Triathlon can be logistically challenging to the new triathlete, as switching between swimming, cycling, and running one after the other presents unique challenges. There is lots of gear available to help make the entire experience as efficient and comfortable as possible, but it's a common misconception that it's expensive to complete a triathlon.
We'll talk a bit about the unique gear later, but let's first answer this question: what are the basics you need to complete a triathlon?
The most essential piece of multi-purpose gear is a triathlon suit, or at minimum, a triathlon short. A triathlon short can be used for swimming, cycling, and running.
The most identifiable feature of a triathlon short is padding that helps make sitting on a bike seat more comfortable. But triathlon shorts aren't the same as traditional bike shorts. The pad won't soak up water and the shorts will dry quickly, making them suitable to swim in but comfortable enough to immediately jump on a bike. And the shape of the padding helps avoid chafing on the run that would occur if you were to run in a traditional cycling short.
A good tri short will cost $60 or more (but some models of lesser quality can be found for $40 or so), and a full tri suit will be around twice that price. A full tri suit can be bought as a two-piece or one-piece.
To train for swimming, you only need a select few essential pieces of equipment:
- Swim Goggles
You can train in your tri suit and you'll definitely race in your tri suit, but many prefer to train in a swimsuit because it will last longer in chlorinated water.
There are lots of innovations and tools that some triathletes own related to cycling, but the essentials you need are:
You do not have to own a road or triathlon bike to complete a triathlon. We repeat: you do not have to own a road or triathlon bike to complete a triathlon. At virtually every Sprint triathlon on the planet, you'll find participants riding mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, borrowed bikes, rented bikes, old bikes, and new bikes.
If you're a member of a gym, you likely have access to stationary bikes and maybe even cycling classes. Some triathletes have attended Flywheel Sports, Soul Cycle, or some other fitness studio centered around cycling. These are perfectly acceptable ways to start cycling.
If you do elect to purchase a bike, it's almost sure to be your biggest expense in your triathlon journey, but you don't have to buy a piece of NASA-approved carbon equipment to get a quality bicycle. Tri Shop carries high quality road bike options starting at around $799, and triathlon bikes start at $1399. Click here to find more information on our Fit First bike buying process.
Most prospective triathletes have a pretty good understanding of the essential running equipment they'll need. It's pretty simple:
- Running Shoes
- Athletic Socks
Nearly everyone already owns a pair of athletic shoes of some type or another, most bought based on how they look, how they were priced, or how they felt in a quick walk around a store. Unfortunately, many of those options won't work as well as they should.
You only get one pair of feet this lifetime, so take care of them. A trip to a competent running retailer to purchase a well-fitted pair of running shoes can make all the difference.
Tri Shop carries a huge lineup of running shoe options, and uses an elaborate multi-step process to evaluate your feet and your running gait to identify the best shoes to meet your needs. Click here to learn more.
Already satisfied with the running shoes you have? They are perfectly acceptable for triathlon. Use them and have fun.
If you've got the basics covered, there is a lot more gear that can help you improve your triathlon journey, assist your training, and make you a more efficient athlete. Read on to get a small sample of what else you might consider.
Describing all of the multipurpose gear that is available would fill volumes, so nobody should consider this an exhaustive list of items the average avid triathlete is likely to own:
- Multisport watch/GPS watch/Heart Rate Monitor
- Transition Mat
- Race Belt
Triathletes often are data geeks, and nothing collects and utilizes data better than a multisport watch with GPS and heart-rate tracking capabilities. Garmin is the industry leader in this space, and offers options with both heart-rate and GPS features starting at $200. Fully-featured options can cost $500 or more.
There are a number of tools not listed, but three that seemed worthy of mention are a transition mat, anti-chafe solutions, and a race belt. A transition mat helps keep your space in the transition area identifiable and clean, and is essential in some race environments where dirt and mud can jeopardize a good race. Anti-chafe comes in many forms - ointments, creams, sprays, etc. Its benefits are self-evident, and everyone who sweats and moves can benefit. A race belt holds your race number, which must be visible at all times on the bike and on the run. Without a race belt, you'd need to use safety pins to pin your number on your clothes, and it's generally not a good idea to start sticking pins through your nice tri suit.
Swim gear comes in three categories - electronics, training tools, and racing tools.
Swim electronics is a relatively new category of products, tracking heart rate data, swim distance, and more. A fully-featured multisport watch will likely track swim data for you, but there are still few coaches that use and can effectively interpret heart rate data and swim metrics. I'd expect coaching expertise in this area to take big leaps forward as more guidance becomes available.
There are also MP3 players that are appropriate for underwater use. Longer swim sets in a pool can be mind-numbing for many athletes (and relaxing for others). Underwater MP3 players can help the time pass quicker, and there are dozens of options in this space.
The biggest category of swim gear is swim training tools. These tools include:
- Swim Jammer, Swimsuit, etc.
- Swim Cap
- Swim Paddles or Gloves
- Swim Fins
- Training Snorkel
- Kick Board
- Swim Buoy
- Drag Shorts
- Open Water Buoy
- Swim Bungie Cord
- Swimmer's Shampoo and Conditioner
Like anything else, these tools can be immensely valuable when used appropriately to improve swim technique, strength, and fitness. Different swim coaches use different tools and opinions on the relative value of swim tools can vary.
