Triathlon Equipment A Beginner Triathlete Needs
For many people, getting into triathlon training isn’t something they set out to do initially, but was a progression from a single discipline. Maybe they started out as runners who liked to do some low-impact cross-training in the pool or on the bike. Or they started out as cyclists, but enjoyed trail running in their downtime. Whichever permutation was involved, there is a lot to think about when you first make the switch from a single event to become a beginner triathlete. First and foremost is what equipment are you going to need.
Three events means three distinct kinds of kit, and if you used to be a simple road runner, the bad news is that you will need to spend some cash to get going. Luckily, although there is a vast range of bewildering choices in swimming, cycling and running gear – not to mention the specific triathlon accessories – as a beginner, you can often cut your shopping list down to just a few essential items.
Essential Triathlon Equipment
There are many pieces of training gear which have developed over the years, becoming perfect for triathlon despite the fact they were initially intended for something else. A good example is the time trial bike, which many triathletes like to ride these days. However, the one item which was intended for use by multi-event athletes is the triathlon suit – or tri suit. These look like the one piece skinsuits worn by velodrome track cyclists, and consist of a single garment incorporating both shorts and a singlet top. There are some differences between the tri suit and the track cycling skinsuit though.
Track cyclists are generally optimized for pure speed, and so their skinsuits are usually long-sleeved to reduce drag. The pure cyclists also wear a far more padded chamois to protect them in the saddle. In contrast, the triathlete has to think about how an advantage in one discipline might become a problem in one of the other two. So a long-sleeved top portion might be great for reducing drag on the bike, but is too cumbersome for swimming, especially if a wetsuit is required, and this problem could also spill over into Transition 1. There is also the added disadvantage of getting too hot with the sleeves, over the longer distances.
As for the chamois, the tri suit has a pared down version, which will provide a little protection while you are on the bike, but which will not get in your way when you make the transition to the run.
Of course, many beginners will still wear a pair of running shorts and vest and get on just fine. But for added comfort in terms of fit and to keep cool, a decent moisture wicking triathlon suit made from technical fabrics is a far better option.
Triathlon Swimming Equipment
The obvious first question regarding wetsuits is whether you actually need one at all. And the less obvious answer is that it depends! Under some circumstances it depends on your own preferences, but under others, the rules will be clear that you either can or cannot wear one.
So first let’s take a quick look at the rules. The International Triathlon Union (ITU) laid out a set of rules concerning the wearing of wetsuits, which the various national triathlon bodies have adopted, and which are based on water temperature. If the water temperature is below 78 degrees Fahrenheit (26.6 deg Celsius) then wetsuits should be worn. If the temperature is higher than 84F (28.9C) then all bets are off and competitors may not wear a wetsuit. In hot conditions, it is unadvisable to wear one anyway, due to the risk of overheating. For age group participants, if the water temp is between these two values, they can use their discretion, and under USA Triathlon (USAT) rules, competitors wearing a wetsuit will have their times accepted but they will not be eligible for any of the prizes.
The next question then: why wear one? For triathlon, there is a number of reasons. The original reason is that wetsuits will keep you warm if the water temp is very cold, something you will be very glad of in the longer swims. But as the years have gone by, technology has improved massively, and these days, a good full length wetsuit will definitely be faster than swimming without or even if you swim with a sleeveless suit. So if the rules allow it, you should always opt to wear one. Just make sure it fits really well and allows you to move your arms and shoulders okay.
Distance is important also. The gains you make with a wetsuit, and its extra buoyancy and reduced drag through the water, should be weighed up against the time you lose at T1 taking it off and preparing for the ride. Often it makes sense to go without if you are competing in a sprint triathlon where efficient transitions are far more important.
Whether you are taking part in sprint triathlons or ironmans, it is best to wear a pair of swimming goggles. The short races, especially supersprint or ‘fun’ triathlons usually organize the swim in a pool, rather than open water. But for the sake of visibility a little protection for your eyes is always a great idea. In the open water swims during longer events, a good pair of goggles is essential as things can get hectic at the beginning, and if you don’t get kicked in the head, you will certainly get a lot of water kicked in your face as you try to figure out where you are headed! Some swimmers even prefer to wear a mask which offers even better all-round visibility, and generally feels more secure on the face. For the hot, sunny competitions, you can also get tinted or mirrored lenses to reduce glare.
