Triathlon Hints and Tips

There can't be many sports where stringing together 3 activities that we have taken part in since early childhood can raise so many questions. Some regularly raised questions and the answers given are are summarised here. Dispel the doubts and get racing.

What are good books on how to train for new triathletes?

Triathletes of all experience and abilities have a copy of "The Triathletes Training Bible" by Joe Friel somewhere in their book case. Somewhere in this book there are answers to all the questions on this page and more.

Swimmer icon Swim

How do I get my swimming cap on?

Many races give you a new cap to colour code the swim waves. Minimise the discomfort by stretching the cap in advance and wetting your hair to help get it on. Once you start you won't even notice!

Are mask style goggles better than normal swimming goggles?

The mask goggles have two advantages: less restricted vision and greater comfort. The former is of value particularly in a sea swim and the latter especially useful on an ironman distance. In any race you will see a majority wearing goggles. For either, you might like to consider clear or yellow lenses as stronger tints make it harder to see through murky water.

Where can I find some good pools?

A good pool in London is often one which does not have the rest of the population breast stroking in the fast lane! Crystal Palace is London's only Olympic sized pool but Tooting Bec Lido is 93m and Hampstead Heath Lido is 60m wide. These are both outdoor so on a cold day you can have the whole pool to yourself! Both allow wetsuits and Tooting offers year round swimming. Putney Leisure Centre and Queen Mother Pool at Victoria are 33m but can get busy. Of the smaller pools, Serpentine members have found both St Georges Pool (Shadwell) and Ironmonger Row (Old Street) quiet enough to do some good training.

Where can I get swimming lessons?

See our training section for details of group and private lessons. The back pages of 220 magazine offer many swimming training camps led by experts.

Should I wear my watch over or under my wetsuit?

You need to wear it under your wetsuit or you won't be able to take your wetsuit off! It is easy to peel a wetsuit off over a watch though Make sure you remember to start your watch or press your split button out of the water as many water proof watches cease to be waterproof if you press the buttons underwater!

How do I get my wetsuit on and off quickly?

Getting the suit on can be assisted by putting a small plastic bag over your hands and feet to help them slide through. Baby oil on your arms and legs helps the suit slide on and off without destroying the rubber of your suit. Once on don't forget to smear baby oil or KY jelly around the neck to prevent chaffing.

To get it off while racing – on leaving the water, locate the zip cord (if it is not attached to the back of your suit it may have flipped round to the front), while running toward transition, pull back the vecro flap with one hand while pulling down the zip. Make sure it goes fully down and lubricating it in advance can help with this. Once the zip is down pull off one shoulder and then the other and pull the suit down to the waist. When you arrive at your transition spot, pull the suit down to your knees and stamp on the suit to help get it to ankle level. At this point you can use your hands to ease the suit over your feet.

Where can I buy specialist swimming training equipment? (pull buoys and paddles etc)

The Speedo shop in Neal Street offers a range of training aids as will specialist tri shops like Tri and Run at Hainault. Many tri shops also do mail order – check the classified section of 220 magazine for details. Don't forget that many tri shops offer a discount to Serpentine members.

Where can I do wetsuit swim practice?

A number of the Lidos (outdoor pools) allow wetsuit swimming – for details see our information on open water swimming.

Tooting Bec and Hampstead Heath are 93m and 60m long respectively and are about the best swimming you can do in the city. Hampstead Heath Ponds are a little reluctant to allow swimming training to disrupt recreational swimmers but the life guards are happy for you to train when it is quiet.

What suntan cream can I use that won't perish my wetsuit?

'Ironman' sun block comes in 44 Factor and is waterproof, sweat proof & lasts 8 hours. Tri-UK sell it.

Should I wear my race number in the water?

Race numbers are water proof so there is no reason why you shouldn't pin them to your clothing under your wetsuit. In a pool swim you won't want the additional drag though and would be better to pull on a vest or racebelt after the swim. Your choice also depends on whether you intend to put on additional clothes in T1 which might obscure your number.

Can I wear contact lenses?

Yes, but you need to make sure your goggles fit well and wear cycling glasses to prevent them drying out on the bike. A mistake that people make is assuming that goggles last forever, in reality they will have a lifetime of a year before the seals become less flexible, comfortable and leak proof. If your goggles leak or are knocked off during the swim you should swim out to the side before adjusting or you may find you are hit from behind.

