My Triathlon Mistakes: Would I Make Them Again?

I’m not a super experienced triathlete but even still I have made some real mistakes and more “triathlon” mistakes. Some I made on purpose, a few because I didn’t have much of a choice and some were just plain old stupid. Personally I have found the culture of triathlon really intimidating and still do. There’s not really any reason for that and nothing says you have to buy into certain aspects of it. Let’s be honest here, I know I’m not going to win and the level I invest my life into an upcoming triathlon reflects that. I mostly want to use the gear I have, be comfortable on race day and make myself proud. No one else really matters. You might see some themes remerging time and time again here some of them might be specific to me. That’s okay too. I’m writing this to hopefully convince you to take the plunge because race day and training for a triathlon is way more fun than most other races out there.

I’ve gone wetsuit free in a wetsuit legal race

My whole life I’ve been swimming in cold lakes and the ice cold North Atlantic. I’ve also been a waterfront life guard for a time at lake and shore fronts too. I’ve learned that if you’re swimming full out you won’t be cold. Since we have to wait later in the season for the water to warm up enough the bike portion and the run is usually in sweltering heat here. For my first race I didn’t have the shorty wetsuit I use now for ocean swims but for a lake swim at the end of August or early September the water is 70 F by then so I didn’t really need one. I’m a strong swimmer, my shorty suit doesn’t provide much buoyancy and it’s nice to start the day off cool. Plus not using one does save some time in T1. 

Verdict: I would totally do this one again. If I was doing a regulation race I’d have to cover my abdomen during the rest of the race and it’s just so easy to swim in my shorts and bra and slip on a shirt later with your number already attached. If you however want to wear one for speed or comfort in the water then do it. But there are always some athletes without a suit at every race so you won’t be alone!

I swim the breast stroke

On purpose. My breaststroke was always my strongest stoke for endurance events dating right back to lifeguard training. I do a basic breast stroke keeping my chin in and adding a butterfly kick to each stroke. It uses totally different muscles than the bike or the run and since I’ve always done the swim sans contacts I can sight well. Typically doing this I finish my swim in or near the top half. Without my glasses, which I put on in T1 I am well past the point of legally blind.

Verdict: I will probably keep doing this. I did buy some daily contacts last year for our wedding and obviously my next thought was to wear them for races. So I might experiment with giving that a try in the future. Here’s a fun fact though races are usually obliged to accommodate you. Most have a table or a person pass them to me as I exit the water. If this is what’s holding you back from tri-ing don’t let it!

I’ve done the swim without goggles

Not on purpose but during my very first sprint my goggles broke as soon as I hit the water. I stashed them in my sports bra and carried on what else could I do? I made it through and even had a respectable time. 

Verdict: Don’t do this at least buy the second cheapest pair at the sporting goods store. The cheapest pair will break, trust me! Having goggles is always worth it on race day.

I’ve ridden a mountain bike on the road

Ride what you got right? Totally! For my first tri I rode my dirty old mountain bike (with suspension) and I lived but it was slow and really hard! I got really used to hearing “on your left.” But again I wasn’t the only one there in a mountain bike and someone rides one in every race. If you’re in it to win it this probably won’t get you there but you’ll still get across that finish line. After that I took a year and tracked down a great used road bike and got it for Christmas that year. The truth is its more about the engine than the gear but it really does tucker you out for the run.

Verdict: I did buy a road bike after that so… But if you’re just flirting with your first few triathlons then go for it. If you decide to stick with it take some time and buy a bike you love in your price range.

I don’t use cages or even clips

Any cyclist will tell you if you want to get the most speed from your efforts you need to get power from your pull as well as your push on the pedals. You do that by attaching the pedal to your foot in some way. This can be done with cages or more often special shoes that clip to your bike pedals. I however don’t do this. Why is that? Well I have no experience with cages or clips at all and adding something new is totally intimidating to me. All of my cycling up until about 2 years ago happened on a mountain bike where attaching your foot to the pedal is frowned upon for safety reasons. The idea being that when you’re in the woods and going over having your leg attached to the bike is a liability. For now I’m still very much adjusting to the different riding position and handlebars on my road bike and that’s enough for now.

Verdict: I am 100% going to keep my empty pedals for now. There are a few bike skills I’m working on at the moment and it will be a while at the rate I’m going before I’m ready to work on something new. If I do work on it I’ll be going for clips over cages. That means new shoes and pedals potentially for two bikes and that’s a lot. Plus if you’re riding with clips you have to change your shoes in T2 where as right now I don’t. Unless I somehow get to the point where my results are getting close to elite (won’t happen) I’m good being comfortable where I’m at without clips or cages.

