10 Triathlon Mistakes to Avoid

You can learn a lot from mistakes – but they don’t have to be your own! Here’s how you can sidestep common pitfalls of first-time triathletes.

Most experienced triathletes will tell you they’ve learned valuable lessons from the mistakes they’ve made while competing. And indeed, the challenges of triathlon can sometimes act as more effective teachers than even the best of coaches. But there’s no reason you have to make all the mistakes yourself. Here are some of the most common first-time foibles you’ll want to avoid.

1. Trying Something New on Race Day
This mistake is the most common error and the No. 1 cause of disastrous races. As a rule, train the way you’d like to race, and race the way you’ve trained. This means getting familiar with race pace (beginners notoriously go out too fast), your equipment (i.e., if you’re borrowing a bike, ride it beforehand), clothing (don’t save that new singlet for race day), and nutrition. Especially nutrition. In addition to providing your own fuel during the race, find out what will be served at aid stations and try it while training. If you need a handout on race day, you’ll know in advance if your gut can handle the sports drink.

2. Not Knowing the Rules
Do you know you must ride at least three bike lengths behind the competitor ahead of you on the cycling portion of the triathlon? Any closer and a race marshal can tag you for drafting. Do you know you can be penalized if well-intentioned spectators run alongside you or hand you a water bottle? Or that it’s against the rules to wear your iPod while racing?

Ignorance isn’t a compelling defense, so learn the rules before you race. Most USA Triathlon–sanctioned events provide some sort of primer before the race — either in a meeting or as part of the race packet.

The full rulebook (available at www.usatriathlon.org) can be an arduous read, admits Charlie Crawford, USA Triathlon’s commissioner of officials, but he notes that the organization does offer a one-page summary that clearly outlines the dos and don’ts. (To read this “Cliffs Notes” version of the rules, see the Web Extra! at the top right of this page.)

3. Arriving at the Race Site Short on Time
There’s plenty to do once you arrive at the race site, but you also may have to contend with traffic congestion and parking limitations. To avoid getting flustered on what’s likely to be a high-intensity morning, plan to arrive at least one hour before the transition area closes (this is usually earlier than the start time; check your race packet for details). This will give you enough time to set up your gear and get your body marked with your race number. And don’t forget to use the restroom. If you’re left with extra time, use it to take a few deep breaths and visualize your ideal race.

4. Not Getting Your Bearings
You’ll need some time to get familiar with the race site — especially the transition areas. In most races, you’ll be assigned your own space to make both transitions. Know which direction you’ll arrive from the swim, which way you’ll head out and return on the bike, and where you’ll leave on the run. Take time to walk these entrances and exits, and locate your transition area. Your bike rack might be five rows in from where you enter the transition after the swim, but 20 bike rows away from the bike finish. Know which rack is yours, but don’t use other bikes to identify it — that bright pink Cannondale might be gone when you finish the swim. Likewise, get familiar with the course. Most races post maps for all three events. You can’t always count on volunteers to know the way.

5. Forgetting Something
Triathlons typically start fairly early in the morning. To arrive with ample time, you’ll likely leave for the race site long before the rest of the world is functioning. So early, in fact, that you might not be functioning, either. Do yourself a favor and pack  — even load the car — the night before. As you train, make a list of everything you might conceivably need for the race. Perhaps you broke the strap on your swim goggles one day during practice — you’ll know to pack two pairs for the race. (For a handy checklist, see “Smooth Transition” in the June 2005 archives.)

6. Not Training for Transitions
Transitions are as much a part of a triathlon as swimming, biking and running, and you don’t have to be good at any of those sports to excel at transitions. But you need to train for them. Practice taking your swim cap and goggles off, putting on your bike accessories (buckle your helmet or get disqualified), even mounting and dismounting your bike, and running on “bike legs.”

Many elite and pro triathletes keep their shoes clipped in their bike so they can run out of the transition barefoot, hop on their bike at a sprint and slip their feet into their shoes as they ride. The dismount is similar. It’s impressive, but it takes a lot of practice, and is not something to try for the first time at a race (see mistake No. 1).

7. Starting the Ride in the Wrong Gear
Once you’re familiar with the course (see No. 4), you’ll know the terrain just beyond the transition area. It’s important to start the bike ride in a gear that allows you to maximize your power right away. This is easy if the road is flat. But if there’s an immediate climb, you’ll want to have your bike in a lower gear — or in a higher one if the road dips. In either case, shift as needed before the race starts.

