Triathlon is an expensive sport, right? Compared to running—shoes, socks, a shirt, shorts, a sports bra—it definitely is. First, there’s the entry fee (triathlons are actually fairly expensive to produce). Then there’s the carbon-fiber superbike, aero helmet, power meter, supershoes, disc wheel, air-injected neoprene wetsuit, and on and on…but it doesn’t have to be that way. Ask any pro triathlete about the gear they used for their first tri, and you’ll likely hear the phrases “Schwinn 10-speed” or “borrowed helmet.”
RELATED: Why is Triathlon So Expensive?
So we posed a challenge: Could we get a complete newbie—someone who had a functional command of swimming, biking, and running, but had never put them all together—from couch to finish line for under $600, all in? Using the vast resources of our magazine, sure, that would be easy. But what if we promised nothing but basic advice—the same amount a tri-friend would give: “You need a bike that’s the right size. The water will be really really cold, you’ll need a wetsuit. That’s a good deal. That’s a bad deal.” And so on.
Aside from our basic advice to avoid injury or safety issues, what if we left one someday-triathlete to his own devices to shop for the cheapest gear that money could buy? What if we just gave him six weeks to get to the start line? After all, maybe this doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
The Budget Triathlete, Himself
Before we get into how it all went down, meet our willing budget tri victim:
Name: Nicholas F.
Location: Long Beach, CA
Sports experience: Competitive high school cross-country runner and basketball player, surfing, skimboarding, swimming for fitness, cycling for fitness/transportation, running for fitness
Background: Nicholas is an active person, however two years ago, he was in a very serious motorcycle accident. At the time, it was unknown if he would walk again, let alone return to his active lifestyle. “Immediately following the accident, my first question to the doctor was how long until I can skimboard again and play basketball,” he said. “From that moment on, it was just about getting back to doing the activities I did the day before the accident.”
In the last year, however, his recovery had been remarkable. He’d functionally gone back to doing most of the things he was before, but he hadn’t pushed himself—physically, for an extended amount of time—since before the accident.
(Ed note: Nicholas is related to a member of the staff. How else would we talk someone into this?)
It’s not enough that we only gave Nicholas $600 to get all the gear he’d need—from running shoes to a bike to the entry fee, and everything in between—but we gave him a limited amount of time to shop, train, and prepare. Only six weeks from “yes” to start line.
Despite having a few of the items already, we wanted him to start completely from scratch, just like many first-time triathletes would. We did no shopping for him, only giving him friendly advice on what he’d need, just like any tri buddy or website.
The gear list he ended up with is the result of days (not weeks) of scouring Craigslist, eBay, used bike shops, mining for online sales, and more. It wasn’t impossible, but it wasn’t easy, either. “Buying anything online, it was hard to know what was real, what wasn’t real, and what was a potential scam,” he said. “It was all about reading reviews and checking every discount site that’s been invented since the year 2000, and also checking out local resellers to see if they were legit.”
After a few days of shopping, negotiating, and planning, he ended up with the following:
Bike: Modified Trek 1000 with flat bars – $180 (used)
- Purchased from: Play It Again Sports used sports equipment store
- You could get it cheaper from: A garage sale
- Nicholas said: “I was lucky to find this old Trek at a used sports equipment store in L.A. because it was the seventh shop that I went to and everything else was over $1,000.”
Wetsuit: XTERRA Volt Fullsuit – $120 (on sale)
- Purchased from: XTERRA website
- You could get it cheaper from: Online forums or tri club message boards; warm water swim? Go without!
Race Entry: Alpha Win – $112
- Purchased from: Race website
- Get it cheaper: Sign up extra early, contact race organizers to see if they offer a “volunteer-one, race-one” option, race a local smaller tri; also Outside+ members get $30 off their registration for any race on TriReg.com
Running Shoes: Saucony Endorphin Shift – $80 (on sale)
- Purchased from: Sierra.com
- Get it cheaper: Look for old versions of shoes or discontinued models; do not get used running shoes, as they’re difficult to assess condition
Tri Suit: Runderwear RunBreeze – $40 (used)
- Purchased from: eBay
- Get it cheaper: Tough to do, but you may be able to find someone’s old suit they upgraded from
- Nicholas said: “Tri suits are more expensive than you’d think, so I just tried to find a used one that looked as new as possible, and eBay was the spot. I did use the ‘heavy soiled’ setting on the washing machine more than once.”
Helmet: Coros Omni – $30 (used)
- Purchased from: Craigslist
- Note: Buying a used helmet is not recommended as you cannot properly assess their condition and effectiveness—eBay forbids selling used helmets for this reason—but our tester rolled the dice anyway. We wouldn’t recommend.
- Nicholas said: “New helmets are kind of expensive, and the best option on Craigslist was the one I found.”
USAT: One-Day Membership – $15
- Purchased from: USA Triathlon
- Get it cheaper: If you’re planning on racing more than three USAT-sanctioned triathlons in a year, you can get an annual license for $50, that spreads out the savings to less than $15 per event. Shameless plug: Your USAT annual license also gets you a free Triathlete subscription and member access!
