There are some significant barriers to entry in a triathlon. Physical fitness is one thing. What about all that gear?
People routinely drop thousands of dollars to get outfitted for the race. The investment — maybe even more than the 1500-metre swim — is enough to scare most people away. But doesn't have to be like that.
In a new department called The Outfit, we're going to show you how to put together a totally respectable, complete, not-at-all-crappy set of gear. The first instalment is a triathlon outfit, including the bike, the wetsuit, and everything else, all for under a thousand bucks.
I talked to a host of coaches, trainers, and seasoned triathletes for recommendations, read reviews, then called in and tested a ton of items. First, I ran a sprint triathlon. That was followed by the Olympic-length NYC Triathlon. For both races, I used our chosen gear, and everything I'm recommending performed excellently.
This is your base-layer, and you'll be wearing it for the entire race (triathletes don't wear undies). There are a million shorts and top combinations you can go with, but for cost-effectiveness and comfort, I like the Pearl Izumi SELECT Tri Suit. It's silky soft, breathes extremely well, and it zips almost down to your bellybutton for additional venting. It has a small pocket in the lower back for stashing energy gels, and the lower legs are studded with silicone dots, which prevent the shorts from riding up. The fleece chamois provides just enough padding to make biking more comfortable, but not enough to feel like a diaper when you're running or swimming. Very aerodynamic, and best of all, chafing is extremely minimal. [$100]
If your tri is happening in a warm body of water, then you don't need a wetsuit, and you have $250 bucks to spend elsewhere. USAT rules state that if the water temp is 25.5 degrees C or below, you can wear a wetsuit. At 25.6-28.8 degrees, you can wear one but you won't be eligible for awards. At 28.8 degrees and up, wetsuits are illegal.
There are serious advantages to wearing a wetsuit, most notably hydrodynamics and buoyancy — you just glide like crazy. For the money, the Orca S4 is an awesome suit. It really seals out water at the neck, it's very flexible, it's padded in the right areas (for added float), and it has a panel in the lower leg that makes getting it on and off faster and easier. I went with the sleeved version for $250. Good for cooler water, or if you want even more efficiency. [$250]
Good news: a great pair of goggles doesn't have to be super expensive. Now, there is a ton of personal preference with goggles, and the absolute most important thing is that they fit you perfectly. They should be able to suction onto you eye sockets without needing a strap to hold them on there. Find a store where you can try some on. The Speedo Speed Socket fits me perfectly, and works for a lot of other people, too, thanks to the swappable nose pieces. I've been using the same pair since 2005. Love 'em. [$25]
The bike is the single most expensive tool in your triathlon kit. It's not uncommon to see people drop five grand on a high-end tri bike. In order to get everything in under the $1,000 mark, we couldn't go above $400.
If you want the most bang for your buck, get a used bike off Gumtree or from a bike shop. I was able to buy a Giant OCR-1 (average retail $US1,175) in near perfect condition on eBay for $US400. One thing you need to be very careful of, though, is if you're buying a used bike with carbon fibre parts. CF is very good at disguising flaws and breaks. The bike may have been in a wreck, with the fork hanging on by a thread, and still look flawless.
Helmets are an absolute must for triathlons. Not just because they're required by the USAT, but because any time you're going fast on a bike (and are surrounded by other people going fast on bikes), death by head injury is a very real possibility.
High-end tri helmets look like weird alien heads. When you're getting started, you don't need that. You just need solid protection with decent aerodynamics. The Bell Lumen strikes a great balance there. It has great ventilation, it's easily adjustable, it looks cool, and it may have already saved my life. [$95]
You can use pretty much whatever for a water bottle, including a $US2 bottle of spring water with a sports top. This, however, is a worthy upgrade. The Podium Chill is a squeezable double-wall water bottle with built-in insulation that helps keep your drinks cool. (Yes, I geeked out and tested it against an uninsulated bottle, measuring water by weight and using an electronic thermometer. It's not a thermos, but it helps.)
The best part is its valve — it'll only dispense water when squeezed (not when you hit a little bump), and it can be locked so it doesn't squirt when it's in your backpack or when you're shaking a sports drink. Hydration during a race is critically important, especially in the bike section, so you may want to get two of these, depending on the weather and length of your tri. [$29.95]
There are a lot of small items that you hope you won't have to use in a race, but you're going to need them with you just in case. Gotta put them somewhere, right? The Novara Medium Seat Bag is nicely designed and will hold a couple light tubes, a CO2 pump, a multi-tool, tire levers, and a patch kit. It stays secure and out of the way until you need it, then it's easily accessible. [$20]
Floor pumps are the best, hand pumps are more environmentally sustainable, but when you get a flat in a race, you need swap out the tube, inflate that sucker as fast as possible, and go. For that you need CO2.
