There is a lot you have to prepare for when you are going to enter a triathlon, and one of those key topics is your triathlon gear. The triathlon clothes you pick out will play a key factor in your race performance. Triathlon kits are specifically designed in all aspects of the race to make you more hydrodynamic during the swim and more aerodynamic during the bike. Triathlon clothes from start to finish is an aspect that is ever evolving and gets a lot of changes from season to season as new improvements are made in materials and wind tunnel testing. The whole process of your triathlon gear can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Let us help take you from the start to the finish line with this guide on your triathlon gear for race day!
So what you will wear for your triathlon varies greatly depending on your goal. Is this your first race? What is the distance? Are you trying to compete or just finish?
These are all questions you should ask yourself before you go out spending a lot of money on a fancy triathlon suit. But there is an easy answer to all these questions which I will provide in a brief summary here:
If this is your first triathlon and you are trying out the sport at a short distance, Sprint or Olympic. Then I suggest you don’t buy anything! At these levels there is nothing wrong with using what you already have available to you. You can use standard workout gear at this level as your goal should be to finish and have fun! Use your standard cycling shorts or workout gear! If you have a wetsuit, and it is a wetsuit legal triathlon, use it! You only have swim trunks? Then just stick with those for now as your goal is to finish and save your money.
If you are competing at a distance greater than an Olympic distance, so half-ironman or higher. Or if you are trying to be competitive and not just finish, then you need to pick up some triathlon specific clothes.
At these distances, or if you are trying to compete, the provided aerodynamics and hydrodynamics does make a difference. And you will notice this difference once you start training in triathlon gear for specific race portions, swimming and cycling (and a very lesser extent running).
So now that we have cleared up for everyone who needs to purchase some new fancy race gear lets break down what you should be looking at and why.
So most triathletes fall into one of two categories. Group A, who will purchase a full race kit, which is a triathlon suit they can wear through the entire race. Group B, who will generally change some clothes in the first transition area before starting the cycling portion of the race. So let’s weigh in on the reasoning for both these groupings.
First up lets break down the Triathlon Suit, or Trisuit, as you will frequently hear it called.
A Trisuit is a piece of Triathlon clothing that is meant to be worn the entire race; swim, bike and run. Most triathlon suits contain hydrophobic or quick drying materials so you are not cycling wet from the swim portion of the race. They also tend to feature some degree of padding that you would find in normal cycling shorts. Lastly they come with a wide array of pockets and zippers for you to be able to carry nutrition throughout the race. Depending on the suit you use these elements will vary and change, and as technology advances so do the aerodynamic properties of the trisuit.
As I mentioned previously a lot of testing goes into these specific clothes. Triathletes at the pro level are trying to save every second they can, and fighting the wind is the biggest time hit in cycling. So recently a pro triathlete, Thomas Gerlach, hit the wind tunnel to do this testing for us. In a head to head test between a 2XU sleeveless trisuit and a 2XU sleeved trisuit; the sleeved trisuit turned out to be a faster more aerodynamic solution! And more and more studies are starting to come out backing up this data of sleeveless kits being more efficient at shaving seconds off of cycling times.
This translates to the swim as well. While a triathlon suit is not going to be buoyant like a wetsuit is, Trisuits are designed with hydrophobic properties. What this means for your swim is they allow you to glide through the water much more efficiently than if your skin is the primary thing exposed to the water. In addition, triathlon clothes tend to fit tight. The wind or water does not have to carve around lines in your body when you are in a trisuit. This might not seem like much, but in the span of a long race this adds up to minutes off your overall time.
So it is my feeling that if you are in the market for a triathlon suit you aim towards a sleeved suit over a sleeveless one. If nothing else your arms and shoulders will thank you from not being exposed to the sun for multiple hours during a race.
Not sure if you are still not sold on a triathlon suit? Then you can always go for a pair of Triathlon shorts and a top or shirt. There are a couple reasons why people go for Triathlon shorts over a full trisuit. The most obvious benefit having had used Tri shorts before is using the bathroom at rest stops! I know it is an awkward one to discuss but if it didn’t cross your mind before now is a good time to think about it. When you are in the middle of a long race, the time will come when you need to use the rest stop. When you are in triathlon shorts this is an easy task and you are back on your bike and in the race. However if you are in a full triathlon suit then you can compare it to peeling down a short wetsuit and then re-zipping it up before you can continue on. It isn’t game breaking but for some people this is a big frustration.
Another key component to consider is triathlon suits will NOT fit everyone. If you are a person that has a much wider chest than hips then might have difficulty find a trisuit that fits well. If you think you might fit into a category where your particular measurements might not work I would highly advise you talk with the manufacturer to ensure a proper fit for your trisuit, otherwise Triathlon shorts are a great option for you!
Triathlon shorts are very similar to cycling shorts. They generally only have a few minor differences. One difference of Tri Shorts is they tend to have a bit less padding than standard cycling gear. Second is they will normally be designed with the same fabric that is used for trisuits so that they are fast drying and have hydrophobic properties.
