Carolyn Carter: Triathlon on a Budget
AgeGrouper turned Pro Carolyn Carter shares pointers on how anyone can participate in triathlon on a budget.
So, you’re interested in getting into triathlons? Or maybe you’ve already begun training. Either way, congrats on your journey into triathlon, the most rewarding sport ever… and possibly the most expensive.
These three sports—swimming, cycling and running—can be expensive on their own, and when you put them all together, it really adds up. But have no fear, newly minted professional athlete Carolyn Carter is here to help you do triathlon without breaking the bank.
I started my triathlon journey when I was 23 years old, fresh out of college and working towards my masters degree. Money was tight.
Believe me, you don’t need all the bells and whistles to get started, and you’ll only need a few essentials to outfit your first race. During the first three years or so, I was able to get by with some pretty inexpensive gear.
Below is what I think everyone starting out should have. (Note that I didn’t say BUY.)
Essential Tri Gear
- Swim cap (the race will likely provide one, but you’ll want one to train with at your local pool)
- Tri kit (you’ll wear this the entire race)
- Water bottles
- Cycling shoes
- Hat or visor
- Running shoes
- Number belt
*Now, let’s break down some of the more expensive ticket items above and how you can get your hands on them at low cost.
You don’t need to wear a wetsuit unless the water is really cold. In fact, if the water is too warm, you’re not allowed to wear a wetsuit at all to prevent you from overheating. But they do have their advantages, such as providing extra buoyancy and speed.
You can always borrow a wetsuit from a friend. That’s what I did for my first tri and it worked out well.
Another option is to rent one from your local triathlon shop. Ask around because not all shops offer this service.
Look on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, eBay, etc., to buy a used wetsuit.
If you’re looking to purchase a new wetsuit, look for deals around the holidays when stores have big sales.
Some great brands to check out are Roka, Xterra and Zoot. I have a Zoot wetsuit and love it. Use my code for 30 percent off a purchase at Zoot: @la_triathlete
The bike will be your biggest out of pocket cost, hands down. Not only do you need a bike, but you’ll need pedals, shoes and extra money for bike maintenance.
Buying a used bike is always a good option. Check out Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist.
Some bike shops sell used bikes, which is advantageous because you know you’re getting a good piece of equipment.
If you want to buy a new bike, head to your local bike shop. Talk to them about your budget and cycling needs and see what your options are. Ask if they offer payment plans. For my very first bike, I bought a brand new road bike for $1,000 and paid it off over time at $200 a month.
I personally, don’t think you need to start off with a triathlon bike. In my opinion, a road bike is more versatile and you can always clip on aerobars for racing. I didn’t get my first triathlon bike until 2020. It was on the cheaper end at $2,400 but each year I have slowly upgraded its components to make it more efficient.
(For more information about road bikes vs. tri bikes, check out this AG article.)
There are so many watches on the market and they can be very pricey. But I think having a good watch is absolutely vital for training. It’s important to be able to track your progress. Different watches provide different data, so you must decide what will work best for you.
I currently have the Garmin Forerunner 945 and this thing is the Mecca of watches. It does everything a triathlete could ever want. The downside, it carries a big price tag at around $500.
There are so many comparable, less expensive options. They might not do everything you want, but they come close. For $200, the Garmin Forerunner 55 records running, cycling and pool swimming. The downside of this watch is that it doesn’t have a triathlon mode and can’t track open water swimming. If you mostly train in a pool and don’t care about tracking on race day, this could be a great option.
REI sells most Garmin watch models; if you’re an REI member, you can earn dividends on that purchase.
If you’re dead set on a pricey watch, wait for a holiday weekend to snag a sale.
I recommend searching online to find articles that compare the features and prices of various watch makes and models.
Other Triathlon Related Costs
They are one of the most expensive aspects of the sport but there are a few things you can do to cut back and save.
Stick to local races to save money on travel. Even if you have to drive further and stay in a hotel for a night, it’s considerably cheaper than flying yourself (and your bike) somewhere.
