Does Triathlon Have to be Expensive?

Three sports, a fancy bike, special shoes, wetsuit and a triathlon suit, adds up right? Well it doesn’t have too. Maybe it’s because I come from mountain biking where we fix most things with zip ties, because I used to get paid to swim or maybe just because I’m cheap but I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

Part of this post is an except from my triathlon training guides available on Etsy. If cost is a factor holding you back it doesn’t have to. In fact there is a pretty good case to be made that skipping more of the fancy stuff actually makes you faster by saving you time in transition. I’ll let you know how much you really need to spend and let you in on how to do it bare bones for super cheap! But first let’s talk about how the $12 000 triathlon myth started, and why it’s perpetuated.


I was watching a running documentary about the New York City Marathon recently, injured and full of self pity during a snowstorm truthfully. And a very uncomfortable statistic was mentioned about the year Hurricane Sandy hit. The average marathon runner has an annual income north of $100 000, perhaps we’re just as elitist as the golfers after all. The reason I bring this up is that it’s gotta be higher for triathletes. I came to triathlon from an unusual path, not as in injured runner, but as a single track mountain biker and former life guard.

Mountain bikers as a rule might spend a lot on their bike but are proud of battle scars taped over, scratched paint, zip tie repairs and openly mock the fancy gear roadies tend to be so fond of. There’s no point buying fancy gear because after one good day out it’ll be mud encrusted, which does stain if your doing it right, and possibly blood stained as well. A branch will eventually rip it and we believe that leg muscles not drilled aluminum pedals, tight fitting clothing and the lack of a kickstand make us faster. Plus some rides might call for elbow and knee pads and a cervical collar helmet if you’re actually any good. If someone comments on our ‘nice bike’ we admit we’re trying to buy some skills sheepishly. We carry backpacks with first aid kits including a sling and a needle and thread just in case, as well as foil emergency blankets, food and water to last us a night, lighters and black tape literally everywhere we go. Hell, I can’t bring myself to leave is behind on a trip to the grocery store.

Then lifeguarding can be more of a passion and a terrible career choice if you’re into pension plans, 401k’s and dental benefits, it’s a short season after all. Give us a board, some high SPF and a suit and we’re good for the weekend, or week if the waves are good enough and there’s a storm stalled off shore. Yeah we can use a defibrillator, administer oxygen, intubate you and get you out of the water without severing your spinal cord should you break your back but it’s all really an excuse to hang out at the beach.

But your average triathlete, it seems to me at least… Owns one hell of a road bike (maybe even a time trial bike), a matching tri suite, full wet suit, with cap, clip-less tri shoes, several cases of gu and doesn’t understand how to use safety pins. And by average I mean all of them. The first time I walked my bike up and had flashbacks to that time I accidentally signed up for a Saturday hike with a hardcore group of Icelandic Hikers rather than that touristy walking tour I had pictured. Had I neglected to notice that every Canadian triathlete happened to be from Halifax at the last summer olympics? The last time I saw so many $5000 dollar bikes in the same place was the upstairs storage space at the local bike shop and I was at the sprint rack! Me and three other people of 250 weren’t wearing wetsuits. I didn’t think a 15 minute swim in an 18 degree lake meant someone needed to shake me into my dive gear but to be fair I don’t think that’s true of 10 minute swims to rescue an RC boat when the water is 10 degrees either. What the hell had I gotten me and my mountain bike into?

Everyone was nice, just like a road race but it seemed everyone had a triathlon coach or was in a triathlon club and was hiring a coach next year when we were chatting waiting for the race to start. Right after that I decided I was fine with last, which was far from what happened by the way. Sure my swim was slower that I planned for after my goggles broke and all but four people finished after me on the bike but my sad 36 minute 5k, my legs were tiered ok, put my in the top 30% for my gender? What the hell was going on here?

But I had the bug and really, really wanted to improve on that sad time. I started wondering, do I need a tri suit? What is a tri suit? How do you even hold onto aero bars? Do you clean clip-less shoes you run in the way you clean a horse’s hoof? Why do they all have fancy belts to hold their bibs? Are safety pins banned? And after I turned in a great time by just using a well used entry level road bike, are all these people rich?