I’ve left my tools and water in transition

Race day nerves are common no matter what your race is. However this can really be amplified  in the case of a triathlon. The other athletes are often so intense and there is a long list of have toos that you feel pressure to follow. As I’m planning my race day out I am more than okay with deviating from those ‘rules’. For my olympic triathlon (which was not regulation) I planned on wearing my hydration pack for the bike and the run which had my tools stashed in there too. Well as the race started and I was super nervous I felt pressure to do what all the other kids were doing which meant I left my pack at the racks. I realized well into the ride that I had no tools or a tube on board to fix anything that went wrong with my bike. Which meant that had I gotten a flat the race I trained for 5 months for would have been over. It worked out that day but it was a big mistake.

Verdict: I don’t intend on doing something like this ever again. That means if I plan my race a certain way carefully before hand I should always execute that plan on race day. I need to be even more aware of the fact that the intense culture surrounding triathlons leads me to second guess my choices in the moment and ignore that. The key here is to be confident in the fact that I am there to run my race and it doesn’t really matter what anyone else there is doing.

I’ve not prevented preventable breakdowns

Alright, I’m an idiot. For my biggest race so far I took training as an opportunity to learn more about my ‘new’ road bike and get comfortable fixing it myself. That’s a good goal overall but paying an expert to go over it too would have been a great choice as well. On race day I dropped my chain 5 times and came third last of 60 athletes. My placement doesn’t really matter but I didn’t set myself up for all the success I was capable of and that does matter. There’s no guarantee that I wouldn’t still have had chain issues on the big day but I didn’t do all I could to give myself the best race possible after dedicating 6 months and hundreds of hours training for it. That seems like a pretty big mistake to me.

Verdict: While learning a new skill is always a great thing there is no reason that has to come at the expense of a professional tune up. Having a breakdown I clearly could have prevented opened my eyes to the fact that investing lots and lots of time, money and effort and still skipping one important step is foolish. From now on before I do any race my bike is getting the once over from a professional even if I think it’s in tip top shape.

I don’t have a tri suit or any ‘fancy’ gear really

The list of gear I don’t have for triathlons is long. It includes:

  • A carbon fiber bike
  • A tri suit
  • I have aero bars that came with my bike but I’m not ready for them yet
  • Clips and shoes
  • A long regulation wetsuit
  • Aero wheels
  • Performance slicks (I go for durable fairly smooth ones instead with side tread)
  • A seat bottle holder
  • A time trial helmet
  • Shoe covers
  • A bib belt
  • Triathlon specific shoes

You’ll notice a few of the items on this list only cost a few dollars too and I could totally afford it. The carbon fiber bike, not so much! Here’s the thing though I could buy any of those things on the list and maybe shave a few seconds or minuets off my time but none of those items would make me a better athlete overall. I’m still very much a novice triathlete and that’s totally okay! For now its certainly not my gear that’s limiting my performance it’s my skills and conditioning. If I work on my skills and my conditioning the gear I already have can yield much better results than I’m getting right now. In other words me and my equipment still have a lot of unrealized potential on race day and I’m more than okay with that!

Verdict: Just because lots of lots of regular people spend big on triathlons buying themselves some speed doesn’t mean you have to. I could easily spend upwards of $14 000 dollars on all that stuff, look like a serious competitor and go a bit faster on race day. But none of that fancy gear alone will make me a better athlete. Someday maybe my kit will be what is holding me back but that day is a long, long way off. It might even never come. I can honestly say that I won’t be ‘pressured’ into spending money just to fit in at the racks if I don’t feel like I need to. As the need or connivence of a particular item increases for me I’ll consider it carefully and decide if it’s worth it but for now my gear is more than enough. The next item might be a tri suit for a regulation race but so far the extra bit of convince for something I only wear every two years or so just doesn’t seem worth it.

I’ve done a sprint triathlon with zero training

Actually someone I know even did an olympic triathlon with no training and lived through it so I’m not alone. You can read about how getting injured by a remote control car lead me there but I decided on a whim to do my first race in a decade, which just happened to be a sprint triathlon. Just so you know there are tri-a-tri events too and a sprint is actually pretty long. At the time I was cycling for hours and running about 6k regularly. It was a whim and I didn’t want to spend more than just the considerable race fee on the ‘big day’. Actually I wouldn’t even let honey come because I thought there was a non-zero chance I would just quit. But I finished the race and everyone including me was surprised.

Verdict: At some point every one has to do their first tri and so what if you’re not properly trained. There is zero shame in a slow time and well if you didn’t train at all a did not finish that isn’t the end of the world either. I’ll bet that the experience will just make you super motivated to go back and crush it again next year. Just make sure that going for it under trained or not that you don’t have any serious medical issues that racing could bring up. Also maybe look into the specific distances for all the events for the race you’ll be doing. Even if you start small it’s still a triathlon!

When you dip your toe at all into the triathlon world you’ll hear about so many things you just have to do. Some of those things aren’t really things or mandatory or all that helpful to do really. It’s a really different culture than running and it can be really overwhelming. You can decide how much you want to let that get to you though. With so many events, transitions and moving parts remember that everyone makes a few ‘mistakes’. Have you ever made a triathlon mistake? What was your biggest one? Do you continue to make one on purpose? Leave it in the comments below!

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