Beginners Guide to Triathlon

Taking part in your first triathlon can be intimidating, whether you’re a fitness addict looking to try something new or a complete novice wanting a lifestyle change. However, it doesn’t need to be so scary! We’ve put together a triathlon guide for beginners to help you out. What does SuperSprint mean? What on earth is a ‘brick session’? Do I actually need a trisuit? These are the type of questions we’re here to answer and make your first triathlon stress-free and enjoyable.

What is a triathlon?

A triathlon comprises three different disciplines – swimming, cycling and running (in that order). The swim can either take place in a swimming pool or in an outdoor environment (e.g. a lake or river). At Human Race, most of our triathlons take place at Dorney Lake, which is like swimming in a giant pool. The water is very clear and here’s a sneaky tip; there’s a rope holding the swim buoys in place which runs along the bottom of the lake – you can follow this just like the lines on the bottom of a swimming pool, meaning you don’t have to look up and check where you’re going as often. We have an excellent swim safety team, who follow the swimmers in kayaks and make sure everyone gets round safely.


Quick-fire FAQs

If you haven’t got long, here are some basic answers for the most burning questions. Make sure you come back and read the rest of the guide when you’ve got time though!

  • What if I’m terrified of open water? Try our Open Water Swim Seminar at Dorney. Our training partners RG Active will talk you through everything you need to know and you’ll come away ready and eager to take on the open water.
  • Do I need a wetsuit? As we’re in the UK and not the Caribbean, the short answer is yes. You can purchase or hire a top quality Zone3 wetsuit here. The hire is for the season (all summer) so you have time to get used to it before you race in it and you can even keep it if you’re happy with it and don’t want to return the suit at the end of the hire period.
  • Can I race with my friends? At Human Race triathlons, you can! We offer Mates Waves, which let participants race alongside each other regardless of age group or gender.
  • What distance should I choose for my first triathlon? We would recommend a Taster (200m Swim, 5.3km Bike, 2.5km Run) or Novice distance (400m Swim, 10.6km Bike, 2.5km Run). If those distances look short to you, remember that it’s more about getting used to putting the three together and getting used to the complexities of transition.
  • What time should I get there on race day? We recommend all triathletes get to the venue at least an hour before your start time, but if it’s your first one, you should allow a bit more time. You’ll need to pick up your race pack and timing chip, plus set up your spot in transition, and you don’t want to be flustered.
  • Can I do a run through before race day? Why not come along to one of our Triathlon Training Days? We’ve got two, one on the 22nd May and one on the 26th June. Our training partners RG Active will run through all elements of the triathlon and answer any questions you have. The event takes place at Dorney Lake, so the venue will be familiar to you come race day, removing one of the elements of stress.


As with most sports, there’s a whole triathlon vocabulary, and it’s easy to get confused by all the jargon. Here are a few of the terms you’re most likely to come across, with explanations:

  • Brick session – a training session where you combine the bike and run disciplines, e.g. a 25min bike ride followed immediately by a 15min run
  • BTF (British Triathlon Federation) licence – all participants must either purchase a day licence for £6 or be in possession of a British Triathlon Federation licence. The fee provides you with public liability and personal accident insurance cover while you are racing. Click here to find out more about purchasing an annual licence
  • Drafting – where a triathlete cycles closely behind another to gain an aerodynamic advantage. In most triathlons, drafting is illegal (except for elite races) and you’ll need to make sure you keep a specific distance between you and the person in front of you – check BTF’s rules for more, including how far this distance must be
  • Duathlon – for people who don’t like getting wet! Run – Bike – Run instead of Swim – Bike – Run.
  • Olympic distance – a 1500m swim, 40km bike and 10km run
  • Racking – this is the word that describes the process of setting up your spot in Transition. You’ll hang your bike by its saddle on a long metal pole, otherwise known as racking. In some races, this may be done the day before your triathlon but in most cases, it will happen an hour or so before your triathlon starts
  • Sprint distance – a 750m swim, a 20km bike and a 5km run
  • Transition – where you change between disciplines in a triathlon. These are timed separately to the swim, bike and run legs and you’ll hear seasoned triathletes obsess constantly about how they can spend less time there!
  • Tri suit – best described as a triathlon onesie! Wearing one means you don’t have to get changed in transition apart from removing your wetsuit, and they are also padded for comfort on the bike.
  • T1 – the transition between the swim and the bike legs of a triathlon
  • T2 – the transition between the bike and run legs of a triathlon
  • Wave –  unless there is a very small field, participants in a triathlon will be set off periodically in groups called ‘waves’. Participants are usually grouped by gender and age group, though at Human Race, we also offer Mates Waves, which allow you to take part alongside your friends regardless of gender or age.

What kit do I need?

