What do you really need in order to race?
Like practically any sport, triathlon has the unfortunate potential to become a financial black hole, sucking in every spare penny that comes close to it. This however does not have to be the case. Here is a quick rundown of what we consider to be some of the essentials of the sport, as well as some optional items you may choose to consider a little farther down the road. Most of the time, what you do with your gear is much more significant than the gear itself. The items in this list that we consider “essential equipment” (EE) and “nice but not necessary” (NBNN) are marked as such. Of course, the ultimate choice of what gear you choose to race with is up to you.
Here are two lists for you to consider. If you only want to see a list of items without all of our commentary (but how can you resist it?) jump to our skinny list. Otherwise, check out the descriptions below before you head out for a an all day shopping spree.
PRE-RACE AND NON-SPORT SPECIFIC ITEMS
Warm-up suit (NBNN): This doesn’t have to be a $100 track suit. A simple suit from any –mart will do. This will help you stay warmed up in those early season events and make the pre-race activities a little more pleasant. They key is not to hit the swim with frozen muscles.
Flash light or head lamp (NBNN): In early season events, the transition area will often open before the sun is fully up. A flashlight that mounts on a head band really helps free up your hands and so you can set up your gear in the wee hours. A basic flashlight will also get the job done.
Towel (EE): You already have these in the house. Just pick out the loudest most garish one you can find and you’re set. This is what you will organize your gear on in the transition area.
Training swim suit (NBNN): You don’t really need a separate swim suit to train in, but it can certainly be an advantage. This isn’t such a big factor for the ladies as it is for the men. Guys, if you are used to wearing a long baggy suit or board shorts you can certainly swim in those. However, you will have a lot of drag during training and your motions (kick, body roll, etc.) will not be what you will experience when wearing a tri suit or tri shorts. We say it’s not necessary because you can technically swim in what you already have. However, in order to train effeciently and effectively a nice contoured suit (brief style or jammer) is recommended. TYR, Speedo, and Nike all make good suits to name a few. You can spend a lot if you want to, but closeout sales can sometimes net you good suits in the $30 range.
Tri-suit/ tri-shorts/ tri-top (EE): This is going to be your main racing attire, so we call it essential. A tri-suit is a one piece outfit that is like a pair of swim/bike shorts and tank top combined. What makes it tri specific is the material it is made from. Triathlon suits are usually made of a fast drying material that is hydrophobic (it repels water instead of retaining it). You may be thinking, “I’ve got to hop on a bike right after this, why not just swim in my bike shorts, or bike in my swim suit?” Those are fair questions. Tri-shorts and cycling shorts both have a pad in them called a chamois (pronounced SHA-MEE). The purpose of the chamois is to provide some crucial padding between your more sensitive areas and the bicycle saddle (seat). The chamois in a pair of tri-shorts is typically thinner and quick drying. On the other hand, those found in cycling shorts tend to be more substantial, and thus absorbent. You don’t want to jump on your bike feeling like you are wearing a full diaper (so the bike shorts are out), and you also don’t want to get on with nothing to come between you, your saddle, and many miles on the road (that knocks out the swim suit for most of us).
A tri-top is a similar story. It doesn’t soak up lot’s of water, is close fitting, and provides you some protection from the elements while on the bike and run. All of this also saves you time. Unless you are participating in an Iron distance race and plan to change clothes in the provided tents, there is really no opportunity (or time) for a wardrobe change in most events. Therefore, you need an outfit that will do triple duty. The cost of a tri-top or pair of shorts can vary considerably, but we seek out end of season sales and usually find either in the $30-$50 range. I have seen some great 50% off sales at the end of season where quality tops can be had for $25. Reliable brands include: Sugoi, 2XU, Craft, Desoto, Louis Garneau, Orca, and Pearl Izumi among others. For what it’s worth, going with a tri-short and tri-top versus the suit seems like a more versatile option to us.
TriathlonWetsuit: (EE/NBNN): In a mid season race when water temps are mild, this is a toss up. On the other
hand, if you are racing early or late season with water temps in 60s, we consider this one essential (unless you grew up swimming in the Klondike).
