Everything You Need For Your First Triathlon
The first time you do anything, it is always awkward and a little scary. Triathlons are no different. You are going to make mistakes. But you don’t need to make the same mistake I did. I forgot to bring a helmet to my first triathlon. Luckily, I had teammates that were slightly more prepared than me and brought two helmets. (At least I remembered my bike.) Obviously there are certain things that are essential for your first triathlon and if you forgot them, your race would certainly go awry. But you might be wondering besides the essentials, what else do you need to bring?
You probably need less than you think. I’ve seen setups in the transition area at races that looked like a mini triathlon store. Having too much “stuff” just creates confusion and wastes time. That being said, it is important to bring backups of everything because things happen. If one of my teammates didn’t bring an extra helmet, my second triathlon might have been my first.
There are the basic essentials that every racer needs to successfully complete a triathlon; cap, goggles, bike, helmet shoes, etc. Then the needs get more specific depending on each person and the type of triathlon.
Now remember, this is your first triathlon. You don’t need to go out and buy the most expensive equipment. I promise it will not make you go faster nor look cooler. You should base a lot of what you need for racing on what you use during training. You will perform better if you use equipment that you have practiced using and are comfortable with.
Ask yourself what you would be most comfortable wearing during the whole race. Don’t prepare 3 different outfits, changing is a waste of time and unnecessary. My recommendation is to use a tri-suit or tri-shorts. Tri-suits are the most convenient thing to wear because you put it on and never have to think about what you are wearing for the entire triathlon. You wear it for the swim with a wetsuit over it, they have a little padding for the bike ride, and they don’t ride up when you are running. If you don’t want to invest in a tri-suit, you can also just buy tri shorts to wear with a swim top, no shirt, or throw a shirt on after the swim.
Another option is a wetsuit. If you don’t own a wetsuit, many triathlon and running stores will rent them out. Make sure you go at least a week before your first race and get fitted properly for one so you can test it out. If you do own one, make sure it is a swimming wetsuit and not a surfing or diving one because those are thicker so they are harder to swim in and hotter. Practice swimming with your wetsuit and taking it off before race day.
Most races provide swim caps but don’t count on that. Bring your own cap that you have worn before and are used to. You definitely need your own pair of goggles and I recommend bringing an extra pair just in case. Don’t wear brand new goggles on race day. They are not broken in and will probably leak or fog up. Goggles that are tinted and have some amount of suction are ideal for triathlons because often you are sighting directly into the sun while swimming and there is a lot of commotion going on around you so it is important that they stay on your face.
A triathlon specific bike, also known as tri-bike or TT bike (time trial), is not required for a triathlon. They have a more aggressive frame and usually aerobars to help you get in a more forward position on the bike to help you go faster. For that reason, they are not as comfortable to ride as road bikes for long periods of time. Use whatever bike you have been training on. If you do have a tri-bike, make sure it is fitted for you and you have also trained on it.
If you’ve seen pros race, you have probably seen them in their space helmets. They’re actually called aero helmets and they probably wouldn’t do you much good in space. But they look pretty outlandish! Aero helmets are more expensive than regular biking helmets because they are shaped in such a way that is more aerodynamic to help you shave some seconds off your bike split. But you are probably not concerned with that for your first triathlon. I’m guessing your goal is just to finish! So all you need is a good helmet with no cracks and fits well on your head.
You don’t need clip in bike shoes to do a triathlon. However, I do recommend learning how to use them eventually. They help you be more efficient on the bike. But it is perfectly fine to throw your running shoes on after the swim and use them on the bike if that is what you have been doing for training. The plus side of that is your T2 (second transition) will be much faster than those who have to get of their bike shoes!
Don’t forget your running shoes! Like I said before, make sure you wear shoes that you are comfortable in. For longer triathlons like half or full Ironmans, socks might be a good idea. Then again if you have done 13.1 mile training runs without socks and you are fine, then you don’t need to bring socks. Many triathletes use elastic laces so they don’t waste time tying their shoes in transition. This is not necessary as there are a lot of lacing tricks to help you get to the run faster but it might be something to consider.