So now that you have your pair of Triathlon shorts you will need to get a top to go with it. In most WADA and USAT sanctioned races you are not allowed to go shirtless if you are a man so skipping this is not an option. Fortunately there are plenty of Triathlon shirts that you will find being very similar to their cycling counterparts. There is as always the added benefit of being made with hydrophobic material as well. One key thing to look for in a singlet is getting something that will be comfortable during the run! The constant motion of your arms during the run portion of a race will cause chafing in your armpit areas. Fortunately most triathlon tops have this covered, but it is something to be wary of if you are using something designed for cycling instead.
The last piece of triathlon gear we are discussing is Triathlon SwimSkins and Wetsuits. Everyone I am sure is familiar with wetsuits. And there are tons of options and variations you can get for Triathlon. I personally use this suit from Xterra here if you want a full breakdown on wetsuits. For any Triathlon that allows a wetsuit, you should wear one! Not only will it keep you warm but the buoyancy that wetsuits provide are a game changer!
Swimskins on the other hand are something that is very specific to triathlons. I had never even heard of one before I started competing. So what is a swim skin?
A Triathlon Swimskin is a very tight triathlon suit with special properties design to make it extremely hydrophobic and hydrodynamic. This piece of equipment is specific to warm water swims, which is about 78 degrees for us age group triathletes. The swimskin enhances your speed in the water via compressing your body and trisuit, which is worn underneath, to limit any drag that your tri kit would potentially be causing. This reduction in water friction can make a difference at length. A key item of note regarding swimskins however is that you are not allowed to have your sleeves going over your shoulders in WADA and USAT races. So this means if you have opted for a sleeved triathlon kit you will want to pick up a swimskin so you can roll your sleeves up insides the shoulders or risk a disqualification!
Now that you are out of the water it is time to move onto the cycling event and that means time to put on some shoes. Triathlon shoes come in two formats as well. Having a dedicated pair of shoes of cycling or wearing your running shoes for the remainder of the event.
Having dedicated cycling shoes will also mean a modification to your bike, in the form of clipless pedals. By using clip in pedals and some cycling shoes you are able to hook into the pedals and gain benefit from both the push and the pull of your legs during the bike portion of the race. This does provide a huge edge in cycling and personally why I feel you need to go with two pairs of shoes for triathlon.
You can however get away with using your running shoes for the whole cycling and running portion, if you wish. Getting a good pair of running shoes is a must, and honestly you should rotate them about every six months to prevent injury. I personally will tend to buy a new pair of triathlon shoes right before the season and then train in them about a month prior. That way they are nice and broken in and fresh!
If you want to save a few seconds off of transition as well you can replace the laces with speedlaces. These are ultimately elastic laces that you don’t tie and they just clamp down. This prevents your shoe getting untied in the race and does save a bit in transition from tying your shoes.
This is the last debate really in triathlon gear, and you will see all three on race day!
Some triathletes love to save all the time possible coming out of the water into transition one and that means NO SOCKS! This really has two benefits. One that I already mentioned is you have zero transition time due to shoes. Especially if you leave your cycling shoes clipped onto your bike. The second is running in wet socks will cause blisters. So a lot of people think this can be avoided by going sock free and having excess water from the swim in their shoes.
Other triathletes will opt for standard socks. Nothing fancy here, the same type you are probably wearing in training daily. If you do go the sock route, either standard or compression, I highly advise you put baby powder in your shoes. This will help clear up any remaining water and keep your feet dry and un blistered!
Lastly you have my category, Compression Socks! I personally use compression socks in all my races. Yes they look goofy, and they do also cost me probably 15 seconds in transition. However the benefits in my opinion outweigh those two things. First off they really aid with shin splints and injury prevention. They also help promote circulation which I feel is important during both cycling and running portions. Again, if you do use socks bring baby powder with you and put some in both your shoes, cycling and running! Your feet will thank me later!
So now that you have your key pieces of triathlon gear, how do you wear your race kit?
Before any triathlon you will have checked in most your gear into the race coordinators in two bags, Transition 1 and Transition 2.
These bags will include things you need for the cycling portion of the race and the running portion of the race. Your shoes and socks, if you opted for socks, will also be in your transition bag.
So what will you be wearing to start the race?
The start of every triathlon is the swim event.
If you opted for a triathlon suit then, for the swim, you have one of two options:
If you are going to be wearing triathlon shorts and a shirt then the situation is not much different:
Pretty simple right! When you move into transition one from here it is not much harder. Lose your upper layer of clothing. So if you are wearing a wetsuit or swimskin over your tri kit, you will take that off for the cycling and running events. Leave that upper layer in transition and proceed to either get straight on your bike and go, no socks! Or if you are wearing socks for your event get your socks and shoes on and you’re off! If you are wearing shorts though you will need to put your shirt on in transition for the remainder of the event. This is a downside as putting a shirt on when you are wet can be a challenge, which is a big plus for a tri suit!
So as you can see from this overview the benefits of wearing a triathlon suit are huge. They allow you to have a single piece of gear that stays on for the entire event. Most tri suits are very comfortable, will prevent chafing on the bike and run and will provide you a nice boost in aerodynamics for the rest of your race! I hope this breakdown of triathlon gear has helped you make some decisions on the best triathlon clothes for your style. But always remember to have fun and I’ll see you at the finish line!
Hey there, my name is James and I am the creator and editor of this site. I have been doing Triathlons for a while now and am competing in 70.3 Ironman's as well come this year. I created this site to help those new to the sport and to share my journey with other athletes.