Bike icon Bike

How and why do I use a race belt?

A race belt is a piece of elastic with attachments for your race number and it gives you the advantage of being able to position your number where you want it. Aerodynamically on your back during the bike and below trisuit zips for ventilation on the run. Also useful if you put on additional clothing after a pool swim or on a cold day; a race belt makes it easy to make sure your number is still on top of your new layers or if the clothing you use (bra tops for example) is not ideal for pinning a number to. The way it is used is often at odds with organisers instructions about pinning numbers at all corners front and back but race belts are allowed at most races. You use it by attaching the number to the belt (do not cut or fold, I recommend making your number more visible and rigid by pinning the numbers back to back and then attaching them. During the race the number should be to the back during the bike and to the front when leaving T2 and on the run. Be careful here as you can be penalised for not displaying your number also be ready to shout your number to officials.

Should I wear sun glasses on the bike or is that time-wasting?

No reason why putting on glasses should cost you anything more than one or two seconds. Place them opened and ready to put on beside or inside your helmet. Worth doing to avoid insects getting in your eyes, contact lenses drying out. If you are not squinting, you can keep your face and therefore your whole body more relaxed.

Where can I buy a good bike for triathlon?

If you are looking for a tri-specific bike then quality bike shops like Tri and Run, (Hainault), Sigma Sport (Kingston) and Condor Cycles (Grays Inn Road) are your main choices. All of these will offer good advice plus discount for Serpentine members, though not necessarily on new bikes – check out our section on discounts for members. All will help you get a good fit and have a range of tri-specific models to choose from. You can find more limited ranges of tri-specific bikes at both Bike Park (Covent Garden) and Evans (throughout London).

A tri-specific bike will be designed for racing and will offer aerodynamic features and push you into a aerodynamic position over the tribars. Do you need a tri bike? No! Any road bike can be used for triathlon and you will see a lot more of these racked in transition than tri or time trial specific bikes. This opens up your choice markedly. All the above mentioned shops can give you good advice although the success of Evans in particular means that you should be careful that your assistant knows their stuff when it comes to road bikes. For detailed information about how to choose a bike, see our Bike Buying Guide.

Where can I buy a second hand bike?

Cycling Weekly magazine is the best source of quality second hand bikes. In addition to the general condition The Triathlete’s UK website also has a large classified section for all triathlon equipment. When buying second hand bikes you are not just interested in how chipped the paint might be but also what replacement parts might be imminent e.g. if the chain is worn you may find yourself with a £60-£80 bill to replace the chainset (rear/front cogs and chain). When you buy new you can also haggle to replace stems and saddles to ensure a good fit; having to replace these on a second hand bike may add to the hidden cost which you need to factor into your budget. For detailed information about how to choose a bike, see our Bike Buying Guide.

Do I fix punctures myself?

Yes, you are not allowed outside assistance. Some people give up if they puncture but you can replace an inner tube within a couple of minutes with practice and that's not too much to stop me feeling competitive. Relish the rest and tell yourself how strong you will be when you set off again. I carry one spare tube, tyre levers and a compressed gas pump taped to my seat post. I prepare both tubes by removing caps and rings to save fumbling in the heat of the moment. If using a gas pump, one canister is exactly what you need to inflate the tyre to full pressure so don't hold back (check the canister though as some are bigger than others). Remember to check the tyre for glass/thorns before replacing it. Always, always check your tyre for embedded glass before starting your race and have a penknife on hand to remove it.

How do I buy a bike that fits me?

Many of the better bike shops offer a fitting service, the charge for which is refunded after buying a bike from them. You should also ask advice from the sales assistant. If however the only get you to stand over the top tube and declare the bike "fitted" if there are a couple of inches to spare then this assistant doesn't have the knowledege to help you. You are also interested in how far forward you have to reach to hold the handlebars – too far and your kneck and shoulders will suffer, too little and you will find yourself hunched and find it difficult to get into an aero position without your back hurting.

As a (very rough) rule of thumb, with your finger tips on the flat part of the bar, your elbow should touch the end of your saddle. If you are disproportionally sized you are going to have more trouble finding the ideal bike, but it is worth looking around and taking some advice. Some alterations can be made by moving the saddle forward and swapping the stem but try to get these changes included in the cost of the bike. If buying second hand these changes may very quickly make the purchase less of a bargain. If you are very short, the shape and size of the frame is limited by the size of the wheels so if you are struggling to find a bikethat fits then consider getting one with 650 rather than 700c sized wheels which will allow a smaller frame but this option will limit your choice and push up the price.

