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Beginner’s Luck: What Do I Wear to My First Triathlon?

Meredith Atwood shares her advice on what can be the most overwhelming part of your first triathlon: the clothing.

Starting out as a true beginner, the biggest triathlon clothing mystery is race day clothing (insert scary music here!). It’s the burning question for new-to-tri gals and guys, for sure. Like prom, but with bicycles. What do I wear in my first triathlon?

Turns out there a secret that will help you figure out triathlon clothing — here goes!

Find ONE thing to wear. Put it on before the swim. Then… you will swim. You will bike.  And you will run. You will pick up your medal and post-race snacks. And then take it off when you get home.

(Are you confused yet?) Okay, here’s the scoop with triathlon clothing.

In a triathlon you want to wear what is called a triathlon suit or a triathlon kit (a top/bottom combo) designed to be worn in the swim, the bike, and finally the run. In other words, you do not take it off!

With the exception of the wetsuit (if needed), you need not put on any other piece of clothing.

This also means that you need not take any clothing off. You wear your wetsuit (if needed) on top of your triathlon suit/kit. After the swim, you strip off the wetsuit, put on your helmet, and cycling shoes and are ready to go. You are wearing your triathlon suit/kit underneath. You should never (ever) show your goodies in transition area.

Summary: the triathlon suit is UNDER the wetsuit.

A triathlon suit/kit is typically made of a moisture-wicking material and has a small pad in the short for cycling. The pad is thin, unlike the thick chamois pad for cycling, so you will want to spend some time on your bike wearing it ahead of time in order to get accustomed to less padding.

When you finish your swim, you will be soaking wet, this is true. But within a few minutes on the bike, you will find yourself not as wet, if not almost dry. By the time you get to the run, you will not be thinking about your wet hair.

(Related: The Most Embarrassing Thing About Triathlon (And How to Overcome It))

Triathlon Suit: One Piece
Many manufacturers make a one-piece triathlon suit. It’s typically a one-piece zip in the front or the rear number that fits like a swimsuit with shorts and will include a thin pad. I like the one-piece suits because you do not have to worry about the top riding up and showing your belly. The biggest negative I see about a one-piece suit is the difficulty to get in and out of for bathroom purposes, triathlon clothing isn’t perfect.

Triathlon Suit: Two Piece
Two pieces suits are the most common deal on a race course. If they are matchy and have team logos, they are often called “triathlon kits.” You can go to the bathroom much easier with two-pieces… and mix tops and bottoms, which is nice.

Do It Yourself Triathlon Clothing: Budget Friendly 
Say you have fitted wicking racer-back tank that you love and want to wear in the race. If you have this top, you can always purchase a separate short to wear and Voila! You will have a self-made tri suit. Keep in mind, however, that you will want to buy a triathlon short, not a cycling short. The cycling short will hold too much water during the swim (think: swim diaper). The triathlon short has a thin pad, made to wear during the entire race: swim, bike, and run.

What Do I Wear… Under?
Ladies, wear your sports bra under your top during the swim if you have a larger chest. Some tops may have built-in sports bras, but seriously, unless you are a size 0, these can look horrific. Just put on your sports bra and forget about it.

If you are smaller, you may be good to go without. Just keep in mind, that while we do not care about what we look like while tri-ing, that you are racing in what is essentially a wet t-shirt contest – if you are wearing white, you might be giving a show. Again, we don’t technically care what we look like. But open-boobness may be something to consider in race pics. On race day, do not wear underwear. Your underwear will not dry and you will end up with saddle sores on the Queen.

Triathlon Clothing Do’s and Don’ts
– Do not wear a “real” bra anywhere near this race.

– It’s best not to wear a one-piece swimsuit for the whole race unless you are super-woman or you have a tri short over it and intend to wear it the entire race. This can be a decent “do it yourself” tri kit if it’s played well. However, the swimsuit and the short can be extra ammunition for chafing on the bike and run.

– Do not change clothes in transition. Find an outfit you can put on at the race start and take off after the finish. One caveat: in the beginning, don’t be afraid to put on a tee over my tri suit to run. I felt more comfortable that way. In hindsight, I looked a tiny bit out of place, but I felt better. Sometimes you need to take care of your inner scaredy cat in order to finish this great sport!

– Try and practice in your tri suit well in advance of your race. Wear it to open water, cycling, and running. Make sure you like the fit because a clothing malfunction on race day is a mess.


Caveat: This post is written with a “first triathlon” or a sprint distance in mind.

Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is a recovering attorney, motivational speaker and founder of Tri*Fe Tri which carries triathlon clothing in sizes S to 4XL. She is author of Triathlon for the Every Woman—you can download a free copy of the book here.  Meredith lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children, and writes about all things at