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Gearing up for triathlon: What every beginner needs

Goggles and a swim cap are a must for every triathlete, Chrissie Wellington says.

Story highlights

  • Champion Chrissie Wellington did her first Ironman using a friend's race kit
  • Wetsuits are mandatory in some races; a good one will keep you warm and provide buoyancy
  • Bikes can be a few hundred dollars or as much as the price of a car

Triathlon has a reputation for being expensive. In fact, the perceived costs are enough to stop some prospective participants from taking up the challenge.

There's no doubt that triathlons are harder on the bank balance than other sports, such as running, soccer, baseball or swimming. But believe me when I say that you don't need to max out your credit card to do triathlon, to enjoy triathlon and even to succeed in triathlon.

In 2007, I raced my first Ironman on a road bike (not the normal TT bike used for Ironman racing) with regular wheels. I borrowed my friend's race kit, and wore a $20 pair of sunglasses I bought from a gas station in New Zealand three years prior to the race.

The most important investment you can make is in the form of hard work, drive and determination. The most important piece of equipment you can have is a huge heart. The most important weapon in triathlon is your mind.

10 ways to act like a champion

Having said that, it's hard to compete in a bike ride without a bike. And race directors are not overly keen on your swimming, biking or running in your birthday suit. So here are a few items that every triathlete, budding or otherwise, needs to be able to train and race in this amazing sport:

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Goggles: Leaky, ill-fitting goggles can cause panic and discomfort. If possible, try goggles on before you buy them. They should stay on your face, even without the strap. Your eyelashes shouldn't touch the lenses, and the nose piece shouldn't cut you like a knife. Slightly tinted goggles are best, as they are suitable for both cloudy and sunny conditions.

Wetsuit: Wetsuits are mandatory in some races. They help keep you warm and also provide buoyancy. Ideally, your wetsuit should be swim/triathlon specific, rather than a surf wetsuit.

You don't need to spend a fortune -- some companies offer one-off, monthly or even season rentals. Just make sure you swim in the wetsuit before race day and learn how to get it on and off properly. It needs to be snug, but not too tight or restrictive.

Swimcap: These are usually provided by race organizers, but a spare is useful for training and for doubling up if the water is cold.

Bike: You need one, but what kind? Bikes can be few hundred dollars or as much as the price of a car. If you're just starting triathlon and only planning on doing one or two local events, you can use a beach cruiser, shopper or mountain bike. But if you are thinking of doing more, it's probably best to buy a road bike -- which you can train, race and even commute on.

Secondhand bikes can be a great value, but it's your responsibility to make sure your bike is roadworthy. Getting a personal "bike-fit" from a bike shop is worthwhile.

Race day tips from an Ironman champ

Shoes: Whether you use regular or so-called clipless pedals (a bit of a misnomer, as you actually clip into them) will depend on your cycling experience and confidence. Your choice of pedal determines what shoes you wear. Cleated shoes (these lock onto the pedals) are definitely not essential for those new to cycling. With flat pedals you can use the same shoes for cycling and running.

Chrissie Wellington celebrates winning the Challenge Roth Triathlon with a new long distance world record in 2011.

Buy a sturdy running shoe that you can trust that suits your form/biomechanics (a good running shop can help with this).

Helmet: Of course, helmets are a must, but it doesn't have to be the all-song-and-dance "aero" kind. A regular brain bucket will protect your head fine; just make sure it has passed the necessary safety tests.

Race suit: You could wear a pair of shorts and a T-shirt under your wetsuit and keep them on until the finish line. But while not essential, opting for a tri suit in a race enables you to wear the same outfit from start to finish. There are basically two options, a single-piece tri suit, or a two-piece shorts and singlet.

Tri training: Taking to open water

There are lots of other items that are useful, but not essential, and it's easy to spend far more than you need to succeed. Start with the gear listed here, and then make sure you can use it.

Once you fall in love with the sport, and if your wallet can handle the pressure, you may want to add some optional extras or upgrade what you have.

But remember, it's not all about the gear. It's about the idea, the plan, the ambition .... the dream.