22 September 2009 10 Comments

Triathlon – the essential kit list

After 8 seasons of triathlon I think I can have a reasonable stab at offering some advice on the kit you need to undertake a triathlon. Given that a triathlon can last from about an hour to fifteen hours you would think that they would need vastly different types of kit, but that’s not really the case, although I’ll try and point out some of the obvious savings and shortcuts you can make for the shorter distance events.

What to wear?

The starting point for any triathlon is your “tri suit”. You don’t have time to change clothing in

Craft Performance Tri Short

Craft Performance Tri Short

transition, and in most races there are no changing rooms, and since nudity is against the rules, you don’t have any option but to choose a garment that will see you from swim, though the bike and on to the run. There are basically two options, a single piece tri suit, or  a two piece shorts and singlet. I wouldn’t be tempted to wear a pair of standard road cycling shorts as the pad will soak up too much water and will be too bulky for the run. Tri specific shorts will have a much thinner pad and it’s surprising how far you can cycle in a well designed pair of tri shorts. (see my review of the brilliant Craft tri shorts).  The top that you wear could be a running vest, a cycling shirt or a specific tri top. As long as they are made of a synthetic non water retaining material you’ll be fine. If you are doing a longer distance event such as a half-ironman, you will need rear pockets for food etc, so a proper cycling shirt or tri top makes sense for this type of triathlon.

Essential kit: Tri shorts (£25-£50)

The Swim

It’s quite easy to get kitted out for the swim. If your chosen event is a pool swim all you will need is a pair of goggles – a standard pool pair will do, but you can also buy tri-specific models with better peripheral vision for a few quid more. For nearly all British open water triathlons the wearing of wetsuits will be compulsory and if you just want to give triathlon a go, there are places that you can hire them from (I think the going rate is about £65). Once you’ve been bitten by the bug, you’ll need to buy your own (3 lots of hire will get you a new wetsuit). It’s possible to buy cheap shorty wetsuits from stores like Decathlon which are primarily designed for general beach wear, snorkelling and the like, but these are not designed for swimmimg, they bulge all over the place and won’t have the smooth, slippery finish that a proper tri wetsuit has. I think buying one of these is a false economy and you are much better off buying a proper wetsuit designed for triathlon. Remember, wetsuits are all about the fit – try it on!

Essential Kit: Goggles (£5-£20); wetsuit (if open water swimming) (£180-£600)

The Bike

How long have you got? Your bike is the most expensive piece of kit in your tri kitbag and cyclists will happily spend hours, if not days, talking about specs and materials. But let’s start with the essential: you must wear a helmet that conforms to EU standards. Any general road helmet will do as long as it has the relevant safety standard and will set you back anything between about £30 and £150. You’ll see the top guys wearing those peculiar pointy aero time trial lids and these are only worth having if you are investing heavily in a full aero bike setup.

Your choice of bike will be influenced very heavily by the type of event you are entering and your ambition. If all you are doing is trying a sprint distance event or even an Olympic distance to dip your toe in the water, you can use any bike you like, as long as it’s roadworthy. Every bike entering transition is checked by a safety marshal, and I’ve seen athletes refused entry for all kinds of mechanical issues, often brake or steering related. It’s your responsibility to make sure your bike is safe. I’ve seen mountain bikes, commuter bikes and even a shopper bike on sprint distance races, but it’s fair to say that no-one does a half ironman or full ironman on anything other than a road racing bike or time-trial machine – to do anything else would be to make the event far tougher than it already is.

The "Little Prince"

The "Little Prince"

Assuming that you have decided to buy a bike for triathlon, there is the question of how much you should spend? Top time trial bikes cost upwards of £3,000 and on the very best you’ll only buy the frame for this! Unless you are an experienced bike rider who intends to do lots of triathlons and time trials, you should not buy a time trial bike. These are highly specialised pieces of equipment and on many of them the steering and braking is extremely temperamental. Everyone who owns one of these thoroughbreds still does the vast majority of their training on a standard road bike, anyway. So, you will be better advised to opt for a road bike and set it up for triathlon by fitting some clip-on tri bars. I have always ridden a road bike in triathlon and, except for this year, have used clip-on tri bars. Clip on bars cost from £35 for a basic pair to £100+ for the light carbon-fibre jobs. They are far from being a triathlon essential, but from my experience, the heavier cheap bars tend to affect the handling of the bike quite a lot, and I think going for the more expensive end of the market here is one area where it does make sense.

