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Open Water / Triathlon

Time to Try a Tri

Spring racing season is upon us

Scott Bay | May 10, 2016

Triathlon is a fast-growing sport with a lot of appeal. Part of what makes it so compelling is the combination of three different disciplines into a single event. And it’s a great sport for swimmers to pick up—athletes coming from a swimming background already have strong skills in the area that many triathletes find the most difficult. Why not take advantage of that?

If you’re thinking about trying a tri, there’s no time like the present: spring racing season is getting underway and there are bound to be several events near you where you can test the waters of triathlon.

Getting Started

First, if the thought of doing a triathlon has you intimidated, set those concerns aside. Like swimmers, triathletes are probably some of the friendliest and most inviting people. Most of them are always happy to answer questions from others who take an interest in the sport. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Next, find an event. Many events offer a first-timer or novice category and almost all offer a 1-day USAT membership option rather than committing to a full year membership right away.

Equipment should be the next item to take care of on your list. Obviously, you’ll need a bike (and helmet) and running shoes. You should already have the bathing suit, cap, and goggles.

Triathlon FAQs

It’s totally normal for first-timers to have a lot of questions. Here’s a round up of some of the more common ones swimmers transitioning to triathlon ask.

  • Do you need a special bike? No. Many serious triathletes invest in high-performance machines, but if you’re just starting out and trying to get the feel of triathlon, virtually any bike will do. That said, a triathlon event is still a race, so your old Schwinn Stingray with a banana seat is probably not the best choice. If that’s all you’ve got available, reach out to your triathlete friends and ask to borrow a bike or if they know of anyone who’s looking to sell one on the cheap. 
  • Do I have to wear a helmet on the bike? Yes!
  • Are all triathlons Iron-distance? Thankfully, no. The best place to start for a first-timer is a sprint distance, which will commonly have you swimming a half mile, biking 12.4 miles, and running 3.1 miles. It’s a vastly different event from an Iron-distance triathlon where the swim is 2.4 miles, the bike is 112 miles, and the run is a 26.2-mile marathon.
  • Is the swim in a pool? Usually not, but sometimes yes. Some shorter triathlons may use a pool for the swim, but more often than not, the swim portion of a triathlon is hosted in an open water venue.
  • Can I just do the swim part? Usually yes. Many triathlons have a relay division where two or three athletes team up to each complete one or more parts of the triathlon. This approach is a lot of fun and a good way to get exposed to the triathlon lifestyle while still staying in your comfort zone.
  • How can I find triathlon groups in my area for more answers? Many of our USMS clubs also have triathlon clubs, so the Places to Swim page on the USMS website is a good place to start. You should also check with your local bike shop and running store to see if they have established groups who meet there for group runs or rides. And if you’re still not finding anyone to help, Google knows everything and will help you find lots of ways to get your questions answered.

How to Have a Great First Outing

A lot of first time triathletes make ‘rookie’ mistakes simply because they didn’t know something that more seasoned triathletes do. Try these tips to avoid some of those typical first-time errors.

  • Ask questions. Even professional triathletes started somewhere, and most people are willing to help. Tell your fellow competitors that you’re a first-timer and they may be super helpful.
  • Make your goal having fun. Just because you can swim 400 meters in a certain time, ride at an exact pace, and finish the run in a specific time doesn’t mean you’ll post those same metrics on race day. Conditions and the newness of the experience will dictate the result, so avoid setting goal times and make finishing with a smile your aim.
  • Check your equipment twice before you leave the house. Many a triathlete has had a terrible day watching a race instead of being in one because she forgot to bring her helmet, shoes, apparel etc. Don’t be that triathlete.
  • Practice your open water and pack-swimming skills before race day. Being a good swimmer is not enough. Most of us swim with just a few other people in the lane and open water is a very different experience. Be prepared for swimming with a few hundred swimmers around you all at once. Practicing your open water skills—navigation, sighting, drafting, buoy turns, etc.—prior to race day will give you the confidence to fight through the crowd and keep on swimming.
  • Know the water and warm up before the race. Learn about any currents and other water conditions on the course ahead of time, and check the water temperature, course markings, and sight lines when you arrive at the venue. If the event organizers allow it, get in the water before the race to get acclimated.
  • Remember, there’s a race after the swim. As tempting as it is to just swim fast and leave it all in the water, it’s important to reserve some energy for the bike and run. You don’t want to spend miles on the bike recovering from an epic swim while the rest of the field passes you by.
  • Know the course. Not just the swim course but the bike and run as well. Nothing ruins a day like adding extra miles to the bike or run. 
  • Celebrate your accomplishment. Congrats! You did something different and maybe found a new sport. Share your accomplishment with your fellow triathlete lanemates and invite the swimmers-only crowd to join you in your next triathlon adventure. And you can always try to convince the triathletes to do a pool meet with you, too!

Where to Start

Take a look at your calendar and select a race that fits your life. Be sure to plan for an event far enough out so that you have adequate time to train and practice transitions between the disciplines. Also, before settling on a specific race, ask your triathlete friends for a recommendation—they’ll know which ones are best for beginners and which have the best athlete experience and goodie bags.

And after it’s all over, even if you decide triathlon’s not for you, at least you can say you tri-ed!

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About the Author—Scott Bay

Scott Bay is a USMS-certified Masters coach and an ASCA Level 5 coach and has been actively coaching and teaching swimming since 1986 to swimmers of all ages. The Masters swimmers he currently coaches include national champions, All Americans, and world record holders, who have swum to more than 300 Top 10 swims and 30 world records in just the past 5 years. Throughout his career Bay has taught thousands how to swim or how to swim better. He’s also written numerous articles on technique and coaching and contributed to USMS’s coach certification curriculum. Bay presents at clinics across the country and has written an instructional book, “Swimming Steps to Success.” (Human Kinetics, 2015). Bay is the past chair of the USMS Coaches Committee, and the Head Coach of YCF Masters.

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