Pre-race Tips for Newbies

Pre-race Tips for Newbies

By Susan DuPont

I went into my first triathlon knowing I was required to swim, bike, run.  That pretty much sums up the extent of what I knew about racing.  I had no idea how a race worked, what transition areas really were, or if I should drink on the bike and run.  I learned in the worst way possible:  on race day.  While training for my first triathlon with Team in Training, I decided,  quite spontaneously three-quarters of the way through my training, that I was ready to do a triathlon.  I signed up for a race and never bothered to question exactly what I was supposed to besides swim, bike, run.  Needless to say, my first triathlon was a disaster, but my next race was a huge success largely in part because I followed these five tips. 

1.  Getting there 

Triathlons are not like running races where you casually show up ten minutes before the gun, lace up your sneakers and stretch, and then you’re off. Some triathlons require athletes to check in the day before a race, and some races, such as Ironman races, require you to arrive at the race site at least two days before.   For most races, athletes should plan to arrive at the race site at least 1½ hours early, if not earlier.  This time will be well spent, so take full advantage of it.  Before the race begins, you will need to check in to receive your bib number, get body marked, pick up your timing chip, and set up your transition area.  You may also find it beneficial to take your bike out for a quick spin to make sure it is in working order or do an easy warm up run.  Needless to say, you would rather have too much time than not enough.  Getting to a race late results in frazzled nerves and forgotten equipment or botched routines.  Having an extra five minutes at a race on the other hand, may result in you having the extra few moments to find your game face and take a few deep breaths.  Finally keep in mind that transition areas usually close 15 minutes before the race begins, so make sure that you have everything you need ready before closing, particularly your goggles and swim cap. 

2.  Your transition area 

Another benefit to arriving at a race early, is being able to select your transition area before anyone else does.  With the exception of some larger races where racking is numerically assigned, most races allow athletes to choose which spot to rack their bikes within a designated area.  Ideally most athletes prefer racking their bikes on the end of a rack.  This allows for easy access and also a little bit more room for your transition items.  However, knowing how to set up your transition area before you race will allow you to know exactly what items you need to have and where these items should be.  The great thing about this tip is you can easily practice it at home.  Many athletes use a small towel as their “transition mat, ” but actual transition mats can be found online and in triathlon stores.  When I first began racing, I used a bathmat that worked perfectly and even gave me a small spot to stand.  Your bike shoes and helmet are usually placed at the front end of your transition spot since they are the items you will be needing immediately after the swim.  But don’t forget about your sunglasses, gels, and whether or not you want to wear your race belt on the bike.  These things will also need to be placed within easy reach.  Your running shoes and possibly a hat or visor should be placed towards the back of your transition area since there will be the very last things you need.  If you wear socks, you may want to put them in each of your shoes beforehand, so you are not fooling with them unnecessarily in transition.  If you have a Garmin that you want to wear for the run, make sure it is easy to grab and already turned ON before you start the run.  I like to start mine when I am transitioning to the bike; that way, it is ready loaded when I return for the start of the run.  While all of this may sound easy and simple, having an entire row of athletes doing the same thing makes for a tight fit and close quarters.  You will want to make sure that you do not invade another athlete’s transition spot, nor should you ever move another athlete’s bike or belongings.  If you feel someone is in error, ask that person if he can move his things or if need be, grab an official to resolve the issue. 

3.  Preview a race 

I admit it.  I did my first triathlon having never seen one in person.  I figured that the race should be fairly simple:  swim, bike, and run.   Boy, was I wrong.  A triathlon is organized chaos, and if you have no idea where you should go, where you should be, or what you should be doing, then disaster could occur.  Watching a triathlon is also great fun and highly informative to prospective racers.  You will get to see firsthand how transition areas work as well as see how each segment of the race is handled.  You will be able to observe how swim starts are organized as well as see an actual swim begin.  Just like coaches and teams often watch other teams play on film, watching other athletes race can be extremely valuable in providing you with tips and secrets of the trade.  Plus, triathlons are simply exciting to watch!

4.  Know your nutrition

Practice your nutrition beforehand.  There is nothing more disappointing than to have your race foiled by nutrition issues.  No one wants to suffer through the pain of a bloated stomach, especially in a race, so experiment with your nutrition prior to race day.  Thinking of trying a new sports drink?  Well, don’t do it the weekend of your race.  Don’t want to carry your own fuel?  Then make sure you can digest what sports drink sponsors your race.  Nutrition should always be a priority when it comes to racing, yet so many athletes have a bad race because of it.  Always play it conservative and do not make any drastic nutrition changes right before a race.  If you have never eaten Thai food the night before a training session, then it’s probably not wise to eat it the night before your big day.  If you aren’t sure if you will need four or five gels, then take five to be safe.  Stick with what you know works for your nutrition.  Experiment when it’s the off season or after your race.

5.  Know the rules. 

Ultimately, this rule is one that both novice and veteran athletes should adhere to before every race.  It is the athlete’s responsibility to know the course, so make sure you examine the maps provided in your athlete guide or drive the course beforehand.  Knowing the course increases both your chances of safety and of improving your time.  By knowing the course, you will be able to know beforehand where the big hills and sharp turns are, a huge advantage over racing a course in the blind.  It is also the athlete’s responsibility to know and follow the rules.  Rules at races vary as well, so don’t think because you read over the rules at one race means you don’t have to read over the ones at another.  Failure to follow rules either knowingly or unknowingly can result in dangerous race conditions as well as create ethical dilemmas about conduct.  Take the time to look over your race packet and read the athlete’s guide.  Some races even post their athlete’s guides weeks in advance, so you have plenty to time to look it over prior to race day. 

Of course, first time race tips number in the dozens, so this list obviously does not cover them all, nor is any one tip necessarily any better than the rest.  Take what tips you find useful in helping you reach your goal and put them to use.  The result is bound to be a strong, solid race. 


Susan DuPont

English teacher by day, triathlete by weekend! Currently entering my ninth year of triathlons, I am a five time Ironman finisher living in Greenville, South Carolina. My blog includes race reports, training tips, book reviews, training updates, and various other pieces of advice that I have gleaned from my years of competing in triathlon. You can find out more about me as well as read more of my posts at

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