Keep an eye out for independent races ‘Half Iron’ or ‘Iron-distance’ races (or some variation thereof) and sprinkle them into your race circuit.
I usually do two to three Ironman branded events per year and believe me, it adds up. This is just something I’ve accepted as ‘a cost of doing business’ and have worked the cost into my budget accordingly.
If you end up traveling for a race, try to book your hotel in advance. The prices go up closer to the event. Plus, hotels near the race always sell out early.
Try to find a buddy who is doing the race (or a few buddies) and split the cost of lodging. AirBNBs and VRBOs are a great option for groups.
Or, if you’re like me, try to find races in cities where friends live with and stay with a friend.
If you must fly to the race, get yourself an airline credit card. I have a Delta card and I love it. Register for your race using that card and secure free miles.
If you know anyone with a bike box, try and borrow it to ship your bike. With my Delta card, I get one checked bag free, so as long as the bike is under 50 lbs, I’m only paying $25 to check my bike.
Personally, it makes me nervous to fly with my bike, so I’ve used Tri Bike Transport as an alternative. Fair warning, it is expensive but they occasionally have sales throughout the year, so keep an eye out for those.
If you’re training almost every day (sometimes twice a day), you’re going to need a few key pieces of workout clothing:
- A swimsuit or two
- A couple of good cycling kits
- A couple pairs of running shorts and tops
- Running shoes
The cycling kits will be the most expensive. Check out brands like Pearl Izumi and Neopro. I can vouch for both of those brands. Also, a little secret: check out Sierra Trading Post. They have the best deals on cycling kits.
When looking for a swimsuit, Swim Outlet will become your new best friend.
For running gear, check out Amazon and read reviews of the less expensive running gear. Baleaf makes a great line of affordable clothing.
I also recommend heading to your local Nike outlet and stocking up.
Running shoes are the one thing you really can’t skimp on. You need a good pair if you’re going to be logging a lot of miles.
Head to your local running store to find the right shoe for you. Most running stores will do a fit analysis to determine what brand is best. Once you find a pair you like, check online and see if you can buy them (or a similar model) on sale. For example, you may love the Hoka Clifton 8s in store, but you may only be able to find the Clifton 7s online for a better price.
Nutrition can be pricey too, but you definitely need it.
Figure out what your favorite nutrition brand is and see if they offer an ambassador program. Ambassador programs are a great way to get big discounts. During my first couple years in triathlon I was a Honey Stinger and Nuun ambassador.
Now, my favorite website for nutrition is The Feed. They have every brand you can imagine on there. They occasionally have pretty good sales too, plus they offer store credit when you spend enough money, etc., so check them out.
Coaching and/or Training Plans
I have been doing triathlons for about six years now and I didn’t have a coach until one month ago. I got by with finding free training plans online.
You can find a ton of training plans that give you a basic outline of distance, etc.
However, if you want a more personalized experience that’s tailored to you, then a coach may be a good investment.
I felt as though I wasn’t meeting my full potential (especially on the run), so I hired a coach. They create your entire workout plan so all you have to do is follow along with the daily schedule.
If you find a coach that you love, but can’t afford their fee, be honest with them, perhaps they will be willing to work out a deal or payment plan.
[Check out this article by AgeGrouper for more insights when determining how to choose a training plan that’s right for you.]
First Year of Triathlon vs. Now
I thought it would be fun to do a comparison of what I spent in my first year racing versus this year. (Note: I have had the privilege of earning sponsorships and brand deals through my Instagram account, so there are certain things I no longer have to pay for.)
Since I am fully committed to the sport and recently earned my elite status, I do invest a lot more than I have in the past.
But as you can see, it is possible to do triathlons without spending an arm and a leg! Keep in mind, some of the bigger ticket items (bike, watch, wetsuit) are one time purchases, and once you build a solid base of triathlon gear, you won’t need to spend as much money each season.