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Five Things You'll Need for Your First Triathlon

(And one thing you WON'T need)

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Hey, you did it! You finally caved to your co-worker’s heckling and signed up for a triathlon. Following your initial bolt of excitement and can-do-it-tiveness, you may be experiencing waves of anxiety, remorse, and fear. First of all, that’s normal. If triathlon is new to you, then of course you’ll be worried. Triathlon requires you to be passable at three sports, while your single-sport friends crow about the simplicity of their athletic hobby. You haven’t signed up for a sporting event; you’ve signed up for a project. Although we can’t banish your fears, we can help you show up for your race prepared. Preparation equals control, and for every element you can control, you’ll feel braver and more relaxed about the whole endeavor. Ready? OK, let’s begin.
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Something you DON’T Need: a New Bike

What? This is the whole reason you signed up for the darn thing in the first place! You were itching to replace that ten-speed Schwinn Varsity hanging from the rafters in your garage, weren’t you? You’ve seen your co-worker head out for “lunchtime spins” on his carbon fiber rocketship, and part of your brain has been whispering that you deserve a rocket ship, too. We’re sorry to say that you deserve a rocket ship in the same way that you deserve a donut. Several reasons surface as arguments against making a purchase as large as a bike: first of all, you just don’t need a new bike for your first triathlon, and this whole article is about things you NEED. A new bike is expensive, and when you’re ready to purchase one, we’ll have some advice for you, but if you go and get one now, you’ll be surprised at how much you’re going to pay for it. For now, when you’re not even sure if you’re going to stay in the sport, just go with the bike in your garage. You’ll discover, when you arrive at transition on race day, that many people ride in the same boat.

Stuff We Assume You’ve Got (for a fuller explanation of what to wear in a triathlon, check out our article here)

  • Running Shoes
  • Cycling Helmet
  • Goggles that don’t fog up
  • Food you like to eat on the bike (bars, gels, sports drink)
  • Sunblock
  • A hat you can run in
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A Race Number Belt

A what? We’re gonna assume that you’ve participated in a running race, or maybe a cycling event, so you’re familiar with the concept of “pinning on a number,” which is athlete-speak for “taking part in a competition.” You’ll wear a number in a triathlon, sure, but there’s a problem with pins. In your running or cycling race, you pinned that Tyvek sheet to your shirt or jersey and called it good. In a triathlon, you really don’t want metal pins pressed up against your body once you slip into your wetsuit or swimskin. It’s uncomfortable and damages those expensive pieces of gear. If it’s a non-wetsuit race, too, and you’re not wearing a swimskin, that number becomes a drag-chute in the water. A number belt is a small loop of stretchy material that buckles around your waist and gives you a few different ways to mount your number (pins, buttons, or other ingenious methods). Many races only require this on the run, now (you used to have to wear it all day!), but some may want you to wear it on the bike, too. Pro tip? If it’s a waterproof number, and you are required to wear it while cycling, just put it on under your wetsuit and you won’t have to think about it the rest of the day.

Something to Wear All Day

Triathlons are logistical challenges more than anything else. You need to wear something that can deal with the rigors of swimming, cycling, and running in quick succession. That apparel needs to be quick-drying, chafe-free, comfortable in three different sports, aerodynamic, and able to keep you cool and dry in hot conditions. Yikes. That’s a tall order. Happily, apparel companies have been trying for decades to get it right, and we go into more detail here about how to dress for your first triathlon. Short answer? You’re going to wear something called a “kit,” and it’ll be either one-piece or two-piece, consisting of shorts and a top. WHAT TO WEAR IN A TRIATHLON

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Effective and Comfortable Sunglasses

Do you know that squinting sucks a lot of energy from your body? It also looks bad in pictures, if you think back to your wedding photos (“but it was sunny!”). Crinkling that face up isn’t great long-term, either, so you should pick up some shades. You can go full-bore here and have the lightest, coolest, most technically advanced optics, or you can grab some aviators at a gas station on your way to a race and call it good. Either way, the most important things are that they stay in place when actual rivers of sweat are running down your face, and that you can see through them when you’re in your aero position or in the drops (lower handlebars) on your bike. Well, actually, the most important thing is that they look cool, right? I mean, that’s why we’re here in the first place.

A Simple Timepiece

You don’t need a GPS watch! Really. You don’t even need a heart-rate monitor, although both will be useful at some point. Athletes have been tracking their performance by monitoring elapsed time for as long as there have been both endurance sports and clocks, and even if performance isn’t your goal (which it shouldn’t be in your first triathlon), it will really help later to track your development. Yes, courses are different, and you can’t compare apples to oranges, but having a rough idea of how long each leg takes you can contextualize the effort for you, so you have something to aim for if getting faster is part of your goal set (and remember—getting faster DOES NOT have to be part of your goal set!).

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A Wetsuit (Probably Rented) That Fits, and Anti-Chafe Lube

Most races will be wetsuit-legal (under a certain water temperature, usually in the 72-76 degree range, depending on who is putting on the race), so you’ll need to procure a wetsuit. For your first race, just rent, we’d say. Renting a wetsuit is similar to our advice about picking up a new bike: you just don’t need to buy a wetsuit yet. Wetsuit companies offer different shapes and buoyancies, and renting presents an opportunity to try different brands. The most important aspect of your wetsuit is the fit. We can talk your ear off about different grades of rubber, zip-up vs. zip-down, sleeveless, half-sleeved, full-sleeved, hip-buoyant, hip neutral, blah, blah until the proverbial cows show up at the barn again, but 95% of your wetsuit experience will be determined by whether or not it fits well. Try on a bunch while renting, and you can even find online retailers who will rent different brands to you, if you can’t get to a local triathlon store.

So that’s it! Remember, your first triathlon should be a fun adventure, and it shouldn’t be daunting or cost a fortune. You’re trying this sport out, remember, and you’ll have plenty of chances to decide it’s your hobby of choice later. Get in the door for as little money as possible, give it a shot, and then you’ll be able to decide for yourself, rather than feeling guilty about the $5000 bike gathering dust on your garage wall.

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