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-meter 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 installment 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.
Tri Suit: Pearl Izumi SELECT
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]
Wetsuit: Orca S4
If your tri is happening in a warm body of water, then you don't need a wetsuit, and you have $200 bucks to spend elsewhere. USAT rules state that if the water temp is 78 degrees F or below, you can wear a wetsuit. At 78.1-83.9 degrees, you can wear one but you won't be eligible for awards. At 84 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 sleeveless version for $190. If you're going to be in cooler water, or if you want even more efficiency, you might want to drop the extra $30 for the sleeved version. [$190]
Goggles: Speedo Speed Socket
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]
Bike: Craigslist or Dawes
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 Craigslist or from a bike shop. I was able to buy a Giant OCR-1 (average retail $1,175) in near perfect condition on Craiglist for $400. One thing you need to be very careful of, though, is if you're buying a used bike with carbon fiber 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.
Helmet: Bell Lumen
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. [$65]
Water bottle: CamelBak Podium Chill
You can use pretty much whatever for a water bottle, including a $2 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. [$12]
Sun Glasses: Chili's Bluefin Polarized
When you're on your bike, you need something to keep bugs out of your eyes. As most triathlons take place during the day, you're going to want some sun protection, too. Yeah, you could get some $7 shades, but instead, spend a little more and go with something polarized. Polarized glasses cut through the glare that comes off of cement, making it way, way easier to see uneven surfaces, cracks, and other hazards in your path. The other reason to buy $20 shades over hundred-dollar ones? Well, I misplaced mine before I could take a close-up of them. [$20]
Saddle Pack: Novara Medium Seat Bag
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]
Tire Pump: Genuine Innovations Air Chuck Elite
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 0.6 ounces, 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.) [$20]
Levers: Pedro's Tire Levers
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. [$5]
Extra Tube: Continental
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]
Multi-tool: Topeak X-Tool 10
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. [$13]
(Note: generally speaking, this is all stuff you'll be wearing during the cycle section, too.)
Shoes: Your Choice
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, have a minimal drop (i.e. 4mm drop 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. [$90]
Socks: Wigwam Ironman Flash Pro
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 6.2 miles 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. [$12]
Race Belt: Amphipod AirFlow Microstretch Waistpack
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. $20
Food: GU Energy Gels / Roctane
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. Make sure you drink plenty of water with these (especially for the caffeinated ones). The chocolate mint GU and the blueberry pomegranate Roctane were my favorites. (Note: you'll want to take in most of your nutrition during the cycle portion.) [<$2]
That's for everything we've mentioned so far. What about tax? Shhh...move to Nevada.
The list to this point covers must-have gear. Below, none of these things are items you need. They're upgrades, add-ons, and alternates.
Alternate Tri Suit: De Soto Shorts and PI Top
Maybe you're not ready for that tri suit unitard look. That's cool, I get it. The best entry-level two-piece combination is De Soto Men's Carrera Tri Shorts and the Pearl Izumi SELECT TRI SL jersy top. The chamois in the De Soto shorts is incredibly soft, and its stitches are well-hidden, which makes for the least-chafey tri shorts I've ever worn. There are no bells or whistles as these are De Soto's most basic shorts, but dang they're comfy. Pearl Izumi's Select Tri SL jersey also feels amazing. It's somewhat looser fitting, but it's silky, well-ventilated, and it has that same long chest-zip and rear pocket you find in the tri suit. [Shorts: $58 / Top: $60]
Aero bars: Profile Design Legacy
You can buy all kinds of stuff for your bike, but this one item will generally make the biggest difference in terms of speed. Drafting is illegal in triathlons, so you need to cut through as much wind as possible. To do that, you want to get low and flat. Aero bars let you get nice and low without holding a half pushup position for an hour and a half—you put your weight on your elbows. It's a noticeable difference. Just make sure you are well-practiced with these before you ride them in a race or anywhere crowded. You have much less control, your brakes and shifters are further away from your hands, and you don't have all that flex in your elbows to absorb shock. Also, make sure you (or someone who really knows what they're doing) puts them on right and doesn't pinch your brake cables. [$80 MSRP or $53 on Amazon]
Bike Seat: Cobb Max
Whether or not you want to have kids, it'd be nice to at least have the option, right? Bike seats have been known to take a toll on the sexual health of both men and women. Nobody wants that. Seats like the Cobb Max have a cutout (aka a "love channel") to take some pressure off of your sensitive bits. They also have better ventilation. I went with the Cobb Max because it's a pretty firm saddle, which ultimately helps to reduce chafe and keep that cutout from collapsing. These take a little getting used to, but you'll probably never go back afterward. [$180]
Gloves: Pearl Izumi Select Gel
Generally speaking, most triathletes don't wear gloves. It's just one more thing to deal with in the transition. That said, if you're new to cycling and/or you have sensitive hands, they can be a real life-saver. I didn't use them in the tri, but I've had a pair of these Select Gel gloves that I've used for six years now, and they're great. The padding removes some of the pressure on your ulnar and medial nerves, they breathe well, and they have soft fabric on the back for wiping your
snotty nose glasses. $30
Other Hydration Options: Aero Drink bottle / Camelbak backpack
There are several other good hydration options you may want to consider. If you've gone with the aero bars mentioned above, you may want to go ahead and grab this Aero Drink bottle that fits into them. It's 100 percent hands-free. It holds 32 ounces of water, and you just sip it through a straw while you're down in aero position. For others, a Camelbak backpack makes a lot of sense, especially beginning riders. These packs can hold a lot of water, and you don't have to take your hands off the handlebars. Some even accommodate ice packs and other gear. [Aero Drink: $20 / Camelbak: $35-$150]
Speed Laces: Yankz
If you've never used bungie-style laces, they're kind of a game-changer. Not only will they speed up your transition like crazy (no tying!) but they're super easy to adjust on the fly as you run (no re-tying!). You can dial them in to fit as snugly as you want, and generally speaking, they're better about not cutting off circulation. I looked at several brands but Yankz was the favorite. Super easy to adjust, and I like the way they hook onto themselves to keep out of the way. [$8.50]
Clipless Pedals/Shoes: Undetermined
Clipless pedals/shoes (which you actually do clip into) will give you way more power as you bike, because you aren't merely pushing down, you can pull up, too, allowing you to use other muscle groups. That said, every tri has someone who is wearing clipless pedals for the first time, and falls, which can cause a pile-up. Don't be that person. These were my first triathlons, and I wasn't used to clipless, so I didn't use them and therefore cannot recommend a pair. I'll leave that to you savvy cyclists in the discussion below. A solid pair of Shimano clipless pedals generally start around $80. Clipless shoes start around $100 for plastic soled and go up to $400 and beyond for carbon fiber.
There's stuff you'll need to bring that you already own. Clothes for before/after. Sunblock (Watermans is expensive, but it won't come off). A towel to dry your feet after the swim. A roll of toilet paper in case the porta potties 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.