Triathlife With Jesse Thomas: Being A Triathlete On The Cheap

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to sell a kidney to race a triathlon.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.


Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to sell a kidney to race a triathlon.  

As the legend goes, when I won my first Wildflower, I was a poor, lowly, smelly, first-year pro. I used a borrowed bike and helmet, a hand-me-down kit, running shoes from my wife’s shoe sponsor, and of course, drugstore aviators. I drove down to Lake San Antonio in the 28-Twitter-follower-famous “ManVan with Matt Lieto” and slept in the closet of previous champion Chris Legh’s cabin. In a sport known for extreme expense as much for extreme exercise, “cheap” was the name of the game.

And now, just six years later, I’m a world-famous, ridiculously rich professional triathlete who takes his helicopter to races—usually with Leo, sometimes with Lebron—and I stay exclusively in the presidential suite of the closest Ritz.

OK, none of that’s true, but as of writing this article, I’ll spend at least $10,000 in travel and lodging to get my family over to my next race, Kona. While there, I’ll be riding a brand new $10,000 bike with $2,800 carbon wheels and $1,200 power-meter pedals. I’ll wear the eighth version of a custom-made, super aerodynamic racing kit and to top it all off, literally, my signature high-performance aviators from ROKA.

Clearly, things have changed quite a bit for me. I’m in a lucky spot, and I’m very fortunate to have great companies who not only provide me with some of the best products on the planet, but also the financial support necessary to spend TEN G’s on a race that, statistically, is likely to make me an income of ZERO G’s.

It’s no secret that triathlon can be one of most expensive sports out there. The only other sports I can think of that have higher spending possibilities involve either a horse, race car or gigantic boat of some kind. And the majority of triathlon media and advertising sometimes feels focused on this “upper end” spending—the newest/fastest/highest tech stuff and the most exotic race experiences. It should come as no surprise then, that one of the questions I get from many of my dozens of readers, particularly young professionals and students, is “How can I even afford to do this sport?”

Obviously, what you can afford is a personal equation combining your income, support, your expenses and those you are responsible for, and to a certain extent, how much you want or care to spend on a dedicated passion, weekend hobby, and/or did-it-that-one-time triathlon. And no matter how often I make claims backed by no data whatsoever, I’m not going to pretend to know all those things.

What I will say is that just because triathlon can be really expensive, that doesn’t mean it has to be. I made it through (and thoroughly enjoyed) my first few years as an age-grouper and aspiring pro keeping it on the cheap. Below is a list of some obvious, some not so obvious, and some complete joke ways to best spend or save your money. You might call the list the “best bang for your buck,” or “do’s and don’ts of cheap triathlon.” You might also just call it a random list of money savers from me to you. Whatever you call it, hopefully it helps you spend and save wisely to get the most out of your triathlon dollar.

Ask your parents, partner or rich uncle for “support,” otherwise known as “money.” As a business owner, I always start with the top line. Before diving into expenses, you should try to increase revenue. If you aren’t going to get a massive raise, promotion or win Kona anytime soon, it’s best to see if you can scrounge up some dough from a sugar daddy/mama. Many triathletes, particularly young ones or pros, have to rely on some form of supportive income to participate. If it isn’t your style, make it a goal to be net positive (not borrowing) in 12 months. That’s what I did until I had the sponsor support necessary to at least break even.

Hire a coach. Strong legs on a slow bike is a lot faster than weak legs on a fast bike. I’ve said this before, but your best investments are in things that help you train and train well. Even a basic online plan will help you more than most upgrades to your equipment. Coaches come in all shapes, sizes and costs, so it’s important to find the best one for you.

Race local. It’s no secret that race fees at well-known events (Ironman, Ironman 70.3, Escape from Alcatraz, etc.) are off the charts. It’s crazy how expensive they’ve become. But there are a ton of great local events that will give you just as much fun, excitement, work and competition at a fraction of the price. Beyond the race fees themselves, you’ll also save a ton on the majority of triathlon expenses: travel and lodging.

Buy a trainer. If you are stretched to afford triathlon, it’s likely you have a job that limits your training time. A trainer is the best investment for cutting the time needed to train effectively on the bike. I always count 45 minutes on the trainer as 60 minutes outside because it cuts down on all the stopping, coasting and generally makes the ride harder physically and mentally. You can also ride late at night, early in the morning, or next to your kids while watching “The Lego Movie” for the 10 billionth time (which you honestly don’t mind because “The Lego Movie” is funny stuff). The best part, you can find used trainers to cut that cost (see below).

Buy a razor and shave your hairy self. Maybe my most popular article ever was when I discovered at the Specialized Win Tunnel that shaving my legs saved me 15 watts. That’s about 4 minutes over my Ironman. Other test subjects saw fewer gains because of, you know, way less body hair, but they still saw marked improvement. For the cost of a razor and about 10 minutes, that’s some serious return on investment.

Buy used stuff. In this industry in particular, the continual production of newer (slightly) faster stuff means there is a continual supply of heavily discounted (nearly as fast) stuff on the market. Craigslist, eBay, and—of course—your local pro are all good places to look for used stuff to get you going fast.

Buy aerobars, an aerodynamic kit and helmet. If you’re starting from baseline, the best bang for your buck for speed on the bike is those three items. I’ve had each save me more than 10 watts (adding up to minutes) on the bike. Yes, a super bike and super wheels will definitely make you faster but are likely to make your pockets significantly emptier. Start here first.

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a six-time Wildflower Long Course champion, Ironman champion and the CEO of Picky Bars (

Jan Frodeno Reflects on His Final Ironman World Championship

Immediately after finishing 24th place at his final Ironman World Championships, the Olympic medalist (and three-time IMWC winner) explains what his race in Nice meant to him.