I still remember my first triathlon like it was yesterday, although it has now been over three years. I had only seen one triathlon before, and that was before I got involved in triathlon so I wasn’t paying attention to the details. Luckily I had a good friend who was coaching me through getting started on triathlons, and he was able to answer all the questions I had. But if you’re not so lucky, or you’re afraid to look stupid, then all you’ve got is the Internet, so here you go. This post is going to focus on one particular part of your first triathlon–what to wear, and how to wear it. Bear in mind, I’m not an expert and I’m still learning, but I’ve made enough mistakes that I know what not to do and some things you should do.
Swim. In most triathlons you’ll want to wear a wetsuit, and I’d recommend a full wetsuit rather than a sleeveless as you’re getting started. Why? Partly because the water is freezing! Trust me, unless you’re swimming somewhere around Florida or Mexico, the water is probably going to be cold. Generally the race website will give you recommendations. Unless they prohibit a wetsuit, I’d wear one, because even if the water isn’t freezing, your wetsuit is going to make you faster and safer. Faster because the buoyancy means your body sits higher in the water and reduces your overall drag, and safer because a wetsuit has the same buoyancy as a life jacket, which means if you get in trouble, all you have to do is turn over on your back and float and you’ll be fine.
Other than a wetsuit, you will be wearing a few other things. You’ll have a swim cap on, because every race makes you wear one so that you’re easier to spot, you can easily tell if you’re in the right wave if it’s a wave start, and plus you’d want to wear one anyway because it makes your goggles that much more secure, will help hold in your earplugs if you wear them (I like to), and will keep you slightly warmer. And of course it reduces the drag of your hair if you have a lot of it.
If the water is very cold, you may want to wear a neoprene swim cap under the race swim cap. This is a cap that generally snaps under your neck and is made of a thinner layer of wetsuit material. Since your head is where you lose most heat anyway, this will make a major difference when it comes to maintaining your body heat. I can’t tell you exactly which races you would want one of these at because I’ve only done a few races myself, but if the water is under 65 degrees you’ll want to start thinking about it. If it’s around 50 degrees (I’m looking at you, St. George Ironman) then definitely. For the record, I wouldn’t have worn one at my Oceanside half, but I might have worn one at the Boise half.
Free tip: Do NOT put sunscreen on your face for the swim, as it can cause your goggles to not seal to your face. I learned this the hard way.
Another free tip: Do NOT make your race day the first day you ever swim in a wetsuit, or in open water. Even if it’s just the day before, make sure to swim for 5-10 minutes in a wetsuit, in open water, just to get the experience. It’s quite different than swimming in a suit in a pool, and you may actually panic a little the first time. I did, and trust me, panicking on your own, without any pressure, is much better than panicking when you’re surrounded by 200 other people who are kicking you and swimming over you, while you’re stressed about your time and not being the last guy out of the water.
Now, if you’re a newbie to triathlon you might be wondering whether or not you wear anything under your wetsuit. The answer is that unless you want to get disqualified, embarrassed, and possibly arrested, the answer is an emphatic “YES!”
For everything. There are one or two pieces of clothing you are going to wear for the entire race, and that’s your “tri suit” or “racing kit” or whatever other names people have made up for the outfit. There are two types of tri suit; two piece or one piece, and there are pros and cons to each and I’m still not sure which I like best, although I am leaning towards the one-piece. The bottom line is that you need to be wearing one or the other. A two piece tri suit consists of spandex-like shorts with a pad in your seat area for the bike ride. The shirt is a tank top, and both the shirt and shorts almost always have some sleek pockets in them for storing your Gu and other nutritional needs. A one-piece just means there is no separate shirt or shorts, they’re all one piece, the one piece I have doesn’t have any pockets, by the way, which I assume is because the one I have is made for wearing on the swim without a wetsuit.
I wear the entire tri suit under my wetsuit on the swim, so that I don’t have to bother with putting the shirt on during the first transition (aka T1). Other people might not wear the shirt because they safety pin their race number to the shirt, and if you wear the paper race number in the water it will be destroyed by the time you get out. I get around this issue by wearing a race belt that the number is snapped onto. That means I wear my shirt in the water, and when I’m getting on my bike I simply snap my belt on around my waist. No messing around with safety pins, no needing to put my shirt on after the swim, and I can easily have the number behind me on the bike and then turn it around to the front for the run.
