Three Beginner Triathlon Mistakes to Avoid

By Jon Fecik | May 22, 2017, 2:27 p.m. (ET)

swim start 

Whenever I get the chance, I attend a local Thursday night Sprint Triathlon Series. My approach to this race has always been to go as hard as I can from the start to the finish. Usually, I come out of the water near the front and move to the front of the race by the first two miles of the bike.

On one particular night, I did just that. I was working very hard and attempting to achieve a new PR. I got to the front of the race quickly, pushing the downhill and starting to chip away at the 10-mile bike course. At the end of the bike, I took my feet out of my bike shoes, hopped off, entered transition and saw that I had my fastest swim-bike combination ever. I definitely had the chance at my PR and it was on.

Well, it was on up until that point. I ran to my transition area, racked my bike, and began to put on my running flats. These were a new pair that I got a few days earlier. When I went to put them on, I realized that I could not get them around my heels. Despite the fact that I practice putting them on the day before the race, my feet must have swelled during the ride and the laces were too tight! I went to untie them, but I was so gassed from the bike that I had to sit down, catch my breath and focus. The laces were the thin light kind that do not loosen up easily and I messed with them for what seemed like minutes. All the while, I was the first one in transition with no one around me. The announcer was commentating my problem with excitement for all the spectators and frankly, it was embarrassing. I finally got the knot untied and someone passed me. I pulled on the shoes, tied the laces, and headed out on my run.

It’s funny how we remember our mistakes so clearly. I do not recall if I won the race, but I do remember this situation clearly. As triathletes (and yes, even the professionals), we make mistakes. Failing to put speed laces in our shoes is just one example of many. We go out too hard, we forget to tune up our bike, or we forget to eat. Part of the fun of triathlon is that there are so many details to work and improve on. Here are three common race-day mistakes to avoid and suggestions on how to resolve them.

Mistake No. 1: Skipping a Warm-Up

Warming up for a race may seem so basic that it is not worth mentioning, but few beginners take advantage of it. This could be because they arrived late to the race, they are distracted by the prerace excitement, they don’t see their friends warming up so they are embarrassed about doing something different, or they just do not feel like it.

At its most basic level, a warm-up prepares you for a following task. It gets the blood pumping to the right areas and the mind focused on what is about to occur. In the case of a triathlon, the warm-up helps prepare you physically for when the blood rushes to the shoulder muscles and the heart rate rises in those initial 400 meters of the swim.

The initial start of the race is stressful enough with all the people around and your anxiety being at its highest peak. Skipping the warm-up is a mistake, because when the gun goes off, the body and mind are not prepared for the intensity of the experience. On top of all the other triathletes thrashing around in the water, not warming up may lead you to feel flat and slow. This feeling may overwhelm an athlete when there is a need to be confident and at the top of his or her game.

Warm-ups vary widely depending on the individual athlete, the level of fitness and the length of the race. The best warm-up for you might not be as great for someone else. The shorter and more intense the race, the more time an athlete needs to get ready to go. More muscular athletes often need a longer warm-up than lighter, smaller ones. Some athletes may find running to be great while others may find that running prior to a swim gives them cramps. Conditions will also play a role. You may need to warm up more in cooler conditions compared to warmer ones. The key is to practice your race warm-up in training and in a variety of conditions, so you know what works best for you. Some examples include a light walk, a light 5- to 10-minute jog, some drills, and/or pick-ups to race pace. It might also include a spin and/or a light swim or some combination of the three disciplines.

You do not want to overexert yourself prior to the race, but you want to be ready to move at race pace intensity from the gun so that the experience does not come as a shock that overwhelms you to the point that you cannot perform well.

Mistake No. 2: Cluttered Transition

A clean transition area may also seem as fundamental as warming up for a race, but beginners often make the mistake of leaving unnecessary gear laying around. To have a fast transition, you need a clear space and a clear mind.

Exiting the swim and running into transition is stressful. The body has just went from horizontal to vertical which can cause dizziness and confusion; the blood is rushing out of the shoulders and toward the legs; breathing is hard; and there are people running around you, often trying to take the same lines into the transition area. Like the swim start, this situation is stressful enough on its own. You do not want to make it any more stressful by having to run over any unnecessary gear that is blocking you from getting to your bike, like a backpack, a change of clothes, Body Glide, etc. Put this stuff in your car and have only what you need in order to complete the race.

Further, you want to have a clear mind as you transition. This means that do not want to make any decisions about equipment choices. Choices complicate things, cause hesitations and take time. Make all your decisions prior to your race. Systematize and automatize your transitions to the point it becomes mindless by always taking the wetsuit off the same way and putting your shoes on in the same order. This will allow you to transition quickly and focus on moving toward the next discipline.  

Do not make the mistake of a cluttered transition. When you get into transition, you want it to be clean, simple and automatic.

Mistake No. 3: Uneven Pacing

Just like warming up and keeping your transition clean, pacing is another fundamental part of triathlon. It takes a while to develop a sense of how to pace yourself for a long race. Beginners have a lot of trouble pacing, often because they elide the feeling of freshness with the idea that they need to increase the intensity. It takes time to build awareness around how much energy you have and where you should allocate it.

Unlike a power lifter who, in a maximal effort, can afford to use all his energy at one time due to the brevity of the lift, an endurance athlete needs to efficiently disperse his/her energy throughout the long event to have an optimal race day. Think of all your race energy contained in a tube of toothpaste. Your job is to force out all the toothpaste over the course of the entire race. You can choose to squeeze the tube really hard at the beginning of a race or up a hill, but then you have less toothpaste in the tube to last you for the rest of the race. For beginners, usually the best way to approach a race is to try and distribute their energy, that toothpaste, evenly, or start conservatively and build as the race goes along. Doing this can help prevent a substantial slow down toward the end of your race.

If you have made these mistakes before, do not worry. Thousands of triathletes have made them and thousands more will make them. You may make them again yourself. Understand your mistakes as part of getting better and realize that you do not need to be perfect in order to have a good race, you just need to be flexible, adjust and remain solid. From the beginner to the professional level, there is always more to work on and improve. See you out there!

jon fecikJon Fecik races as a professional triathlete, is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and works for Complete Human Performance. He guides a vast spectrum of age-groupers, from those who finished their first sprint triathlon to those who qualified for and competed at Nationals, Worlds, 70.3 Worlds and the IRONMAN World Championship. Follow Jon on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Learn more at jonfecik.com and completehumanperformance.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.