10 Aug 2021
14 min read
There’s no doubt that triathlon is a sport that needs a lot of kit. Many of us who get into swim, bike and run love all the triathlon gear and spend hours researching the latest shiny, new thing we can purchase to go faster.
But for beginners, it can be daunting to work out not just what you need, but in what order you need it, and where to put it so it’s within reach at just the right moment.
I have my trainers laced up ready with elastic laces for fast transitions and I have another pair which I get ready. This way I have the option of using two pairs of shoes as sometimes you’re going to have wet feet coming out the swim or off the bike.Helen Jenkins
I have my trainers laced up ready with elastic laces for fast transitions and I have another pair which I get ready. This way I have the option of using two pairs of shoes as sometimes you’re going to have wet feet coming out the swim or off the bike.
Thankfully, this gear guide for your first triathlon will help. Whether you’re doing a local tri and a pool swim or a full distance Ironman, we’ll walk you through it piece-by-piece to set you on your way.
To make it easy to follow, we’ll break the sport into its constituent parts, starting with the discipline that usually comes first (although not always in Super League Triathlon), the swim.
The most straightforward swim in triathlon is a pool swim. Most children will start triathlon life with pool swims, but local events for adults also include a pool swim for the super sprint distance, which is typically 400m, or 16 lengths of a regular 25m pool. For this you’ll need:
Usually either trunks, jammers, a swimming costume or trisuit. There’s no rule to say you have to wear a trisuit, but it might make for a quicker transition depending on what you plan to cycle in. To reduce drag, close-fitting swimwear is preferable, although you can wear your board shorts if you want!
The priorities are to wear a pair that is comfortable, won’t fog up and doesn’t leak. So, make sure you test them first. Style is personal preference. Most swimmers tend to prefer smaller goggles that fit neatly around the eye sockets rather than more bulky swim masks. Make sure you pack a spare pair for emergencies.
Race organisers typically give each competitor a swim cap that often denotes the wave you’ll swim in. If you’re worried about the temperature or quality of the swim cap catching in your hair, you can also bring your own and wear the event’s race cap over the top.
You’ll have learnt through training how you cope with pool-swimming and chlorine, and many swimmers either go for nose clips or earplugs to prevent infection.
As we become more experienced and the swims and the event become longer, triathletes tend to venture outdoors for lake or sea swims. Here conditions change and there are a few more items to consider.
Races can be wetsuit mandatory, optional or non-wetsuit if the water is deemed too warm. While there is a wide range of neoprene wetsuits available at price points ranging from under £100 to almost £1,000, the most important aspect is that it’s a good fit. This means it feels tight enough to trap the thin layer of water needed to keep you warm, but also provides enough flexibility to allow for range of motion through your swim stroke. Different levels of thickness give varying degrees of buoyancy, with weaker swimmers often preferring more buoyant wetsuits. Thermal wetsuits are also available for really chilly water.
While we’ve covered goggles for the pool swim, in the open water you should also consider the type of lens you’ll need. As well as clear lenses, tinted lenses can help with the glare of the sun,, which is often the case in early morning starts. Light enhancing lenses can be useful on a dull day.
While it might help you get out of your wetsuit faster, its prime function is to prevent chafing from the wetsuit against the skin, particularly around the neck when you turn your head to breathe.
Once out of the water, the next challenge is the cycle leg, where you have a little more to think about.
Let’s start with the most obvious one. Triathlon doesn’t have rules about what kind of bike you are allowed to ride, as long as it’s safe. This means your bike will be subject to a quick check before you rack it in transition – checking there are no sharp edges on the drop handlebars is common. Either a road/racing bike or special time-trial bike are the most common, and while a featherlight carbon speed machine would be nice, the crucial thing at first is that the brakes work, the tyres have air in them, and you can shift through the gears with ease.
You won’t be allowed to race without a helmet that is both intact (check for any cracks) and with a safety strap that is adjusted to clasp snuggly under your chin.
How many numbers you receive in your race pack, and where you’re asked to stick them, depends on the specific race. While most will be sorted before the race, give some thought to how you’re going to display the race number you wear on the bike. The general rule is your number should be showing to the rear on the bike leg and front on the run leg. You can pin it to your outer most layer, cycling jacket or t-shirt, but most people choose to use a race belt. This is a simple piece of elastic that you clip your number to. Triathletes leave it on the handlebars or next to their helmet in T1, so they can either step into it or clip it on quickly. The number faces the rear on the bike, and you spin it around to the front on the run.