Something else you’ll be wearing for the entire race is your racing chip, by which they get your time. But you don’t need to worry about preparing for this, they give you the chip and the strap at the race. You’ll wear it around your ankle the entire time.
Oh, and you may be interested in wearing compression socks or compression sleeves during the entire race, including the swim…or not. I’ve never used them during a race, but I probably will start to on longer triathlons. Definitely no point in wearing them to your first triathlon, which I assume would be a sprint or maybe an olympic.
One other thing–I wear my Garmin during my races, but since I have the 305 which doesn’t do well in the water I only wear it on the bike and run, although I wear the heart rate monitor around my chest the entire time, since I don’t want to bother with putting it on during transition.
Bike. Tri suit, shoes, helmet, sunglasses, race number–this is what you’ll be wearing at a minimum on the bike. The optional items are socks, compression socks or sleeves, arm warmers, watch, and gloves.
I have never worn socks on any of my triathlons. As long as it’s not too cold, I train sockless to build up calluses. By not wearing socks that’s one more thing I don’t have to worry about and that doesn’t take time during transition. But as I mentioned, I am considering trying longer races with compression socks or calf sleeves on.
I’ve also never needed arm warmers, but if you do, rather than bringing some expensive arm warmers, just buy some cheap tube socks, cut off the toes, cut a hole for your thumb, and wear those on the bike. Once you get warmed up you can throw them away at an aid station, which of course you wouldn’t want to do with expensive arm warmers.
I also don’t wear gloves. Too much time to put on, unless you have problems with blisters, which you should be able to figure out during your training. I don’t have problems with blisters so there’s no point in my wearing them during training either, except that I do have gloves for cold weather biking.
Regarding sunglasses, yes, you may be able to get by with normal sunglasses from the grocery store. After all, some of those biking/running glasses cost $200. But you can get a decent pair of biking glasses for $20 if you don’t want to shell out a lot of money quite yet. Rudy Project, Oakley, and Smith are some of the better brands if you want to spend a few bucks. The main thing you want to verify is that they prevent wind from blowing in your eyes on the bike, since you don’t want to be getting tears on fast downhill runs. You should be able to work this out in your training. My issue is that I have long eyelashes that annoy me if they brush the lenses, so I had to do quite a bit of searching before I found some Smith glasses that sat far enough away from my eyes but still worked well in every other way.
Tip: Sunscreen! Especially the back of your neck, your lower back just above your waist if you wear a two-piece tri suit and being on the bike exposes an inch or two of your back, your shoulders and arms, and your legs–especially the tops of your thighs and the backs of your calves which are heavily exposed on the bike. Yes, even on a sprint distance triathlon you can get absolutely fried. Do NOT put sunscreen on before you’ve gotten your body marked with your race number, otherwise the number just rubs off. I think it’s best practice to put sunscreen on in transition after you’ve got your wetsuit off. At some races they are handing out sunscreen as you come out of the water, which is really nice. Otherwise have your own in transition and take a few seconds to put it on. Don’t worry about your time–this is your first triathlon and I hate to break it to you but you’re not going to win.
Run. Tri suit, sunglasses, race number, and shoes–that’s the minimum here. If you aren’t ready to run sockless, then get some good ankle socks that are made for running. NO NATURAL FIBERS! No cotton, no wool! You want thin, running-specific socks with the toe seam on the outside. Yes, if you’re going to wear these on the run you might as well wear them on the bike, or not–your choice.
You might also seriously consider a hat or visor. If you have a shaved head, and you haven’t spent time outside much lately, remember that a visor won’t keep the top of your head from getting sunburn. I prefer to wear a running hat that’s made to keep my head cool. It also blocks more light than sunglasses alone, meaning I’m squinting less, which not only prevents headaches, but also preserves precious calories on longer races. Plus on long, warmer races you can dump a cup of ice cubes in your hat and each aid station and run with that on your head to keep your body temperature down.
Well, there you go. Any questions?
Number 1 Tip: Never, NEVER, ever, EVER wear something new on race day! And to take that a step further, don’t wear the same stuff in a different way on race day. Whatever you wear and however you wear it, make sure you’ve done it at least a few times in your training before doing it on race day. This is not just about breaking in a new pair of shoes, it’s about discovering things such as the fact that when you ran in long running socks and running tights all winter, your shoes didn’t rub the back of your heel, but with only ankle running socks on, they do, and they rub a hole through your skin. Another lesson I learned by experience.