On race day, there are a few swim tools that can be of benefit depending on the conditions and duration of a given race:
- Tinted or Polarized Goggles
For open water swims where the water is under 76 degrees, a wetsuit is essential. A good wetsuit will provide benefits of buoyancy, hydrodynamics, and thermal protection. The biggest mistake triathletes make with their wetsuit purchase is buying something that doesn't fit well.
At Tri Shop, we have an Endless Pool spa so that a wetsuit buyer can swim in a suit prior to purchase, assessing the fit and flexibility of a particular suit. A poorly fitting suit can cause chafing issues, prevent mobility, and be generally uncomfortable. To learn more about what we do at Tri Shop, click here.
If you don't have an option to try on a wetsuit prior to purchase, some brands fit better for some body types than others. Read online or consult the dealer you're purchasing from to get fit guidance.
A speedsuit provides the hydrodynamic benefits of a wetsuit without the same degree of thermal protection or buoyancy. Speedsuits are most commonly used by elite swimmers and athletes looking for an edge in the water.
For open-water triathlons, tinted or polarized goggles can help prevent being blinded by the sun when sighting and breathing. In Texas, our lakes have very poor visibility, so when a swimmer's head is in the water, it can be nearly pitch black. But the early morning sunshine encountered in most races can be blinding, and it can make it difficult to see where you are swimming. Good goggles can help mitigate that situation.
One of the most common questions we are asked in regards to bikes is "when is it appropriate to get a triathlon bike?" A triathlon bike can be one of the biggest performance advantages a racer can buy, but a good triathlon bike is a significant investment compared to the other gear listed in this guide. If you're looking to be competitive or looking to do Iron-distance races, a triathlon bike becomes pretty important.
The main thing to take away is that a triathlon bike is not necessary to complete a triathlon, but it can definitely help you go faster. Don't let its expense deter you from getting involved in triathlon.
Like swim gear, bike gear comes in three different categories - electronics, training gear, and racing tools.
Electronics for bikes can come in many forms:
- Speed-Cadence sensors and computers
- Cycling Computers with GPS
- Power Meters
The first two items overlap with multisport watches, but provide a screen or display that is usually more accessible than a wrist-based display. The third item, power meters, are advanced training tools that capture the power generated by a cyclist.
Power meters are generally expensive (with prices of competent options starting at around $500), but many coaches and athletes find them to be indispensable tools to augment their cycling training and racing. There are a number of options for power meters, each having its own features, accuracy, and compatibility story. Some power meter options can cost more than $1000.
Without a coach who understands training with power or a real commitment to learning how to use a power meter, they don't make sense as an investment for most athletes. But if you satisfy one of those two requisites, a power meter can be the best investment you can make to improve your cycling.
Cycling training gear includes:
- Cycling and Condition-Specific Apparel
- Quality Bike Saddle
- Clipless Pedals
- Cycling or Triathlon Shoes
- Bike Gloves
- Bike Hydration and Utility Carriers & Accessories
- Bike Pump
- Bike Tools
- Chain Lube
- Bike Trainer (or "Smart" Trainer)
- Road ID
- Lights and Safety Products
- Bike Fit
This is a very small list of the various training gear options available for cycling, and many of the options depend on the type of bike you have. It also should be remembered the bikes are a combination of moving parts that wear over time and require maintenance and service. Tri Shop's Service Department can service all types of bikes to keep them in optimal condition.
The last item listed, a bike fit, isn't really a gear item but is essential for riders putting in training mileage for longer races or for athletes experiencing pain, discomfort, or inefficiency. A bad bike fit can cause poor performance, discomfort, or lead to injury.
Race specific cycling gear includes:
- Triathlon Race Suit
- Race Wheels
- Shoe Covers
- Aerodynamic Helmet
Most of the race-specific gear is about performance and cutting through the wind more effectively. When you're cycling, your biggest enemy to going faster isn't the road, it's the wind. And things that can help you cut through the wind better let you go faster for whatever fitness level you're at.
Gear-wise, the run is usually the simplest. Electronics have been used by runners for training and racing since the invention of the stop-watch. At minimum, a runner might want a watch with the ability to capture heart rate or simply measure duration, distance, and pace. Some watches have the option to capture run cadence, vertical oscillation, and stride-length among other run metrics that an athlete or coach might use to evaluate the quality of a training run or race.
There are a few additional products that can go a long way to improving your training and racing experience:
- Quality Running Socks
- Run Shorts and Shirt
- Hydration Carriers
- Hat or Visor
- Blister Prevention Tools
Run-specific orthotics might be the most surprising item on the list, and not all runners need orthotics. Orthotics aren't just for people with unique foot problems or older walkers and runners. More runners could benefit from arch and metatarsal bridge support than are currently using them.
Orthotics can greatly improve comfort, reduce foot fatigue, and prevent serious injury caused by a collapsing arch at the point of impact. They can also help stabilize an overpronating foot.
At Tri Shop, we do a thorough, multi-point foot and gait analysis to identify what shoes would work well and whether an orthotic would be of benefit. We mold orthotics in-store and they can be returned if they don't provide positive results. This type of process and service is common in the better run shops all over the world, and you are doing yourself a disservice if you don't take advantage.
In lieu of a quality running retailer to provide similar service, a number of packaged orthotics (some that are athlete moldable and some that are simply supports) can also provide great benefit. If you are experiencing serious foot issues or a foot injury, always consult a physiologist, orthopedist, or podiatrist.