Many triathletes obsess about kit and gadgets, experimenting with the latest go-faster, stay-stronger fads in a quest to improve their times.
You might therefore think the only way to compete is to outspend your rivals. Happily, that's not how it works. Performance is primarily determined by training and genetics, with equipment playing a supporting role.
The best kit on the planet will not in itself be enough to propel you to the finish line; you need to build and condition your body first. That said, you still require the right gear to ensure you train and race effectively, safely and within the rules of the sport.
But what exactly is the right kit? The answer depends, in part, on experience and aspiration. A first-timer aiming to complete a pool-based sprint triathlon doesn't have the same needs as an experienced Ironman athlete.
In The Swim
You could, in theory, swim in trunks or a swimming costume, and nothing else. However, this has little to recommend it except bragging rights if you complete an open-water swim with little protection.
Swimming goggles should be top of the shopping list. Goggles not only protect your eyes (from chlorine in the pool and muck and infection in the open water), they also help you see underwater - more so in a pool, obviously. Some triathletes wear masks, but this is a question of personal preference.
Elite triathletes Catriona Morrison and Richard Allen use Aqua Sphere's Kayenne and Kaiman goggles, which are larger than typical pool goggles.
"Kayenne goggles give great all-round visibility and are very secure," says Morrison. Allen says security is essential because leaking or dislodged goggles in a race can cause panic. "It's also a good idea to use an anti-fog spray," he says.
If you plan to enter open-water events in the UK, you'll almost certainly need a wetsuit. For standard-distance events (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run), they are compulsory in water temperature below 14˚C and optional up to 22˚C. Some events, such as the London Triathlon, insist all competitors wear them, for safety reasons.
While a few triathletes still subscribe to the notion that wetsuits are for wimps, a modern, triathlon-specific suit will speed you through the first leg of your race faster and fresher than if you go without.
After a bike, a wetsuit is possibly the most expensive piece of kit you'll buy. Allen does not recommend a budget option but also advises beginners to steer away from top-of-the-range models.
"Spend enough to ensure your wetsuit fits properly and has good flexibility, but the most expensive models are usually aimed at experienced swimmers and so have less buoyancy than mid-range models," he says.
Also, spend the few extra pounds on a wetsuit lubricant to prevent chafing and accelerate your transition.
Swimming hats are usually provided by race organisers but a spare is useful for training and for doubling up if the water is cold. Some people like to also use earplugs and nose clips.
On Your Bike
Triathlon's middle section offers the most obvious opportunity for you to lay waste to your bank balance. You are going to have to buy a bike. And good bikes are not cheap. However, you need not put yourself in hock for the next 20 years.
It's probably best to start with a good all-rounder. "If you only buy one bike, then make it something you can train and commute on, and that's good for a variety of courses," says Allen. "Triathlon-specific time-trial bikes have limited use. You can always add clip-on aero bars to a road bike as you progress."
Time-trial bikes may in some cases slow you down. "If you can't comfortably maintain power in the extreme position demanded by these bikes you won't see the benefits," says Jack Maitland of TheTriathlonCoach.Com.
But even before you leap onto your bike, spare a thought for what you will wear. Tri-suits are popular because you can wear them under a wetsuit and throughout the race. They usually have a small degree of padding for biking comfort but not so much that it will hinder your running. However, they can cost more than £100.
Instead you could wear a pair of shorts and a T-shirt under a wetsuit and keep them on until the finish line. In a pool-based event you can swim in a costume and slip into a T-shirt in transition. "For a beginner, a tri-suit is nice to have but it's not essential," says Allen.
Use Your Head
Next, you absolutely must wear a bike helmet. It's in the rules and you will not be allowed to compete without one. Aero helmets have become increasingly popular, but are not recommended as your first purchase, because you need something you can also train in.
"An aero helmet can actually slow you down if you can't or don't ride in the right position," says Maitland. If you ride with your head down, the tapered part of an aero helmet points into the air rather than down your back, and that can increase wind resistance. Additionally, aero helmets are hotter to wear than conventional ones.
