Triathlon Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

by the Kyle’s Bikes 2014 Triathlon Team

Triathlon can seem complicatedTriathlon only seems complicated because… well, actually… triathlon can be complicated. First there's swimming, then biking, and finally running, and in-between a whole lot of shoe changing. But it doesn't have to be complicated. After you get your triathlon frequently asked questions answered, you should be ready to give it a try.

If your question isn't here, just add it in the comments!

Triathlon Frequently Asked Questions

1. Do I need a tri bike? Can I use my old mountain bike? Is a road bike ever a better choice than a tri bike?

Shawn:
You don't need a tri bike. I've been racing on a road bike for seven seasons and it works great for me. I would recommend for those starting to race with a mountain bike or one with nubby tires that you at least put slicks and bar ends on to make riding a bit smoother and offer more hand positions.

Andy:
Depends on why you are getting into triathlon. If you are getting into the sport to be competitive and race, yes you should invest in a tri bike, or higher end road bike for shorter distance races. If you are entering the sport to just have fun, then you can complete a triathlon just fine on a mountain bike, cross bike, fat tire bike, etc. A tri bike can make you go faster. For example, last year I rode on a CAD 8 in the Pigman 70.3 and averaged 17.2 mph; this year I rode the Specialized Shiv and averaged 21.9 mph.

Laura:
I started doing triathlons on a road bike, then went to a tri specific bike, and this season I am racing on a road bike. For someone just starting, stick with a road bike. If and when you get more serious, invest in the tri bike. I prefer my tri bike for the longer distances.

Scott recommends a tri bike for going fastScott:
I would highly recommend at least some sort of road bike. If you do a triathlon on a mountain bike, chances are you're going to hate it and either go buy a road bike or tri bike anyway, or never do another tri again. If all you have is a mountain bike, maybe look for an off-road triathlon to compete in. A road bike is smart for someone looking to do more group rides, and then maybe get some aero bars that are easy to put on and remove. Otherwise, a tri bike is obviously the best choice for a triathlon.

Bob:
Depends on your goal for the race… If you are new to triathlon and are setting, training for, and hoping to achieve a personal goal, then do not let the perceived high cost of equipment prevent you from racing and succeeding. If you are a seasoned athlete, who is looking for PRs and podiums, then you know that a quality TT bike can lessen the demands on your body, setting you up for not only faster bike times due to aerodynamic position and properties, but also faster and smoother run times from the positioning that lessens the strain on your legs allowing you to be fresher on the run—which ultimately translates into success. I have found good success in the amateur ranks on a road bike. Having a proper bike fit makes a huge difference. And on short, very hilly, or really technical courses, sometimes that aero position does not make up for advantages gained by a flexible and good handling quality road bike. Also of note are pedals and shoes. These make a huge difference when seconds count. A good pair of tri shoes and a well practiced mount/dismount strategy can save you minutes when seconds count!

2. What are the most commonly broken rules? How do I stay out of trouble?

USA Triathlon, the national governing body for triathlon in the U.S., has very helpfully put together a list of Most Common Rules Violations on their website.

To be sure you don't wind up with a penalty or a disqualification, take the time to familiarize yourself with the complete USAT rule book.

While not every race is USAT sanctioned, most follow the USAT rules. Be sure to read all information supplied by the race directors and attend any pre-race meetings.

3. Why warm up?

Christian:
Warming up allows you to mentally prep for all of the disciplines and physically loosen up and get the heart rate into zone. That makes it that much easier (and safer) when the gun goes off. I really have come to value a reverse warmup (run, bike, swim). It allows me to shake everything out, but also to build my transition area in reverse.

Andy:
I warm-up because it helps me mentally prepare for the race ahead. I always feel better prepared if I continually practice going through the same warmup methods. Time and race distance can also play a part in how long the warmup is. It can also help prevent injury.

Bob:
It is important to warm up before a race so that your body is prepared and to lessen the histamine response early in your swim. A tough swim can be a huge hurdle to overcome for the rest of your race. Being prepared and getting your head and body ready to perform is a key to success.

Read more from Bob in his Triathlon Warmup Strategy article.

4. What do I need in transition?

Make a triathlon gear list and check it twiceShawn has written a guide to help you pack your bags and set up your spot: Triathlon Gear List: What to Pack.

Almost without exception, the transition area is fenced off, controlled by volunteers or staff, and limited to athletes only. Pay attention to what time transition opens and when it closes so that you arrive in time get in and get your stuff ready.

5. What’s up with the funny helmets?

Areo helmets are funny looking, but fastTami:
Funny helmets are usually aerodynamic helmets, although, I have seen regular helmets just put on backwards.

Read Tami's Lazer Tardiz Aero Helmet Review.

Scott:
Any way you can gain "free speed" is a plus! Now, just because you have an aero helmet doesn't mean you will go out and average 30 mph. But once you get to a certain speed on the bike the aerodynamics do play a bigger role. So for example, if I average 25 mph on a 20 km bike course (like the Hy-Vee Triathlon) without an aero helmet, just think what that could have been with an aero helmet…

6. What should I wear?

Andy:
Wear what makes you comfortable. I enjoy racing in a tri kit. Last year I raced in just tri shorts without a shirt to save time in transition. This year, competing in longer distance courses, the kit has not only saved me time in transition but also saved a major sun burn!

Laura Miller at Holiday Lake TriathlonLaura:
When racing I prefer a tri kit that fits snugly. This way you don't have to spend time in transition getting tangled up in biking or running tops.

