My first ever real triathlon (the Curwensville Lake Triathlon) was May 17, 2008. It consisted of 4.4 miles of running, 5 miles of paddling, and 15 miles of biking.

Since my swimming skills are pitiful at best, I welcomed the paddling (canoe/kayak) leg! I had never paddled a kayak before, but floating down the river in a boat seemed a little more beginner-friendly than jumping into the open water with hundreds of people around me!

You can also avoid swimming diagonally in the wrong direction in open water and even better, there’s no one to kick you in the face as they pass! Since you don’t get in the water at all, you also avoid the need for a wetsuit, goggles, and other special tri shorts and tank tops. (That stuff is expensive!)

If you don’t have a canoe or kayak, chances are there is a local shop that will rent one for a small fee the day of the race.

So now we know how great these tris are; here are some tips if you enter one:

1. Train for the Event, Not for Each Leg.

You have probably done some training for running, cycling, and/or paddling. But have you trained for the triathlon? To do well, you need to train for the combination of events, not just the separate events.

So you need to have ‘run then bike days’ or ‘paddle then bike’ days (sometimes called brick workouts) so your body gets used to the stresses. If you can plan the logistics, go for a run, a paddle, and a bike ride consecutively!

2. Visualize Transitions.

Even if you don’t have nifty triathlon gear, you can still practice to get the fastest transition with what you have.

For example, triathlon-style cycling shoes have one big velcro strap. They are very easy to put on and take off, one-handed, without looking. However, my road shoes have two small velcro straps and a ratchet strap. It’s pretty hard to mess with them one-handed, and getting that ratchet strap started requires a little attention from my eyes.

Despite that, I practiced a few times and figured out a strategy that isn’t perfect, but it will save me a little time. Hey, every second counts!

So think it over in your head. Really visualize the entire race.

Here’s an example from my race – getting out of the water and getting going on the bike. Here’s how it goes down…

Kayaking in water… eye up landing area. Unzip or unhook PFD. Hit kayak on shore. Put paddle down and step out of boat onto shore. Dont’ get feet wet. Stick paddle in boat. Drop PFD in boat. Drag boat along shore to docking area.

Run to bike. Grab helmet, put it on. (Helmet is hanging between handlebar and brake cables; shoes are clipped into pedals.) Untie sneakers and drop them. Slip right foot into right shoe. Pedal 1/2 stroke. Put left foot on top of left shoe. Pedal a few strokes to get coasting. Slip left foot into shoe. Close all velcro straps. Pedal a few more times. Tighten ratchet straps.

Then tuck down into an aero position and ride faster.

3. Practice Transitions.

Now that you have a visual of how it should work, get out there and practice the transition!

Just a few sessions will really cut down on your transition times, and even just one run-through could reveal flaws in your visualization.

Best of all, it will create less stress. While losing a few seconds won’t be a big deal outside of the professional level, the aggravation of a transition not going as planned will really get into your head and break your concentration, which could cost you the race.

4. Store Stuff on Your Bike.

I start riding after I get my helmet on. My shoes are attached to the bike but my feet are on top of them. My sunglasses are either on my face while kayaking or stuck in the vents of the helmet. My water bottle is in the cage. My gels are taped to the handlebar.

There is no need to adjust your sunglasses, strap your feet in, or get a sip of water while standing still. You can do all that stuff while riding. Even if you’re riding slow, you’re gaining a lot more ground than if you were standing still.

(Tip: some racers rubber band the heel of their shoe to the pedal to keep it upright.)

5. Multitask the Whole Time.

If you have small tasks to do, try to do them while moving. Eating and drinking, for example, should only be done while moving. It’s easiest on the bike, fairly easy on the run, but not so easy while paddling. So eat and drink the most while running and riding.

Gotta ditch your PFD, goggles, or something? Do it while you’re running through the transition area. Don’t stand still. (Once you stop, you have to start building momentum all over again.)

6. Rehearse on Race Day.

When all your stuff is setup, walk through the transition one last time. Memorize the exact path you have to take from your boat to your bike so you’re not looking all over the place during the actual race.

7. Make a List.

First, make a list of everything you need for race day. Then make separate lists of what you need to leave at each transition area. You might need a kayak, paddle, PFD, and water bottle. Then your bike, helmet, cycling shoes, 2nd water bottle, sunglasses, etc at the next one.

(My swim-bike-run packing checklist is a good start for creating your own list.)

8. Don’t Get Wet.

The great thing about this type of triathlon is that you don’t get wet, unless you fall in. (By the way, don’t fall in!)

You’ll be much more comfortable if you’re not running and biking with wet, muddy feet, so try to stay on dry land when launching and landing your boat.

9. Watch out for Cramps.

Here’s the thing with these run-paddle-bike triathlons. You start out using your legs, then you use your arms (and stick your legs into a little compartment,) and then you use your legs again.

Well, my legs really stiffened up in that hour between the run and bike. Sure, I stretched them as much as I could without tipping the kayak, but getting on the bike sucked after that!

10. Label Your Stuff.

Put your name and phone number on everything you might leave lying around. Transition areas can get messy and you definitely don’t want to lose a bike, kayak, or running shoes!

Some people have the same bike or kayak, and in my experience as a race photographer I have seen more than one mixup!

Now put all these tips into practice and get back to training so you can win your race!

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  1. Great tips. I did a kayak tri yesterday and have another one in 2 weeks. The transitions killed me. I am not comfortable enough on a bike in a crowd to do the whole strap your shoes on while riding thing yet. Something I need to practice. I did bricks this year which did help. Definitely put your name on everything. I lost a nice ball cap.

  2. Great tips indeed. Tip for folks who want to keep it low-cost, and just do the whole race in running shoes (assumes the run and/or bike is after the boating, which it was in all my races): save a pair of grocery bags and 2 long rubber bands – put them around your shoes while boating, and just rip them off after getting out of the water. I crushed my transition times by not messing with shoes on/off. For a longer bike ride or more serious racing, the tri bike shoes would be optimum, but for 90% of the folks I see out there, one pair of shoes is just fine.

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