Hats or Caps
It is definitely worth taking your own swimming cap to competitions, even though in many cases, you will be given one by the event organizers to tell you which wave you will start in. A wise idea is to wear both swimming hats, starting with your own one, then your goggles, and finally the one given to you. This sandwiching of your goggles between caps helps to hold them in place during the rough and tumble at the start.
Road or Trathlon Bike
As with many things in triathlon, the gear you get will be dependent on what distance you are going to be racing. You’ll probably see all manner of bikes in the cycling phase of the races you attend, including even mountain bikes and others you might not immediately associate with racing. So to a degree, it will depend whether you have turned up to compete seriously, or whether you are just checking the sport out, and want to give it a go for a bit of fun. For fun, any bike will do, and you might occasionally even see foldable ones or shopping bikes!
If you are a very competitive person, then the distance will matter more, and for the shorter distances you should aim for top speed models. This means finding a good lightweight bike, with all the mods for improved aerodynamics. This might mean getting a low-profile frame and aerobars to really help you cut through the air. These bikes – the serious time trial bikes – are great at moving fast, but are not the most comfortable ride you will find.
As your race distances increase, speed will, of course, still be important, but you will need a more comfortable bike to see you through to T2. At this point you can dispense with the flat-framed time trial (or triathlon) bikes if you like, and opt for a standard road racing bike with drop handlebars, heavier (aka more comfortable) saddles and less aggressive riding positions.
If money is tight, then the usual suspects in terms of getting your hands on a bike, are Ebay, Craigslist and the like. It’s usually a good idea to shop for last year’s model if you want to pick up a bargain, as dealers try to clear their stock in time for this year’s shinier version. And it is also worth looking for organizations which can hire out bikes for triathlons.
Cycling helmets are very important – in every way you can imagine! There is the obvious safety aspects to consider, and wearing a helmet will reduce your risk of having a fatal or life-limiting brain injury in the event of a serious crash. But from a less gory viewpoint, the rules and regs governing the bike phase of triathlons are extremely tight. The organizers are looking out for your safety also, after all. So remember, when you reach the first transition area, first take off your wetsuit (if they were allowed); next, put on your bike helmet. Only then think about mounting the bike. It’s against the rules to be on the bike without a helmet – which must also be secured with the chin strap!
You must also not remove the helmet while still on the bike. Finish the bike leg, get off your bike, and then think about ditching the helmet. It is also worth noting that race officials often check competitors helmets to ensure they comply with safety regulations, so when you buy yours, make sure it’s got a CPSC sticker (Consumer Product Safety Commission) inside, otherwise you will be disqualified.
Once you have all that figured out, you can take your pick from a vast range of different road cycling helmets or aero helmets. Again, as with the bike itself, aero helmets are built for speed and aerodynamics, but can get pretty hot and energy-sapping, so they are best for the shorter distances and for cooler races. If you ride in half and full ironman events, it’s probably best to wear or standard road helmet, which is much cooler, and allows you to pour water over your head to increase the cooling effects when you are baking in the saddle.
Just as important as your helmet, a pair of cycling sunglasses is essential. They will help to keep all sorts of flying objects out of your eyes as you hurtle along, whether those objects are flying bugs and insects, dust or other general debris thrown up from the road surface by other competitors.
Most cycle glasses these days have a feature where you can exchange the lenses, so you use different colored ones to fit the lighting conditions on the day of your race. This is far cheaper than buying several full pairs of sunglasses with different colored lenses. Many models (eg Oakley Radar) often come supplied with more than one set of lenses, so you are equipped for bright or dull conditions.
Triathlon Cycling Shoes and Pedals
The shoes and pedals you use will, of course, depend on your bike. If you decide you want to use your everyday commuting bike, then it probably has standard platform-type pedals. You might even have toe-clips on the pedals to stop your feet from slipping off (although you don’t see many of those these days!) In these cases, you can get away with wearing your running shoes, which will save you time in the second transition area, as all you will have to do is remove your helmet, rack your bike and go.
