Ask A Gear Guru: What Are the Best Triathlon Shorts?
The definitive guide to shopping for the best pair of triathlon shorts for YOU and a few top picks.
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Asking a triathlete what the most important piece of gear will get you a very different answer depending on when you pose the question. Ask a veteran racer what’s most important right before their 10th Ironman and they might say the bike or maybe nutrition. Ask them afterward, as they hobble like a bowlegged cowboy out of the finish area, and that cowpoke might be whistling a different tune. Still the bike? Still nutrition? What if you could call them on the phone in the middle of that first post-race shower—what piece of gear would they say is most important then? Maybe they’d ask you a question right back (between cringey yelps as the water runs down south): What are the best triathlon shorts for racing? Also, why are you calling me in the middle of a shower?
Now, just like anything where your body hits the gear, it’s impossible to say what the best pair of triathlon shorts is because we’re all made up of different shapes with vastly different creases and folds. The best pair of triathlon shorts for someone who’s doing their first sprint may not be the best for someone who’s doing their 20th long-course race. The best triathlon shorts for a woman might not work as well for a guy. And don’t forget everyone has a different saddle. (For help there, check out this year’s extensive saddle guide.)
Lots of cash to spend? No money in the tri bank? Tiny little thighs? Big ol’ booty? Different shorts for different folks.
Before diving into our guide to a few choice shorts for race day—in categories based on features, price, and more—it’s also important to be armed with the knowledge to weed out the good from the bad and give yourself the best chance to get the best triathlon shorts possible.
How to Pick the Best Triathlon Shorts for YOU
The flatter (or more nonexistent) the seams, the better, pretty much always. Yes, flat or glued or welded seams might cost more, but it’s simple: The fewer stuff you have sticking up and possibly rubbing, the better.
Generally if your, let’s say, underparts, hurt most while riding, go with a thicker pad. If you experience more chafing while running, go slightly thinner. In my experience, someone with years spent in a running background can get away with a slightly thicker pad because their underparts/thighs/etc. are a little more calloused from rubbing. (And they’ll need the extra padding more for the bike.) On the other hand, someone with a big cycling background might be a little more used to the feel of a saddle, while the chafing experienced during running may feel unbearable—this cycling-person should go with a thinner pad. Swimmers? Sorry, you’re just screwed. (Kidding, sort of.)
This is where things can go off the rails. Each brand has its own marketing mumbo jumbo about all of the benefits of why they make the best tri shorts due to their special proprietary material that’s both space-age and sourced from the mountains of Tibet. If you know you’ll be racing in a super hot environment, then shoot for something thinner that has marketing terms based around evaporation, cooling, wicking, and so on. If you have big thighs and issues with leg cramping possibly due to constriction on your upper legs, avoid heavy compression (this, from personal experience). Worried about speed only? That marketing talk about clothing saving you watts is actually pretty on point, according to aerogeeks much smarter than me, so look for something that has aero-specific gains.
This is usually a matter of preference/style/modesty, but usually the best tri shorts for long-course racers (70.3 and above) are around 9 inches, while short-coursers prefer more in the 7-inch range. A longer cut gives a little more sun protection for the long day, and it can also give a tiny bit more coverage in chillier climes. A shorter cut will feel less restrictive and cooler in hot races.
Sometimes shorts can be more than just shorts, and the best triathlon shorts for you just might be ones that can carry nutrition or garbage or an inhaler or the kitchen sink. Some shorts have storage in the back, some in the sides, none in the front (thank God). If you know you won’t be swimming with a wetsuit and speed is important, don’t forget that giant pockets will act like giant parachutes in the water if they’re not covered or angled appropriately.
Yes, some tri shorts have reflective or hi-viz strips built in. This may seem unimportant or superfluous (and for some, it is), but sometimes the best tri shorts are the ones that don’t make you another unfortunate statistic on an open, trafficky course.
Below we’ve assembled a jumping-off point for the best triathlon shorts, based on features, for a few categories. While we can’t hit every brand and model, if we missed one of your favorites, let us know why you think your tri shorts are the best!
Best Triathlon Shorts on a Budget
Decathlon Aptonia Tri Shorts
There’s not much to say about this pair of shorts, except it’s tough to find anything cheaper of decent quality. While the Aptonia’s don’t have a ton of fancy features, they do have silicone leg grippers and a thin enough chamois to take you through the swim, bike, and run. While Decathlon’s website says these shorts will work up to iron-distance, we’d probably say these are better for 70.3 and below. The only downside here is that the ultra-cheap brand is often short on stock.
Pearl Izumi Select Pursuit Tri Short
Boasting quite a few more features than the bare bones Aptonia above, Pearl Izumi’s tri shorts are something of a staple or rite of passage for new triathletes. The 8.5-inch inseam make these a much longer pair than most, but these are popular for a reason: Pearl Izumi hits so many important features for very little cash. Not only does this iteration of the classic black short boast a quick-dry chamois, but there are also those key visibility details for low-light racing or training. A special fabric also helps these shorts with compression and heat/moisture dissipation.
Best Triathlon Shorts for Long-Course Racing
DeSoto 400-Mile Cycling Short
Ok, these are marketed as a cycling short, but here’s a pro tip: These are amazing for long-course racing. With a varying inseam based on size from 8 inch to 9 inch, the secret to these sleepers is the 11-panel construction (super form fitting), floating chamois (meaning not sewn into the top of the fabric), and elastic-free leg bands. Again, these are more like tri shorts than cycling shorts because they also have three pockets for anything one could need during a long day in the saddle, but there’s a big caution not to do any practice sessions in a chlorinated pool to reduce the risk of ruining the material. These are the best tri shorts that somehow aren’t tri shorts.
Zoot Ultra Tri 9″ Short
This brand-new update to Zoot’s high-end Ultra line has been developed with heat reduction in mind. Born on the brutally hot and humid lava fields of Kona, these shorts boast very impressive “Cool Storage” technology that uses strategically-placed pockets for ice and cold sponges. Meanwhile the super-long 10-inch inseam provides coverage from the sun and increases surface area for the aerodynamic fabric to do its job.
Best Triathlon Shorts with All the Bells and Whistles
Roka Gen II Elite Aero Tri Short
Without completely breaking the bank, Roka has done the traditionally Roka Thing and engineered and tested the heck out of these shorts. Available in both 7.5 inch and 9.5 inch, these shorts have been run through the windtunnel for aerodynamic efficiency, are optimized with a different front fabric to allow better cooling, and are one of the best triathlon shorts for speed on the road. Similar to the Huub tri shorts, this Roka pair uses a special no-sew leg opening to reduce a lack of circulation around more…substantial thighs, and also utilizes “coldblack” to help with heat.
Best Triathlon Shorts For Women
Castelli Free Tri Short
Castelli designed the Free Speed 2 Race Top to offer extra speed, comfort, and sun protection. The top and shorts together provide minimal water absorption, flat-lock stitching (which helps stop chafing), and pockets for storage (two in the top and two in the shorts). The chamois is specially designed with different densities throughout to create comfort in the right areas while biking and running.
Coeur Mari Women’s 5-inch Triathlon Shorts
Women’s triathlon brand Coeur designs its suits with thoughtful women’s-specific details. The top is made of super soft fabric and is designed to be flattering on any size (it’s available from XS to 2XL). The shorts (also available in an 8-inch length) feature a seam-free chamois and unique yoga-style waistband.