The Air Chuck Elite is super tiny, weighs just 17 grams, and will take up virtually no space in your saddle bag. It's very easy to use. You just screw on a threaded CO2 cartridge, and firmly press it onto your valve. With a 16-gram cartridge it can inflate a road tire to 125 PSI in just a couple seconds. (Make sure not to over-inflate if your tires need a lower PSI, as popping your replacement tube sucks. A lot.) [$25.95]
Tires on road bikes can be extremely hard to get on and off, meaning it's going to require some force and leverage. Pedro's Tire Levers are the best. I've broken levers from several other brands, but these suckers don't even bend. They take up a little more space in your saddlebag than the alternatives, but they're worth it. [$US5]
I'm not going to lie, I usually just go to a bike shop, tell them my tire size, and get whatever is cheapest. The fact is that most flats aren't caused by defects in the inner-tube, but by something piercing the tire, a flaw on the rim, or over/under inflation. That said, Continental makes good stuff. You can get some nice Continental tubes online for about four bucks each. If you can fit two in your saddle bag, do it. Like Big Boi says, you gotta have a backup plan to the backup plan to backup your backup plan. [$4]
There's a lot that can go wrong with your bike. Maybe your seat or handlebars need some last-minute tweaks. Maybe something's off with your brakes or derailleur.
The Topeak X-Tool 10 will cover you for almost anything. It's solidly built, it folds down nicely, and it's smooth enough that it won't abrade your spare tubes. It even has a removable wrench for adjusting the X-Tool itself. Slick. [$15.95]
(Note: generally speaking, this is all stuff you'll be wearing during the cycle section, too.)
Shoes are simply way too personal for us to recommend a specific pair for you. You want something comfortable, that will be secure on the bike (assuming you're not wearing clip-ins), and will keep your feet happy for whatever distance you have to run.
Personally, I really liked the Brooks PureConnect. They're extremely light, are zero-drop (i.e. flat from heal-to-toe which helps maintain a more "natural" gait a la minimalist running), and have padding enough for longer runs.
There's a subtle split-toe designed to give you more control. Although, I developed hot-spots there the first couple times I wore them, so make sure you break them in before race day. [$179.99]
These are the best running socks I've ever worn. I want a body-sized one I can sleep in. Super light, super breathable, and not even the suggestion of a hotspot after 10 kilometres with soaking wet feet. AND they look cool.
Now, some triathletes don't wear socks at all. It's one less thing to deal with in your transition. Really, though, if you want to go sockless in your race, you need to train sockless for a good couple of months. Don't throw yourself any curveballs on the big day. [$22.95]
You don't want to pin your race number to your tri suit. If you swim without a wetsuit, it'll flap, drag, and maybe tear off. If you wear it under your wetsuit, the pins will chafe and maybe even stick you. You want it attached to a clip-on belt, so you can quickly put it on as soon as you're out of the water. The Amphipod AirFlow Microstretch Waistpack is awesome for this. It's comfortable, it clips on quickly, but it also stretches like crazy, so you can put all of your gels in there in addition to cash, ID, cards, hell, even a phone or keys. I accidentally left mine at the race, but I've already ordered another. Highly recommended. $US20
When you're engaged in hard exercise for hours at a time, you're going to be burning calories like crazy. If your blood-sugar gets too low, you pass out, and you don't finish. That's best-case scenario.
When it comes to nutrition, there are a ton of options, and personal preference definitely plays in. But I ended up going with GU Energy Gels. I didn't like the solid gummy things or waffles or jelly beans — I don't want to chew while I run. I just want to get the calories in and be done with it. Each GU packs in 100 calories with simple and complex carbohydrates and I found them easy to digest. When I needed an extra boost, I would grab the GU Roctane, which has a bunch of caffeine in it.
sure you drink plenty of water with these (especially for the caffeinated ones). The chocolate mint GU and the blueberry pomegranate Roctane were my favourites. (Note: you'll want to take in most of your nutrition during the cycle portion.) [<$4.25]
GRAND TOTAL: $1198
That's for everything we've mentioned so far.
Stuff You Already Have
There's stuff you'll need to bring that you already own. Clothes for before/after. Sunscreen. A towel to dry your feet after the swim. A roll of toilet paper in case the portaloos run out. A garbage bag for your wet stuff, and, of course, a backpack or bag to carry it all in.
That should be enough to get you through your first tri and then some. Be safe, race hard, and have fun.
Big thanks to my Team In Training coaches and teammates for all of the advice.