There are hundreds, if not thousands, of triathlon products available, many of them expensive, some very simple.
What should a beginner wear for a triathlon?
What starter kit do you really need to train for and complete your first triathlon?
Some of this will depend on the distance of the race you have chosen and therefore the amount of time you need to spend training, but in essence the below list are the top ticket items that I would say are required:
Swimming Kit for Beginners
1. Swim Outfit
Make sure these fit well and are comfortable
3. Swim Cap
British Triathlon Federation (BTF) rules state that all swimmers must wear a cap in open water events. Almost all races provide these, so you don’t need to buy one unless you want to wear one in training. In fact, after a few races you will have drawers full of them! But do check that your race does provide one, as you will be penalised for competing without one.
Wetsuits are required for almost all open-water races. These do not need to break the bank as excellent beginner wetsuits are produced by companies like dare2tri at a very affordable price. Ebay or local second-hand markets are also a great place to look. Make sure you buy an outdoor swimming wetsuit – they are completely different to surf wetsuits, which are really not designed for swimming.
5. Lubricant (If using a wetsuit)
Get a product such as Body Glide, which is applied to your neck and any other areas where the wetsuit may rub. It really does pay to use it to avoid painful blisters. Do not use Vaseline, as it rots neoprene.
6. Safety Swimmer
If you will be training in open water, get a safety swimmer such as this one from Dare2Swim. They store your kit so you don’t need to leave it on the beach/river bank, but most importantly they are a high-visibility float that you can rest on if you get into trouble.
You might also want to consider:
7. Training Aids
Training aids such as pool buoys, hand paddles, fins or training snorkels are not really necessary, especially if you are new to swimming or are doing a shorter distance race, but they may help fine-tune your technique.
8. Anti for spray
Anti-fog spray for your goggles.
Biking Kit for Beginners
The main item is in the title! Top of the range superbikes can set you back more than £12k. You absolutely do not need this! (And for a first race it not advisable.) Owning a high-priced bike is much like owning a top end sports car: they are expensive, can be temperamental, you quite often have to find a specialist to work on them, and if parts need replacing they are at premium price. No, for your first triathlon you need a bike that will do the job. The most common two bikes for triathlons are the road bike or the TT/triathlon bike, but for shorter distances a hybrid (road/mountain) bike is perfectly good enough, particularly if you already have one hanging around in the garage, or want one that will double up for commuting and family rides with the kids.
Bikes do not need to cost the earth: a lot of bike shops sell good entry-level bikes and some sell second hand or trade ins. Ebay and the internet are another good option but make sure you take your leg measurement and check out the Ebay bike against the manufacturers frame sizing to ensure you get a bike that fits properly. If possible, go and see the bike before buying, or ask someone who knows about bikes to review it online to make sure any wear and tear is cosmetic rather than structural or mechanical.
What is the difference between a road bike and TT/triathlon bike?
A road bike is easier when it comes to hill climbing and for first time racers offers a more stable position and a more comfortable ride.
TT/triathlon bikes are harder to climb on, but they are easier on flats and descents as you can ride in a more aerodynamic position. They are not as flexible as road bikes, tend to be a little heavier and they can be uncomfortable over long distances until you get used to riding them, due to the aerodynamic setup. The other thing to get used to is that to use the aero handlebars you lie forward over the front wheel resting on your forearms. This can be quite unnerving for first time
users and you have to move out of this position in order to brake and you have to sit down to change gears on hills as there are no brakes or gear shifters on the ends of the aero bars (unless you have dual switch electric gears). Have I said enough to put you off getting a TT for your first race?! A road bike is probably your best option, although if you have time to get used to a TT/Triathlon bike then they do have an advantage on the longer races.
If you want to try out aero bars without buying a new bike, you can buy them separately and add them to a road bike. (See our Triathlon A-Z for info on what these are!)
2. Bike Fit
It doesn’t matter how much your bike cost, how new or old it is. What matters is that it fits you. So the most fundamental thing after buying (or dusting off) your bike is to get a bike fit. These can be done by most bike shops and vary in price and complexity. Having a proper bike fit will ensure your bike is properly setup for your size and bike position and will mean that you will be more comfortable and be able to ride more efficiently and with greater safety than just jumping on a bike and going. It is more than just getting the saddle height right – and even that is not as simple as it seems! Many injuries, aches and pains can be avoided by simply having your bike correctly setup.
This is an absolute must. You will not be allowed to race if you don’t have one and you also need to wear it on every training session as it could quite literally save your life. Even a light tumble from a bike can cause serious head injuries and once you are out-and-about you will see just how potholed and gravelly our roads can be. Try on different helmets to ensure fit and comfort, as one that is loose and ill-fitting is potentially dangerous and if it is too tight it can become very painful. (Especially if you are going to take on a challenge such as an Ironman event, where you could be wearing it for more than eight hours, depending on your biking ability.) Avoid buying a second-hand helmet. It is tempting, but unless you can guarantee that it has not been in a crash then it just isn’t worth the risk, as even a minor tumble can compromise the helmet’s integrity and cause it to fail if you yourself have an accident.
Which type of helmet is best for triathlon?
Helmet styles and choices are varied, but as a beginner you would probably do best with a standard road helmet. These start at a reasonable price and are stocked by most bike shops. You could consider an aero helmet for longer distances – these are either a more aerodynamic road helmet or an enclosed helmet that 95% of your head fits into and often has a built-in visor (like the Bambino from Kask). Aero helmets tend to be more expensive and even though the enclosed helmet looks pretty awesome on race day you look a bit of an idiot in it on training rides down country lanes or through town. Also, unless you are an already established TT rider and know about correct positioning on a TT/Triathlon bike, then you will struggle to get any benefit from an enclosed aero helmet. You certainly don’t need one on a road bike.