Triathletes are famous for being gear-obsessed! You’ll hear all sorts of discussion around aero bars, time-trial bikes and watches, but don’t panic about the potential bankruptcy just yet. For your first triathlon, you can easily get by without most of it. Here are the essentials for each discipline:


  • To tri suit or not to tri suit? Tri suits can be expensive, so if you’d rather not invest straight away, you can simply wear a swimming costume/shorts underneath your wetsuit
  • Wetsuit – UK lakes and rivers are (unfortunately) generally pretty chilly, so you’ll want to get yourself a wetsuit. As well as keeping you warm, wetsuits provide a significant amount of buoyancy, making the swim feel much easier. In addition, if the water is under a certain temperature, they are actually compulsory under British Triathlon rules (see chart below). You can purchase or hire a top quality Zone3 wetsuit here. The hire is for the season (all summer) so you have time to get used to it before you race in it and you can even keep it if you’re happy with it and don’t want to return the suit at the end of the hire period. Click here for more information.
  • Goggles – lots of triathletes have fancy open water swimming goggles with various tints and lenses, but you can just use whatever goggles you use in the pool!
  • Towel – you probably won’t bother drying your body (unless you’re changing into dry clothes) but you’ll want to dry your feet to make it easier to get them into socks and shoes.
Water Temperature Wetsuit Rule
 Water Temp less than 14 degrees Wetsuits are COMPULSORY
 Water temp 14 – 22 degrees Wetsuits are OPTIONAL
 Water temp above 22 degrees Wetsuits are BANNED



  • Bike – don’t believe the tri-geeks, you don’t need a time trial bike! Plenty of people take part in triathlons on mountain bikes, hybrids or the battered old road bike they’ve had in the garage for years.
  • To clip in or not to clip in? If you’re a beginner and haven’t yet used cleats (where your shoes clip into your pedals) then that’s fine, you can just cycle in your running shoes. You’ll actually have a bit of an advantage in transition because unlike those using cleats, you won’t have to change your shoes!
  • Helmet – these are compulsory!
  • Clothing – if you’ve got a tri-suit, then you’re already sorted. If not, then you’ll want to wear clothing you can comfortably run in, so you don’t have to change in transition. If you’re doing a Taster or Novice distance, then the bike leg is short enough for you not to worry about having padded shorts – these are uncomfortable to run in and won’t help you much.
  • Race belt – this is a belt that you attach your race number to, meaning you don’t have to use pins and make holes in your favourite t-shirt.


  • Shoes – the beauty of running is that all you need is a pair of shoes! Plenty of triathletes have specific triathlon running shoes that are easy to slip on, but you can use the trainers you normally run in. If you’re comfortable wearing no socks, then go for it, but don’t try this for the first time on race day!
  • Elastic laces – if you’re going to go for any slightly unnecessary extra, we would recommend these. Elastic laces reduce the time it takes to put on your shoes down to mere seconds, and eliminates the risk of tripping over your laces on the run because you didn’t do them up properly in transition!

The Swim

Open water swimming is the discipline that puts most people off attempting a triathlon. It doesn’t need to be scary, and you can eliminate any worries you have about it by following our top tips:

  • Practice makes perfect: if the first time you swim in open water is on race day, that’s a recipe for panic and stress. Find where your local swimming lake is and train there regularly.
  • If you’ve never been in open water before and the idea really terrifies you, try our Open Water Swim Seminar at Dorney. Our training partners RG Active will talk you through everything you need to know and you’ll come away ready and eager to take on the open water.
  • On race day, make sure you get in the water with plenty of time before the start. If the water is cold then you’ll need time to acclimatise before the gun goes. When you get in, concentrate on your breathing, making sure you take slow, deep breaths to calm any pre-race nerves.
  • At Dorney, the briefing takes place while you are bobbing in the water waiting for the start. Experienced triathletes will position themselves at the front of the group, and when the gun goes, all sorts of chaos will begin. You don’t need to be a part of that! Hang back – you can even leave a few seconds before you start swimming, allowing everyone to swim away from you to make sure you’ve got clear water.
  • If you get tired and can’t maintain front crawl for the whole swim, it doesn’t matter! Plenty of people resort to breaststroke to give themselves a rest, and lots of people swim only breaststroke. However, this can get pretty tiring as when wearing a wetsuit, your legs are more restricted, making the breaststroke kick more difficult, so make sure you get lots of front crawl practice in.


Often referred to as ‘the 4th discipline’, transition is one of the areas first-timers are most worried about. Here are our top tips for making T1 and T2 as stress-free as possible!

T1 – Swim to Bike

  • Before your triathlon, run through in your head (several times!) what order you want to do things in transition and create a mental checklist of everything you need to do.
  • Wetsuits are easier to take off the more water they have in them. Just before you get out of the water, pull the neck of your wetsuit open and scoop up a load of water into the suit.
  • When you exit the water, don’t take your goggles off, just lift them off your eyes onto your head. That way you have both hands free!
  • As soon as you exit the water, unzip the back of your wetsuit and take your arms out so you’re only wearing it from the waist down
  • Remember you must put on your helmet before even touching your bike! This is a British Triathlon rule.
  • Dont panic! The more flustered you get, the longer it will take to do everything. And remember, this is your first triathlon, so who cares if T1 takes you 7 minutes?!


FloHRFlo from Human Race’s ‘T1 routine’:

1. Take a scoop of water into the wetsuit before exiting the water
2. Exit the water and put goggles onto head
3. Unzip wetsuit while running to my spot in transition. First I pull the left side of the wetsuit just off my shoulder, then I pull my right arm completely out of the suit, followed by my left arm
4. Get back to spot in transition, roll wetsuit down to my ankles and (very ungracefully) pull it off my feet
5. Dry feet and put bike shoes on
6. Take swim cap and goggles off head, put helmet on
7. Put race belt on
8. Take bike off rack and head to Bike Out