How Does a Triathlon Work?

In this article I’ll be taking a look into how does a triathlon work, essentially. You’re free to jog along.

I’m particularly interested in the whole process of assessing whether I’d be even capable of doing triathlon with zero fitness, how short or long of a triathlon to take up on, how to find such a triathlon event and what are the steps to actually enter and participate in it, as well as how to prepare for it and what to expect overall. I’m also interested in what might be the common issues or problems along the way and how to mitigate them. The whole thing, essentially. (get an overview of what a triathlon is from this article).

And for those on a budget, check out our guide on the best cheap triathlon watches, perfect for beginners and seasoned athletes alike.


Before It Can Work… Why Do a Triathlon?

We all want to lead a healthy lifestyle, and for this article’s sake, it’s triathlon that peaks the interest the most.

It’s a kind of personal development thing really. If we heard that somebody we knew finished a triathlon, we’d think to ourselves: “How hard can it be? Anyone can do it…” almost as if trying to belittle it for we’re not actually sure if we’d have what it takes ourselves. It’s a simple challenge that sparks curiosity, and curiosity leads to action. Could be anything…

How a triathlon works? Why do a triathlon?

However, it seems to me that “triathlon” is thought of as something only serious athletes would do, not something a simple hobbyist like me would dare even try. And because it wasn’t just me who thought that way, having done a few, saying that I’ve done triathlon comes off as a big thing it turns out. So there’s that.

I try to maintain an active lifestyle. For example, just a couple of days a week, I wake up, check the weather from a cheaper weather station gadget I’ve had for years, dress up, and go for a quick early morning jog as a way of getting ready for work in the office. Taking part in the smaller triathlon events gives my efforts a perspective and motivates me to keep going, improve just a little more, push a little harder.

At the end of the day, in my case, I guess triathlon just helps keep me in check, both physically and mentally.


Making It Work… Can I Do a Triathlon?

As it turned out in my case, about anyone can do a triathlon, even if they’ve got zero fitness now.

You probably can do a triathlon


There’s always time to train for it. It’s not something you sign up for and then have a few hours to get there. No, no, no. These events are announced with plenty of time for people to prepare for them. In a sense, this is what motivated me to leave my couch and start doing some sporty activities that would at least allow me to finish the race (I was afraid I’d have to stop mid-way). From few short joggings at the beginning to long ass trips by the end of the months I had to prepare for it. The first time I finished I really felt like I had pushed my limits, and it was a great feeling!

All we need to know now is how a triathlon event goes down in order to remove the final doubts in our minds.


Here’s How a Triathlon Works and Goes Down

How to Sign Up for a Triathlon?

Before answering how does a triathlon work, we need to start from the beginning of it. Signing up for your first triathlon is fairly simple:

Step 1.
Simply google for it, a la “triathlon event” and start going through the results. Most triathlon events put some effort into marketing their event and so a lot of information can be found on the website of any particular triathlon event.

Step 2.
Look for one that doesn’t start too soon nor a little too late. Let’s say it begins for example 3 months from now, that would be ideal. 3 months is long enough to prepare for it even when starting from zero fitness.

Step 3.
If starting with zero fitness, try finding “super-sprint” or “sprint” triathlon events. These would be considered beginner triathlon distances. A super-sprint triathlon consists of 400m swim, 10km bike and 2.5km run. A sprint triathlon would be something like this: 400m swim, 12.5km bike and 5km run.

Triathlon Distances
Distances can vary a tiny bit.

Step 4.
And sign up. Usually there’s an entry fee as well.

Now that you’ve got something set in the calendar, assuming there’s plenty of time to prepare for it and it’s a suitable triathlon distance for your potential fitness level, it’s time to start preparing for it.


What Triathlon Gear Do You Need?

When starting out, you don’t need fancy equipment.

As a beginner, all you really need is 5 things:

  • swimsuit,
  • goggles,
  • bike,
  • helmet,
  • and running shoes.

As for the bike, it doesn’t have to be an expensive one, even a simple mountain or road bike can make a triathlon work for you. You don’t even need a wetsuit.

Once you’ve done your first triathlon, it’s then you might want to start looking for an upgrade where you feel the need for it when thinking of going for another triathlon at some point. I personally wouldn’t go all out buying all the fancy things you don’t even know what to do with right off the bat. Work with what you have and upgrade as it’s warranted.

Fancy triathlon gear can cost a lot. A top of the line wetsuit, $500, a high-end triathlon bike, $10,000. Add to the list high-end shoes for biking, same with shoes for running, a triathlon watch and other gear. It’s a lot of money to find out you’re slow at the beginning no matter how how good equipment you have. At the end of the day, it’s you who has to put in the effort.


Training For A Triathlon

Just starting is the key here. There are a lot of training programs out there and a simple google search will reveal them all.

As a beginner, I wouldn’t up hold following them word for word but rather to simply get an idea on what to focus on in your simple personal training sessions. This way you can pace things yourself as you gain the neccessary strength to assess the situation, what you can and can’t do, and where to improve. A triathlon works on 3 (+1) disciplines: start, swim, transition, bike, transition, run, finish line.


The Swim

The swim part of a triathlon is the shortest part of the race. It’s also the scariest.

