Choosing your first race is one of the biggest decisions you can make as an aspiring triathlete, and it can actually be the difference between you making it to the finish or not. There are a surprising number of factors to take into account, and the race fees may well set your back three figures, so it’s important to get it right. We’ll start with the basics and slowly move our way into the more detailed, tricky stuff.
Before you even look at events, you need to decide which distance you’re going to be tackling. The standardised distances are:
750M Swim (400M if pool based)
Hopefully you’ll have decided on a distance before you even begin your training, but if you haven’t yet started then it’s crunch time and you need to make a decision before the races start selling out. I recommend a distance you feel is realistic, yet will provide you with a feeling of reward upon completion. If you are new to endurance sport then a super sprint will likely prove to be a challenge in itself, however if you’re an experienced ultra runner and long distance cyclist who has been competing for many years and just needs to master the swim, then an Ironman may, in extreme cases, provide you with the challenge you’re after.
This is probably the second biggest consideration, where will you be swimming? In an icy Scottish loch? In a shallow, warm lake? Or in your local leisure centre pool? If you are new to triathlon I’m 90% certain the swim will be causing you the most anxiety, and managing this fear is paramount. If you are going to have sleepless nights thinking about open water swimming, a pool based event will be the safest choice. Alternatively if you are lucky enough to be an accomplished swimmer, then a sea swim may give you the sense of achievement and adventure that you crave.
Writing this from my London flat, I’m very fortunate in that there are hundreds of races within driving distance so I can have my pick of any event of any distance, however if you live in a more isolated area, you may have much less of a choice. It may be tempting to travel somewhere more exotic to make a holiday out of it, but for your first race it’s worth considering the other stresses this introduces into what may already be a stressful experience. You have travel, transporting your bike, hiring a car, potential language barriers, unknown local cuisine, jet lag and more, all of which can work against you and getting to the start line calm and confident. If you are lucky enough to have a local event close enough that you can travel there and back in the same day, I highly recommend you do so, so that even if you do have a sleepless night, at least it’s from the comfort of your own bed. Completing a triathlon is an exhausting experience, so having someone to drive you there and back
The chances are you’ll be looking for an event which you feel confident getting around, and this will likely equate to a nice, flat course, especially if you’re making your debut at Olympic distance or above. I personally love hilly courses as these are where I perform well, but if you’re tentative about your first event, you probably want to remove as many potential tripping points as possible. Sticking to flatter courses is a great way to save energy, increasing your chances of finishing or hitting your target time.
Number of Competitors
Many newer athletes really benefit from having constant support on the course, feeding off of the energy and noise of the crowd as they make their way towards the finish line. If this is the case for you then it’s probably best you find a large scale event such as The London Triathlon, a World Series event or a local race renowned for its support. The flip side to this is that if an event has a lot of competitors, the course can be very busy, which can be intimidating for newer athletes, and frustrating for faster athletes as they try to weave their way around slower participants.
Not all race organisers are created equal, an understatement if there ever were one. I’ve organised a triathlon and been race director a couple of times so I know how much goes into running an event, but it’s incredible how badly some organisers get it wrong. At one event I competed at they ran out of transition racking so bikes were stacked three deep against a wall, and I once arrived at a junction during a small 70.3 to discover a sign flapping around in the wind and no marshals, resulting in a 700M diversion before a group ran towards me shouting “Don’t run that way!”. Race organisers really make a difference, not just due to huge errors such as those, but smaller details such as clearing the swim course of weed, having enough aid stations that are well stocked, a professional transition area and in some cases closed roads. Yes events by premium race organisers are expensive, but you normally get what you pay for.
Are you looking at a race in the Mediterranean during summer, or a race in Yorkshire in October? Are you a larger athlete who struggles in the heat, or a featherweight who struggles in the cold? This is an important distinction to make, and you should use this to help you choose your race. You have enough to worry about during your first race without having to take layering and heat management into account.
Time of Year
This is perhaps the most underrated consideration, when in the year will you be competing? Many will have been training through the winter and be raring to go come May when the first races kick off. If this is simply your warmup event or your chance to dip your toe in the sport that’s fine, but if you’re new to open water swimming and entering an early season even which you’ve invested a lot of energy into training for, this makes me very nervous as a coach. The reason being that someone can be really strong in the pool, but get into the open water and really struggle with the cold temperature (as low as 12 degrees), murky waters and swimming amongst thousands of others, causing a major panic attack and potential DNF. By choosing a race later in the season (July or August) you will not only be able to spend more time training in open water, the temperature will also be warmer on race day, vastly improving you chances of finishing.
Do you have friends who will be racing alongside you? Or family that will come along to support you? This is especially important after your first race when you’ll either be on cloud nine crossing the line, or in need of a pick me up should the racing gods conspire against you.
This is by no means an extensive list, there are plenty of other factors you will need to take into account yourself given your unique circumstances, but hopefully this will help you make an intelligent choice for your first race, to make sure it’s an enjoyable experience rather than a battle for survival.
If you are looking for help choosing a race, you may be interested in our coaching consultation where we can look at lots of factors and use our experience of events to help you choose the right one for you, or if you want a fully comprehensive coaching package, including coach attendance at major races, head to our application page.