Triathlon clothing comes in several shapes and sizes. At any given triathlon, you will see people wearing all kinds of different combinations, and people train for triathlons wearing any number of different garments and types of workout gear. While there is no hard and fast rule on what you have to wear in a triathlon, there are a few general themes that hold true for good triathlon clothing, and a few decisions you will want to make in order to be comfortable and perform well. For purposes of offering guidance, we will provide our perspective on the best clothing choices for triathlons. Note that which options you ultimately choose may depend on your overall budget, and if your goal is simply to finish a triathlon or to be competitive in your age group.
Triathlon Suit or Not?
The first question you may need to answer is whether to get a triathlon suit or not. Most high-end triathletes wear a triathlon suit because it offers a one-piece, all-purpose piece of gear that can be worn from the moment you arrive at the race to the post-race cool down. The majority of racers we observe, however, use a combo that is not as specialized (or expensive) as a triathlon suit.
A good triathlon suit is designed specifically for triathlon, and offers benefits that may help you race faster and be as comfortable as possible. It will be great in the water, providing a skin of sorts that fits well beneath your wetsuit or as your only garment in the water. It will be quick-drying so that by the time you are on the bike, you are dry enough to not chafe – this is very important. It also prevents the need for adding / subtracting clothing at a transition, helping you breeze through to the next leg as quickly as possible.
On the downside, triathlon suits can be expensive, and you can easily do triathlons without them. Furthermore, it is sometimes nice to own clothes that can double as workout clothing, and a tri suit is pretty much a one-purpose garment. We know several people who have done numerous – even dozens – of triathlons without ever owning a single tri suit. We recommend the Zoot Sports Ultra, at $195, for those who are serious about triathlon. For those wanting to spend a little less, the 2XU Comp at $149 is a great suit from a reputable maker.
If you choose not to use a triathlon suit, you will want to invest in some good triathlon shorts. Triathlon shorts look a little like cycling shorts, but are different. They are built to be quicker drying, and they have a pad that is usually thinner and lighter. This is important as you don’t want to sit on a waterlogged pad when you hop on the bike. Triathlon shorts can usually be found from $50 to $100, and besides pricing and color, the main choice you will make it how long you want them to be – most triathletes use shorts with inseams of 8 to 10 inches, give or take.
When buying triathlon shorts, remember to buy quality and know that they are not intended to be used in a pool. Doing so will shorten their lifespan considerably. We recommend the TYR Ironman shorts for $65 – 85. They are a great all-purpose short for beginners or advanced racers alike.
Once you have your shorts selected, you need to figure out what to wear on top. This is where the answer might be different for men or women. Many racers will choose a triathlon-specific top, often called a singlet, for racing. Singlets can be nice because they can be comfortable for activities such as cycling or running, even outside of a tri race. Good singlets range in price from $40 to $100, depending on the maker and the quality.
Women also have the option of wearing a support top, which resembles a swimsuit top or a training bra. This enables them to choose if they want to simply wear that for the entire race, or throw a shirt over it once out of the water.
There is nothing wrong with simply throwing on a t-shirt or a workout shirt for the bike and run. For women, this would usually be done over a support top, but for men it would mean they come out of the water shirtless. In any given race, a large number of racers will be wearing a simple t-shirt or workout shirt. We have known many very competitive triathletes whose top of choice for racing is the same moisture-wicking athletic shirt they would wear on a treadmill or a long run, often by makers like Sugui. Another option might be a cycling shirt, although they can tend to chafe during the run, especially when damp.
Most tri-specific tops will run anywhere from $50 up to $110, depending on the brand and quality. We like the 2XU Endurance line, but at around $100 it can be expensive for some, so the step-down option is 2XU’s Active line, also a great top. As for support bras, we hear great things about the TYR Ironman bra, at about $50 a good value.
We have entire sections devoted to wearing triathlon wetsuits, so won’t belabor it here. Suffice it to say that if your race allows it and water temperatures aren’t above 78 or so, a wetsuit is often a good idea but you will always find some people racing without them. In addition to keeping you warm in the water, a good wetsuit will make you more buoyant and balanced as you swim, as well as assist you as you glide through the water. Most racers who use wetsuits find that their swim times decrease, more than making up for the additional time required during the first transition to remove the wetsuit.
Racers who want to turn in the fastest times always use different shoes for the bike and the run. Most racers have a favorite pair of cycling shoes with clips that they use during the bike leg, and then put on running shoes for the run. Some athletes, especially age-groupers who simply want to finish, don’t have clipped pedals on their bike so can use the same running shoes for the entire bike and run legs.
Socks or no socks? That is the question. Many racers will choose to go sockless, making the transition and reducing the risk of running in wet socks (i.e. blister-creators) if they don’t dry properly after the swim or are racing in wet conditions. Still, most beginners tend to use socks. You should never attempt to go sockless without practicing that way several times and building up the ability to do it.