Some triathletes wear sunglasses whatever the weather, and for good reason. A piece of grit or a fly in your eye could wreck your race. Although they are not essential, they are "certainly something you should think about", according to Allen.
Whether you use flat or clipless pedals (those that don't need old-fashioned toe clips) will depend on your cycling experience and confidence, your choice will determine what shoes you wear.
"Cleated shoes (these lock onto clipless pedals) are not necessary for those new to cycling," says Morrison. With flat pedals you can use the same shoes for cycling and running and therefore save time in transition. This can be an effective strategy in shorter events.
As your cycling confidence increases, triathlon-specific shoes and pedals are definitely the faster option but there's no need to blow the budget on multiple pairs. "I race and train in the same shoes," says Morrison.
The Little Things
On long races - more so in hot conditions - some people's feet swell. Fiona Ford of Triathlon Europe suggests using a pair of cycling shoes half a size bigger than usual if this is
As with much else in triathlon, experiment in training to see what works for you, and stick to the tried and tested when racing.
Most elite and top age-group athletes cycle without socks because of the time saved in transition. Additionally, says Ford, "It's good to occasionally wriggle your toes when cycling to reduce the numbing effect from hours of pedalling. It's easier to do that without socks."
That said, if you want to wear socks for warmth or blister avoidance, do so. Make sure you carry a drinks bottle and repair kit. Jonathan Brownlee, 2009 European Junior Triathlon Champion, says this is also important when you train. For longer training rides he recommends taking an energy drink, which he also uses when racing, though in extra-diluted form so it sits more easily on his stomach, and he will drink plenty in the 48 hours leading up to the race to ensure he's properly hydrated and carbo-loaded.
For training, especially if you're toughing it out through a British winter, as Brownlee does, quality cycling gloves, waterproofs, mudguards and warm socks will make life considerably more comfortable. A pair of padded cycle shorts, some leggings, a base layer and a cycling jersey should all also be on your shopping list.
On The Run
Footwear is, obviously, the primary consideration. While the barefoot-running movement seems to be gaining ground, International Triathlon Union rules clearly state a competitor "may not run without shoes on any part of the [run] course".
The important thing for many triathletes is "getting to the end in a reasonably comfortable state", says Morrison. This means you need a sturdy pair of running shoes you can trust.
"It's worth spending a bit of money to ensure you have shoes that fit properly and give you the right support," says Allen. "Racing shoes might be useful as you become more competitive but aren't necessary to begin with. Instead, he suggests, invest a few pounds in a pair of elastic laces, which could easily save you 30 seconds in transition.
Socks must be considered separately for the bike and run sections. "I wouldn't bother with socks for anything up to 10K, but beyond that I consider them essential, even when racing in very hot conditions like you find at Kona," says Ford. "You want to do everything possible to minimise the inevitable damage to your feet."
Other than that, you can run in a tri- suit, or a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, and maybe a sun hat, f you're lucky enough to race when the sun is shining.
Finally, another useful and inexpensive item is a number belt. This can either be quickly clipped on in transition or worn under a wetsuit. Alternatively, attach your race numbers with safety pins to the front and back of whatever you are wearing.
It's easy to spend far more than you need to succeed in triathlon. Don't be that person. Get the right kit, and then make sure you can use it properly.
Since bikes and wetsuits are the most expensive items you'll need for triathlon, it might make sense to hire them for your first season. TriUK offers a Foor HQ1 wetsuit and a Giant Defy road bike to rent, either separately or together. The wetsuit will cost you £25 to rent plus a £50 deposit and £15 delivery fee. The bike is £110 plus £365 deposit and £25 post and packing. If you decide to keep either item, notify the retailer, give up your deposit and it's yours. Other retailers (eg hireawetsuit.co.uk) offer weekly and monthly wetsuit rental options.
This article is a taster of what you can find in our June 2010 issue of Triathlete's World, available on the newsstand on May 4 (Thursday). Also in our June issue: 10-week expert training plans for Sprint and Olympic distances, swim-sighting skills, healthy snacks for a quick fuel fix and strategies for beating seven common mental hurdles. Plus, we review wetsuits, open-water goggles and race shoes.