4. Bike Clothing
Your choices are:
For training, you definitely need shorts and top combo. Tri suits are not as great for everyday training and riding as they have less padding and will also make you look a bit daft.
Both are fine for racing in, although do you need a tri-suit for your first race? Probably not. But bear in mind that if you don’t, you might need to change into your cycling kit after your swim, then out of it and into your run kit for the run. Running in your cycling kit should be fine for the shorter races, but could become uncomfortable for longer distances. Try the kit out in your training sessions to see if it works for you. Tri-suits obviously remove the need to constantly change and have a smaller chamois (padded groin area) which makes running in them a lot easier. Go to a bike shop and try some on, as sizes vary and often a medium in one brand could be a large in another, or the bibs may fit but the top might be too tight or vice versa. If you are buying on-line make sure you follow the manufacturer’s body measurements before purchasing.
5. Repair Kit And Pump
Get yourself a basic repair kit with some spare innertubes (for race day and training) and a bike pump. Again, pumps vary in cost and size, but if you are doing a longer race then having a mini pump or C02 canister and valve tap are a must (see the Triathlon A-Z to work out what one of those is!). Remember, when training, if you get a puncture then sods law dictates it will happen at the furthest point from your house. Always take an innertube and something to inflate it with. Oh, and don’t forget tyre levers to get the tyre off to replace the innertube.
6. Water Bottle
I don’t need to explain this one, but do make sure you get a basic bottle cage that fits on your bike. As long as the race has aid stations, you only need one bottle regardless of the distance.
You might also want to consider:
7. Bike Shoes
Do you need bike shoes for your first triathlon? If you are racing Olympic distance or shorter, then wearing your run trainers on the bike is absolutely fine and moving up to bike shoes is an additional expense you don’t need. If, however, you are going longer you may wish to look at some bike shoes as they have all kinds of advantages. In particular, they hold your feet on the pedals and enable you to pull up on the pedal as well as pushing down which can be great whilst climbing and on speedy flats. It also feels quite nice to change into a different pair of shoes for the run.
If you do buy bike shoes, you will also need to think about pedals and cleats (the part that attaches to the shoe and allows it to clip into the pedal). Cleats are not particularly expensive, but pedals can be and different types of pedal require particular types of cleat. This again is an area that I would suggest you speak to a bike shop about, as they will be able to advise you in greater detail. Remember, if you have never used clip pedals before then take some time to practice with them, particularly locking into the pedal and snapping out again. I remember stopping under a bridge in a rainstorm the first time I ever used a pair, forgetting to unlock my feet. I spent a brief moment trying to tug my foot up in the air until rolling over on to my side with my bike still firmly attached to me, much to the amusement of my cycling club.
One thing I would not recommend is toe cages. These are cages that go over the front of a normal set of pedals to hold your toes and stop your foot slipping of the pedal, giving extra purchase. The theory is fine right until that day when you do have a crash. Clip pedals will, nine times out of ten, snap out in an accident meaning you are not still attached to your bike. With cages you will not have time to remove your foot meaning you are attached to the bike no matter what and the damage to ankles and feet can be severe.
8. Other Bike Accessories
Other items such as gloves, sunglasses and socks are nice to have, but they are not essential.
Running Kit for Beginners
Trainers are the most important item here. Don’t make the mistake of choosing by ‘ooh I like the look of those’: this has been the downfall of many a new runner. Try to find a sports shop that will look at the way you walk/jog in their shop or on a treadmill. This is called ‘gait analysis’ and a good sports shop or running shop will advise the best pair of trainers for you based on how your foot and body behave whilst walking or running. Smaller independent sports shops or run-specific shops such as Runners Need are often better for this, but call first to check they offer this service. If you can’t get a gait analysis, try to research before you buy as, just like the bike, a supportive well-fitting pair of trainers will save you a world of torment and injury. Remember that most common triathlon injuries are running related due to the force put on your system, and as a newcomer you will get pulls, tweaks and niggles during your training. The key is to minimise these as much as possible by having a well laid-out plan to gradually build your running and a good pair of trainers to support your feet. Running shoe companies offer a vast range of styles for all running gaits: three great examples are On Cloud, Hoka One One & Brooks.
If you are embarking on a longer race such as a middle distance / 70.3 or a long distance / Ironman, then consider getting two pairs of the same shoe: one for training and one for racing. It may seem a little extravagant but will pay back on race day, as over time your training will take a toll on your trainers’ cushioning, response and stability, so come race day a fresh pair of trainers is heavenly. (Just remember to break them in for a few miles before your race).
2. Run Clothing
A couple of pairs of shorts or running tights (leggings), t-shirts and running-specific socks are really all you need apart from trainers. Some people swear by tights as the compression supports your legs. Again, make sure they fit comfortably and allow a good range of movement without chafing. Believe me when I say that jogger’s nipple may sound funny but it really isn’t.
In addition to these lists, there are a myriad of items, from heart rate monitors to bike computers and power meters to deep-section wheels and compression clothing, but at first keep it simple and just enjoy the moment.
Kit checklist for different triathlon distances
Download our pdf kit checklists here
This should get you started, hopefully without spending the earth. Once you are sure you enjoy the sport, there's plenty of time to upgrade your kit gradually and to a budget.
See the next articles in the series for more information on your first race and an A-Z of all the strange triathlon terms!
Beginner series: Contents:
- What does COVID-19 mean for triathletes and triathlon?
- Start moving: Get going with triathlon
- What kit do you really need?
- How to prepare for your first race
- Triathlon A-Z