The USAT considers a swim wetsuit legal when the water is at or below 78 degrees. If the water is between 78 and 84 degrees you can still wear one, but you won’t be eligible for any awards. Beyond water temps of 84 degress wetsuits are prohibited- it’s just not safe to wear one in those temps (too hot!)
We’ve had good experience with suits from Promotion, Xterra, 2XU, and Blue Seventy. In warmer climates a sleeveless suit may be all you need, although a full suit is a little faster. There can be a large swing in cost, but decent entry level suits can be had for around $150 (Promotion offers a discout to folks with a BeginnerTriathlete.com account).
Goggles (EE): No need to spend a ton here. You can get good goggles from $15-$30. There are lot’s of opinions out there about which are the best, but it’s really one of the more personal apparel choices you will make. Which pair you go with will have a lot to do with your face shape. The main thing you want it a pair that A) doesn’t leak B) stays put and C) gives you a good range of visibility. Visibility is key in open water swims where you have to sight from time to time in order to stay on course. Right now we really like the Aquasphere line, in particular the Kaiman or Kayene. Speedo and TYR are also common choices.
Anti Fog Spray or Drops (NBNN): It’s hard to swim if you can’t see. One of the last things you want to deal with on race day is foggy goggles. Some goggles will come with an anti-fog coating from the factory which can work well for a time. Some people prefer to simply spit in their goggles and then rinse this off, and say it works quite well. We’ve seen Olympians do it but still, ewwww.
Bicycle (EE): First things first, to complete the bike portion of the race you will need, well, a bike. Do you need to go out and get a second mortgage to buy a super fast shiny new speed machine? No. Consider your goals first. If you just want to complete one triathlon and then move on to other things it would make no sense to buy a new triathlon bike. Most often we see three types of bicycles at a race: mountain bikes, road bikes, and triathlon bikes. The road bikes and triathlon bikes are far more prevalent as their gearing and aerodynamics are far better suited to a road cycling course. However, many people complete their first triathlon on a mountain or flat-bar road bike. You might not have the fastest bike split, but for shorter races it is very doable.
The main difference between road bikes and tri bikes are the geometries (how the bike is built, seat tube angles, bike length, etc) and the cockpit (where the handlebars are). A road bike features handlebars that curve downward and have integrated shifters and brakes. They also offer a more upright seating position and rely on the riders muscles to keep the body in position. A triathlon bike on the other hand places the rider in a lower, more aggressive position, and shifters are placed on extensions that allow the rider to stay in an aerodynamic position to shift gears, while allowing the skeletal system to support most of the rider’s weight. This is an over-simplification, but hopefully it will get you started. A road bike with some clip-on aero-extensions can serve you quite well in a race, and many race very competitively for seasons (and win) on such a setup.
What should you expect to pay? This will likely be your single largest purchase, and could range anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a used road bike to several thousand for a tricked out triathlon rig. Please check our list of bike manufacturers links to get a better idea of what to expect. Above all, take your time. Just like you would with a car purchase, do your research, read reviews, and then test ride until your heart’s content. Buying used is a great way to get a fantastic bike at a fraction of the cost. You might check out Ebay, usedtriathlonbikes.com, or your local Craigslist. Some of the usual suspects at most races are Cervelo, Giant, Cannondale, Felt, Trek, Scott, and Specialized.
CYCLING COMPUTER (EE): Even though you can still pedal your bike without one, we consider a cycling computer essential for racing and training. To train and race effectively, at the least you need to know what your average speeds an distances travelled are. If you can get one that tells you your cadence, even better. There are a myriad of options, but the most basic models can be had for around $20. If you want to spend $50, $100, $200, or more, those are out there too. More functions = more $$. To get one for $20, you’ll likely be shopping closeouts or taking a trip to the -mart and should expect only the basic functions. We like CatEye brand computers alot. They last, they work, and you can usually get a nice one for under $50.
Cycling Shoes (NBNSS): Being able to lock your feet to the pedals will certainly help make you more efficient on the bike, but cycling specific shoes with clipless pedals (a mis-nomer, since clipping to your pedals is exactly what they do) are not required. You can simply use pedals with toe cages, or a system known as Power Grips, to keep your feet in place while on the bike. A set of Power Grip pedals wil run you around $35-$40. Cycling or Triathlon specific shoes can range from $80-$160. If you go to the shoe route you will need to buy clipless pedals as well, so throw in another $120-$200. For your first event, riding with your running shoes on may be the easiest and most cost effective way to go.
