Those new to the sport of triathlon understand that racing can be quite an investment beyond time spent training. Certain pieces such as a bike, helmet and wetsuit are requisite, but outside of those, the world of “tri toys” is endless – and all too often, we get sucked into the latest and greatest cash waster. With certain products, you do get what you pay for; thus, it’s worth the extra cash for the extra quality. But with bicycles, helmets, wetsuits and race entries expensive enough, it would be nice to know where a newbie could save a few dollars while not allowing it to negatively affect performance.
A speedy transition is advantageous in triathlon; however, spending $130-plus on triathlon-specific shoes may not be necessary. The most important aspect of your shoes on race day is how they fit your feet – i.e., they’re comfortable and familiar. Elastic laces, aka quick laces (Easy Laces and Yankz are common brands) on your typical running shoes are just as effective as expensive triathlon shoes (which are similar to running flats with a few other features). After some years of experimenting, you may benefit from triathlon shoes, but don’t think you need to spend that money right out of the gate.
Safety pins be gone! The best $10 you can spend on any piece of triathlon equipment may be the race belt. Simply attach your bib to the belt before the race, and wrap it around your waist during your second transition (coming off the bike – unless racing rules require you to wear your bib during the bike portion as well). Race belts come in different colors, last forever and also eliminate the bulk of a race bib under your wetsuit.
The name sounds counter-intuitive, but clipless pedals attach directly to a cycling shoe (thus, you’re locked or clipped into the pedal). Such allows for a more efficient and effective pedal stroke (you can apply energy to all four “sectors” of the stroke). Many people are apprehensive about these because they feel as though they’ll get trapped in the pedals and fall over. Truthfully, tipping over because you can’t clip out of a pedal at a stop light in front of all your friends is a right of passage in cycling or triathlon. But to make sure that happens only once or twice in your lifetime, start with SPD-style cleats, as they’re affordable (starting around $40) and very adjustable. Initially adjust them to a loose setting so you can unclip by forcefully pulling straight up. Also, practice clipping in and out on a grassy area – 10 minutes of practice and you’ll feel like a pro. As your confidence increases, tighten up the locking mechanism so your feet remain clipped at all times during riding, especially when climbing out of the saddle.
Plastic cages (which attach to flat pedals) are another option, with the thought that if you bike in your running shoes, you’ll save time in T-2, therefore saving time in your overall finish. Unless the bike course is extremely short (a few miles), this is not the case. Bike shoes are much more rigid than running shoes, resulting in a superior power transfer – the soft soles of running shoes dissipate the energy from your legs instead of transferring it straight to the pedal and crank. This may work for your first handful of races, but you’ll be much happier during your training rides and racing with clipless pedals.
Low-cost, magnetic or wind trainers are rather affordable (under $200), but don’t offer the value of a high-end, fluid trainer ($250 to $400 new). The cheaper trainers are just that – cheap. They don’t last as long and aren’t nearly as smooth to ride on as fluid trainers. Chances are, you’ll be ready to ditch the low-end trainer within a year to upgrade, so you might as well spend a little more up front to have a smooth ride that will last. Indoor workouts on trainers are incredibly beneficial and serve a number of purposes: staying in bike shape during the winter months, improving cycling technique and making for convenient brick workouts.
Truth be told, bike fits are not cheap ($150 to $300, or even more), but they’re worth every penny. The days of standing over the top tube of a bike and selecting one that was 3 to 4 inches under your crotch are no more. Bike geometry is very sophisticated, and a few millimeters of change in the height or reach of your stem or saddle can make a difference not only in your comfort, but your power output. Feeling better and conserving energy while riding may also lead to an improved run split, as your legs, back, shoulders and neck will be less taxed.
Many bike shops, though, will credit the cost of a bike fit toward the purchase of a new bike – thus, bike fits can come “free” with purchase. Most expert triathletes and coaches will go so far as to say that a bike fit is obligatory, so whether you purchase a new bike or a Craigslist deal, go get your bike fit to you.
If you’re fit, you can easily finish and have some fun during your first few triathlons. However, if you have no clue how you actually should train, have been training but seem to have injuries set you back or have enjoyed a few triathlons but you now want to race faster, go find a coach.
Group coaching (usually under $100 per month) can be a very effective way to learn what training methods and coach personalities work best for you. Private coaching is the next step if you want a specific, detailed plan, but ranges from $100 to $500 per month. Many local clubs have coaches who take on clients, so it’s best to attend those workouts, meet the coaches and then determine who will fit best with your personality and address your needs. If you have the money, though, spend it on coaching.
If you’re not quite ready to sport for a coach, you may want to begin with a club membership (visit the USA Triathlon Website for a listing of official clubs). Club memberships run from $30 to $100 annually, and offer excellent resources to meet training buddies, potential coaches and provide discounts to local vendors (in case you do want to buy something you read about today). A USA Triathlon membership is equally valuable – many races, in fact, require a USAT membership/license, so the annual membership comes with plenty of value.
At some point, if you want to “hang with the big dogs,” you may need to shell out some cash on various pieces of tri “bling” (a nicer bike, extra training gear, etc.), but delving into the sport of triathlon does not have to break the bank. Professional triathletes train for a living, so they have every aspect of their nutrition, recovery and conditioning maximized – therefore, small differences in equipment among their field may make a significant impact. But for the new or average triathlete, the key is comfort on race day and still having extra cash each month for your kid’s piano lessons or soccer league. There is zero correlation between dollars spent on equipment and speed on race day, so focus on value, not what you may see at the Ironman World Championships in Kona.