A triathlete on the bike
© Fabio Piva / Red Bull Content Pool

Triathlon: 10 essential tips and tricks

Looking to take on your first triathlon? These timeworn tips and tricks will ensure you make it to the finish line with all the swagger of a veteran.
Written by Joe Ellison
8 min readUpdated on
Never before has dipping a toe into the (open) waters of triathlon been more tempting.
If it's not the inspirational feats of global superstars including Lucy Charles-Barclay and Kristian Blummenfelt getting you in the mood, it's the steady increase of accessible events on your own doorstep.
Ranging from short courses to lung-busting distances, from flat terrain to the sort of steep inclines that will make you think you're running into orbit, there is a race out there for everyone.
Even so, a first triathlon can be a daunting experience. You can put in all the running, pool laps and cycling training you like - race day is a different beast. Will you sink or swim in front of a crowd? Will a field of vastly more experienced competitors give you butterflies? And what happens if something goes wrong?
Triathlon tips for beginners

Triathlon tips for beginners

© Johan Badenhorst/ Red Bull Content Pool

Whatever your concerns ahead of the big day, have no fear. Barry Monaghan, a triathlon and cycling coach based in Newry, Northern Ireland, has 10 beginner tips to help you smash your first event, helping to turn any weaknesses into strengths and set your mind at ease.
What the former U23s National Team Director of Irish Cycling doesn’t know about maximising your potential in sporting competition isn’t worth knowing. Here are his top pointers...

Don't drastically alter patterns the night before

"If you try and change what you normally do week in, week out, it’s not going to work out. If somebody usually goes to bed at midnight but the day before a race tries to sleep at 10pm, they’ll be staring at the ceiling all night. The change at that stage is too late.
"Another big thing to be wary of is doing nothing. Many beginner athletes are fearful of training the day before an event. But in actual fact doing something related to your race the previous day is very important. I recommend doing a 30-minute moderate bike ride and a 10 to 15-minute moderate run, all very easy activation work.

Check your bike well before the race

"Try and get down to your race well in advance. The main thing is to get the bike into the compound and transition area – that’s the ultimate priority. Once it's done, have a look around to have a good idea where the start is. If it’s an open water swim, how big is the entry point? How many people are going to be in the first wave?
"Be sure to also leave plenty of time to go to the bathroom as you may be queuing for 10 to 15 minutes. That way you still have plenty of time to warm up. The longer the event, the greater the preparation."

Make sure that all your gear has been tested prior

"All of the equipment that you use on the day should be well tried and tested well before the race. There’s no point turning up trying something new on the day, or the day before. The sizing needs to be comfortable. Maybe you'll want to apply some sort of chamois cream or Vaseline to stop chaffing on the bike and around the course.
"Ideally having some knowledge of the course in advance of the race helps, too. If you live close to where it’s happening, spending some time riding the bike course in the weeks leading up to it - so you know whether it’s a very hilly or technical route - is a very good thing to do."
A triathlete at Train for Aim Triathlon in 2014

If you're not confident in open water, take the swim at your own pace

© Train for Aim Triathlon


If swimming isn’t your strength, hang back

"If you’re a strong, confident swimmer, getting mixed in towards the front of your wave is important. You'll want to capitalise on your strength. However, if you’re relatively inexperienced in open water then try to avoid that massive surge in the first couple of minutes and get as much space as you can. If you’re not confident in the water, the best thing you can do is get room around you to concentrate on your breathing. The energy cost in those first few minutes is massive. For some people it’s important to be at the front but don't forget that, percentage wise, the swim leg is the least important leg."
What did Mike Tyson say? Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. You’ve got to be able to deal with something going wrong.

Shake your legs before reaching the bike

"One of the big problems in transitions is that the muscle requirement is completely different between disciplines. We do brick sessions for exactly that reason, to get the body adjusted to making that change of mechanics. Most swimmers don’t kick enough so you come out of cold water and your legs may feel blocked because they’ve been largely inactive during the swim. Get the blood flowing in them by shaking them before getting to your bike."

Don’t go sprinting on the bike from the off

"By all means take advantage of that enthusiasm from friends and family, but the last thing you want to do is go tearing out on the bike for the first minute or so. The physical cost is massive. The vast majority of amateur triathletes come out of the bike and run transitions at a speed that is far above what they’re capable of holding for 5k or 10k. Try and control your effort instead. If someone says I’m going to hold 200 watts over 12k, and after 2k they look down and they’re seeing 240 watts they’re unlikely to sustain it. Your perception of effort on a bike should score no more than a 6 to 7 out of 10."
Lucy Charles running in IRONMAN World Championship race in 2017.

Lucy Charles-Barclay in action

© Graeme Murray/Red Bull Content Pool


Keep your rivals in sight

"It’s a massive physiological plus when you have someone in sight and you’re catching people. One thing I say to people who are not great at swimming but are strong cyclists is that they’re going to catch a lot of people on the bike. They’ll be passing a hell of a lot of people during the bike leg. There is also a slight drafting effect when you catch somebody and pass them quite closely. You can’t sit behind them as it’s not legal but you can certainly move out and get a window of a few seconds of drafting. Just remember you’ve still got to run, so you need to control your effort on the bike."

Have a fuelling goal in mind

"Lucy Charles-Barclay is probably consuming 90-100 of carbs an hour at the highest level, but that would be impossible for somebody who is not a serious athlete. A decent rule of thumb for a beginner is to aim for 50-60 grams of carbs per hour for the event. Hydrate well before the race, too.
"So when's best to fuel up? What you’ll find is that more experienced athletes back off on their efforts as they approach a transition. They're getting a bit of fuel in, recovering a little bit, getting mentally ready for the next part. There's also no harm in slowing down and refuelling at water stations without the disruption you get when your drink is going over the place. What have you lost in terms of time? Nothing. A couple of seconds. On the bike, get a bit of speed up over the first 2k and sort your positioning out before taking on fuel."
Triathlon Ireland

Triathlon Ireland

© Flo Hagena


Have a mental check-in when you start running

"When you start a run, any pacing strategy is irrelevant in the first km or two. It defies logic to me when you see people looking at their watch to see what pace they’re running at after 500m; it’s totally irrelevant. The most important thing is to check in to yourself. Have I fuelled ok? Am I breathing well? How’s my head? Is my biomechanics the way it normally is during a hard run? Get a rhythm to your breathing, which is absolutely key.
"Again, don't go too hard too quickly. People will come sprinting out like they’re running 400m and then half a mile later they’re almost walking."

If you encounter mishaps, keep calm and carry on

"What did Mike Tyson say? 'Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.' You’ve got to be able to pivot, to be ready for something to go wrong. If anything does happen it'll be on the bike leg - mechanical issues, a puncture, or falling off around a corner - but you can’t let it disrupt you. A puncture is inconvenient, and you lose five minutes or more, but if finishing is the goal then don’t worry. You can’t always factor in things that are outside your control, such as weather conditions or what another competitor does.
"Have belief in your own fitness, too. If you've spent three or four months training hard then that’s in the bank. All the sessions, all the swims, all the bike, the runs, they haven’t gone away. If you’re feeling a wee bit off, that’s all part of the game. It’s about having a strategy to deal with that. Gather yourself, refresh yourself mentally and go again."
For more information on one-to-one coaching or online 12-week training programmes, visit Barrymonaghan.com
To see how to transition like a pro in a triathlon, click here.