I’ve been so excited to write this blog, mainly because you’ve all had SO many questions about my first triathlon experience. I’m really hoping I can answer some of these and help inspire you to take on a new challenge, whether that’s triathlon or something else you’ve been wanting to do.
I was gifted a place at London Triathlon, for which I am very grateful. Opportunities like this give me the chance to step outside my comfort zone and try something I wouldn’t necessarily have done, or in this case bite the bullet of something I’ve wanted to do for ages but kept talking myself out of. I’m very lucky to have had this experience so I want to pay it forward and answer as many of your questions as possible, hopefully break down some barriers, and give you chance to hear some first timer experiences (and worries) which hopefully will encourage you to take a leap of faith and go for it!
I’ve done duathlons and an aquathlon before and have some wonderful triathlete friends who shared their wisdom. However, I still had a lot of unknowns and before I had this experience still felt very in the dark about triathlon. It’s a funny old world where slipping yourself into a rather stiff and unflattering wetsuit, then getting on a bike dripping wet is considered normal.
I’ll blog more specifically about my London Tri experience in the coming days, but for now here are some of your questions answered:
How do you train for open water and how do you become confident?
Open water can be cold and murky, you’re exposed to the weather and sometimes you end up swimming against a current, but that being said I prefer it to pool swimming for all the reasons above. It’s much more satisfying than going up and down lanes staring at the bottom of the pool, whilst dodging people left right and centre. However, don’t give up on the pool altogether. I would say that any open water swimming needs to come after you’ve gained your confidence in a pool. You don’t need to be a fast or super strong swimmer but you need to be able to do the minimum distance your local open water swim centre offers confidently, without stopping in the pool. If you’re someone who likes to take breaks, try wean yourself off clinging to the wall, as there’s no wall in open water, and take a break by treading water or switching to breaststroke with your head above the water. Once you’re ready for open water, find your local Nowca accredited centre and give it a go. The first time is always daunting but everyone’s been there. Use a wetsuit if you have one as they offer buoyancy to help you float. I also use a towfloat when I train, these are great for if you need to take a break in the water as you can stop and cling to it. Similarly if you have cramp they’re a real help. Confidence will come the more practice you get. If it just isn’t working out for you, try an alternative open water swimming location (perhaps somewhere shallower with clearer water), join a coached session or if it really really isn’t happening, look for events where the swim is done in a pool (they do exist!). The other thing you need to practice is learning to sight. If you’re doing breaststroke this isn’t an issue as you’re already looking forward but for crawl you need to mix in lifting your head up and looking forward at where you’re going otherwise you might swim wildly off tangent. This is also something you can practice in a pool and isn’t as complicated as it sounds.
If you’re worried about getting pushed or clawed at by other swimmers start at the back and let them go. There are also ladies only waves or some events offer mates waves where you can swim with someone you know. Once you’ve gotten away from the start the swimmers start to spread out.
In terms of training I pool swim 1-2 times a week for an hour each time and I open water swim when time allows, this usually ends up being once a week, or sometimes once every 10 days if I’m having a busy period at work. I often combine my swims with a run, either by running home after an open water swim or on Saturdays I parkrun then open water swim, which I know is the wrong way round but it works with the opening times (they’re in the same location luckily).
Is it ok to take breaks/ breaststroke for a while if you aren’t a strong swimmer?
Yep, absolutely. In fact some people breaststroke the whole thing, so if front crawl isn’t for you that’s an option. I would always opt for breaststroke over treading water because when you’re treading water you’re still expending energy but not going anywhere, whilst breaststroke you’re moving forward which means the finish is coming and you’re still going with the flow of people and won’t be in the way. When doing swim serpentine last year I needed a break or two over the two miles so I switched to a minute of easy breaststroke with my head above the water. Don’t float on your back at this is often the signal for assistance.
Do I need to buy a proper bike? Or is a hybrid ok?
A hybrid is totally acceptable. I own a hybrid, it was my very first bike and I used it for the Ride London 100 mile cycle, London Duathlon and my super sprint duathlon in February (which I actually placed 2nd lady and 5th overall). I think a hybrid is a fantastic option if you want to also use your bike for commuting or if you’re a little nervous to begin with. Hybrids can be heavier and often the seating position isn’t as efficient but that’s not to say you can’t have a great time on one. I’ve also seen mountain bikes being used at duathlons. My best advice would be get a bike you’re happy with and if you’re targeting a certain race check their guidelines. The usual consensus is it must be roadworthy, no fixed gears, no BMXs and occasionally you’ll see a Brompton.
