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Triathlon FAQs

We know that starting triathlon can be a bit daunting so have put together answers to some key questions you might have when starting out. 

What sports are in a triathlon?  Are they always in the same order?

A triathlon consists of a swim, bike and run and always in that order.  This order is both for safety reasons with triathletes swimming when they are fresh and for reasons of speed /ease of transition as it is quicker to take a wetsuit off after the swim than try to put one on halfway through a race. 

Many triathletes also take part in other related multisport events such as

  • Duathlon where you run, cycle and then run again
  • Aquathon where you swim then run
  • Aquabike where you swim then cycle

How long is a triathlon?

Triathlons come in a variety of distances, perhaps the most famous type is an Ironman distance, or the Olympic distance that we see the Brownlees compete in in the Olympics.  Many people choose to start with a Sprint or Super Sprint, and then build up to longer distances, while others specialise in Sprint triathlons and go on to compete in them at an international level.  Why not try a few and see which you like best?

Super Sprint: 400m swim, 20k bike, 5k run

Sprint: 750m swim, 20k bike, 5k run

Olympic / Standard: 1500m swim, 40k bike, 10k run

Middle Distance / Half Ironman: 1900m swim, 90k bike, 21k (half marathon) run

Full / Ironman: 3800m swim, 180k bike, 42k (marathon) run

Do I need to swim open water?

No you don’t.  While a lot of  triathlons do involve open water swims in rivers, lakes or the sea, there are many pool-based triathlons where the swim takes place in swimming pool.  These make ideal first triathlons with no need to have a wetsuit or open water confidence and great season openers when the open water is too cold to train or race. 

Do I need to eat and drink when racing?

While this obviously depends on the distance you are racing, the main thing is to stay hydrated while you are out on the course.  For a sprint race you should be fine with a bottle of water or energy drink on your bike, and taking some water when out on the run, if needed, from a water station, where there is one.  Many people take energy gels when racing or on longer races eat solid foods such as cereal or energy bars.  Make sure to test out energy gels and drinks when training, rather than for the first time on race day. 

What is transition?

Transition is the name for the changes between the different sports in a triathlon and also the area where you leave your bike and run kit.  The swim to bike transition is called T1, and the bike to run transition is T2. 

In T1 you run from your swim into the transition area, removing your wetsuit (if required), goggles and swimming hat and putting on your race number, cycle shoes and helmet, before picking up your bike and running with it out of the transition area and up to the mount line where you can start riding. 

T2 starts when you dismount your bike at the dismount line and run into transition.  You put your bike back in your place on the racking, then take off your helmet and cycle shoes, put on your trainers and head back out onto the run.

What does racking mean?

Racking is when you lay out your kit and hang your bike on the racking in the transition area.  In most races you will have a specific place that corresponds with your race number.  You hang your bike off the racking by the saddle and lay out your shoes and helmet, so you can easily find them.  If you get stuck, the marshals will be happy to help.  Walk through transition and remember where your spot is so that you can easily find it when you come out of the swim / off the bike.  

Where do I leave my valuables when I’m racing?  Do I need a bike lock?

Transition areas are  marshalled at all times so there is no need to lock your bike during the race.  At registration, you will be given a number sticker for your bike and helmet that corresponds to  your race number and your bike will be checked against this when you leave transition.  Depending on the size of transition you can either leave a bag out of the way behind your bike with your other belongings in or in a separate area which will be indicated.  Any valuables can either be left in your bag at your own risk, or in sports centre lockers if available.  Only competitors are allowed into the transition area.

What do I wear?

Most triathletes compete in a tri suit, which is an all in one suit complete with a chamois pad that makes cycling more comfortable but is less bulky than most cycle shorts allowing you to run freely.  If you don’t have a tri suit don’t worry, anything goes as long as you are comfortable and clothed!  You will normally be provided with a swimming hat.  For your first tri for girls we’d recommend swimming in a costume (with a sports bra underneath if needed) and pulling on shorts and a top to go out on to the bike and for men to swim in shorts that you are happy to cycle and run in and pull on a top to go out on the bike. 

On the bike you can either wear cycling shoes or trainers, and trainers for the run.  Many triathletes have elastic laces on their trainers to make transition quicker. 

No nudity is allowed at any time during a transition, though some longer races do provide changing tents if you’d like a complete change of clothes.  

Where do I get changed?

While some people do choose to completely change during a long distance triathlon (such as an Ironman event) at most triathlons you complete the entire event wearing the same kit, with just small changes such as taking off a wetsuit, pulling on an extra layer or changing your shoes.  Nudity is banned both when racing and in transition, so please ensure you keep your clothes on!

Do I have a number? Where should I wear it?

At registration, all competitors are provided with a race number for themselves to wear, and stickers for your bike and helmet.  Some races also provide number tattoos for your arms and legs.  Ideally you should wear your number on your back when cycling and your front when running to allow you to be easily identified.  The best way to do this is using an elastic race belt which you can clip on easily in T1 switch round when you move on to the run. 

What does chip timing mean? What do I need to do?

Many races are chip timed meaning that you are given an accurate time for your race.  At registration, along with your numbers, you will be given a timing chip to wear on your left ankle (this keeps it away from your bike gears).  We’d advise putting your chip on as soon as you are given it so that you can’t lose it and it will be taken from you when you cross the finish line. 

What are the rules I need to know before starting my first race?

Aside from being a good sportsman and being polite to other competitors and marshals when out on the course, there are a few key rules to remember:

  • You must not touch your bike before you have put your cycle helmet on your head and clipped the strap
  • In most triathlons you are not allowed to draft or slipstream behind other cyclists when out on the course.  This would give you up to a 25% unfair advantage as you can go faster while expending little energy.  BTF rules state that you must leave at least a 10m gap between you and the bikes in front in sprint and standard distance races, which increases to 12m for middle and long distance triathlons. If someone overtakes you, you must drop back to an appropriate distance or immediately overtake them.  Failure to do so is very bad form and can result in time penalties or disqualification.
  • Do not litter during a triathlon – dropping rubbish while racing would normally result in immediate disqualification.  Take your rubbish with you or drop off with marshals or at specific rubbish drop points.  This rule shouldn’t be too hard to follow.
  • Respect other road users and always follow the highway code.  In most races there will be cars on the roads, so be aware as you would when out cycling on a normal day.
  • Wearing of headphones is not allowed - you must be aware of what is going on around you at all times.

What if I have a mechanical issue with my bike?

Before starting the race please check your bike to ensure that it is in a good state of repair, particularly that your brakes are working effectively, that your wheels are properly attached, your tyres are pumped up and if on a road bike you have bar ends on your handlebars. 

It is advisable to take a small repair kit out with you on the bike, including a spare inner tube, pump and tyre levers in case of a puncture, and perhaps a multitool in case something comes loose. 

You are not allowed to receive outside assistance when cycling so should be able to fix puncture yourself but if you get stuck, please speak to a marshal who will be happy to help you.

What if I or someone else has an accident?

Please speak to the closest marshal who will be able to help you or call for help.  

If you have a question that we haven't answered here and think other people might be asking, please email events [at] oxfordtri [dot] co [dot] uk and we will try and update the document as we go along.