Author: Jason Loebig
My first reflection after crossing the finish line to my first triathlon was unexpected. “That was AWESOME.” I’ve been known to pull the trigger coming through a run race shoot to the finish, which normally doesn’t make me feel very good. Post triathlon, however, I felt awesome, surprisingly less so in the sense of accomplishment but more so in that it was actually FUN.
I am writing this from a beginner’s perspective as a follow up to my first triathlon; I had no formal coaching, did not “train” as I should have, but definitely was well prepared in terms of organization.
I hope this encourages you to give a tri a try, especially if you’ve ever had any inkling of interest – you’ll love it.
Preparation and practice (we’ll get to both parts) are 100% necessary to success.
This beginner’s guide is based on the Chicago Triathlon (the world’s largest triathlon), but will have applications toward other races as well.
The Chicago Tri is such a unique venue for a race, complete with swim in the Monroe Harbor (with your family walking with you along the Lake Path), bike up and down Lake Shore Drive, and run along the Lake Path through the Museum Campus to finish with the cityscape as the backdrop.
My Sprint Triathlon Stats
Swim: 12:19 (1:38 min/100m splits)
Transition 1: 06:35 min
Bike: 50:38 min (18.13 mph)
Transition 2: 2:41 min
Run: 21:25 min (6:55 min/mi)
Total Time: 1:33:34
A couple notes about my race specifically – as you can see, my first transition time was significantly longer than my second. In the Chicago Triathlon, you have to run about 3/8 of a mile after you get out of the water to actually reach the transition area (located in front of the Columbia Yacht Club), as well as shed your wetsuit. My bike time, relative to my swim and run time, was slow due to a lack of training and the use of platform pedals (instead of clipless), which further hindered my ability to push it on the run (see “Bike Care” below for a suggestion).
Listed below are helpful topics along with a ‘Race Checklist’.
Things You Aren’t Expecting
1. There are ~5,000 racers on Sunday for the Sprint and International/Olympic distances. Almost all of these racers are racking a bike in a massive transition area. It’s hard to find your own bike.
2. You will be hyper-focused on the swim, which causes you to almost forget you still have to bike 15 miles and run 3.1 miles afterward – remind yourself of this.
3. You will be in the swim corral to start the race for a solid 15-20 minutes. It is HOT in the sun – don’t zip up your wetsuit (if wearing one) too early.
4. Everyone is extremely helpful, whether you need assistance with your wetsuit, have a medical issue, bike issue, or simply need directions.
5. You won’t find the swim as difficult as you imagined.
6. You will find the “brick” (going from biking to running) more difficult than you imagined. Do not overestimate the concrete-like feeling in your knees hindering your ability to take off, especially if running is your forte.
7. You can’t wear headphones, use a phone, or listen to music. I didn’t piss myself off mentally by training sans music, but it is definitely more difficult on race day if you can’t groove the bike and run to your favorite jams.
8. You will need to attend a “Course Talk” the weekend of the race in order to receive your packet, wristband, race bib, stickers to apply to your helmet, bag, bike, and your race tattoos to apply to your arms. Do this early in the weekend, with a little time to spare, so you can walk through the Expo and chat with the vendors – there are hundreds, and they are all helpful.
9. There is a race app dedicated entirely to the triathlon. Download the "Lifetime Athletic Events" app for any logistical information you might need, including allowing your friends and family to track your race progress in real time.
In a sprint race, your body will barely burn through its glycogen stores if you fuel properly beforehand. I would make a few suggestions:
1. Add lemon and sea/pink salt to your water leading up the race, at least 5 days in advance, to aid in electrolyte retention.
2. Do not race with any nutrition you have not previously tried before, especially gels, goo’s, “quick” meals like oatmeal in a pouch, or liquid nutrition. Your body may adversely react to the sugars, flavors, or caloric differences in the food.
3. Eat lightly leading up the race (24 hours) – try smoothies with added electrolyte boosters, water, easily digestible protein sources (no heavy meats), and nutrition bars (I love Bulletproof Collagen Bars).
4. During the bike portion, consume your liquids near the start. This will ensure you uptake the electrolytes by the end of the bike – you’re hydrating here for the run.
Utilize your local shops for help. In Chicago, there are a few that I particularly like, especially Live Grit. They are a triathlon specific store with the nicest employees in the world. I took my bike (Specialized Tarmac) in to the shop to get a “Milwaukee Avenue” tune up ($40) the week leading up to the race, which was definitely worth it.