The more modern style of pedals used on road bikes nowadays are the clipless pedals, and there are several types. You will need shoes to match the type you use, as there are cleats built into the bottom of the shoe, which clip onto the pedals and secure your feet. If you are new to the clipless types, it is a good idea to talk to staff at your local cycling store to find something appropriate for you. The most common ones for road bikes are the SPD-SL pedals (made by Shimano) and the Look pedals. These systems both have three holes in the shoes where your cleat attaches to the pedal itself. If you are riding a mountain bike, they use a two bolt system called SPD.
So when you buy cycling shoes or pedals, make sure the equipment is cross compatible. For example, if you use a 3-bolt Look pedal system, make sure your shoes are not the 2-hole SPD style used for mountain biking. Also make sure you are comfortable setting up the cleats, and that you practise clipping in and releasing. Different models allow various degrees of ‘float’ which allows you to move your feet slightly on the pedals without accidentally unclipping, so this is also worth considering when choosing your pedals and cleats. If you are an absolute beginner with clipless pedals, expect to have a few minor mishaps and some potentially embarrassing falls initially, while you get used to them,
As for the shoes themselves, find a pair that you like, and which is compatible with your pedals – a lot of shoes these days are fine with both the SPD and Look/SPD-SL systems. The main difference between regular running shoes, for example, and a proper pair of road cycling shoes is that the latter has a very rigid sole, which allows you to transfer your energy to the bike more efficiently. They are great for the bike, but not so great for walking in. So be careful if you have to walk about in road shoes, because the cleats protrude from the bottom of the soles (mountain biking shoes normally have a recessed cleat, and are fine for walking around in). Buy some cleat covers if needed, as this will prevent damage to the cleats themselves, which can wear out alarmingly fast otherwise.
Triathlon Running Shoes
Having completed the bike phase, the only thing you need to do in T2 is ditch your bike and helmet – leaving your cycling shoes clipped into the pedals – and slip on your running shoes and you should be off into the final stretch of your race. Some people suggest wearing running socks, but often they can be fiddly to put on, especially if your feet are still wet from the swim and cycle legs. You will have to judge that for yourself, depending on which distance you are running and how much time you can afford to lose. For example, you might decide to sacrifice a few extra seconds and opt for socks if you know you have a full marathon run ahead of you and you are prone to blisters and other problems.
If you do wear socks, then you can wear your regular running shoes; this might even give you an advantage as you will be used to them. There’s nothing worse that buying a brand new pair of shoes for a race, only to find that they are uncomfortable or they rub your feet horribly. So always make sure you race in shoes which are well broken in.
For many triathletes, especially for shorter distance races, socks simply waste time, and they are not worn at all during the three events. The good news is that running shoe companies are well aware of the need for some of their customers to run in their shoes without using socks, and they have triathlon-specific shoes for running. Zoot is a very well-known company which makes great shoes for triathletes. K-Swiss shoes are also very popular with competitors for the running phase.
he adaptations built into triathlon running shoes normally include a seamless design inside which prevents any unnecessary rubbing, which would otherwise cause blisters. This is backed up by the usual features common to more regular shoes, with various technologies to help remove moisture and prevent odor. Speed through the transition is important, so some of the shoes will have either laceless fastening or ‘quick-lace’ systems which allow you to secure your footwear quickly with just one hand – as opposed to crouching to tie up regular shoelaces. The Zoot shoes in particular often also have larger tongue and heel pull tabs to help you get the shoes on faster – though it is also advisable to put a little talcum powder in the shoes to help speed up your transition.
And that’s it! Seems like a lot of triathlon gear but there’s no reason you have to go and buy everything in one giant shopping frenzy. And as mentioned above, some of the biggest, most expensive items will be available for hire if you do a little digging locally. It will pay dividends to find a local triathlon club to join, so you can train and chat with like-minded people and get the lowdown on where to get your hands on cheap kit.
Eventually, if you become addicted to this sport, you will find that you have all the required kit, and are always looking for the next big thing to help you shave those seconds off your times. The main thing is to enjoy the sport though, train hard, do your best, and…don’t bankrupt yourself buying cool gear that, actually, you don’t really need!