Socks (EE/NBNSS): If you race with socks, simply avoid cotton. There are plenty of cycling and run specific socks out there that won’t turn your feet into a blister factory. Defeet, Pearl Izumi, and Sock Guy are good places to start. Say around $10 a pair.
Helmet (EE): A helmet is a must – no way around this one. It’s a safety issue. You can pick up a basic helmet that will get the job done for around $40, or go fancy for closer to $100. High end lids can cost $100-$200, especially if you elect to go the funky looking aero-helmet route. You don’t have to break the bank with your helmet choice, but if there is one place NOT to cheap out, this is it. It’s your noggin we’re trying to protect here. Look for a helmet with the CSPS (consumer product safety commission) seal, the USAT requires it.
Flat Repair Kit (EE): If you catch a flat on the course, you don’t want to be stuck there. It’s bad enough to flat. Walking back 10 miles will just add insult to injury. A basic kit can be bought complete, or put together by you. At the least you will want to pick up a spare tube or two, some tire levers, and a CO2 inflater with cartridges – as well as a seat pack to store it all in. Price varies.
Sunglasses (EE): These may seem like a luxury, but a close encounter with a bug and your eyes while cruising along at 20mph plus may cause you to think differently. Plus they help with the glare in the early morning hours if you are riding into the sun. You can start with a really basic pair and go from there. Ventilated lenses don’t fog up, and can be had for around $60 from makers like Ryders and Tifosi.
Running Shoes (EE): This is another one of those areas where it doesn’t pay to skimp, it can actually hurt, literally. You will need a decent pair of running shoes for all of the training and racing ahead. We suggest going to a store that specializes in running shoes so you can get a good fit by someone who understands the stress that running places on the feet and joints. Running in worn out or ill-fit shoes can easily lead to injury. You still don’t have to spend a mint though. You should be able to find a decent pair for around $100 (sometimes under), especially if you buy the previous model to whatever is current. There are tons to choose from such as Mizuno, Nike, and Saucony.
Socks: see BIKE.
Running cap or visor (NBNN): A cap or visor is simply a convenient way to keep the sweat and sun out of your eyes. In colder climates, it can help you keep from losing too much heat as well. Run caps made from moisture wicking material such as Nike Dri-Fit are a plus. $20ish.
Sunglasses: see BIKE.
Race Number Belt (NBNN): This is an elastic belt that you can clip your race number to, and then put on once you start the run. No, you don’t have to have one, but if you don’t you’ll need to pin your race number to a shirt you plan to run in, and that’s one more item to try to put on in transition. For the ladies, they also make race number skirts that are easy to put on. Belt, $10, Skirt (SkirtSports and other) $varies.
HEART RATE MONITOR (NBNN): If you want to train according to your heart rate zones (as opposed to your perceived level of exertion) this is the way to go. A display worn on your risk or placed on your bike will let you know how fast your engine is really pumping, and help you know when to push harder or back off. Polar, Nike, and Garmin all have models. Costs go from just under $100 and then upwards.
Personal GPS (NBNN): Definitely a NBSS item here. If you get into some serious training and want to track all the nuts and bolts, these are handy little tools, although the price tag is not so little. Worn like a watch, models from Garmin will allow you to know your current pace, hear rate, time, lap pace, max heart rate, calories burned (you get the point) along with about 1000 other pieces of info you might choose to watch or record. These can also do double duty as a cycling computer. Garmins can run anywhere from $200-$400.
Bicycle Trainer (NBNN): A stationary bicycle trainer is a great tool for Winter training. You can turn the bike you already have into a stationary spin bike. Just pop in a training DVD, or your favorite movie, and spin away! These things can be pricey if you want all of the bells and whistles, but basic models from online retailers like Perfomace Bike or Bike Nashbar usually run around $150-$200.
Winter apparel (EE/NBNN): Whether or not you consider this essential really depends on what climate zone you live in. If you live in Hawaii, probably not an issue. Otherwise, consider some running tights, a nice cap, gloves, and some arm warmers (And don’t forget to cover those ears!)
JUMP to next section, Race Tips.