You can wear what you like for the cycle leg including shorts and a t-shirt, but don’t wear anything that could flap about and get caught in the moving parts of the bike. Saddle comfort is important and trisuits have a chamois to give support for the pelvic region. Bib shorts tend to have a thicker chamois and some triathletes prefer changing into them for longer triathlons such as Ironman. Trisuits can be one-piece or two-piece, the latter is more common for long distance races as it makes toilet stops more straightforward.
If the ride is going to be cold, wet or both, consider a gilet or waterproof jacket. Gloves, overshoes and arm-warmers might also be an option. While the temptation is to rush through transition, spending a few more seconds in T1 to put on appropriate kit can make a big difference to how much you enjoy the bike leg. If you’re unsure of the forecast, layers that you can pull on or strip down give you options.
Not just a fashion item. Sunglasses will help protect the eyes from the sun and can also give protection from bugs and anything else that flies up from the road surface when you’re pedalling. As with goggles, different lenses suit different conditions, so get a pair you are comfortable with.
It’s personal preference whether you put socks on before the bike leg. Some triathletes will, particularly for longer rides, because they feel it’s more comfortable. Your feet will be wet coming out of the swim, so it will take a few more seconds to dry them first.
Most triathletes clip-in with purpose-made bike shoes and cleats that give you a more powerful pedal stroke. They take practice to get used to, so for your first triathlon there is nothing to stop you wearing trainers and flat pedals. Having straps that you can pull tight around your feet can be handy to give a bit of extra power to the pedal stroke. Top tip is some talcum powder in your bike shoes to help with wet feet after the swim.
If you’re going to start with your bike shoes already clipped in to leave transition, you’ll also need a couple of elastic bands to loop through and keep them in position. It means you won’t have to run in your cleats, and it can be a great way to save extra seconds at the start of the bike ride, but we suggest lots of practice first.
We hope it won’t happen, but if you do get a puncture on your first triathlon then being able to change it mid-race means you either won’t have to wait for a support vehicle (and there might not be one!) or have a long trudge home. Just having a spare inner tube and tyre levers isn’t enough, practice to make sure you can use it – including getting the tyre off the rim.
Having enough fluids to see you through the bike leg often suffices in shorter distance triathlons, but if you want more replenishment, such as an energy gel, the bike leg is the ideal time to snack. Nutrition can be carried in back pockets, a bento box attached to the top tube or even just taped to the crossbar. Whatever your plan, it should be easily accessible to grab when you’re cycling. It’s worth checking what sort of on-course nutrition might be provided. Smaller triathlons often expect you to fuel yourself on the bike, but have aid stations on the run.
Once back in transition for the second time, there are just a few more items of kit to think about. Sunglasses and socks we’ve already discussed on the bike leg, but some triathletes wait until the run leg to put these on, while others go without entirely.
Having a pair of run shoes that you can slip into comfortably is important. Some triathletes sprinkle talcum powder in the soles to dry up any remaining moisture.
One of the cheapest yet most effective pieces of kit when it comes to time saving. Investing in a pair of elastic laces can save you valuable seconds you’ll otherwise waste tying regular places, particularly with numb fingers after a cold bike ride.
Can be handy for protecting you from the sun, particularly on a hot day.
You may not want to carry all your nutrition on the bike leg and save a gel or two for the run. Thinking clearly by this stage isn’t always straightforward, so stashing gels in your trainers is a way of not forgetting them.
It’s not just during the action where triathletes need gear, the correct clothing and equipment before and after can be essential on race-day. Here we go through it.
Even at a hot location, early morning starts before sunrise are often chilly. Layers can be helpful to keep you and your muscles warm and a cosy tracksuit and beeny should not be underestimated. Post-race is equally as important as the body cools quickly after exercise.
An important one for hot climates that can easily be overlooked. You want to end the race with a shiny medal and red cheeks from exhaustion, not sunburn.
As well as your race nutrition, have something to snack on as soon as you feel able after crossing the finish line because it’s generally considered the best time to replenish the body to start recovery.
You’ll be lugging a fair amount of kit, including your bike, to and from the transition area so a handy bag with different compartments – including one for a bedraggled wetsuit – or a suitably sized plastic box can be useful.
