Congratulations! You're interested in triathlon and presumably stumbled upon this blog after googling what to wear in your upcoming race.
First, a warning.
Triathlon is defined as the practice of taking the simple task of swimming, then biking, then running, and making it as complicated as possible.
"How many millimeters of neoprene does your new wetsuit have over the trunk?"
"What was your normalized power for the bike leg on 170mm cranks rather than the 175s?
"How much lift does your shoe have? Have you tried Hokas?"
"I started putting himalayan salt on organic quinoa for my Pre, pre-race breakfast and my cramps in T2 stopped!"
Before you embark down the long and seductive road of TriGeekdom, we need to answer the simple question: What the heck do I wear for one of these?
You can purchase a "Tri Suit" which is a single, spandex-like top and bottom for the entire swim, bike, and run. You wear it under your wetsuit for the swim, drop your wetsuit off at your bike when you start your bike and put on your bike shoes (Transition 1, or T1), then you drop your bike back off and put on your running shoes and finish the race in those (after Transition 2, or T2).
That's it. The Tri Suit you buy will most likely be "Two-Piece," which is a tight-fitting, sleeveless, spandex-like top pared with a suit bottom, which is like a combination of a swimming jammer / bike short with a low-profile bike pad / running compression short.
Javier Gomez shows off a stylish tri suit by Roka, Photo courtesy EU Ironman.com
The nearly unbeatable Melissa Hauschildt rocking a two-piece kit. Photo: alchetron.com
In general, Men and Women generally wear two-piece tri-suits that are sex specific for each triathlon length (sprint, Olympic, Half-Iron, Full Ironman distance). There can be variations, like sleeved tops which are becoming more popular for long course triathlon to help stave off sun exposure in hot races, or more sport bra type tops for women, but in general these are the mainstay.
So before your race you put on your two-piece trisuit and wear that under your warmup clothes to the swim. When swim time approaches, stash your warmup sweats in your transition bag and put on your triathlon wetsuit. You swim in your wetsuit then strip it during your first transition, and continue the race biking and running in your tri suit.
Most tri suit bottoms have some form of miniature bike pad, to help with the discomfort of riding in the time trial position without a full chamois that a proper bike short offers. Going to great lengths to select the best saddle for you, along with a proper bike fit (such as from a Fit Institute of Slowtwitch certified fitter), and lots of time in the saddle, however, will go a long way toward making you more comfortable.
The other kind of tri-suit is the leotard style with the connected top and bottom. This is the speedy suit typically used by short-course triathletes. Other than nicely compressing the muffin top, this race suit tends to be more useful for Olympic and sprint distance races when you might be swimming without a wetsuit.
Johnny Brownlee and Javier Gomez race to see who's full-body tri suit is better in an ITU World Series Grand Final.
Photo courtesy of triathlon.competitor.com
I can tell you have some questions, let me answer those for you:
So, you just, put the wetsuit on over your trisuit?
Yep. Wetsuits are really tight, but it slides over the tri suit easily. Just be careful if your race has "Wetsuit strippers," that pull your wetsuit off for you. You don't want to be involuntarily pants'd heading to T1. Especially you gentlemen, given, you know, the shrinkage...
Isn't it uncomfortable to bike without bike shorts?
Not really. Not if you've got a well-fitted bike saddle, are properly fit to a bike that matches your body type, and have put enough time in the saddle. That being said, an ironman bike is uncomfortable no matter what you're wearing. Some triathlons - usually long-course races - will have changing tents. In these, you can have a pair of bike shorts ready to change into, safe from the viewing eyes of the public (and a public indecency charge) within the confines of the transition tent. Many racers don't opt for this, however, as it takes time. If you're racing to complete rather than compete, however, this could really improve your quality of life in the last 30 miles of the bike leg. Be advised it can be tricky putting bike shorts on over a wet lower body.
Doesn't, um, doesn't, you know, stuff show through when you're wearing wet, tight spandex?
Don't wear white.
What other alternatives are there?