Again, it’s possible to spend any amount of money that you want on a road bike, and it makes sense that as you try longer and longer events you’ll want to have a better quality bike. The best bikes are lighter, better handling, more comfortable, more reliable and more responsive to the rider. My own slightly prejudiced view is that for any bike that you will want to spend a few years riding competitively you will need to spend a minimum of £1,000. Having said that, I realise that by shopping around and looking at the 2nd hand market you can pick up a great machine from about £600. Autumn is the time of year to go bike shopping as retailers look to get rid of the last of their season’s stock in preparation for the new year meaning there are bargains to be had.

You will notice from the picture that my bike is fitted with clipless pedals requiring proper cycling shoes with cleats. If you have never ridden with clipless pedals, don’t save it for race day! You can fit a cheap platform pedal to your bike and wear your running shoes and this will be fine for short distance triathlons. But there is a good reason why every serious triathlete rides with clipless pedals: they utterly transform your riding. It’s an upgrade you are going to want to make fairly quickly.

I would offer one last piece of advice about getting a bike: invest in a professional bike fitting. Getting your position on your bike set up in detail will result in a much more comfortable and safe riding experience as well as reducing injury risk dramatically. Expect to pay £60 and upwards for this service.

Helmet wearing is compulsory at all triathlon events and you must have one in good condition that meets the European safety standards. No need to get one of those pointy aero helmets though,unless time trialling is your thing.

Essential kit: Bike (£500-£5,000); Helmet (£30-£150)

The run

This one is easy, you just need a pair of running shoes that fit comfortably. Do I need to add that running is the element that probably carries the greatest injury risk in triathlon? So if you have any joint issues, back pain etc it will repay you hugely to get running shoes from a specialist running store where they can assess your gait. You don’t necessarily need to get the most expensive trainers in the shop as you won’t be running really high mileages in training.

Essential kit: Running shoes (£40-£120)

The list of essentials is not a long one:

  • Tri shorts
  • Goggles
  • Wetsuit (if open water swimming)
  • Helmet
  • Bike
  • Running shoes

This makes it quite possible to fully kit yourself out for triathlon for less than £1,000, and if you are using an old bike and hiring a wetsuit, the whole thing will cost very little. Many specialist tri retailers will sell packages with pretty much all of these essentials in, so a little surfing and researching will go along way.

Little things that make a difference

There are a few extra items that I would also throw into your kitbag that won’t break the bank:

Race belt: an elastic belt that your race number is clipped to. (£5)

Elastic laces: speed your way through transition by fitting elastic laces to your running shoes (£5)

Lube: Helps you slip in and out of your wetsuit in style and keep all your sensitive bits comfortable – the longer the race, the more important this becomes! Vaseline costs pence but isn’t great for wetsuits. Bodyglide costs around £10

Sunglasses: keep bugs and grit out of your eyes on the bike and run, as well as helping you look cool. If you want to you can spend a lot of money on shades! (£30 – £???)

oakley

Next steps

There isn’t much more that I would add to the above list. Obviously you can go on upgrading your bike forever (my first upgrade would be clipless pedals and cycling shoes, then clip-on aero bars), but there is one piece of kit that I almost regard as essential, and that’s my heartrate monitor. It tells me how hard I’m working, how healthy or tired I am and is my essential guide to form.

So there you have it, my essential kit list for triathlon. What have I missed off? What’s your essential piece of kit?

Images from the author except sunglasses, published under a CC licence from Tico24 on Flickr
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10 Responses to “Triathlon – the essential kit list”

  1. redbike 23 September 2009 at 7:34 am #

    When you put it like that it all sounds horrendously expensive. I will be trying a duathlon or two out shortly. (Just as soon as I learn to run!)

