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A quick introduction to triathlon

Three sports: swimming, cycling and running all done one after the other against the clock. Triathlon is unique in that the clock keeps going while you change between sports which make transition the fourth discipline. There are now five recognised distances in the sport but many local events run their own variations to allow for local roads and conditions (swim/bike/run):

Super Sprint - 400m/10km/2.5km
Sprint - 750m/20km/5km
Olympic (or Standard) - 1500m/40km/10km
Half Ironman (or 70.3) - 1.9km/90km/21k
Ironman - 3.8km/180km/42km

What you need to compete
It doesn't have to be expensive. You will need a swim cap and goggles; a bike, any bike in road worthy condition is fine; a helmet that meets with British Standards; something to wear and some running shoes. If you already have a bike then the majority of the expense is dealt with. Swim goggles and a hat will cost you a few pounds, a helmet can be bought for around £30. For running shoes you should get yourself along to your local running shop. Not the high street sports shop, a specialist running shop. They will be able to evaluate your feet, the way you strike the ground and any potential problems you might have with running and sell you a shoe that will keep injury at bay. Lots of people have lots of problems running when they don't use the correct running shoe, they'll cost you around £60. If you enter a pool based triathlon then you won't need a wet suit, if you swim in open water then the organisers will probably insist you wear one, that will cost you around £150. The suit protects you from the cold and helps to keep you afloat, making the swim easier (which is useful as open water swims are usually much longer).

How fit do you need to be?
Contrary to popular belief you don't need to be super fit to complete a triathlon. Sure, if you want to be in the top 10% you do but there's a whole other side to the sport where people are there for the fun and the camaraderie. The majority of the pack will be people with the single aim to get around and do themselves (and their loved ones) proud. For a sprint triathlon your main priority is to be able to cover the distance. Don't aim to cover it all in the same day in training, save that for race day, but gradually build up your long swims, bike rides and runs to cover the event distance. If you get to this point then barring mishap you'll be a triathlete by the end of race day.

What you need to do
Have a look around the internet for races you'd like to do, download the entry form, fill it in and send it off. Getting entered for a race will give you great inspiration and get you focussed about the race. A local pool based sprint race is likely to cost around £25-£35, the form will probably ask you to estimate your swimming time. You don't have to be exact, just a very basic guess rounded to the nearest half minute is fine. The organisers use that to draw up a start order for the race. That way all the highly experienced fast swimmers will be swimming together and not mowing down the novices. Of course it also means the novice swimmers will swim together which makes for a pleasant atmosphere for the many first timers that'll be at poolside. On race day it's a good idea to get there nice and early to have a look around. Get yourself to registration and get your race pack (if it's not been posted to you already), attach the numbers to your bike and helmet and either attach your race number to your race top of a number belt. Then you're ready to go into transition and rack your bike. I love transition on race morning, there's a huge thrill in the air and the anticipation of the race is excellent. Fellow competitors are generally very friendly and willing to answer any questions you might have. Things you should be thinking about is where you leave the pool room and the route to transition, then the route from your bike to transition exit and the bike mount point. After that think about the route from bike in to your racking point then the route from your racking point to the start of the run. Although organisers do their best to make it as obvious as possible it's best to have it all clear in your head before you start. There's nothing more embarrassing than having to ask the spectators where the bike route starts.

Now, consider how you're going to lay out your own bit of transition and what kit you'll need for the race. You see some people setting up hugely complex arrangements with bananas, gels, spare socks, spare tools, towels, spare tyres etc etc. Try to keep it all very simple as you'll be standing at your transition point in a hyper state after the swim and probably won't be thinking at your best. Rack your bike so it's pointing out from the racking (front wheel towards you), that saves you turning it around. If you have tri bars, put your helmet on them with the straps pulled apart ready to go on your head (lay it upside down with the front of the helmet pointing towards the front wheel so it'll flip straight over and go on your head easy). Put your number belt on your tri bars under your helmet so you can strap that straight on. If you haven't got tri bars then put a towel (a nice bright one will help you see your area quickly) next to your front wheel and sit your helmet and number belt on that in the same manner. If you're using different shoes for the bike and cycle leg then lay them out in an orderly fashion, cycle shoes at the front as you'll be using them first. You'll see plenty of people clipping their cycle shoes into their pedals so they can save a bit of time by putting their shoes on while cycling along. I can assure you the vast majority of those people won't be saving any time doing that unless they've practiced a great deal so I wouldn't worry about doing it (and I didn't for my first two years in the sport). I marshalled the bike mount point at the World Championship Qualifier race and all but half a dozen or so who had their shoes clipped into their pedals messed up their mount. Several crashed, many rode into the bushes at the side of the road, drinks bottles flying all over the place... It's not worth the hassle for your first race.

