The Mechanics of a Triathlon


Let’s start with a broad view of a typical triathlon, and then we can zoom into the specifics later on. A triathlon will be centered around a water source, whether it be a pool, lake, river, or ocean.  At first it may seem like there are a lot of parts and pieces to a triathlon (hopefully not too many, tri does mean “3,” right?). Actually, they are not that complicated, and once you have one under your belt the flow starts to seem quite natural, or at least as natural as running around all morning in lycra and spandex can feel.


At some point there will be a packet pick up where you will receive key race information and other items included in your race packet. These items might include race numbers to wear and/or put on the bike, perhaps course maps, a t-shirt, etc. You will find out when and where packet pick-up is from your race organizer, but it is often the day before a race, as well as early on race morning.  We also recommend you review the course in person if at all possible.  Check out where the transition area will be, how you will get from the swim to the transition area, and anything else you might be unsure about.  Taking out some of the mystery can go a long way in settling your nerves. You can simply drive the bike and run courses in your car.  This way, you get a feel for the course ahead of time, learn about any potential hazards, and identify some key landmarks to help you pace yourself on race day.

On race morning, we like to get to the transition area as early as possible in order to pick out a good spot.  Many triathlons will let you place your bike and equipment anywhere you choose along your assigned rack (typically a 2” diameter bar supported at both ends – think of it as a big curtain rod, but for bikes). You will also need to pick up a timing chip.  In modern triathlons, this is how you are tracked.  A small waterproof, electronic chip is attached to your ankle with a strap.  At critical parts of the course (such as transition entrances and exits and the finish line) timing mats are placed on the ground.  When you pass over these mats your time at that point is recorded.  You will also need to get body marked.  Yes, there are people there who will write on you.  Volunteers with markers in hand will write your race number and age or race category on some part of your body (usually the arm, leg, or both). Once you have finished setting up your transition area, picked up a timing chip, and received your body marking you can start getting prepared for the first leg of your event.


If your event has a pool swim, it is likely that you will have already been seeded.  That means you will have been assigned a start time based on your predicted swim time.  Usually you will submit a predicted swim pace when you register for the event.  Swimmers will be released in 10-15 second increments, depending on the number of participants.  A pool start makes it a little tougher to figure out how you are doing with respect to your peers on the course, as you may have started your race 10 minutes ahead, or 5 minutes behind the person you later find yourself running beside.  However, those who may be a little wary of swimming in large bodies of water can find pool swims more mentally comforting. If your swim is not in a pool, then you have what is referred to as an open water swim.

An open water swim can start in one of two ways; mass start or wave start.  A mass start is just what it sounds like, the gun goes off and everyone starts at once.  Some mass starts begin with the participants in the water, while others may have you start on the shore and run into the water.  If you have never participated in this type of start before, you may find it helpful to position yourself a little toward the back and outside of the pack.  This can help you keep from getting run over by the more aggressive and experienced swimmers.  Open water swims also afford the opportunity for the use of wetsuits.  Besides looking really snappy, a wetsuit gives you added buoyancy and makes you a little faster in the water.  Wetsuits are not allowed in all races, and whether or not they are usually depends on the water temperature (78 degrees or colder for USAT sanctioned races).

Once you reach the end of your swim, you will make your approach to the transition area.  Shorter pool swims often have a shorter distance between the pool and the transition area.  On the other hand, open water swims will tend to feature a greater distance between the swim exit and the transition area.  This gives you a chance to “find” your legs before starting the bike leg of your race.

Transition 1:

Transition one, or T1 as it is commonly known, is considered to start when you enter the transition area and end when you leave it.  This is where you will go get your bicycle (a loud and obnoxious transition towel can be key here). Once you find your bike, hopefully quickly since you had taken special note of where you left it, you can put on your cycling shoes, helmet, sunglasses, grab whatever else you want to take on the bike, and get on your way.  Here are a couple of things that are key. You MUST wear a helmet and it MUST be buckled before you get on your bike.  To skip either is a major no-no and will result in penalty or disqualification.  Also, you will not actually get on your bike until you leave the transition area.  It’s just too dangerous to have people riding their bikes in such a confined area while others are still staggering around like new-born giraffes after the swim. There will probably be a line drawn on the ground somewhere immediately outside the bike start gate of the transition area. Once you cross that line you are free to hop on your bike and crank it ‘til your heart’s content.


The bike, well, this part is pretty self explanatory.  You ride your bike as fast and efficiently as you can while still conserving something for the run, and pedal until you get back to the transition area.  Well, okay, maybe there is a little more too it.  Bike courses come in two flavors, open or closed.  An open course means that you will be sharing the road with other types of traffic, i.e. cars.  The intersections are still usually controlled in these races, but you need to exercise caution whenever you are on the road with other types of traffic.  Thankfully, most races are held in the morning when traffic is light, and race organizers like to plot the bike course on lightly traveled roads whenever possible. A closed course is a new triathlete’s dream.  This means that roads have been closed to motorized vehicles and that the only traffic you will probably need to be concerned with is your fellow competitors.

Once on the road, there are some basic rule to remember.  First, stay to the right.  Try not to wander all over your lane of traffic because this is not only a rules violation, it is a safety issue.  If you are caught hogging the left side of the lane and other riders can’t get around you, you could get a blocking penalty.  Also, don’t draft. That is considered an unfair advantage and race officials will penalize you for it.  USAT rules say you need to keep at least three bike lengths between yourself and the bike in front of you, that is, unless you intend to pass.  When you pass, always do so on the left, and you must complete your pass within 15 seconds of entering the “draft zone.”  If you don’t do it in fifteen seconds, you could receive a “position” penalty.  I know, this sounds like a lot of rules (and there are more), but once you get out there and just race your race it’s really not complicated at all.  It’s as easy as riding a bike!

Transition 2:

Just as there was a bike mount line at T1, there will also be a bike dismount line at T2.  Once you get to this line (volunteers will be stationed there most likely) you can hop off of your bike and return it to its proper place on the rack.  At this point you can take off your cycling shoes and helmet, and prepare to put on your run gear.  A pair of running shoes, a hat, and your race number are typically all you will need.  You might choose to take a gel pack with you if you feel you will need any type of nutrition on the run.  There will be a designated “run exit” leading you out of the transition area and voila!  You’re 2/3 of the way there!


Run courses can vary widely from race to race.  Some are flat, some are hilly, sunny, shaded, and open or closed.  The same conditions mentioned earlier with respect to open and closed bike courses apply here.  It’s a little easier to come up with closed run courses since shorter runs can be held in places like large parks and on run paths. Some run courses will also feature aid stations.  There, volunteers will be stationed with water and sometimes some sort of sports drink.  Simply stay on the marked course and your run should go just fine.  One item to remember concerns the finish line.  Make sure your race number is visible before you cross the line.  It should be on your front, not your back.  It would be pretty frustrating to get a penalty as soon as you cross the line simply because of your number location.


Celebrate!  If you’ve made it this far you’ve completed a triathlon!  Based on your personality type you might choose to handle this occasion in different ways.  Those type “A”s out there might want to run as hard and fast as they can until they fall over or are stopped by a volunteer, whichever comes first.  Others may choose to savor the moment, waving to the crowd, taking in some high fives, and doing their own special celebration dance. Completing your first event can make you feel like Superman/woman, a rock star, and the cat’s meow combined. So whichever category you fall into, make the most of the moment, you are a triathlete!

JUMP to next section, Essential Equipment.