8. Drinking Too Much or Too Little
There are many variables affecting proper hydration, including weather and length of the event — not to mention your unique physiology. While in training, you should determine how much fluid your body needs under various conditions. (See “How to Hydrate” in the December 2007 archives.)

Generally speaking, if your workout or race lasts for less than an hour and the heat isn’t too extreme, you probably don’t need extra fluid during the event — if you adequately hydrate before and after. During events an hour or longer, it’s important to consume about 8 ounces of fluid every 15 minutes. You can install a drinking system on your bike (most involve water bottles designed to fit between aerobars) so hydrating is easy and you don’t start your run with a fluid deficit.

Be careful not to overhydrate, however. Hyponatremia, a serious condition caused by drinking too much water, can dilute your system of sodium and potassium.

9. Not Applying Sunscreen
Whether you’re racing on a cloudy or sun-kissed day — most notably during peak hours, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. — sunscreen can provide tangible benefits. Sunburn decreases the body’s ability to cool itself, which can diminish performance and make you more susceptible to heat exhaustion. So slather on an SPF of 15 or higher and — this is important — make sure it’s sweat-proof and waterproof.

10. Hanging Expectations on One Outcome
Swimming 1,000 meters alone in a pool is nothing like swimming 1,000 meters in a lake, surrounded by a hundred other competitors. And a strong headwind might hold up your goal time on the bike. Be flexible and reevaluate your goals when necessary. Evaluate your outcome against your best effort under the circumstances for that day and race — not training times or other competitors’ finish times.

Despite your best efforts to avoid them, sometimes mistakes are unavoidable. The biggest mistake of all would be to not apply the lessons you learn to your next race.

For USA Triathlon’s summary of race-day rules, see the Web Extra! at the top right of this page.

WEB EXTRA!

The Rules of Triathlon

USA Triathlon encourages race directors to distribute this document to participants.

A Message from the Head Referee to all age-group competitors:
Welcome to this USA Triathlon–sanctioned event. You are racing under the USAT Competitive Rules. In order to minimize misunderstandings on race day, I hope you will take the time to read the following summary of Position Violations, which you know as the drafting rules.

I have reduced the Position Rules to the following concepts:

  • Ride on the right side of your lane.
  • Keep three bike lengths between yourself and the cyclist in front of you.
  • Pass on the left of the cyclist in front, never on the right.
  • Complete your pass within 15 seconds.
  • If passed, you must drop completely out of the zone, to the rear, before attempting to re-pass.

Remember you are racing in a USAT-sanctioned event and there are USAT-certified referees on the course to ensure fairness in the competition. There will be NO WARNINGS if you commit a foul during competition. Triathlon is an individual event and you must take personal responsibility to understand the rules and avoid penalties. At the end of the race all citations by the marshals are reviewed by the Head Referee, who then decides if a penalty should be assessed. The Head Referee’s ruling is final in the case of Position Violations and there are no protests or appeals of penalties. Marshals commonly cite the following violations:

  • Position — Riding on the left side of the lane without passing.
  • Blocking — Left-side riding and impeding the forward progress of another competitor.
  • Illegal Pass — Passing on the right.
  • Overtaken  — Failing to drop back three bike lengths before re-passing.
  • Drafting — Following a leading cyclist closer than three bike lengths and failing to pass within 15 seconds.

Though Position Violations carry a 2:00 time penalty for first offense, two citations will result in a 6:00 penalty, and if you are cited for three violations, you will be disqualified. Be sure to check the penalty sheet before you leave the race site and have a chat with the Head Referee if you have any questions.

Make sure your helmet is a CPSC-approved model. While on your bike, always have your chinstrap securely fastened — before, during and after the event! The chinstrap rule is easy to follow, but some folks always seem to forget — that’s a DQ!

Wear your race numbers, don’t leave your trash on the course, and don’t carry or use any portable audio devices.

Remember to treat other athletes, volunteers and officials with courtesy and consideration. Failure to do so is called

Unsportsmanlike Conduct and you will be disqualified.

All that being said, I hope you have a great race, lots of fun, and achieve all your goals.

Sincerely,
Charlie Crawford, USAT Commissioner of Officials

Kara Douglass Thom, author of Becoming an Ironman: First Encounters with the Ultimate Endurance Event (Breakaway Books, 2001), has been a triathlete for 15 years.

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