If the swim is going to be a wave start, confirm your wave position and get in line. Try to breathe deeply and focus just on the swim. Do not get overwhelmed with the thought of the long day in front of you. If the shore is rocky or muddy, wear an old pair of sandals and kick them off right before you start swimming. One time I looked around and wondered why the rocky shore had wet spots everywhere when the athletes were all still dry. I soon realized that everyone around me was peeing in their wetsuits and letting it drip to the ground. Since then, I’ve always used sandals before a race.
Many triathletes are unprepared for the sheer chaos of hundreds of swimmers splashing, swimming, and grabbing each other during the first few minutes of a race. It can be overwhelming and scary. If you’re in the middle of a large group of people, try to swim out to the side where it’s less crowded. You may swim a bit more distance overall but it’s worth it to not be pummeled every few seconds by a hand or foot. Nevertheless, you will be bumped eventually. As stated before, drafting is legal during the swim. It is claimed that correctly drafting another swimmer can reduce energy by up to 38%. However, this presupposes that you’re able to follow another swimmer who is swimming at your exact speed and stay two feet behind them for the entire race. My advice would be that if you find yourself in a position behind another swimmer travelling at your speed, it wouldn’t hurt to follow them for a bit and take advantage of their wake. However, I’ve never thought it worthwhile to attempt to seek out this situation.
Do not wear yourself out on the swim! You’ve got a long day ahead, and the fluid dynamics of moving through water mean that each increase in speed is accompanied by a huge increase (squared, to be exact) in resistance. Speeding up by just 22% will increase the water resistance by 50%, and it’s not worth exhausting yourself on the swim just to exit the water one or two minutes earlier. Take it smooth and steady. Pacing is harder on the swim section than the bike and run because it’s tougher to glance at your watch to see your speed, so you will have to rely on perceived exertion level to pace yourself.
If you find yourself drastically out of breath at any point in the race, staying in a freestyle stroke position can make it difficult to regain your composure. Instead, pull up into a breaststroke motion for a few minutes. This will keep your head out of the water for the entire duration of the stroke and allow you to catch your breath. Alternatively, rolling onto your back to do a backstroke can accomplish the same thing. It is slightly faster than a breaststroke, but staying on a straight line can be more difficult.
When you are about a hundred yards away from completing the swim, stop kicking your legs just from the hip and begin to kick with your knees to prepare the muscles for the transition run and bike ride. Swim as far up to the exit as you can, even if your hands start brushing the ground. Swimming in shallow water is still more efficient than trying to stand up and run in waist-high water.
To execute a successful first transition, you will exit the water at the designated swim exit, then run to the T1 entry. Note that this entry lane may be just a few feet from the swim exit, or it could potentially be up to a few hundred yards away (thankfully, this is rare). When you come out of the water, if your goggles are outside of your swim cap, you can raise them up and place the eyecaps up over your forehead. If the goggles are under your swim cap, you may have to rip them both off and hold them in one hand. If you have a triathlon watch, at this point you will hit the lap button to log the end of your swim. If the race is wetsuit legal, there will potentially be wetsuit strippers standing at the water exit. These are race volunteers who will help you pull off your wetsuit, and I highly recommend you use one if available. If you see one, undo the velcro strap at the back of your wetsuit and open the zipper as much as you can are you are running over to them. They will usually pull down from the collar and help you get your arms out of the suit. Then, quickly sit on the ground and throw your feet in the air. They will grab the suit and peel it off you, then hand it to you to leave in T1.
Upon entering T1, find your bike and run over to it. If the route out of the water was muddy or dirty, take the water bottle that you brought for this purpose and wash off your feet, then towel them off before putting on your socks and bike shoes. If you’re wearing a jacket or shirt for the bike ride, put it on now and then put on your helmet, sunglasses, and gloves. Make sure the arms of your sunglasses under your helmet straps so they don’t fly off when you take off your helmet in T2.
After dressing, stuff anything left over (towel, wetsuit, goggles, swim cap, etc.) into the T1 bag the race gave you. You will be able to pick it up at a designated location after the race. At this point, unhook your bike from the rack and run it over to the bike mount line. It is illegal and unsafe to mount your bicycle before crossing this line, so you must push your bike to this line before getting on. As mentioned before, you cannot make forward progress with your bike without a helmet on and buckled, even if you’re pushing your bike, so you must have put your helmet on back at your T1 spot. Once you run to the bike mount line, hop on your bike and let ‘er rip.
As mentioned earlier, your bike will be in a low gear starting out so that you don’t have to hammer away madly to get going. You will likely be a little short of breath after the swim and hectic transition, so take some time to ease into the bike ride and catch your breath.