Do I need to clip in?
ABSOLUTELY NOT. In fact I prefer not to. I’ve felt a huge pressure to clip in, mainly due to comments I receive on Instagram about how I’ll be a more efficient cyclist if I do, or comments I’ve had about cycling in trainers. You know what, it doesn’t matter, being safe is the most important thing. I have some ‘toe clips’ which I basically slide my feet into which mean my feet don’t move once they’re on the pedal, but I can get my feet out quickly, i would really recommend something similar. Yes, I might be more efficient physically if I clipped in using cleats but mentally I find I’m much more cautious and don’t throw myself into my training or racing the same. So in essence when it comes to clipping in you don’t HAVE to do anything you don’t want to.
Where do I leave my bike the night before, and during the swim and run?
All events have a transition zone, which is as secure as possible (ie only those racing have access). These areas have racks for bikes, this what people mean when they say racking a bike, or rack your bike.
For London Triathlon we left our bikes the night before, I secured mine with a lock but plenty of people hadn’t bothered. And on the day you can access this. You also put all your kit by your bike. Remember where you’ve put your bike as you’ll need to find it quickly in transition.
What were the transitions like?
I used to be so bamboozled by the concept of transitions, but they aren’t as daunting as they seem. When you arrive with your kit on the morning of your race Kay it all out in a logical order where you can easily grab what you need. Once you get out the swim follow the arrows/marshals/general flow of people and head to where you have left your bike and kit. Then it’s up to you how long you take. I didn’t rush at London tri as I needed time to calm down and mentally prepare myself for the next stage, however in future I’m aiming to be much quicker. I have quite a nice routine at my duathlon transitions and now do these quite quickly. For the swim bike transition, dump your wetsuit tidily out the way and put your helmet on. I then had a gel quickly to save faffing on the bike, had a bite of half a clifbar and was chewing this whilst I put my shoes and cycling gloves on. Then I took my bike off the rack and off I went. For the bike run transition, rack your bike before you take your helmet off then swap your shoes and off you go.
How to get your legs going on the run?
The honest answer to this is practice, get used to running off the bike and what it feels like. The first mile sucks, but after that you kind of find a second wind. Basically just one foot in front of the other!
FUELLING and how did I fuel?
I’m no nutritional expert, but I know what works for me. This might not work for you but when it comes to fuelling it’s quite a lot of trial and error. I always use Science in Sport products, I’m an ambassador but I also believe these are the best products on the market and they fit ideally with my training, my tastebuds, and my energy needs. When I wake up I have plain Moma porridge which you just add water to. I don’t eat fresh fruit or dairy before any races, it doesn’t work for my stomach. I add a hydration tablet to my water and sip it whilst I’m getting ready. About 45 minutes before the start I’ll nibble on a clif or tribe bar, usually eating half or two thirds then thirty minutes before I take a SiS caffeine energy gel and I stop drinking water. I find the gel really helps avoid cramp on the swim. In the swim to bike transition I shove the rest of the clif bar in whilst I’m getting ready and have a gel to avoid faffing on the bike. I’ve not yet nailed the gel on a bike thing yet- I just can’t get them open or find somewhere to store my rubbish. So instead I use the SiS Go electrolyte and carb drink in my water. I find this is an excellent source of energy. A few friends of mine add their gels to a water bottle and add water which sounds like an excellent idea and something I’ll try at some point. In the bike run transition I grab a gel and down this as I’m running out of transition. I find this combination gives me enough energy and it’s what I’ve been using in training.
Swimmers, try a gel before your training. Obviously don’t use a caffeine one if you’re going for a short training session but I’ve found all my leg cramps have stopped since I started doing this.
What is the minimum level of kit you need? What do you wear?
So triathlon is a kit intensive kind of sport and for many this is a huge barrier. I’ve gradually accumulated my kit over a year, but it’s certainly put a dent in my finances. The kit I would say is essential is: a wetsuit, a bike, a helmet, some comfortable running shoes, something appropriate to go under your wetsuit (more on that later) and your goggles.
The main expenses are your bike and your wetsuit. But never fear there are some money saving options and ways to help you avoid buying kit you don’t need. Firstly wetsuit hire is an option. Its a good way to sample triathlon if you aren’t sure whether you’ll remain committed to justify the investment. If you’re wanting to buy your own wetsuit check out sales on websites such as wiggle, sigma sports or zone 3. Additionally zone 3 have periodic clearances where they sell off wetsuits used on models and for advertising. These aren’t pristine but it’s a great option for getting a good wetsuit at a cheaper price. Also try eBay to scoop up some bargains.