So where does that $12000 myth come from? Check out this excerpt from my training guide:

Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 12.05.53 AM
The kids don’t meed skip college for you to complete a triathlon

So let’s go ahead and break this down a bit. You’ll likely end up a lot lower than that $1005 number. All you really need, that you might not already have is a road bike. A light hybrid bike will do fine too. If you and up buying one used you can probably get what you paid for it should it fall into disuse. You can probably skip the cages if you don’t already have them. The idea behind cages or clip-less pedals is that you can use them to pull up your pedals as well as pushing down. The thing is though they turn into leg twisters should you fall off but also taking it a tad easy on the bike portion is what makes the whole thing possible. You can totally skip a wetsuit all together, the reason everyone wears one is that it gives you a bit of a floatation boost making your swim the tiniest bit easier. Even now I still wear my shorts and tee style one I bought for $15 at a used clothing store and leave the dive gear at home, and then only for warmth. Pulling off your wetsuit takes probably just as long as any advantage you gained in the swim.

A tri suit is nice to have, basically it is a pair of slightly padded shorts and tank that might be one piece or two that you swim (under wetsuit), bike and run in, if your going to buy one nice thing for your tri, this is probably a good choice. That being said I don’t have one. I swim in a bathing suit with bike shorts or not (I only wear a wetsuit if it’s really cold). Then in transition 1 I pull on shorts and a tank with my number attached. Those in a tri-suit clip on a race belt holding their bib, no time difference at all. Also I don’t think closing two saftey pins takes longer than fastening a race belt so you can skip that for sure. You’re biking running and swimming in training for an outdoor race, why not just train outside and skip the gym and pool fees? Don’t do any of it when there is thunder and lightning and you’ll be fine, plus it might rain on are day. So really all you need is a used bike and some goggles that you might not already have if your into fitness, especially for a sprint. Plus race fees of course.

How did the myth start that it costs $12 000 to compete in triathlons? Well from the culture surrounding them and the triathletes themselves. Now I’m not picking on this group in particular and the other athletes I compare them to are certainly not blameless either. But there is this idea that surrounds running and it’s culture that it is simple, cheap and egalitarian. After all we all line up together, wear the same shirt and get the same medal. If you run you are a runner, nuff said. Mountain biking culture places the emphasis on the rider and not the bike, plus there’s a track for every skill level. Swimmers view talent as a god given skill which is true in some regard but genetics and an early familiarity go a long way too.

A triathlon asks an athlete to participate in at least two sports in which they are not experts. I think this leads one to over compensate, look for time advantages and overcome anxieties in those areas buy buying gear. In training a runner will look to run, a biker will focus on cycling and a swimmer will want to spend their time in a lake or pool as they prefer while training. So what do you do when you are expected to compete in a sport you’re not as comfortable in? You look at the other’s and you copy what they’re doing. But some of those swimmers, cyclist and runners are expert swimmers, cyclists and runners and they already have top of the line gear like a full wetsuit, a super-fast, light weight time trial bike or a Garmin, so you buy one too.

Mastering or at least competing in and training for three sports is a REALLY big deal! It requires a lot of work and dedication and completing a triathlon is something most people will never do even though most people dabble with running at some point, can ride a bike and swim. Training for a triathlon requires you to be disciplined in three different sports even if all you really want to do is go for a run. Just doing it gives you a sense of gravitas as a REAL athlete. And deservedly so, it’s hard and you have to take it seriously to get through it. A sprint is harder than a 10k, and an olympic harder than a half or a century ride. You can strap on a light and run after dark, swim laps in a pool in bad weather but training for a triathlon requires you to put your training first. I think this level of discipline leads triathletes to. take themselves more seriously sometimes overly so. But we need to let people know it’s okay to participate just to complete it, that’s what all but three of us are doing anyway. And we don’t want you to stay home because you don’t think you can afford it. Come out and try a tri, it’s fun!

If you have all the fun expensive stuff what could you do without? If your wondering further what you really need, spout off in the comments below?


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