Lastly, what to wear. This is another common question that gets people in a pickle. Again, try to keep it as simple as you can and wear the same kit all the way through. You can buy triathlon specific shorts that work fine in the pool and dry out very quickly. They have minimal padding that'll serve you well on the bike but not hamper your run. You could then wear a tri top or swim suit for woman and keep that on for the whole race or put on an additional top in T1, but be warned, getting clothes on over your wet body isn't easy. Some people have to put socks on for the run so that'll be a decision you'll make before the day.

During the race
Get to the swim start in good time and do your best to relax and push aside those race day nerves. You've probably been to the loo about 20 times by now so no need to worry any more about that side of things. Usually the race starter marshal will call you to the start and tell you what lane you'll be swimming in. They'll give you a very brief speech about needing to swim so many lengths and not to run on poolside. They'll introduce you to the person who'll be counting your lengths then they'll tell you how many seconds/minutes you have until you start. In a pool bases sprint race it's usually a rolling start so people are being started all the time. The lane counter will tell you to get in the pool and give you a countdown, then it's GO. There's little opportunity to warm up in this situation so you need to be aware that certain things will happen while you swim. Your body will start to enter 'activity' mode and start diverting blood to the muscles being used. You go through a short period where you'll feel like you're running out of energy and won't make it but it'll pass quickly and you'll settle into your swim. Just remember that this will happen and don't go off like an Olympic swimmer doing a 50m sprint! Be patient with the swim, while it's an important part of the race it's also the shortest part so you won't be losing tons of time even if you really take your time.

When you get within two lengths of the end of the swim the lane counter marshal should make it apparent to you that you have two to go. Some have a board they drop into the water just before you turn for your last time and others tap you on the head with a kick board. Either way it's time to start thinking about your pool exit and the trip into T1.

You'll know the route as you've already walked it when you racked your bike. Gently jog the route remaining nice and calm. Get to your spot and take your swim cap off and replace it with your helmet, Clip your race number belt on then put your cycle shoes on. Be careful when you bend over to get your shoes as you've just been swimming horizontally and working your arms a fair bit, now you're upright and working your legs which makes some people feel dizzy. Once your shoes are on, grab your bike and jog it to the bike mount line. They'll be a marshal standing there telling you exactly where you're allowed to mount your bike. Get on your bike and get cycling. Take the first few minutes to settle into your bike ride. You'll need to switch on those big leg muscles and allow your body time to divert it's blood flow to them. Some people have a bottle of energy drink on the bike and I like to take a few sips to get the taste of the swim water out of my mouth but don't down vast quantities of energy drink or gels during the bike section. You don't need to take on extra energy for a sprint race and it'll only cause you problems on the run later on. Towards the end of the bike leg it's time to start thinking about the run, change to a lower gear on the bike so you pedal quicker. That should loosen up your leg muscles and prepare you a bit, stand up and have a bit of a stretch out.

At the entry into T2 they'll be another marshal (or maybe the same one) telling you where to dismount. Get off your bike and jog it back to your racking point. Rack your bike, get your cycle shoes off and your runners on. Take off your helmet (don't forget this very important bit!) and get running. Running will feel very odd at first. Your legs have been busy going round and round in circles and now your asking them to go back and forth. It'll take a little while for that to happen and while it does your level of effort is likely to go quite high even though you'll not be increasing your speed. Keep with it, that feeling quickly passes as you find your running legs and settling into your run.

Towards the end of the run remember to straighten yourself up so you look good for your finish line photo. Put on your event T-shirt, wear your finishers medal if you get one and parade around as if you've just scored the winning goal in the world cup final.

Sort out your transition area, keep it clean and simple

Swim start


Finish line and glory

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