Top 7 Mistakes Triathlon Newbies Make

A pro triathlete-proven guide to avoiding the most common rookie missteps

Pro triathlete and 2015 Ironman North America champion Matt Hanson remembers his biggest rookie tri mistake, and it didn’t even come during his first Ironman in Coeur d’Alene. It happened at a California race later that summer, where he had gone in completely unprepared for the heat. When he got to the marathon, he tried to run the same pace he had run at his Kona-qualifying Coeur d’Alene race, “and it just destroyed me by like mile 5, so I was cramping up for like the last 20 miles,” he recalls. “That was probably the least amount of fun I have ever had at one race.”

To make sure you do have fun at your first or next race, we tapped Hanson, a Storm Lake, Iowa-based pro, triathlon coach and Save the Children athlete ambassador, for the most common mistakes he sees new triathletes make, and advice on how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Not listening to your body

Hanson could have been spared a lot of discomfort if he had learned to listen to his body before his second 140.6-mile race, in which he melted down in the heat. Besides being prepared for the heat specifically (Hanson would have his athletes undergo a heat acclimation protocol—things like overdressing for workouts, or working out during the hottest part of the day), he neglected to listen to his body. “Make sure you’re paying attention to more than just pace or power during a race, but also looking at heart rate and making sure that matches up well,” Hanson says. If you do have all the techy gadgets (GPS watch, power meter), it seems intuitive to follow the numbers you’re used to seeing on your long workouts, but make sure you’re willing to adjust your plan if needed. “If you learn to look at the data and use it as another tool to see what the body is telling you, you can make adjustments before things go so far downhill that you can’t come back from it,” Hanson says. Those adjustments could include backing off your pace a bit, increasing your calorie intake, or dumping water on yourself to cool down.

Mistake #2: Getting carried away in the early stages of your race

“Nothing magical happens,” Hanson says. “Your body responds based on the training that you did.” It’s all too easy to get carried away during the first hour on the bike (and sometimes run) for a full Ironman. “There’s so much energy, there’s usually a lot of people, so a lot of people override for that first hour,” he says. “I typically encourage my athletes to almost underride for that first hour because you can always ride harder. You can’t go back and undo something that’s already been done.”

Mistake #3: Neglecting mid-week workouts

Hanson frequently sees athletes putting too much emphasis on long workouts on the weekends and not enough on the day-in, day-out, Monday-through-Friday workouts. “[These weekday workouts] are typically shorter, so a lot of times people give them less importance, but the best way to prepare for a race is to have consistency in training,” Hanson says. Stick to the training plan and know that you’re getting more out of those 60-minute workouts than you realize.

7 Mistakes Triathlon Newbies Make

Mistake #4: Not understanding your bike’s gearing

“Road cyclists shift three times as often as the average triathlete does,” Hanson says. Why? Because road cyclists understand how their bike’s gearing works, and—especially on hills—understand how to make their bike do more of the work. “Triathletes are more likely to grind up a hill than shift or make it a little bit easier on themselves,” he says. Get to know your gearing!

Mistake #5: Trying something new on race day

“Nothing new on race day” is a commonly used but very wise phrase in the tri world. “First-time triathletes will get excited in the expo and buy something they’ve never used before and use it on race day,” Hanson says. It could be anything from a new gel flavor to a helmet, but whatever it is and no matter how minor it may seem, if you’ve never used it before, it “can just cause a whole string of events that you might not be ready for.”

Mistake #6: Not self-seeding correctly

At more and more Ironman and 70.3 races, you’ll start seeing rolling swim starts (as in athletes self-seed according to how fast they estimate they’ll swim) rather than wave starts (where athletes are grouped according to their age group and go off in scheduled time increments). “I think seeding yourself 5 minutes faster than you think you’ll swim is fine,” Hanson says. “Seeding yourself 30 minutes faster than you think you’ll swim is a good way to get run over and panic.”

Mistake #7: Second-guessing your nutrition strategy

Once you’ve figured out your nutrition plan, trust it! Hanson has seen “people panicking or not following their plan and asking everybody around them what they do, and then race week trying to change it to that because it worked for somebody else.” Remember: Long workouts are for more than aerobic fitness—they’re opportunities for you to test out your race-day nutrition plan. Once you know it works for you, stick to it.

In general, Hanson encourages athletes to find the best training situation for themselves—“whether it’s a coach or a training plan or a group of people you live around that you can train with, just trust the process because that’s what’s going to get you through race day.”

*Dr. Matt Hanson races as a professional triathlete and coaches triathletes, cyclists and runners.  Matt has an extensive background as an athlete and is highly-educated in all things sports-related. You can reach out to Coach Hanson for more information related to Coaching and STC involvement at http://www.matthansoncoaching.com

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