How do I set up my bike for optimum racing position?

A huge topic with a range of answers as individual as you are. For starters, can you bend your body into the 'ideal' and hold it there for 40km? The one universal piece of advice is don't try anything new on race day. A tri-specific bike setup will position you well over the bottom bracket in order to push you into an aerodynamic position on your aerobars and to put your body in a position where the use of your legs resembles that of the run; pushing vertically downward from the hip. The maximum power you can transfer to your pedals is supposed to be greater because it is similar to standing out of the saddle This is obviously very extreme if you never train in this position. Both from the point of view of comfort and allowing you smooth pedalling.

There is a further school of thought that dictates that the more reclined position used by road racers offers a more efficient transfer of power and you will find the elite divided on how extreme the position they adopt is. Generally though, you are looking to hold a flat back position for 40km without hunching over the bars and without getting back ache. Holding this position needs both on and off the bike training. To avoid back ache, make sure the pelvis is tilted forward and angling the saddle very slightly downward may help you do this. An aero position may well bring you forward on the bike so you may also want to slide the saddle slightly forward on it's rails and this movement may also require you to raise the saddle height so that the leg at it most fully extended still has a slight bend. Your reach can be controlled by both the extension of your tri bars and by the length of your stem. Your elbows on the tribar should be just in front of your shoulders in the vertical plane.

Runner icon Run

How hard should you give of your max on the first two events? How much energy should be saved for the run?

Because different muscle groups are used for the three events, you can afford to race each part harder than if the whole race was any single discipline, however an accurate answer to this question depends on how well trained you are and how you define "of your max". For example, the elite are only running very slightly slower than a straight 10km race but are you well enough trained on the bike to have it cause minimal fatigue for the run?

The majority of your standard distance race will be hovering around your lactate threshold so knock a couple of beats off the average heart rate you have when racing a 10km and that will be about right but only testing can tell you what the corresponding heart rate for this is for each different discipline. Is buying an expensive heart rate monitor and paying for testing the only way to tell? No, experience tells me that I can afford to go flat out on the bike as long as it's not too hilly and I ease up slightly towards the end to bring my heart rate down before starting the run. I know that the run feels awkward at the start but I also know that despite this I am still running faster than it feels and as long as I can control my breathing, I am not going too fast.

This is what tri racing is all about – by all means get scientific about it but there is no substitute for experience and mental preparation. If you are interested in lactate and max power testing Brian Welsh can advise you.

How much should I drink and when should I eat during the race?

This is such a personal thing that any advice can only be generalised but above all, find out what works in advance, make your plan and stick to it. Once you are racing it is easy to forget to drink and eat but in a couple of hours of racing possibly having sweated in a wet suit, you definitely need to drink. On the bike you have plenty of time to drink and eat, make sure you use it.

My standard distance plan involves drinking in the half hour before the start. Once on the bike I eat a gel and start drinking while I spin to get my legs into cycling shape. About 20 minutes before the end of the bike I eat another gel and by the end of the bike I will have put away 750ml to 1litre of isotonic energy drink. Gels are easier to digest and sit less heavily in the stomach than bars but they do take a bit of getting used to and you must drink after eating them. Drinks points should be provided in transition and on the run but find out where they are before starting. See also the article on Long Distance Food by Michael Hanreck and The Science of Ironman Nutrition by Dr Jeff Shilt.

Should I wear socks on the run?

Putting on socks definitely costs you time, but will you get blisters without them? Putting talcum powder in your shoes can help as can a smear of Vaseline on the soles of your feet, top of your toes and this will be quicker than putting on socks. If you change shoes between bike and run it is better to put your socks on after the bike when your feet will have dried making socks easier to put on. Don't wait for race day to find out what works.

How do I avoid chaffing when cycling and running in wet kit?

You can't use Vaseline because petroleum based lubricants will rot your wetsuit or the rubber grips on the legs of your cycling shorts. KY jelly or baby oil are better alternatives. A blob of lubricant under the saddle of your bike makes a good emergency supply. On nipples you can use micropore tape (from chemists) which will not come off in the water. Don't forget that you can get chaffing around the neck of your wet suit. People variously swear by baby oil, KY jelly or cocoa butter.