With regards to a bike, again some events offer bike hire. Buying second hand is a great way to save money, or stores like decathlon offer road/hybrid bikes which are excellently priced. For something a bit more fancier I highly recommend Ribble. When I was looking for my road bike they seemed to offer the best spec bikes for the best value.
You need to wear something appropriate under your wet suit. I wear a trisuit, again look in the sale sections of websites for these, but some people prefer swimwear then to put clothes on top in transition. You must not be naked during transition, so whatever goes under that wetsuit also goes on the bike and the run with you. Most people wear trisuits because they offer the padding needed to stay comfy on the bike and you don’t need to do any outfit changes. However I’ve seen people use swimwear then throw on shorts and a T-shirt. A few ladies asked me if you wear a sports bra under a trisuit. I personally do but I guess it’s your choice, some trisuits have crop tops fitted into them, but I find nothing compares to the comfort and support of a decent sports bra. You’re given a swim hat so all you need extra for the swim are some goggles.
For the bike pick what clothing you’re going to wear, then you’ll need a helmet and some shoes suitable for cycling in. You don’t need cleats, trainers are ok. I also like having some cycling gloves and glasses to stop grit/flies going in my eyes.
For the run you then just need to take your helmet off pop your running shoes on and off you go. Other things I like to have with me are a sports watch to help keep track of the distances and time, water bottles on my bike, gels, spare tubes and a puncture repair kit in a saddle bag on the bike and a towel to dry my feet on in transition. I also have a tow float which I use whilst doing my open water swim training.
How to pick the right trisuit?
I guess you don’t really know if something is right until you’ve had a go in it, but I would always recommend either going into a store and trying a few brands and sizes or buy a few different ones online and see what you find comfy. You see quite a lot of Zoot, Zone3, 2XU and Orca ones around. You can also have sleeves or sleeveless (I opt for sleeveless when swimming is involved because my arms feel a bit free-er). Don’t be afraid to go for a size larger than what you would buy for running kit, from my experience triathlon sizing seems quite small.
Brick training and my weekly training?
So I’m not a coach or personal trainer. I plan all my own training because it has to fit my life. I take one full rest day a week and have one day where I do an easy swim or gentle spin on the watt bike. Then the rest of my week looks something like:
Saturday: parkrun followed by an open water swim then run home
Sunday: long cycle (30-50miles) and stretching/rehab exercises
Then the weekdays- a crazy assortment of 1-2 swim sessions, watt bike speed sessions, running, CrossFit, stretching and rest!
A brick session is where you combine two or more training elements together eg swim+run, bike+run, swim+bike. I’m lucky that my local open water swim centre and parkrun are in the same place so that makes for an easy way to get a brick session in, otherwise I use a combination of the wattbike and running (simply because otherwise I’ve got to find somewhere to chain and leave my bike and carry a bike lock with me). Finding little hacks that work for you is essential. If the weather is grim I’ll often do a gym based brick session going between the watt bike and the treadmill. It’s really important to know what it feels like to run off the bike.
Another great way to train is doing smaller events. I love to Go Tri sprint and super sprint duathlons as they give you a safe space to practice and you can have a go at transition in a supportive environment. I highly recommend you give them a google.
Can you do it if you’re a total beginner?
YES everyone is a total beginner at some point. Obviously you need to train for it as it’s a big ask of your body (a triathlon is not the time to sample your first open water swim) but with a training schedule that prepares you for the big day, you’re all set to have some fun.
My main fears and how did they play out?
I was worried I would be kicked or swam over in the swim. Solution: start at the back of your wave and go a bit wider on the corners to avoid congestion.
I was worried I would get stuck in my wetsuit. Solution: practice getting out of it, but also the event staff were excellent and helped unzip me!
I was worried I would forget something I needed in transition. Solution: lie everything out in a logical order and stuff that is really important stuff it in your shoes so you get a reminder it’s there.
I was worried I would fall off the bike. Solution: be brave and relax. If you’re tense going over potholes it makes them feel a million times worse.
I was worried my legs wouldn’t work on the run. Solution: take a gel with you, dig deep and walk if you need a quick break.
So hopefully that is a lot of your questions answered! My next triathlon is booked, and I hope to see loads of you being brave and having a go!