*My lacing trick is I tie my shoes loosely so I can slip my feet in without untying them, and then I pull the knot tight, and tuck it under the laced part of the shoe so that it doesn’t come out.
A race belt is an elastic band that you attach your bib number to and clip around your waist. Especially if you are considering wearing a sports bra or no shirt, a race belt is essential. In most triathlons it is not required to wear your bib number during the swim or the bike so you just have to remember to snap it on before the run.
Wearing a watch is not essential, but useful if you want to keep track of time, have a record of your own splits, or monitor your pace.
Bike trouble is very common at triathlons. Don’t rely on someone else to help you if something goes wrong. Bring bike tools and supplies to change a flat. Extra tubes, patch kit, bike pump, tire lever, etc. It is up to you if you want to carry any bike equipment with you during the race. If it is a sprint distance, I don’t think it is necessary to have tools with you during the race. Anything longer than that I carry a patch kit, CO2 cartridges and a tire lever. Though you should make sure you know how to use those items if you bring them with you!
Sunglasses and/or a hat are optional but a good idea. Regardless of the weather they are a good protectors for your eyes on the bike ride and shield your eyes from the sun on the run. It is easy for racing sunglasses to get damaged or lost so don’t invest too much in them but make sure they stay on your face well and are polarized so they block the sun out better. Visors are a good compromise if you need extra shield from the sun but don’t want your head to get too warm.
Miscellaneous (and a Few Tips)
Bringing a towel is not necessary but I usually bring one to lay down in transition so I can put everything out neatly on top of it. I have seen some people dry themselves off with a towel after coming out of the swim but that is a huge waste of time. You will dry as soon as you start whizzing through the air on your bike!
Since your running shoes will be in transition, it is a good idea to have a pair of flip flops or sandals to protect your feet when you use the porta-potties before the swim. When it is time to get in the water you can easily slip them off but don’t forget to get them later!
I can’t tell you exactly what and how much fuel to bring because it depends on the distance of the triathlon and on your specific needs. It is important to experiment with fueling during training because every athlete is different. Just because Sally needs 12 Clif bars for her bike ride does not mean you do too. Know what works for you and bring it. When it comes to fueling, keep in mind that it’s better to have more than not enough.
Hydration is also very important. Many athletes will have a bottle with an electrolyte drink, and another with just water. For shorter triathlons, a bottle of water would probably suffice but again, use what you use in training. Plastic bottles with a squirt spout are ideal.
Having a triathlon backpack or bag to carry everything you need will simplify your life because everything will be in one spot. Most bags have specific compartments so you can organize all your belongings.
Here’s a little bonus pro tip: bring something like a ribbon or a colorful towel to mark your spot in transition. Transitions are crowded and everything can look the same when you are rushing out of the water into the transition area. It is very possible to run to the wrong spot and get lost in transition.
Triathlon is mostly an individual sport, but a lot of pro triathletes have an entourage of support to help them with everything they need. If you have the luxury of having a support crew or person, use them! Make them part of the process so that they can make sure you are prepared for race day. If you are on your own, you’ll be fine, just stay organized.
Lastly, if there is pre-raceday packet pickup, definitely take advantage of it. There is one less thing you need to worry about on the morning of your race. Contents of your packet might include your bib number that you can attach to your race belt and stickers with your number on it that you can attach to your bike and helmet beforehand to save time.
If your head is spinning, make a checklist. If you don’t know where to start, I like to imagine doing a triathlon in my head and write down what I need in that order. Here is an example:
- Race packet
- Pre-race fuel
- Flip flops or sandals
- Swim suit, tri-suit or tri-shorts
- Wetsuit (if wetsuit legal)
- towel-for transition
- Bike shoes (only if you have already practiced using these in training).
- Water bottles- filled with water or your choice of electrolyte drink
- Fuel -gels, bars, gummies, etc. Whatever works for you.
- Extra tubes
- Race belt with bib number
- Post race fuel and hydration – I know what you’re thinking! Beer comes later!
And that’s it! If you bring at least these things, you will do fine. In the end it’s not the equipment you have that will get you through your first triathlon, but the training you’ve done to leading up to it. Have faith in your hard work, have fun, and remember your helmet!