Well I mean if you wanted you can wear whatever you want, within the confines of public decency. In my very first triathlon I didn't know what to wear, which is why I'm writing this blog post, and wore a swimming jammer for the whole Olympic race. Given that tri shorts: have a mini bike pad, have a more durable, um, saddle riding area, and are a thicker material to mask, you know, the outlines of things, a tri suit bottom is the more ideal lower body garment. You can wear a bike jersey if you wanted on the bike leg, and you can wear bike shorts as mentioned, as long as you have a changing tent. You can switch into a running singlet and running shorts for the run as well. Since a tri suit works just about as well as any of these individual garments, and is more aerodynamic than standard bike clothing, it's the best and most popular option out there.
I'm super excited for my upcoming triathlon. I'm going to be responsible and try out my race apparel before the race. I'll wear my tri jersey top in my local group ride, and my tri shorts in my half-marathon prep race.
I like your enthusiasm, but you'll be excommunicated from the road cycling community for wearing a sleeveless jersey top. You must only wear Castelli, Giordana, Assos, or Rapha clothing - with just a tasteful amount of espresso stains - to any cycling event.
Similarly, road runners will silently judge you because your awesome tri clothes (including compression socks) will remind them of their inferior life choices in continuing to train for running alone rather than be a sexy and popular triathlete.
There you have it! So the confusing question of what to wear for a triathlon is simply answered that you wear a tri suit, and it's probably going to be a two-piece, and you'll wear it under a wetsuit if it's a wetsuit-legal swim, which it probably is.
If you're so excited about triathlon clothing that you just can't stop reading on, continue on to read more about accessories
Since triathlon was born in open water swimming and typically takes place there, and since the ocean is a place designed to kill humans, triathletes started racing in wetsuits. These wetsuits, under the justification of warmth, add buoyancy and make athletes both faster as well as the swim much easier, so they're very popular. In warm water, above 80 deg F or so, wetsuits become a liability because you'll get to warm, so swims no longer are considered "Wetsuit legal."
For swims without a wetsuit, if you want to race fast, try a speedsuit. This is the super tight, slick fabric speedsuits popularized by, and subsequently banned by, competitive swimming. They streamline your body's form and may provide a little bit of buoyancy as well, making you faster. Triathletes often call them 'swimskins.' Some look like a wetsuit but they're more like a super tight full-body tri suit without pockets.
A swim skin
Do I need scientifically enhanced, super fancy, open water triathlon goggles? Nope. In my experience simply tinted goggles work great. Some people like open water masks, but that's pretty uncommon. I've gravitated away from my wider-lens, open-water swimming goggles toward using just my minimalist goggles from the pool.
Open water mask. Note- you won't look cool like this fitness model. But hey, if it works for you, it works for you.
Wider than a mask but definitely lower profile than goggles, "Open water" style swim goggles are a popular option.
Wear low-profile swimming goggles for style points from your swimmer friends.
Only they won't notice, because they're either in a pool, somewhere eating, asleep, or spending time with their swim team.
If it's a cold swim, and cold is generally low 60s or colder, you can consider a Neoprene swim cap.
Although they do make triathlon specific shoes, in general, just wear the training shoes or racing flats you would otherwise run in.
Most people seem to wear socks, some go without. Since it takes two seconds to put socks on, some uber-sprinters will ride in just their bike shoes and then run with bare feet clad in running shoes. Some triathlon-specific running shoes are designed to accomodate this.
In my opinion, just put on socks. You can put them on your feet when you prepare your transition zone and then roll them downward, so in transition, you just slip your toes in, roll the socks up your foot, and then you're off! There's a picture of this on this blog along with other tips, DietitianThatTris.com
What about... what about Speedos?
Ahh yes, the budgie smuggler. The art of smuggling budgies during a triathlon refused to die thanks to the successful racing of Faris al-Sultan.
Faris, the last great Speedo enthusiast? Photo triathlon.competitor.com
Speedos, basically, should not be worn in triathlon. The Euros - I think Germans were the main offenders - wore them around Kona in the early days of Ironman Hawaii and basically offended everyone with their Euro-sensual sensibilities. This led to the organized protest of the practice that soon became a satire of itself, the infamous pre-IM Hawaii Kona Underpants Run.
The always epic Kona Underpants Run. photocredit lavamagazine.com