At first it’s going to be a lot of splashing if there are a lot of people starting at the same time. If you know to be a relatively average or slow swimmer, it would probably do you good if you didn’t rush into the water among the first.

Once in the water, you may get the urge to speed up your game. All the splashing may make it seem like everybody is doing better than you, but really they’re most likely doing just okayish like you. The key here is to try and calm your urges to try go faster and instead stay calm and keep to your own pace. Not only will you actually go faster this way, you also won’t tire yourself out for what’s to come after the swim. In triathlon, the race is not over with just the swim, after all. You still need to bike and run.

Triathlon open water swim

As a reminder, a sort of tip for swimming:

  • aim for smooth strokes that move you through the water effortlessly instead of inconsistently trying to move ever faster – the first suggested approach will take you further and makes the whole thing more enjoyable in general;

There’s nothing better than actually practicing these things through. Look for insights over YouTube and try to improve your swimming efficiency over time. It’s okay if it’s not great by default. It wouldn’t be normal if it was perfect to begin with – I’d have you locked in a museum if that was the case!


The Bike

This is the longest part of a triathlon race.

The route is usually signposted or just marked in general, but always check out the route of the race the event organizers have decided upon from their official website. Usually that and more is pointed out there.

A few tips for bike leg:

  • when pedaling, your leg should reach all the way to the bottom of the pedal stroke with your leg almost being straight. If it’s too straight, you lose the power of the stroke at the end of it as you simply can’t reach it well enough, and when your leg is too cramped throughout the full circle, you’re just gonna get a cramp.
  • when adjusting seat height, if you stood next to your bike and bent over the seat, there should be about 1 inch of empty space between your torso and the seat.
  • when riding the bike, your arms should be slightly bent and you should be leaning forward with about 45 degree angle.


The Run

There’s more to running than meets the eye.

Almost everybody can pull off such a basic thing as is running, and yet some people do it poorly. Running short distances improperly doesn’t really make you understand the difference between a poor and proper form, but when running a longer distance, it starts to make a difference in how you feel and perform. Things like overall posture, breathing, how the foot touches the ground, where the arms are, etc. You may have some of them right, but you might have some of them a little wrong too.

Some simple tips for a better running form:

  1. Shoulders back for Open Chest and Breathing.
  2. Head Position, good posture – looking forward, not down or up.
  3. Elbows tucked in slightly.
  4. Too much Hip movement side to side. Use Core more.
  5. Landing on the Balls of your feet NOT HEELS. Avoid over-striding, try mid-foot strikes, like a ninja.
  6. Lean slightly forward and let “gravity” help you with momentum.

If it’s hard to vision the proper running form based on those tips, simply search on YouTube: “How to run properly”.


Triathlon Brick Workouts

This is an aspect to keep in mind when trying to understand how does a triathlon work differently from other more linear sports.

A brick workout is one where you transition from one discipline to the next as you would in a real race. It’s got a few obvious benefits, but one of them is that you’ll simply get a taste of what it feels like before you go on an actual race and get taken by surprise.

The most common brick workout is bike to run transition. You may also want to try out swim to run brick workout just in case.

When doing brick workout, expect your legs to feel sore or as if asleep. It will go away after a few kilometers/miles. It’s just a good to know thing, otherwise you might give up finishing the race thinking the sore feeling will be there till the end of the race, because it will feel like it’s going to be there till the end of the race at first. Don’t worry though, it will wear off, and it’s likely to fade away faster the more you practise it.

During this workout, you want to time things with your triathlon watch. It’s because the sore feeling in your legs will alter the speed you think you’re running at. You might be going faster than you think or vice versa, slower. It would be ideal if you managed to keep to the pace you’re accustomed to in order to make it to the end of the race with optimal efficiency.

Practising these things will make you better prepared for the race.


Triathlon Nutrition

Eating healthier often isn’t all that simple because it’s quite normal to have a craving for the sweet stuff. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have all these sweets laying about, so they just couldn’t get their hands on the amount of suger we do today.

However, what got one up from the couch will likely also keep one away from excess sweets. It will be even easier if you knew how much sugar is normal to have and what the alternatives are. A triathlon doesn’t work well on an upset stomach.

Just being mindful about what we eat and keeping it simple can help a lot:

  • stop eating junk food
  • stop drinking soda or other drinks besides water and tea (following workouts)

Unless junkish food was what you normally ate, because your body might send you weird signals about the non-junky food for some time, following the 2 aforementioned points can pretty much be your healthy diet.

However, you can take this a step further and follow some particular healthy diet (not one that starves you). Some paleo style of diet with the healthy stuff in general for example.


Extra Reading

(links open in a new tab)

The TOP 10 Best Cheap Triathlon Watches | post | TriathlonsWay
Is a Cheap Triathlon Watch Worth It? | post | TriathlonsWay
Do You Need a Triathlon Watch? | post | TriathlonsWay
How Does a Triathlon Work? | post | TriathlonsWay
Why Get Into a Triathlon? | post | TriathlonsWay
Benefits of a Tri Watch | post | TriathlonsWay
What Is a Triathlon? | post | TriathlonsWay
Triathlon Safety | post | TriathlonsWay


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