Goggles: TYR Nest Pro Performance – $16 (on sale)
- Purchased from: Amazon.com
- Get it cheaper: Look for old versions or discontinued models, potentially buy a used pair in good condition, but be sure to clean well
Sunglasses: Unbranded – $5
- Purchased from: Street vendor (knock-offs)
- Nicholas said: “I got a bargain on this one: It was a two-for-one, but I don’t think they’re genuine.”
Anti-Chafe Balm Body Glide – $10
- Purchased from: Amazon.com
- Get it cheaper: You can go without, but we wouldn’t recommend it
Training Plan: The Triathlete Guide to Sprint and Olympic Triathlon Racing – $0
- Borrowed from: Local library
- Nicholas said: “I researched online sprint triathlon titles, and this one came up as the most recent with a training guide. I found it in the public library database and went downtown to pick it up.”
Grand Total: $608
The Gear Search And Training
With only six weeks to train, Nicholas had to “accelerate” the 16-week training plan from his guidebook. But since he was already someone who could functionally swim, ride, and run, he was able to skip a few weeks of adaptation to get into some base building, get in a few key workouts, and then taper slightly before the race. Though he said he struggled at times to remember this mantra, his goal was only to finish and have fun—not win.
Finding the gear proved to be more difficult in some ways and less in others. Due to the pandemic, he said used bikes were incredibly hard to find. Most bike shops offered to rent Nicholas bikes, and few had used bikes or even new entry-level bikes that would fit his budget. And used shopping online had its own surprising drawbacks.
“Going analog and going in-person to find stuff was very useful,” Nicholas noted. “Looking online, there’s 1,000 people looking at one wetsuit on Craigslist, but if you’re there live, you’re the only person looking at ten used bikes in a used sporting goods shop.”
The good news is that general sporting goods stores like Play It Again Sports and garage sales were still good resources, as they’re not traditionally where people go to shop for bikes. The downside with these outlets is that the condition of the bike was often not very good—spending a few bucks on a tune-up from a good mechanic (or mechanically inclined friend), however, is worth its weight in gold. Finding a bike close to his proper size (he went a size slightly smaller) was also a challenge.
Training-wise, Nicholas said his biggest challenge wasn’t necessarily the workouts themselves, but budgeting his time properly to get everything done. “Since I work on the East Coast time zone most days, it made an already early wake-up time tough to get two workouts in per day. It took a lot of purposeful planning—planning meals and food prepping for the week to get enough energy to do everything.”
Closer to race day, Nicholas experienced some issues with his hip flexors, forcing him not to run as much as he’d have liked to. Here, remembering his mantra of “finishing and fun, not winning” was key. “I’ve always been pretty competitive, but it was a different mindset going into this challenge,” he said.
“Knowing I didn’t really have enough time to train at a level where I was competing for a high finish—that I couldn’t do anything but just enjoy it. It was kind of relieving that I physically couldn’t compete because I didn’t have the base I’d wanted.”
Putting It All Together (Race Day)
As a result of going into race day slightly undertrained, Nicholas was understandably anxious. “I was a little nervous, standing there, shin-deep in the reservoir, looking at the distance I had to swim in front of me,” he said of race morning. “But I trusted the plan I had followed.”
And like every first-time triathlete, there were surprises on race morning, like how murky the water was, how much contact there was in the water, and the rules around getting into and out of transition. He was surprised to learn you couldn’t wear headphones during the race and didn’t know you had to keep your helmet buckled the whole time.
And like always, there were curveballs—like a last-minute kit and helmet swap—but otherwise the inexpensive, used (and knock-off) gear held up. “The wetsuit was pretty seamless, so that was easy to use,” he said. “It was nice not having clip-in pedals because I could just grab the bike and start running.” (He posted very fast transition times that made up for an admittedly slower swim than he’d hoped for.)
“It was funny biking with a flat-bar road bike, but it didn’t make anything harder,” he added. “The lack of training made it harder, but the same equipment with more training would have been better. It didn’t feel like much held me back gear-wise.”
He ended up finishing his first sprint triathlon (750m swim/14.5mi. bike/5K run) in 1:45 after only six weeks of training and staying within a budget of $600. And now he has enough gear to do another race and even upgrade pieces as his time and money allow.
But would he do it again?
Immediately after crossing the finish line (and losing his breakfast) he gave a different answer than he did a few hours later. Before the day was done that familiar refrain started creeping in: “Just imagine how much faster I could have gone if I trained more and had slightly better stuff.”
“It didn’t seem like that intimidating of an experience. It was really fun, and over quicker than I thought it would be. I smiled when someone yelled, ‘You only have 5K to go!’ because that’s just the start of some races.”
More than anything, Nicholas said that it was something he never would have done if he hadn’t been pushed so quickly to do it without overthinking it. The low budget, the expectations of simply finishing, all made the experience a little more rushed, but it also took some of the pressure off. (This became even more important as he found out halfway through his training that he’d be gracing the cover of our latest issue!)
“I’d never even considered a triathlon before the motorcycle accident. It was more like a shock that, ‘Oh yeah, I was in a motorcycle accident two years ago,’” he said. “It was cool to think that I’m still getting better at stuff, that I’m still learning new things. It’s exciting because I know there’s so much room to improve. Now that I know that I can do it, I’m excited to see what I can do racing and competing-wise.”
On the other end of the spectrum: We’ve also equipped one of our members, an experienced middle-pack triathlete, with the nicest gear—and we’ll be following him to see how that pays off too.