Triathlon can seem like a daunting sport to jump into, since it’s made up of three entirely distinct sports, with very little equipment overlap. Nevertheless, you can get started with surprisingly little, upgrading or adding niceties as your level of commitment requires.
If you’re like most beginning triathletes, you already compete in either swimming, cycling, or running. This means you’ll only have two new sports to gear up for. See? It’s already looking less intimidating. In this triathlon-for-beginners article, let’s look at the requirements of each sport individually.
When it comes to choosing the right pair of Triathlon goggles, there are 4 aspects you will want to consider. Fit, coverage, clarity and speed. The first two probably don’t need a huge amount of explaining, as looking for a pair of goggles that fit whilst wearing your wetsuit and provide your face with a comfortable amount of coverage. However, when swimming in open water, having goggles that have distorted, shaped lenses make things harder, as you need to be able to see if anyone is potentially swimming into you, so it’s best to aim for smoother, clearer goggles. It’s also important to look for a pair that is hydrodynamically on point, giving the best advantage in terms of speed. It’s a fair few things to remember, so once you’ve found the right goggles, buy two pairs, one with normal lenses, the other with tinted, meaning you’ll be ready for any situation.
Your wetsuit is a major purchase that deserves careful consideration. Good fit is paramount; if the suit is too tight anywhere it will restrict your motion, and could make your extremities colder. Too loose and it will be lumpy, with excess water seeping between you and the neoprene. This will cause drag and slow you down.
Consider the water temperature where you’ll train and compete most often. In colder water, you’ll want thicker neoprene and long sleeves. You’ll get more insulation as well as more buoyancy. The downside is more restricted motion, especially in the arms. In warmer water, you’ll want thinner neoprene and short sleeves.
These are your most important investments for the running stage. In the beginning, you’ll want a comfortable, durable pair of trainers that fits well and can handle all those long training miles. Don’t worry about featherweight race shoes just yet.
Pay attention to the basic shoe type. Running shoes can be described as motion control, cushioning, or neutral. Motion-control shoes offer extra stability and support for runners whose feet overpronate (collapse inward while landing). Overpronators often have flat feet with very flexible arches, and are at risk of ankle, knee, and hip problems. Motion-control shoes help correct the exaggerated motion of a runners’ movement.
Cushioning shoes offer less support and more shock absorption. They’re favoured by runners who tend to under-pronate, and who have high, rigid arches.
Neutral shoes are right in the middle, with average cushioning and average support and stability. Neutral shoes work for runners with neutral feet. They are also often favoured by runners who prefer to correct foot problems with aftermarket insoles or prescription orthotics.
Always listen to your body. If you find yourself developing foot or joint pain, back off and investigate. You may find relief from an orthotics or a different shoe.
Hat or Visor
Whichever is most comfortable for you. Hats with a long bill for shade, in a quick-drying fabric, are popular. Polarised models cut glare and may reduce fatigue, but make sure they don’t interfere with your ability to read cycling computer or smartwatch screens.
Your preference, to protect your eyes from UV. Pick ones that are comfortable for both running and cycling.
Running or Cycling Socks
Some triathletes go sockless, to speed transitions. It can be a struggle pulling socks over wet feet. Nevertheless, going without socks can lead to debilitating blisters, as well as foot fungus and permanently stinky shoes. We suggest you try using socks to save the trouble. During your first races, it will be better to lose a few seconds in the transition than to drop out mid-run because of blisters.
You’ll want lightweight synthetic socks that you can use with both your running and cycling shoes. Ideally, prepare them before the race: put them on your dry feet, and then roll them off. They’ll then be ready to roll back on without friction.
If you do choose to go sockless, experiment first on short training runs and rides. Discuss strategies with other triathletes. You’ll need a way to quickly dry your feet, and you may need to treat your feet with either powders or lubricants to prevent blisters.
As you might have imagined, this is the biggest purchase of all, with the greatest number of technical details and fit options to consider.
We won’t have the space to take a deep dive into bikes here, but we hope to give you a sense of the important questions.
The first is if you need a specialized triathlon bike or if you’ll be adequately served by a road racing model. This depends largely on how much of your riding you expect to be dedicated to triathlon training and competition. If you plan to do a triathlon or two a year, and to enjoy your bike regularly for other purposes—possibly including road racing or criteriums—a road bike will offer better value.
