One of the most confusing parts about starting triathlon is figuring out what kind of gear you need. Because there are three distinctly different parts of this sport, it’s not as easy as picking a pair of soccer cleats and some shorts… and it can be overwhelming for a lot of people, to think about all. of. the. things.
But never fear, I’ve compiled a list of the basic, essential items you’ll need to compete in your first race(s).
What we’re looking to do here is to just get you going without breaking the bank (before you even know if you’ll want to do this for years to come), and to keep you injury free as you get started. These recommendations aren’t the tippy-top of triathlon gear; as I’ve said in other posts, you’ll have plenty of time down the line to spend all kinds of money on upgrading your stuff if you want. For now, you just need entry level gear.
***the picture for each of these items will direct you to an affiliate link on Amazon with the exact product I recommend. If you buy anything on Amazon within the 24hrs after clicking that link it won’t cost you anything extra but it helps us out because we get a small commission***
ITEM #1: GOGGLES
There are three pieces of essential swim gear you need to get comfortable in the water, and goggles is one of them. The nice thing about goggles is that some of the best ones are actually some of the cheapest ones! You can get really effective goggles for hardly any money. Socket rockets can be found for between $5 and $10. (Score!)
A socket rocket is technically called a Swedish goggle. It’s got a little bit of rubber on the inside of the eye piece so it’s not digging into your face.
After several years doing triathlon, I’ve tried many different types of goggles at various price points and the socket rockets are still my go-to.
ITEM #2: TRUNKS (for men)
Not everyone is comfortable wearing a Speedo. I got there, but you may not. So what you need to get is a pair of “jammers”, basically long tight shorts that keep you streamlined. Regular swimming trunks have too much material and will just slow you down.
One note, is that you should always thoroughly rinse your trunks (or Speedo or bathing suit) as soon as you get out of the pool so the chlorine doesn’t destroy them.
For the ladies, a one-piece swimsuit is going to be what you need. You could probably get away with a two-piece, but if it’s not properly fit to your body, you could risk losing a top or bottom in the water if it’s at all choppy.
ITEM #3: A PULL BUOY
A pull buoy is an integral piece of equipment when you’re starting training to swim in a race. It won’t make you faster or better, what it will do is make your legs float up to the top of the water and make swimming easier. This will give you incentive to swim a little bit longer and maybe even train more often. Because, believe me, the first few months of swim training isn’t any fun and you may find yourself looking for excuses not to go.
For me, the first time I jumped in the pool to train for triathlon (after not having really done any swimming since I was a kid), it took me an hour to swim 14 laps and it was miserable. MISERABLE. I coughed chlorine for two days. It does get easier, and a pull buoy is a great way to make it that much better right out of the gate. Eventually, you’ll probably grow to really enjoy your swim training but until that point: pull buoy to the rescue.
ITEM #4: GET A BIKE, LITERALLY ANY BIKE WILL DO
Perhaps one of the most important things I tell beginner triathletes is that you do NOT need a fancy bike when you’re starting out. I know it’s tempting to want to invest a ton of cash into a slick number, especially after you do your first race and see all of the veterans riding tricked out tri bikes. BUT, as a beginner, you do NOT need that. Absolutely not. You can get by with whatever bike you have on hand, as long as it fits you.
Maybe it’s a mountain bike in your garage, maybe it’s a buddy’s road bike, maybe you borrow a 10-speed from your neighbour or buy something for $200 on Craigslist or Kijiji. It doesn’t really matter. What you don’t need to do is buy something new because, at this point, you’re just getting comfortable with the sport and with your own needs on a bike.
Once you know you’re committed to doing triathlon, after you have a couple of races under your belt, then we can talk about setting you up with a proper tri bike.
ITEM #5: A HELMET
Get a basic helmet. Don’t worry about aerodynamics or venting or any other fancy features. Just get a helmet that fits right with two fingers of room over top of your eyes, and one that’s tight enough so that you can shake your head around without the strap done up and it doesn’t flop around. That’s it. You can get the Astro Boy special later on.
ITEM #6: TRIATHLON SHORTS & A CYCLING JERSEY
I’ll start this one by making clear that triathlon clothing and cycling clothing aren’t necessarily the same and aren’t necessarily interchangeable.
Triathlon shorts are just like regular bike shorts, but the pad on the inside is smaller than on cycling shorts. That’s designed so you can comfortably wear these shorts when you hop off the bike and start on the run. If you were to use cycling shorts on a run, that giant pad would cause so much painful chafe that you might never want to run again.
Plus, tri shorts have pockets in the back where you can tuck in your bars, gels or chews (if you’re using them).
I also recommend a cycling jersey, with sleeves and pockets in the back. That’s right, this time I WANT you to use cycling gear. Triathlon jerseys are generally sleeveless and very tight, and are less practical on a bike for age-group athletes. Cycling jerseys are looser, and have the sleeves and pockets that you’ll want.
So, triathlon shorts with a cycling jersey is the best combination.
ITEM #6: CLIP-ON AEROBARS
Remember the bike I mentioned above? 80% of the drag you’ll battle on the bike will come from your body. A pair of clip-on aerobars will get you as low and out of the wind as possible, making you faster and making it easier to ride.
ITEM #7: GET A PROPER BIKE FIT
This obviously isn’t an item, exactly, but this is super important. Take that bike you’ve bought or borrowed, and get it to a local bike shop for a bike fit. They’ll make all of the necessary adjustments like seat height, handle-bar height, etc., so you’re as aerodynamic and as comfortable as possible. If your setup isn’t right, you could cause yourself injury (particularly to your knees) and it just doesn’t feel good to spend any length of time on a bike that doesn’t fit you. You’re going to be on the bike a LOT, so make sure it’s exactly where it needs to be.
A fit isn’t generally super expensive but it’s a necessity.
ITEM #8: PROPER RUNNING SHOES
The main goal of this post is to get you started so you’re comfortable in your first races AND injury-free. Running injuries are the most common triathlon injuries, so these next items are very important.
As a starter triathlon shoe, I’d recommend the Hoka Clifton 3s as a great entry-level shoe for men and women. They’re good all-around shoes. They’re light and springy, they don’t have a huge heel but they’re very cushioned so they work for people with heel striking tendencies OR people with good mid-foot striking tendencies. They’re average priced but they last a long time. And because they’re so cushioned, they’re going to keep your body fresher and less beat down as you start running a lot.
ITEM #9: RUNNING WATCH
Personally, I use the Garmin 920XT. This is the gold standard of triathlon watches, and it cost a few hundred dollars. YOU DO NOT NEED TO SPEND THAT! The purpose of a tri watch is to hold yourself back from going too far or too fast on your training plan. Week to week, you should only be increasing your training volume by 10% — so that’s 10% faster or 10% longer. Having that watch will allow you to keep track of exactly what you’re doing, so you don’t push too hard before you’re supposed to. There’s no benefit to doing too much, too soon; being a hero in training won’t get you to where you want to be. Use the watch to guide you.
ITEM #10: INJURY PREVENTION KIT
As you start working out, you’re going to have a lot of aches and pains. I promise that will all go away, but at the start, your body has to get with the new program and it can be uncomfortable for a while. You’ll have to work out those nagging aches and pains unless you want them to turn into full blown injuries. Since most of us can’t afford multiple massages on a weekly basis, we have to do the work ourselves. Resistance bands, foam rollers, rolling sticks, and “little balls of death” for your feet will allow you to address those “niggles”. Triathlon is hard on the body, there’s no two ways about that… so taking the proper steps to take care of your body is what you need to do to make sure you’re healthy and able to actually compete.