10 things no one tells you about triathlons

Here’s our list of things that you definitely need to know before taking on your first triathlon.
By Ross Edgley

Last year, with no previous triathlon experience, I decided to immerse myself in all things swimming, cycling and running.

After enduring an unholy amount of chafing (and swallowing more salt water than any human should), by November I managed to complete an Olympic-distance triathlon whilst carrying a 45kg tree for charity, thus becoming the world’s first 'tree-athlete'.

It was an odd way to spend a year, I know. But it was during every (initially) slow and painful training session that I discovered 10 things no one tells you about triathlons – but should. Here they are... 

1. Everything’s a toilet

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The starting line of a triathlon does strange things to the body. Your heart is beating, your nerves are firing, and the entire time your bladder is wondering why you just 'panic drank' one litre of sports drink to fend off dehydration.

This is why during the swim no one tells you that unless you're out in front you can never be sure whether it’s just water you’re swimming in.

2. The chafing is unholy

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Salt water can become your skin's arch nemesis. Seriously, fail to generously apply some Vaseline around your swimsuit’s straps and openings (paying particular attention to the neck and armpits) and you’ll finish your triathlon with a lot less skin than when you started. So, ensure the kitbag and cupboards are fully stocked with litres of lube.

3. You're likely to get cramp

In hot and humid conditions cramp can strike down even the most seasoned triathletes. Because of the nature of the sport the calves will forever be in danger of exercise-induced cramps. Most severe cases occur when an athlete tenses up, which sends other muscles into contraction. If this happens it might be the point of no return. So don’t fight cramp, care for it. Stretching, hydration, pre-workout electrolytes and the tried and tested banana will help.

4. Look after your goggles

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Lose your goggles and you lose your race. Destined to continue your swim semi-blind, there’s nothing more dispiriting than heading out to sea equipped with nothing but hope and a rough sense of direction.

Always make sure that you inspect your goggles the night before by looking for small tears and ripples that indicate wear and tear. Also, remember that sun, chlorine and moisture can all cause a strap to break, so don’t unearth the goggles from the bottom of your swim bag after neglecting them for months and expect your triathlon to go swimmingly (pun intended).

5. It’s not a triathlon, it’s a fight

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Contrary to popular belief, the first 300m of a triathlon is not a swim – it’s a wrestling match. Athletes end up on top and underneath each other as elbows and fists are let to fly.

Also, if you’re lucky enough to reach the first buoy in a good position then brace yourself, it’s about to get worse. Everyone is trying to go around it as fast as possible, so to keep your position you must be quick – or be skilled in the art of water-based martial arts.

 6. You can get lost

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Getting lost during a triathlon is easier than you think. Swimming among a sea of bodies means that visibility is poor, if not non-existent, and if one arm is stronger than the other you could end up swimming in circles. This is why it’s often better to ignore the buoy if you can’t see it very well. Instead, head for something larger on the coastline like a tree or building. Don’t underestimate how valuable the skill of swimming with direction is, master it and it could save you swimming many unnecessary metres.

7. Prepare to be social

After surviving the impromptu Royal Rumble in the water you then mount your bike. What surprised me about this stage of a triathlon is how social it is. Triathletes will use this time to talk about everything from the flavour of the energy gels that they're using, to race tactics and personal bests. The camaraderie really is amazing and something I’ve not experienced in many other sports.

8. Beware of 'jelly leg'

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Don’t expect to hop off the bike and spring into your usual 5km/10km pace. It won’t happen as your legs will have other ideas. I learnt this the hard way during my very first training session as I quickly realised that although cycling and running are lower body events, they work very different muscle groups. Failing to acknowledge this meant that I fell victim to the blood that was 'pooled' in all the wrong places. When I tried to run I almost ended up face down during the transition.

Plaguing even the most seasoned runner, it happens because your hips will have been tightly compressed into a forward tuck position on the bike, so your lower body will feel stiff and you’ll be unable to extend your stride. Next, your upper body will have been pretty much motionless since the swim and all of a sudden you’re having to use your core to stand up tall. Finally – and again don’t underestimate this – your feet would have been fixed to your pedals for the past few hours in stiff cycling shoes, so they’ve gone numb.

9. Get comfortable with being dizzy

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Before I did my first triathlon I’d heard terms like 'blood pooling' and 'orthostatic intolerance', but had no idea what they meant. Orthostatic intolerance is a fancy way of saying that you get dizzy when you get out from the swim and it happens because your muscles are unable to help the heart in the circulation of blood — and therefore oxygen — around the body.

How do you combat it? Experts suggest that you should keep moving rather than stopping completely. The best tip I was given was to get out the water and take short steps at a higher cadence to help the calf muscles pump blood back up north to my head.

10. It's an eating competition

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I was once told: “Triathlons are not endurance events, but eating competitions”. This means that in the blistering heat and high humidity, the person who crosses the finish line first might not have been the fastest or favourite, but just the best at hydration and refueling.

Whether they knew it or not, the winner will be an expert in bioenergetics. This is the study of the transformation of energy in living organisms and whilst you might have an impressive VO2 maximum (lung capacity) and an equally brilliant lactic threshold (the point at which your muscles 'burn' and fatigue) it counts for very little when your nutrition and choice of fuel is inefficient. Basically, learn the art of fuelling properly.

Ross Edgley is an athlete adventurer, chief sports scientist at THE PROTEIN WORKS™ and considered one of the world’s most travelled fitness experts.

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