through training, you know you tend to struggle little towards the end, you could consider a gel at the start of the run, to see you through.

For standard/Olympic distance and above fuelling starts to become a consideration. Everyone is different, and the only way to find out what fuelling strategy works for you is to try it in training. Experiment with carbohydrate drinks, gels or bars to see what’s most effective. A good starting point might be to fuel every 20-25 minutes in races longer than 2 hours, starting after the first hour.

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What happens if I get a puncture?

Since you are not allowed to receive any outside assistance at any point in a triathlon, if you do get a puncture it’s up to you to fix it. The good news is that it’s fairly easy to learn, there are so many online videos showing you how to go about a repair, so set aside some time one evening and practice it over and over until you’re happy you can do it. Even if it takes you ages to repair, it’ll be worth it if It means you can cross that finish line, complete your race and collect your medal.

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How can I avoid the ‘jelly legs’ on the run?

Running after cycling can be difficult to get used to since your muscles are working in a slightly different way, and it takes time for them to adjust.

One way to help this is to include Brick sessions in your training, where you complete a bike session followed by a run session immediately afterwards. You can either do this as a long bike/shorter run, or shorter bike/longer run, so as to over fatigue yourself.

Alternatively, if logistics allow you can do multiple repeats through in on session over a very short bike loop and run loop, e.g. 4 km/750 m and repeat as many times as you can in an hour. This also gives you more practice at transitions too.

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Transition sounds confusing, how will I work out what’s going on?

Transition is where you leave all your equipment for the bike and run phases of the race. While all of them differ slightly race to race in their set up, they’re all essentially the same process.

You come out of the water and run to your bike, taking your wetsuit off as you go. At your bike, you change from your wetsuit into your cycle gear, if you’re wearing a trisuit you simply need to remove the wetsuit and go, making sure your helmet is on before un-racking your bike. You then have a specific line at which you must mount and dismount your bike, essentially you must not be on your bike on the transition side of this line. In the second transition, you return to your spot, place your bike back on the race and get your run kit on, remembering to take off your helmet once your bike is re-racked. Every event pack will highlight the setup of transition and it’s definitely something you should practice in your training.

Watch this video on Swim to Bike Transition

Watch this video on Bike to Swim Transition

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Do I have to wear bike shoes?

While bike shoes do make cycling more efficient and are certainly worth looking at if you’re planning to do triathlons regularly, you don’t have to have them. Riding in trainers can simplify and speed up your transitions too, which will make shorter races like super-sprint distance a lot easier.

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I’m worried about the mass start, and swimming in a group.

Many people fear the ‘washing machine’ effect of the mass start, however most event organisers do what they can to minimise this effect by seeding faster swimmers towards the front of waves, staggered starts, or multiple smaller waves.

Open water swimming and practicing in groups will help to alleviate most of your fears. Positioning at the start is also key to having a less frantic swim. Observe where the inside line to the first buoy is, and position yourself at the other end of the start line, so that you may add on a few extra meters, but you’ll have a clearer run to the buoy and by the time you get there the field will have spread out a little.

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I’ve heard we’re not allowed to draft, what is that?

This applies to the cycle leg of triathlon, drafting is when another athlete gains an aerodynamic advantage by following another athlete very closely behind, thus being sheltered from the wind. This can save as much as 30 % of the effort required to ride at that speed alone.

In most UK triathlon events this is NOT allowed, and the rules state you must be at least 10 m (roughly 4-5 bike lengths) behind an athlete in front of you unless you are overtaking. Don’t worry too much through, the marshals are pretty good at spotting who’s doing it deliberately and who’s not.

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