Cycling culture is very unique, almost like rock climbing culture, in that everyone is super helpful, very into their sport, community driven, and always chatting up new gear and technology. If you are looking for assistance, just go in and ask. Everything from triathlon wear, performance monitors, bikes and parts, nutrition, and more.
I raced without clipless pedals, which I feel was a mistake. I’ve heard that efficiency can be driven up anywhere from 10-30%. Regardless of this opinion, they are safer in terms of maintaining a consistent stroke rate. I cramped (in my VMO muscles, which are located on the inside of the knees) during the end of the bike and on Mile 2 of the run, causing my bike and run splits to be slower. I believe it was a combination of limited bike training, solely performing the down-stroke portion of pedaling, and low electrolyte levels (even after consuming an absurd amount pre-race).
I received some sage advice from an Ironman-racing friend (@rob_laroc) beforehand – make your training priority: 1) Bike 2) Run 3) Swim.
This is contrary to what a beginner might feel is necessary. Maybe you (unnecessarily) think you are going to drown during the swim, or the run might prove the most difficult as the last activity. Both are viable concerns (if you can’t swim or haven’t ever run…), however, it would be wise to follow this order of operations.
The majority of the race takes part on the bike. Your quads will feel the most fatigued from the bike. You spend the most time with yourself (with no music) on the bike. Even though you can coast during the ride, if you desire a semi-competitive time you’ll want to train the most here.
Another huge area of training is practicing the “brick”, or the transition between biking and running. Ever notice how weird your legs feel after getting out of the saddle from a long ride? Well immediately combine that with 3.1 miles of running. It is the most entertaining portion of the race to watch people get off their bikes and start running into Transition 2. It looks like concrete was poured into their kneecaps. Try a couple different combinations here, like short bikes (high intensity) mixed with long runs, or long bikes (low to medium intensity) mixed with variable length runs.
If you are planning to race with a watch (I raced with a Garmin TactixBravo), it is wise to pay attention to your splits during training. On race day, your adrenaline will be kicking, your family and friends cheering you on will cause you to go faster, and you have the presence of other racers – all things that lead you to push the gas peddle. I struggle with pace, so it was nice to see how fast I was biking and running compared to training.
Best advice – keep it simple, stupid. Bike stuff in front, run stuff in the back. All laid out on a towel or bag. Put your helmet on your bike with your sunglasses open, inside of the helmet.
A couple other pieces of advice:
1. Perform a walk-thru of your race. Walk from the swim exit (a relatively far distance from the entrance to T1) into the transition area and find your bike. Pretend you are gearing up for the bike, and note each piece of clothing/equipment you will need. Walk from your set up to the bike start (completing your ‘Transition 1’). Walk from the bike exit back to your set up area and simulate getting ready for the run. Then finally walk from your set up area to the run start (completing your ‘Transition 2’). This is where you will crush it!
2. During ‘Transition 1’ you will have to run a fair distance from the swim exit into the transition area. You are running on the Lake Path (near the water), which is covered by a thin carpet. Walk this route before the race – there are potholes and cracks in the concrete, which are not beneficial to your ankle health. I found a nice route along the outside of the carpet.
3. Purchase a race belt to attach your bib number to. It will save you time from safety pinning your bib number to your tri kit, thus avoiding stabbing yourself. It is the best $5-10 you’ll spend on your race.
Mentor / Coach
Utilize a mentor or coach for the race. I had no idea of any of this information before I started asking questions, and guessed incorrectly on how much of it would go. If you do not have any regular triathlete-racing friends, or even if you do, you can utilize great programs like the “Live Grit First-Timers’ Program.”
“The First-Timers’ Program is a special athlete development program designed to alleviate traditional intimidation, build athletic confidence and provide a calm racing environment for aspiring triathletes. The program launched in 2014, reaching sell-out capacity and achieving a near-perfect finisher rate.”
It includes clinic series in the store, access to training plans, equipment, and a private swim start (so you don’t get your goggles kicked off your face…).
If you’re seeking to be very competitive right out of the gate, you should definitely seek out a training mentor, team, or guide.