Shawn:
I think it is worth the investment (especially if you are a lady) in a quality trisuit. They provide a little bit of padding in the seat and a top and bottom that work great on the swim through to the run with no garment changes needed. Avoid cotton at all cost either way especially for socks and undergarments. When not using my Kyle's kit, I race in a one piece trisuit so the top stays put. The Kyle's kit is a great design in a two piece which makes things easier for using the restroom.

Tami:
Wear what is comfortable and form-fitting. Something that is comfy for biking and running and that won't create a parachute while riding (like many running shorts or baggy t-shirts).

7. How long is a triathlon?

There are four typical, standard distances.

  • Sprint: 750 m swim, 20 km bike, 5 km run
  • Olympic/International: 1.5 km swim, 40 km bike, 10 km run
  • Half: 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run
  • Full: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run

Sometimes, the swim on a sprint is only 500–750 yards instead of 750 meters. There are also races advertised as "super-sprints" that are even shorter than sprints.

8. Is a triathlon always swim/bike/run?

The total number of combinations of sports and distances is limited only by the creativity of race directors. However, here are some of the "common unusual" races.

Duathlon: Perfect for non-swimmers, these races have you run, then bike, and then run again.

Aquathlon: An aquathlon combines just swimming and running.

Aquabike: An aquabike starts with the swim and ends with the bike. As Katherine is a non-runner, she competed in the Hickory Grove Aquabike.

Indoor triathlon: The swimming, biking, and running all happen indoors. Read our article on Indoor Triathlons or all our articles tagged "indoor triathlons" for more information.

Off-road triathlon: Mountain biking replaces biking and trail running replaces running. XTERRA is the larger promoter.

9. What do all the crazy abbreviations mean?

FOP / MOP / BOP: Front Of, Middle Of, and Back Of the Pack. How do you compare to others at the race?

DFL > DNF > DNS: Dead Freaking Last is better than Did Not Finish is better than Did Not Start. Some people add DNT, Did Not Train. The point is that just getting out there and doing it is better than not trying.

TT: Time Trial. A time trial is a race against the clock over a set distance, no drafting allowed. It also refers to an aerodynamic bike built for this purpose.

PR: Personal Record. We can't all set course records or world records, but we can work to beat ourselves.

RR: Race Report. Putting your thoughts down after a race can help you and your coach (if you have one) learn what worked and what didn't and find ways to improve. Other athletes may enjoy reading your reports to learn from them as well. Here at Discount Tri Supply, we love race reports!

10. Why do people say, “Nothing new on race day”? 

Something that sounds like it might work in theory, may not work out for you in reality. It's far better to test out your equipment, clothing, and nutrition during training than to risk an unpleasant surprise on race day.

Bob:
Yep. Learned this one at mile nine of the Chicago half marathon when I ate my first energy gel. Learned that maltodextrin (80% of the packet) and my GI tract are not compatible. With no shade, and no turn-offs from the course, I learned a life lesson to ensure that I always train my nutrition strategy with my body. Going self-contained is a popular strategy, if you require nutrition on the race and suspect that your system is finicky, then you are best to either find out conclusively that your nutrition will be available. Or bring it yourself! Sometimes an almond butter sandwich can be gold on race day! They almost never have them available!

It's very important to practice in your wetsuit before race dayScott:
My horror story was my first time wearing a wetsuit at Bluff Creek this year. I practiced in it once with no chaffing or rubbing anywhere. After the race, I had a huge mark on the back of my neck. Then it got a little sunburnt, which made it feel even more awesome!!

However, sometimes things work our amazingly well…

Andy:
Body Glide. Tried it for the first time on race day and it did wonders helping me get into my running shoes more efficiently and saved time.

Bob:
I learned how to swim in a full length wetsuit (that I purchased in the parking lot before the race from a friend with an extra) during the Hickory Grove Triathlon this year.


If your question isn't answered here, add it in the comments and we will answer it.

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Katherine is our Content Champion. She has done triathlons in the past, and now focuses on cycling and mountain biking. She loves weird multi-sport events that don't involve running, like aquabike and bikeathlon.

Latest posts by Katherine (see all)

  • Robert Dittmann

    What a great article! Wish I would have read this when I was first entering this sport! Would have saved me a lot of confusing and embarrassing questions! Well done team!

  • http://trigive.wordpress.com Christian Baughman

    Stories Robert?

  • Lucas Freed

    Are there any recommendations for finding a triathlon training program? There are a lot of resources online but where should I start?

  • http://blaesing-thompson.blogspot.com/ Shawn Blaesing-Thompson

    Lucas I would say it depends on what you are training for (distance) and how much time you have. I would start with your local triathlon club. They often have coaches to help get you started. I work with a trainer at my gym who specializes in triathlon. I would start by picking a race for your goal. Then you can cater your training to that distance. Most of the Kyle's Team has raced at different distances and can give you different ideas on training plans.

  • Eric

    I'm a cyclist and only a cyclist. What are some ways to find other people to make a tri relay team?

  • http://trigive.wordpress.com Christian Baughman

    I agree with Shawn. The local clubs are very good places to start, plus you'll get to know others in the sport. As for online resources I really trust BeginnerTriathlete.com, Active.com, and Ironman.com.

  • http://discounttrisupply.com KatherineRoccasecca

    Lucas, We have the contact information for some central Iowa tri clubs and a few other local resources near the end of this article: http://www.discounttrisupply.com/blog/late-season-local-races-2014/ I hope that helps you out!