If you’re all-in on triathlons, then a specialized tri bike will offer some advantages. A triathlon bike is essentially a time trial bike; it’s designed for maximum efficiency over a long, steady-state effort. It will be designed to favour an aerodynamic position for the rider, with slightly high and forward position over the pedals. This position will improve efficiency, and will also help your muscles transition to the running leg.
Road bikes, in contrast, are more general purpose. They’re designed to let the rider transition between a steady-state endurance position, a back-of-the-seat hill-climbing position, and a forward, over-the-pedals sprinting position. Bikes designed for criterium racing will have a short wheelbase and geometry that sacrifices stability for quick manoeuvring.
How nice a bike will you need? This is the first question on the minds of many aspiring triathletes, as the highest-end bikes can cost as much as a car. Fortunately, entry-level bikes these days are very, very good. Compared with a pro-level bike, they’ll weigh a few extra pounds and may be missing some more esoteric features. And their parts won’t be engineered to hold up for the tens of thousands of miles of year-round abused dished out by full-time athletes. But these shortcomings won’t matter during your first forays into the sport.
What matters most of all: fit. This is not just about buying the right size bike, but about all the adjustments you make to fit the bike to your body. These include saddle height and fore/aft position, and handlebar height. Some adjustments may require replacing parts on the bike. For example, you may need a longer or shorter handlebar stem, or longer or shorter crank arms. Don’t discount the importance of this. And don’t try to do it yourself. Find an experienced coach or bike fitter to help you get this right. You may find yourself continuing to adjust your position over many months. Write down all your final bike position measurements and keep a copy with you, in case your bike needs to be repaired or replaced due to a training or travel mishap.
Possibly the next most important consideration: the saddle. You’ll be sitting on this thing, with much of your weight supported by your two little sit-bones, while pumping your legs, mile after mile and hour after hour. The difference between the right saddle and the wrong one will be painfully obvious. You may also find that as your fitness and mileage increase, you’ll favour firmer, narrower saddles. This is a natural progression. You may be lucky and find that you love the saddle that comes with the bike—but be prepared to experiment. No one will be able to give you definitive advice here. Only your own bum knows what will fit best.
These can be standard road racing shoes or specialized triathlon shoes. All bike shoes now work with ski binding-like step-in pedal systems. Once again, fit is the most important quality. Some shoes attach with velcro or quick-release bindings. You may find that your feet are most comfortable with shoes that have a bit of flex in the soles, or you may prefer completely rigid shoes.
Choices abound. Look for one that’s light, has ample ventilation, and fits your head.
FOR ALL STAGES
You’ll wear these for all three sports. They’re basically cycling shorts that double as a swimsuit and triple as running shorts. The core feature is the chamois pad in the crotch, designed to keep your skin dry and to minimize rubbing between you and the saddle. These are standard in bike shorts; in the triathlon version, the pad needs to be thin enough to dry quickly and shaped to keep it out of the way as much as possible while running.
This is for transporting your gear to the race and keeping it organized. You can get away with duffel or backpack, but a dedicated bag help speed your transitions. Its dedicated wetsuit pocket will also help keep your cycling and running gear dry.
Smart Watch / Fitness Computer
Not strictly necessary, but it will help track your progress, and allow you to adjust training intensity based on your heart rate. Some will sync with bike computers, so they’ll monitor bike speed, pedalling cadence, and power output.
Don’t forget this. If you have a dark complexion, you may not have to worry about sunburn, but you’re still susceptible to premature ageing and skin cancer. Get a very high-quality sport sunscreen that’s broad spectrum and that has a high rating for water resistance.
Put it on in the morning before getting your numbers painted on (otherwise you may smear the greasepaint all over yourself). Manufacturers are overly optimistic about how long their products stay on athletes who are sweating and swimming—put it on again pre-run and again pre-bike. Apply liberally.
Don’t test a new brand on race day. Avoid putting it on your forehead, where your sweat can wash it into your eyes; even the most eye-friendly broad-spectrum formulas can sting. Let your helmet/hat and sunglasses shield you here.
As you see, the list of essentials for a beginner is not so daunting—especially if you already have a bike. Beyond the essentials, there are many accessories and gadgets that you might eventually acquire as you fine-tune your approach to the sport. We’ll address these in more specialized articles. Until then, good luck! We hope you enjoy the unique and challenging adventure that is triathlon.