What to Look For When Choosing a Beginner Triathlon

The Complete Guide to Choosing a Triathlon for Beginners

What is a Good Triathlon Location?

A good triathlon location is one that provides a safe and supportive environment for the athletes. It is also important that the location has a variety of courses and competitive distances to offer. There are many factors to consider when choosing a good triathlon location.

The best triathlon locations are ones that have an excellent course, such as an open water swim, bike course with views, and run course that is not too boring. These courses should be flat with little or no hills or curves in them, if you are looking for speed, or just trying to avoid issues on your first run. The race organizers should also provide adequate hydration stations along the bike and run courses. For more remote races or those without support, especially on the run, you may want to check out our tips on picking the best hydration vest or pack to carry.

One race that we have run in the past is the OC Tri Series Mission Viejo Olympic distance triathlon. The race takes advantage of warm water temperatures in the lake and avoid any currents or waves that ocean swims would have. As a bike course it is not flat, nor is the course entirely closed to traffic. The run starts out with a solid downhill and decent shade for the area, making it a good course, but the back half of it is full of hills. What’s more the run start and bike start are in two different places so the transition zones are more than a mile apart, this makes for some larger logistical challenges. As a spectator course the spread out nature also makes it tough to watch. Each of these things should be considered when choosing your own first race; for us the major benefit of this race is that it’s 10 minutes form home. Never over estimate the benefits of avoiding travel hassle when choosing a race. 

orange county triathlon logo

Open Water, Ocean, or Pool: The Swim Location of a Triathlon

The two obvious locations for a triathlon swim are pools or open waters. While some triathletes prefer to be in an open environment for their swim location, others like the convenience of having a pool available for their race.

For the most part pool swims will only be for short spring distance races. This is a logistical consideration since pool swims are often a series of laps and will overwhelmingly have a staged start with a new participant leaving every few seconds. A common setup is to have an 8 lap pool where one length is swum in each lap, this totals either 200 meters or 400 meters and is sufficient for a lot of shorter sprint races. Passing in a pool can be extremely difficult, some athletes may choose to try to do flip turns at the wall and over taking during just a 25 meter section requires a significant speed advantage. 

The other location is open water courses. These come in an almost endless variety including down stream river courses, open ocean courses with a run-in beach start, or man made lakes. Visibility is a consideration for these courses, in shallower water it may be possible to see the bottom which makes it easier to follow a line at least until the bottom is kicked up by all the swimmers. Temperature of the water is also key, for some warmer waters wetsuits will be disallowed from the race due to the advantage gained from their added buoyancy. When allowed the advantage gained from more easily floating atop the water generally outweighs the time it takes to peel off a suit during the transition.

When choosing a course, target swims that match the conditions where you can train. If you have never swum through an ocean current with breaking waves, doing so in a large pack can be intimidating. Spotting a buoy in a placid man made lake will be much easier, so if you have never tried open water swimming (and can only train in pools) look for races that have a more controlled surface as it will make it easier to settle into a groove. And for any of them, remember that you are unlikely to swim exactly the planned distance. Zig-zagging through a swim can easily add 10-20% to the race distance for first timers.


Hills or Flat Time Trials: Good Bike Courses can Make or Break a Triathlon

In the bike leg of a triathlon, hills can be a challenge for both recreational and pro cyclists. Hills are a great way to increase the difficulty of a bike course, but also bring with them some risks. For example, they can lead to increased fatigue or even worse – crashes.

Although it can be tempting to try to find a pancake flat bike course, this is not recommended for a first time triathlon. A good bike course should have some hills to keep the cyclists engaged and entertained but should not be too steep or too long. The goal is not to make it impossible for cyclists but rather to create an interesting challenge. Scenery on ultra flat courses often winds up being loops on a blank abandoned tarmac, and while this can result in good time trial conditions it also risks being simply too boring to have an enjoyable or memorable race. Plus, aside from point to point courses, if you are riding up a hill it also means you get to coast down somewhere else which provides for much needed breaks.

