Equipment for Your First Triathlon Race
When I entered my very first triathlon race back in May 2004, I showed up with a vintage Bianchi steel-framed bike that I had bought for around $400 at a local bike swap meet.
Back then, I didn’t pay much attention to bike weight, geometry, or components, such as Shimano vs. Campagnolo, let alone read up on bike aerodynamics.
All I cared about that day was to show my good friend, Steve, who dared me to enter this first sprint distance triathlon with him, that I wasn’t going to chicken out.
With my transition backpack strapped to my back, I rolled into the transition area with my beloved Bianchi bike, which stood out like an old draft horse amongst the many sleek-looking triathlon bikes. My other gear was also far from “state of the art.”
Equipment is only part of the game. If you’re on a tight budget and looking to get into this sport for a challenge and to feel healthy and fit, some basic equipment is all you need.
To give you some pointers on entry-level gear, let’s look at each individual sport:
This sport may be the least expensive, in terms of needed equipment. But that quickly changes, if you factor in regular training in a pool and swim lessons, which are critical for inexperienced swimmers.
For women, a competitive one-piece swimsuit is ideal, because it provides less drag than a two-piece suit. Most men I see at the pool wear briefs or jammers. Finding a comfortable pair of goggles that fits your face (and nose) might take a few tries of different brands, but at a price of around $13 is still affordable.
Look for winter sales and deals at your local retail swim store, athletic retailer or discount department store, such as Marshalls for suits.
I typically buy all of my swim suits online at Swimoutlet, because they often have the best deals. I also learned that polyester suits typically last longer than nylon suits, so I don’t mind spending the extra dollars.
When it comes to wet suits (which start at $200 and go up to $800), the choice comes down to renting, buying, or swimming without it.
Here are a few considerations to help you in the decision-making process:
According to USA Triathlon, age groupers can wear a wet suit without penalty in any USAT-sanctioned event up to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Athletes can still wear wet suits up to 84 degrees Fahrenheit, but won’t be eligible for prizes or awards.
The rule is in place for good reason. A wet suit will provide flotation and less drag, which allows especially inefficient swimmers to glide faster through the water and with less effort. A neoprene suit can also serve as a mental ‘security blanket’ in open water races, because it allows you to float.
The flipside: A quality full-length suit (long arms/long legs) starts around $200 and can run up to $800, depending on the maker, style and model. I would suggest trying on at least two or three different suits from different manufacturers (Zoot, 2XU, Orca, DeSoto, Xterra, Quintana Roo, Ironman) in a store to see which suit fits the best. Typically, a snugger fit is best.
If buying is out of the question, your local triathlon club, and even race promoters, often rent suits for race day.
The swim may be the shortest distance in a triathlon race, but can quickly lead to fatigue, if you didn’t put in some training. Especially for adult learners (as I have experienced myself), it takes time to get comfortable in the water. That’s where a master’s swim program and lessons can make all the difference.
This is likely the biggest purchase you’ll make to get started in this sport.
But once again, by shopping around, you’re bound to find a great deal on a new or used bike.
The toughest decision for many beginners is whether to buy a road bike or triathlon-specific bike; tri bikes typically cost more.
Investing in a road bike is often a great entry-level option and some triathletes simply prefer the more comfortable road bikes for racing triathlons.
No matter which bike you pick, finding the right bike size and a correct bike set-up are key. Look to a reputable bike dealer or a friend with bike expertise for guidance.
I would never ride my bike without putting on my helmet first. A bike helmet cannot only safe your life in a crash, it is mandatory for racing.
Helmets also come in various price ranges ($50 up to $200), but as long as they meet the safety standards of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and are clearly labeled by the manufacturer, your head is protected.
Investing in a pair of cycling shorts ($20 and up at Sierratradingpost) and a bike jersey made out of breathable fabric ($20 and up) will give you the comfort you need to ride for hours. A pair of gloves and sunglasses are also highly advisable.
A saddle bag ($15) with a patch kit, spare tube, compact hand pump and C02 cartridge may sound like a luxury item, but is the best insurance for getting back on the road when you experience a flat tire. Many bike stores offer free tire repair clinics. In a race, you’ll be expected to know how to change a flat tire.
To enter a USAT-sanctioned race or any other race, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the rules for bike specifications and road rules prior to a race. This will help you avoid penalties or worse, disqualification. Knowing the rules will also make for a better first experience.
Anyone who has visited a local running shoe store may have experienced sticker shock.
But any good coach and long-time runner will tell you that investing in a quality running shoe is the best insurance against running-related injuries and to provide support and comfort.
The sales staff at any athletic footwear store will look at your feet to assess your running style and make recommendations such as buying a stability shoe vs. a cushion shoe. They will also advise you on how many miles you should run before investing in the next pair of shoes, which I learned, is equally important to prevent injuries.
Triathlon Apparel for Race Day
Invest in at least one tri-specific garment that can be worn for the swim, bike and run without the need to change between activities. Visit your local triathlon-specific store to find the right size and preferred brand. To shop for discounts, you may also visit online retailers, such as trisports, triathletesports, and sportsbasement to find the best deals.
Many athletes prefer wearing one-piece suits during racing; others prefer two-piece suits.
There are also a lot of great books on the market to learn about the sport: Joe Friel’s two books The Triathlete’s Training Bible and Your First Triathlon; and Triathlon 101 by John Mora. Online: Slowtwitch, Trainingpeaks and Beginner Triathlete.
The two premier triathlon magazines are: Triathlete Magazine and Inside Triathlon.
Now that you’re off to buy your equipment, let’s talk about how to get ready for your first sprint distance triathlon race. Check back with me in two weeks to learn more about training smarter, not harder.