18 Items You Need to Start Training for a Triathlon
Don’t blow your budget on the bells and whistles just yet.
Unlike running, for which all you really need is a pair of running shoes (okay, and a pair of shorts, socks, and a shirt), the triathlon requires a few more essentials. But that doesn’t mean you need to break the bank as you make your way into the sport.
We talked to Jonathan Cane, a New York-based exercise physiologist, and running and triathlon coach, and AgeGrouper founder and triathlete Matt Schuster, to find out their go-to items for first-timers and novice triathletes.
Where to Save, When to Splurge
For those big-ticket items—a bike, a trainer, a triathlon wetsuit—and “nice-to-haves” like swim training tools, there is nothing wrong with borrowing from a friend or purchasing used, says Cane, co-author of Triathlon Anatomy.
But, he says, you do not want to skimp if you’re purchasing a bike saddle—paired with a borrowed bike, in some cases—or bike shorts.
“You’ll never be closer to an inanimate object than your saddle and shorts,” he says. “Don’t go bargain basement there.”
For example, some bike shorts might have an exposed seam that, over the course of hours, can cause extreme discomfort and chafing.
Cane also points out that a $200 saddle isn’t necessarily more comfortable than a $30 saddle, but it’s important to test it out to see what works for you.
“Most bike shops have saddles you can test,” he says.
Wetsuits for a triathlon can get pricey, too, like pushing $1,000.
“Unless there’s an engine built in, I’m not spending that,” Cane says.
Schuster swears by his Xterra wetsuit that he bought secondhand for about $75.
The Swim Essentials
Before you, er, dive in, you’ll need proper swim gear for training and race day. If you’re really focusing on strength and form in the water, tools might be a worthwhile purchase for training.
Trisuit or Wetsuit for Triathlon
Before you say, “I’ll just wear bike shorts for the swim,” it’s important to think about the makeup of bike shorts: They take awhile to dry and water-logged padding can make it feel like you’re riding and running in a very full diaper, Cane says.
Instead, he recommends a trisuit, which comes in a variety of styles, including one-piece and two-piece. They’re lightweight and dry quickly, making them a good option for the entire race. Plus, they’re thin enough to go under a wetsuit if you choose to wear one. For a budget-friendly option, opt for a pair of tri shorts and pair with a singlet.
Try: Roka Gen II Elite Aero Sleeveless Tri Suit
Try: TYR Competitor Core Tri Short
As for the wetsuit?
“They help stronger swimmers less than they help weaker swimmers,” Cane says.
That’s because while they provide buoyancy—a major advantage in the water—they can be restrictive, inhibiting powerful kicks and strokes.
Because wetsuits provide warmth they can be beneficial in chilly temps, say 50-something degree-water in New Jersey. On the flip side, race officials ban the use of wetsuits when water temps hit 82 because it’s unsafe.
“You’ll overheat,” Cane says.
Try: Xterra Vector Pro Fullsuit
It’s flexible, particularly in the arms and shoulders, making it ideal for 10 miles open-water swim.
A cap will keep your noggin warm and keep hair out of your face while in the water. Plus, most pools require swim caps for long-haired swimmers.
Speedo is known for its swim gear, and this simple cap is designed to avoid hair snagging. It comfortably hugs your head and covers your ears. For folks with long hair, try this long-hair version.
We’d argue that goggles are non-negotiable for the triathlon. And in the case of open-water swims, having two pairs—a clear lens and a tinted lens—will help you see in all sorts of weather. For example, on a cloudy day, clear lenses will make it easier to see the buoys and on bright, sunny days, tinted lenses will serve as sunglasses.
It’s also helpful to have larger lenses that let you see around you more easily.
Athletes who are confident in staying afloat in the water and want to focus on form and strength might benefit from swim tools. Of course, these are aids that cannot be used in racing, but can help you increase strength, Cane says.
These slip-on fins feature a natural rubber—a strong, resilient, waterproof material—that fit comfortably on your feet for workouts. Fins are designed to increase length strength and ankle flexibility, which will improve your kick, Cane says.
Pull buoys are effective in helping you get a feel for a wetsuit, thanks to their buoyancy, Cane says. From a training perspective, it helps align your body so you can focus on the rest of your stroke and increase your core strength.
There are different types of paddles—holed and solid—as well as different sizes. Solid paddles prevent water from moving through your fingers, allowing you to build your strength, while holed paddles can help you improve your form. There are different designs of paddles, including flat—stronger resistance— ergonomic—fit to your hands—and webbed swim gloves—comfortable and easy to use, but provide less resistance.
