Triathlon is unlike any other form of racing on earth. While many sports require physical fitness, mental strength, and a competitive drive, triathlon demands all of those things—and in three different disciplines! Whether you’re looking to jump into your first triathlon race or you’ve been competing for years, we can all appreciate some advice and a few tips and tricks to better our efforts. And, because you’ll most likely be spending the majority of your race time on the bike rather than swimming or running, we’ve found that most triathletes, particularly those just starting out, have the most questions when it comes to optimizing their bike split. So here are five tips to help you get the most out of the pedaling portion of your first triathlon.
This should be obvious—if you’re competing in a triathlon, you’ll need a bike. But before you settle on a two-wheeled machine, the first thing you should do is check the rulebook of your chosen event. Some racing leagues and events have restrictions on the types of bikes that they allow, so it’s best to confirm what your available options are and whether or not you’ll encounter any restrictions. Once you’re aware of your event's parameters, it’s time to pick your bike. And if it’s your first triathlon, don’t sweat it too much—any old bike will do. Grab that dusty bike from your garage or borrow one from a friend, it’s totally cool. Just make sure to take it to your local bike shop to ensure that it’s safe to ride, is in great working order, and is suited for your body size and riding position. Failure to follow those steps can result in not only a slow ride, but potential injury (more on bike fit later on). But for most folks, a new bike is a fantastic treat to not only celebrate your newfound immersion into the world of triathlon, but also an incredible means of motivation. After all, once you’ve got a new bike, you’ll want to ride it as often as possible. Need help picking out a new bike? We can help.
As we mentioned in the previous section, getting a proper bike fit is crucial to not only performance, but preventing injury from incorrect pedaling dynamics and unnecessary strain on your leg muscles and joints. In fact, we’ll go so far as to say that a proper bike fit is the single most important thing you can do for your triathlon exploits. Seek out a reputable and experienced bike fitter in your area. If you need help finding one, a quick internet search should help kick things off. We also recommend contacting your local bike shop, many of whom have experienced bike fitters on staff. Also, seek out a local triathlon club—not only should they be able to help out with recommendations for local fitters, they can also open some doors to local training rides, runs, social gatherings, and all things triathlon-related.
You’ve got your bike, and you’ve made sure it’s properly fitted to your body. Now, you need to know how to properly train for your first triathlon. And that means you’ll need to learn the course. This is vital for all three portions of a triathlon, but especially true for the bike leg. Visit your chosen event’s website or contact the event organizer. Either method should be able to yield the course distance, maps of the area, road conditions, and possibly even turn-by-turn details. Knowing the distance and the technicality (i.e. the number and complexity of turns, as well as the entry and exit details of the transition area) of the bike course are crucial. For example, let’s say you’re racing a classic sprint distance triathlon. Your bike course will be right around 13 miles (20 kilometers) or thereabouts. Let’s also say that your course is fairly flat with no major climbs, but the roads in and out of the transition area are rather narrow with a number of turns nearby. With this information, you’ll be able to tailor your workouts for a 13-mile/20-kilometer effort (all while keeping in mind that you’ll want to be fresh for the run portion afterwards). You'll also be able to prioritize riding on relatively flat roads with little to no climbing, and know that you'll need to practice your bike-handling skills on some tight, twisty roads that mimic the layout of the transition area. Knowledge is power, and having it in hand will help you with your training.
No matter what kind of bike you're riding, be sure to spend plenty of time practicing your bike-handling skills. This means familiarizing yourself with different hand positions and riding both in a seated position and standing out of the saddle.
Your bike is ready and you know the course, so now it’s time to get down to business. If you’re new to triathlon and haven’t had much experience cycling, then chances are that the bike leg will be much more intimidating than the swim or the run portions. After all, you’ll be traveling at high speeds along the road and you’ll need to stay alert to avoid any pitfalls. Spend plenty of time riding your bike with the specific goal of getting comfortable with its steering characteristics. Too often in triathlon, athletes will focus all of their time and energy into improving their pedaling power without devoting time to bike-handling skills. Improved fitness is always attainable, but if you’re just starting out, then bike handling skills will make a bigger difference to your long-term enjoyment in the sport. The ability to safely navigate a racecourse, as well as smoothly enter and exit a transition area, is key to having a fast and fun bike split. So we whole-heartedly recommend spending time riding on technical roads that have lots of turns to gradually improve your skills. Also, find a safe place away from public roads and traffic to practice your mounts and dismounts, mimicking your actions in and out of the transition area. Your local triathlon club will be a great resource for these types of exercises. When it comes to fitness, they should also be able to help you get in touch with a reputable coach, which can be a major boon to elevating your performance in all areas of triathlon. It’s a costly expense to hire a coach, but one by which many triathletes swear for maximizing their fitness gains. If you don’t wish to invest in a coach right away, no worries. As we said, your local triathlon club, bike shop, and countless online resources should help you form a basic training plan for improving your fitness.
After a successful bike split, all that's left is to go for a run.
It’s race day for your first triathlon, so you no doubt have a few butterflies in your stomach. Don’t worry, that’s the thrill of competition you’re feeling! Hopefully you’ve made sure that your bike is in safe and proper working order, and you’ve spent some time developing your bike-handling skills. As you approach the start line for the swim leg, keep a positive attitude and prepare to have some fun. That’s why we compete and push ourselves in sport—at the end of the day, it should be about fun, above all else. When your race starts, jump into the water and swim your heart out. Once you exit the water, head into the transition area and take some time to make sure you’re ready for your bike ride. Pro triathletes sprint through transition like lightning bolts, and while it’s certainly impressive and aspirational, you should take it easy on your first go-around or two. Take off your wetsuit (if you're wearing one), towel off, grab a drink of water or a bite of nutrition, make sure your shorts and jersey are properly secured and comfortable, and, most importantly, strap on your helmet. Take a deep breath, walk your bike out of the transition area as briskly as your comfort zone allows, and get ready to ride. When you’re out on course, have confidence knowing that you’ve put in the time and energy towards training and preparing for this awesome day. Once your bike split wraps up, ease into the transition area again, safely come to a complete stop, and carefully dismount your bike and walk it back into your parking zone. Congratulations, you did it! Now you just need to strap on your running shoes and head out for the final leg. And if this was your first triathlon, odds are that you’re now hooked, and you’ll be back for plenty more.
While you may never be as fast as multi-time World Champion Daniela Ryf, with the right preparation, you can certainly have as much fun as her.
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