There could be one or more aid stations set up on the bike course, and navigating them correctly can take some planning. There will be a sign telling you that you are about to come up onto one, so if you wish to refuel, go ahead and begin to slow and shift your bike into a lower gear. If you’re not going to stop, be on the lookout for bikes in front of you slowing, and be prepared to pass them. At the beginning of the station, volunteers will be handing out disposable water bottles shaped to fit into your bike cage. Slow your bike down to no faster than running speed, and grab one with your right hand. You do not need to stop, but it’s extremely difficult to grab a water bottle out of a stationary person’s hand if you are going too fast. If you have an empty disposable bottle in your bike cage, you can throw it on the ground now to make space for the full one. Otherwise, you may take a few quick swigs from the new water bottle and throw it down, or you can pull over and pour the water into the non-disposable water bottle you carry on your bike. Aid stations will commonly have portable toilets, so now is the time to use the bathroom if you need to. Be advised that as the race goes on, these may be in varying levels of sanitary condition. I’ve heard that some athletes carry a small amount of toilet paper with them on their bike in case the race runs out; this is a personal choice. When leaving the aid station area, first check back and to your left to make sure you don’t run into any cyclists who didn’t stop. Be sure that you don’t drop any trash on the ground after you pass the line designating the end of the trash zone.
Towards the end of the bike ride, you will want to shift your position a bit to prepare your legs for the run. Stand up in your bike for 5-10 seconds of upright pedaling at a time; do this a few times. Your chest muscles and hip flexors have been artificially constricted after many miles of being hunched over on the bike, and you need to open them back up in order to have a strong, upright run. Then, a few hundred yards from the end of the ride, shift into a lower gear and spin your legs faster. This will help engage your muscles fully and prepare for the run off the bike.
To execute a successful second transition, watch for the bike dismount line as you approach the T2 area on your bike at the end of the cycling leg. You must dismount before you reach this line. Bear in mind that it’s very common to see wrecks near the bike dismount line as athletes come in too quickly and then realize they need to stop and get off before reaching the line. Be extra careful and pay attention to the cyclists around you. After getting off your bike, keep your helmet on! Do not even unbuckle it. Hit the lap button on your watch to log the end of the bike section and beginning of T2. Sometimes there will be volunteers at the T2 entry zone who will take your bike from you, otherwise, run with your bike through the T2 entry area and locate your T2 spot. Once you have hung up your bike, you can now remove your helmet and other bike gear. Once you remove your bike shoes you can put on your running shoes and race belt (if not required for the bike portion). If it’s very sunny out, you may want to throw on a lightweight hat or visor, or quickly apply sunscreen. Stuff everything left over into the T2 bag that your race gave you; you will be able to retrieve this bag at the end of the race. Locate the T2 exit area and run through it. Hit the lap button on your watch one last time to log the end of T2 and beginning of the run portion.
You know how when you get off the Interstate, the two lane roads feel much too slow? The same principle will apply at the beginning of your run. Your body is used to moving forward at 15-20 mph on your bicycle and will complain to you that you’re not going fast enough. Resist the urge to speed up until you settle into your run. By far the worst thing you can do on the run is to start out too fast and bonk halfway through. I’ve done it. It’s miserable.
Run aid stations work much the same way as bike aid stations, but are easier to navigate on two feet than on two wheels. By this point you have burned up most of the stored carbohydrates in your muscles to use as fuel, so, in addition to water, they will commonly have high-calorie items such as sports drink, flat Coke (removing the bubbles makes it easier to swallow), gels, Oreos and other cookies, or fruit. If you are starting to struggle a bit, the caffeine and sugar in flat Coke will provide an instant jolt of energy. However, if you start drinking this, you must continue to drink it at every aid station until the end of the race. Do not take it in at the beginning and then stop; the resulting crash could be worse than any benefit gained.
Towards the end of the run, you will get tired, and the race will become more of a mental than a physical challenge. You may look down and find yourself doing the “Ironman shuffle”, that slow dragging of the feet with head hanging down. If you get to the point where you’re running but struggling to hold a 12:00 per mile pace, that is the time to take a short walk break and regroup yourself. If you move your arms, your legs will follow. You can make it. Keep moving forward, no matter what it takes.
If you’re truly racing, there is no guidance I can give you regarding the end of the race. Bust your ass and get across that line. If, however, you are a “complete, not compete” athlete who is focused on simply having a fun race and finishing strong, take some time at the end to appreciate it. You have just completed something that very few people will do. Soak it in, find your friends or family watching you, and wave for their cameras. On a longer distance triathlon, it’s very probable that you will be coming in to the finish line by yourself. If you aren’t, it’s common courtesy to slow down or speed up a little to separate yourself from the others so each person has their own moment and individual photo opportunity crossing the finish line. Everyone there has trained their butt off and deserves a few seconds to themselves in the spotlight at the finish line.