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  2. John Sutton 23 September 2009 at 8:14 am #

    I don’t know, you’ve got a bike and helmet, not to mention running shoes. All you are going to need are some goggles and some tri shorts (my pair cost £28 from Wiggle). Hire or borrow a wetsuit. The only expensive bit really is the race entry, quite a lot more than cycle only events.

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  3. Pete S 23 September 2009 at 10:10 am #

    This is excellent John.

    I would reiterate your advice to get a proper tri wetsuit from bitter experience trying a triathlon with a standard beach wetsuit. The big difference I found is that the shoulders aren’t designed for swimming and it makes front crawl even harder having a restriction each time you reach forward into the stroke. Next race I hired a wetsuit and the retailer offered to knock the price of the hire off the suit if I liked it and wanted to buy it afterwards. Was a great way of checking the fit and to confirm that I enjoyed sticking my head in the murky waters of Holme Pierrepont. Which I didn’t.

    And I can definitely recommend elastic laces, not only for tansition, but slipping them on and off for training runs never ceases to be a pleasure.

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  4. Simon Lewis 24 September 2009 at 7:39 am #

    Stop being so helpful about trianthlon. You are giving me no choice but to do one.

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  5. Darroch 29 September 2009 at 7:40 am #

    Good info… thanks! I am a novice and like the idea of a one piece tri-suit (do lots of long distance cycling and prefer bib-shorts), where should I put the hr monitor on? Is it water resistant enough for the swim? Will it ride down my chest during the swim or shall I put it on at T1? Do you keep your watch on under your wet suit or strap it to your handle bar?
    Forgive the dumb questions… I am working away from home and training in a small compound so will not get a great deal of time to field test kit before the IMan in Jan 10.

    P.S – Bodyglide is an excellent tip… it took me ten minutes to get out of it when I tried my wetsuit on…

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  6. John Sutton 29 September 2009 at 8:15 am #

    Hi Darroch, Thanks for the comment. A 1 piece suit is fine – just check out the pockets for enough storage on an Ironman. Also, I put on an extra layer after I finished the bike as I knew it would cool down significantly as I ran into the evening and when tired I was concerned about being warm – the strategy worked well.

    Wear your HR monitor next to the skin under your trisuit, most are sealed for swimming so it’s no problem. I keep my watch on my wrist throughout.

    Bodyglide everything! Armpits, ankles, wrists as well as the usual suspects. There are also some good sprays that some people use on arms and legs to slip out of the wetsuit quicker.

    Good luck with your IM. Which one are you doing?

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  7. Darroch 29 September 2009 at 12:57 pm #

    Hey John, I am a Brit living in Wanaka (NZ), will be doing the Wanaka Challenge in Jan 10. I am working in West Africa till Jan so training is a real challenge!!!
    Slowly developing a good plan and strategy together for race day, the long hours on the turbo trainer are super boring though! Nobody said it was going to be easy….
    Really looking forward to the day and your helpful tips have been incorporated into the growing plan for race day!

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  8. John Sutton 29 September 2009 at 1:11 pm #

    Wow, sounds great. I take it the Wanaka challenge is in the middle of summer? What are the temperatures like in NZ for the race? I’m also guessing turbo training in West Africa is a pretty warm experience, too. Is this your first tri?

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  9. Darroch 29 September 2009 at 3:42 pm #

    Yep and to my surprise it gets incredibly hot (Early 30s) and is dry as hell. I did some big rides last summer and found that getting enough fluids on board was a challenge and the sun (Ozone Hole – I was amazed how intense it was having worked in Aghanistan and Africa) is outrageous! My shoulders regardless of loads of sunscreen burnt badly so I will wear arm coolers.
    Its my first Tri and as they go I think I have picked one of the most scenic – The start line is also 500m from my house!

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    […] true that the top bikes that the top people ride won’t see much change for £5,000. I have written a separate post about kit requirements, but you can find kit packages from the major triathlon suppliers for £1,500 or less containing […]

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