Swim / Run Clinics
During the months leading up to the race there are several swim + run clinics offered, which take place at Ohio Street Beach. You can sign up for different options, which include full length swims, an additional run (to make an “aquathlon”), or ‘swim clinics’ in which personalized instruction is given.
I attended two of these clinics – one to get used to open water swimming (my first time doing so) and the second to practice the half-mile swim plus 5k race.
Utilize the practice with a mass swim start to simulate race day. I chose to start at the front of my wave (determined by age group) for the swim on race day, which ended up being a good decision. I did not have the experience of getting kicked or punched, but I imagine it not to be a comfortable feeling.
During the race, remember not to zip up your wet suit until you need to. You will get extremely hot. It is also worth noting that the way you enter and exit the swim is by bleacher steps that are built down into the lake. When you are exiting the swim, be careful not to smash your shins into the steps - I tried, and failed, to avoid this.
Practice your open water swim in a wetsuit, if you plan to wear one on race day. The swim clinics (see “Swim / Run Clinics”) offer wetsuit rentals ranging from sleeveless to full length suits.
It is extremely beneficial to wear a wetsuit, for several reasons. One, they are very buoyant – imagine the floaties you’d wear in the pool are Ferraris. Two, they keep you insulated. In 2015, the lake temperature on race day was extremely cold. Leading up to the 2016 race, the temperature was in the low 60’s (race day was in the low 70’s, thankfully).
I rented one from Blue Seventy at the first swim clinic I attended (Reaction suit), and ended up purchasing one for race day. Make sure it fits and you’ve practiced in it. I would also apply “Body Glide” to the back of your neck, wrists, and ankles to reduce friction.
Why should you practice your open water swims in the suit you plan to race in?
Unfortunately, one drawback from wearing a wetsuit is it can cause some anxiety due to constriction around the chest and neck. If you’ve never worn a suit before (even if you’ve surfed in one, as I had several times beforehand), I’d suggest getting used to the feeling. Plus, the first dose of cold water down the suit at the swim start is a real shot of life (Tip: open up the neck of the wetsuit before the race starts to let water all the way in the suit – it will help you become more buoyant as well as help you stay warm – it is after all, a “wet” suit).
Deciding what to wear was a challenging decision. I ended up opting for a one-piece tri kit. I purchased a Blue Seventy TX3000, which fits closer to a second-skin swim suit (back-zipper) than it does a standard tri suit, however, it does have a lightweight chamois that did not bother me at all during the run. It is very minimalist, which is how I prefer it.
You wear the tri suit the entire race. It is worn under the wetsuit, which is peeled off during the bike portion, and now becomes your uniform. I really like the TX3000 specifically because it will come in handy when I race without a wetsuit. It performs well as a swim suit, without the need to add layers, which will cut down on time and hassle in transition.
Other options include a more robust tri suit, which can include anything from tri shorts and a tri tank to a one-piece suit complete with pockets and a front zipper. Experiment with a few different ones in the months leading up to see what you like – if push comes to shove and you’re unprepared, there are hundreds of available options at the Transamerica Chicago Triathlon Multisport & Fitness Expo for cheap. Pick something out of a bin for $50 and crush the race.
Here, I am referring to recovery leading up to the race. This is within my area of expertise as a fitness professional (and former injury prone athlete). Due to time and energy constraints, I started training for this triathlon about three weeks beforehand, meaning my endurance wasn’t going to improve much. To deal with a compressed time schedule, I recovered – HARD. The following helped immensely:
1. Soft-tissue work using a foam roller, tennis, and lacrosse ball
2. Cryotherapy – I recommend Chicago Cryospa in Lincoln Park
3. Flotation Therapy – I recommend Float Sixty in River North
4. Chiropractor / Corrective Exercise – I recommend Aligned Modern Health in Streeterville
5. Clinical Massage / Pain Management – I recommend Delos Therapy in River North
o Apply helmet sticker
o Apply bicycle sticker
o Tri tattoos / body marking applied
o Race Timing Tracker
o Tri Kit
o Swim cap
o Body Glide
o Bicycle (don’t forget this)
o Bike Shoes
o Water Bottle
o Nutrition (gels)
o Running Shoes
o Race Belt / Bib Number
o Running Hat
o (2) Small hand towels (drying off post-swim)
o Sandals (to walk to the swim start)
o Light jacket (to walk to the swim start)
Are you ready to crush your first triathlon?