Search for courses that have published elevation profiles and which avoid steep sections. It is surprisingly easier to go to hard on even a 1-2 minute climb and burn out the rest of a race. Consideration for the traffic on a course, especially during hills, is also important. Making a hill climb on the side of a road with no bike lane and fast traffic can be daunting. By the same consideration, a tight but well paved bike path with turns during a down hill can take away from the enjoyment of coasting.

What Are the Different Types of Triathlons?

A triathlon is a multi-sport race consisting of three consecutive events: swimming, cycling, and running. The most common types of triathlons are the sprint triathlon, olympic distance triathlon, and ironman distance triathlon.

Sprint Triathlons: These are shorter versions of the traditional long-distance races. They are usually around 300 meters in length with a total time limit of one hour. These races are typically for beginners or those who want to try out the sport without committing to a full-length event. Event can be as short as 20 minutes or less or up to 1.5 hours depending on the course and exact length.

Olympic Distance Triathlons: These have an approximate 1/4 mile swim followed by 24 miles on bike and 6 miles on foot with a total time limits of sometimes up to 8 hours. Leading athletes can finish under two hours, but most participants will take between 2-4 hours to complete the distance. Given the time investment required this distance is often more competitive, although it is still a suitable option for a first timer. Just don’t be discouraged if you feel in good shape but end up near the back of the pack! If you are comparing your finish to other olympic distance triathlon participants, remember that the group self selects for strong and dedicated athletes.

Ironman Distance Triathlon: A known longer distance race that totals 140.6 miles spread out across a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile marathon run. A half-ironman distance is of course half of those distances and totals 70.3 mile.

Trail/Mountain Triathlons vs. Road Races: There is no required surface for a triathlon and due to the distances and time required to shut down a course many will vary across terrain. For the most part though bike courses will dictate the type of race that it is, with the major difference being if it is a course that is possible on a road bike or if it have more technical terrain that require a mountain bike. Both types can be great fun with beautiful scenery, but again checking that you are comfortable on the targeted terrain is key.

How Much Training is Needed for a Triathlon?

Not much. We are big proponents that you can do a triathlon with minimal to no training, if your mindset works. 

Training for a triathlon can be achieved by following a few simple steps, but most competitors find that the sheer logistics and safety become a bigger hurdle to completing a race. Competing at a higher level takes more training, but if you can physical swim and know how to ride a bike there is a great chance you can finish a triathlon if choosing a good one.

Swallowing too much water in an open water swim, popping a bike tire and not having a replacement, or hitting an issues (or blisters) and deciding to stop to avoid injury are the most common reasons participants will drop out of a race. There is no shame in pulling out of a race for any reason. Often this still means getting in a good workout.

Rather than over thinking training, you can use a short first triathlon as a training event to learn and perfect the logistics and find out what areas to work on in future training.There is no need to do “brick” style workouts, known as doing one discipline and then going right into the next one (ride then run, or swim then hop on a bike). Choosing a triathlon that fits how you are able to train will help though. 

What are the Best Types of Gear to Purchase For Training & Competition?

If you are looking at your first triathlon, getting minimal gear to avoid costs while still having a great time is important. To find out what you need, start first with the race registration site. For the most part, all you need is a bike, helmet, and clothes and everything else is just going toward having a more enjoyable time. Different races may allow or ban things like wetsuits, so check if it’s needed before dropping the money.

Races will differ in what is provided on course. For longer races knowing if there is water and nutrition will determine if you need to be carrying your own or if you can handle without. 

Race distance will also help determine how much you plan to change between each discipline. For short sprints many beginners opt to ride and run in mostly the same gear, even including shoes and socks. As athletes get more advanced, and sink more money into bike gear, most opt for clip in pedals that require a change of shoes coming out of the bike. 

Overall, the best piece of advice for new competitors is to not over think the gear required for a short first race. If you are jumping right into longer distances, Olympic or 70.3 distance, then try to find a shorter race to figure things out rather than realizing 2 hours into a 4 hour event that you forgot something1