Try: Synergy Hand Paddles
The Bike Essentials
So yes, you need a bike. And it’s perfectly okay to borrow a friend’s bike before you invest in one of your own, but you’ll want to head to a bike fitter (like Endurancewerx) to make sure whatever you’re using is properly fitted. Not only will a fitter confirm the bike fits, they will help with proper positioning to help avoid injury and increase comfort.
You will want to avoid single speed bikes, beach cruisers (except for post-race lounge riding), or BMX-style bikes—those don’t offer sufficient (or any) gearing and minimal comfort. In some cases, like the cruiser, you’ll be lugging a lot of extra weight.
If you’re on wheels, you need a helmet. That’s actually a rule that can lead to disqualification in USAT-sanctioned events. If you’re competing in a sanctioned race, you must wear a helmet that’s been certified by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and you must be wearing it, fastened, at all times when in possession of your bike. That includes before, during, and after the event. Otherwise you will be disqualified, according to USA Triathlon.
It also might be a good idea to opt for a helmet that’s MIPS-certified, multi-directional impact protection system. Essentially, a MIPS helmet has two layers that rotate against each other, to mimic the rotation of the fluid inside of the skull—our body’s natural defense against impact. A MIPS-certified helmet is more expensive than a traditional helmet.
Some athletes opt for an aero helmet, which cuts drag and can improve your time, but for the newer athlete, the increase is cost isn’t really worth it.
Try: Aerohead Mips Helmet
Clipless Pedals and Bike Shoes
While it’s not essential to jump into clipless pedals for your first triathlon, if you’re a regular cyclist you may already be using them or considering them. Clipping your feet in—the shoes are attached to the pedals—helps you maximize performance. But if you’re just starting to feel out the sport and don’t want to worry about also trying to learn how to ride clipless, regular pedals or caged pedals will get the job done.
Try: Shimano TR9
For more seasoned athletes, a trainer is a crucial investment—particularly if you live somewhere that has winter. But Cane says newer triathletes don’t necessarily have to spend the roughly $2,000 for it. In crummy weather, hopping onto a stationary bike can get you to your required mileage. If you’re looking to invest in a trainer, you’re essentially turning your bike into a stationary bike and you can ride no matter what.
A smart direct drive trainer allows you to adjust your resistance—simulate wind, hills—with training app.
Try: Wahoo Kickr
Lots of riding can do a number to your undercarriage. All cyclists and triathletes can benefit from a chamois-specific lube, which prevents or reduces chafing.
Try: Chammy Buttr
The run is often what makes or breaks a triathlon performance. You’re tired, your legs are shot, and depending on distance, you have a way’s to go until the finish. To make your training and run part of your race as comfortable and as effective as can be, this is what you’ll need.
Similar to choosing a bike, there is no one-size-fits all. Your best bet is to go to a running store and get fit for the best type of shoe for you. You might prefer a cushioned shoe or one with minimal cushion. You might need support either through the shoe itself or inserts. Maybe you’re okay with a heavier shoe or you want something as light as possible. Store clerks can help guide you through this process, and you’ll be able to take them out for a spin to get a true feel.
For your run training days, you’ll want comfortable shorts, a sports bra, and a top. Most running and athletic gear features moisture-wicking technology to keep you dry. As you log more miles you’ll learn what works and doesn’t work for you, and you can adjust accordingly.
When you’re logging miles for 60 minutes or more, it’s important to refuel to keep your glycogen stores topped off and prevent bonking. A no-frills fuel belt is a lightweight way to keep your midrun fuel easily accessible if your short pockets aren’t doing the trick.
If you’re already a runner, chances are you’re logging miles with some sort of GPS watch. While they’re not essential, especially if you run with a phone, they can help you stay on track with regard to pace, time, and distance. If you want to track your heart rate, most GPS watches come with a wrist HR monitor, which isn’t as accurate as a chest strap, but can give you a rough idea.
For a basic GPS watch for running try: Garmin Forerunner 55
For a bells-and-whistles multisport GPS watch try: Garmin Forerunner 945
If you’re switching from bike to running shoes, you can save time if you don’t need to tie your shoes. Speed laces are easy to install into your running shoes so you can slip them on and go, securely.
Heather Mayer Irvine is a freelance journalist based in Pennsylvania. She is the former nutrition and training editor for Runner’s World and the author of the Runner’s World Vegetarian Cookbook (2018). Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, Bicycling, Popular Mechanics, The Boston Globe, Cooking Light, CNN, Glamour, and The Associated Press. She’s a seven-time marathoner with a personal best of 3:31 but is most proud of her 1:32 half marathon, 19:44 5K, and 5:33 mile. She’s done one sprint triathlon and is terrified of open water.