While there are often a few knocking about, it’s always good to bring your own track pump to make sure your tyres are at the right pressure before the start. Just try not to get annoyed when lots of other people ask to borrow it!
A towel covers a multitude of purposes including drying your feet after the swim and cleaning you up at the end. It doesn’t have to be huge, and preferably not white, or it won’t remain that colour for long.
These come in handy for dirty kit, and will also help you put your wetsuit on without risking putting a toenail through the neoprene, which can be easily done.
Great for both the walk to the swim start or at the end of the event when you don’t want to squeeze your sore feet into a pair of shoes.
The amount of triathlon gear you can get to support your training is almost limitless, so here are just a few examples.
Swimming is all about technique and many triathletes use hand paddles, fins and pull buoys to help improve their performance in the water.
With cycling being the longest part of any triathlon, athletes often find they want to put in more hours on the bike and heading outdoors isn’t always possible. Indoor cycling is becoming increasingly popular. It’s time-efficient, there’s no chance of a crash and no freewheeling.
Swimming, cycling and running are all endurance activities with thousands of repetitive movements. This means strength and conditioning shouldn’t be overlooked to keep you balanced and injury-free.
Not so much triathlon gear, but with access to a weights room, treadmills, turbo trainers, and even a pool, a monthly gym membership can be an astute investment.
While a trisuit might do the job on race-day, if you’re going to spend hours training, then a pair of bib shorts and wet weather gear such as lightweight rain jackets and warm, overshoes will make life on two wheels much more enjoyable
If you’re looking to compete in triathlon overseas, then you’ll need a way to transport your bike. Both hard shell and soft shell bike boxes can do the job. Those with more expensive bikes tend to go for the hard shell option, and bike boxes can also be great to fit in a lot of extra kit. Just check your weight allowance before you check it in.
Triathlon gear for kids doesn’t differ much from the equipment required by adults. The golden rule is that kids should have the gear they are comfortable with so they can safely enjoy the sport. Mandatories will be a swimming kit, including goggles that don’t leak and a safe bike and helmet. They’ll also need clothes they feel comfortable wearing and a decent pair of running shoes. Make sure you pack enough snacks too, as they’ll be hungry by the time it’s all over. When children start taking the sport more seriously, they’ll be telling you what they need. But be wary of spending a fortune on the kit because kids do tend to have a habit of growing out of it
Women’s triathlon gear can be different from men’s but isn’t always. A lot of kit can just be similar but marketed in different colours or designs that are thought to appeal more to one gender or the other. There are obvious differences between swimsuits or trisuits, but also women’s wetsuits tend to come in different cuts. Try before you buy is a sensible approach. Women’s bikes can be different, especially the saddle because of the shape of the pelvis. Having a saddle that fits properly is essential. However, it’s not just a man-woman divide. Some ‘male’ saddles and bikes can be suited to women, it really depends on individual physiology. If you’re unsure an expert bike fitter should be able to guide you in the right direction.
Triathlon gear can be expensive, but it is possible to get cheap triathlon gear. If you’re starting out and not sure whether you’ll stick with the sport yet, consider second-hand or end of season sales. Two of the most expensive items can be bikes and wetsuits, and you can find decent second-hand lines in both. Pretty much every item in triathlon you can get at an entry-level option on, and if you’re worried it will slow you down, remember the gear is only responsible for a fraction of your time savings come race-day. By far the biggest way to get to the finish line faster is to train consistently.
While you might see lots of triathletes in very tight, expensive-looking Lycra one and two-piece and snazzy neoprene wetsuits for the swim, beginners don’t have to follow suit. If you’re starting with a pool swim, just a normal swimming costume or trunks will be fine, and you can cycle in shorts and a t-shirt. If you’re not confident with bike shoes, you can wear the same trainers you’ll use for the run. In short, enjoy it and don’t compare yourself to anyone else.
You tend to need more gear for Ironman than shorter triathlons because it is a longer race and you are covering all eventualities, chiefly the weather conditions. Most Ironman swims will require a wetsuit, you’ll also want a choice of goggles. Your bike is likely to be either a road bike or a triathlon time trial bike. You should also pay more attention to nutrition and how much you want to take with you. However fast you are, an Ironman is always a long day.
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