Training

Self-Support Me: How to Build Your Own Adventure Triathlon

With a dearth of races on the summer calendar, doing a self-supported “adventure tri” might be just the ticket. We’ll tell you how.

Though there are a few races already on the horizon in some places, it’s unlikely everyone will have a chance to compete in a tri within driving distance this summer. But that doesn’t mean you can’t swim, bike, and run in that order, all one right after another—in fact, just like everyone’s been saying the last few months, this could be an opportunity and not a curse: Introducing the self-supported tri!

For some self-supported visual inspiration, first check out one person’s version in this video Eric Lagerstrom posted a few years ago. To help you on your own project, we’ve enlisted the aid of one of Lagerstrom’s partners in crime, 32-year-old pro Curtiss Feltner. Feltner has been a pro for three years and marked his rookie year of pro competition by living solely out of his van (sound familiar?). Though the Bend, Oregon-based triathlete has recently been more stationary after the arrival of his 8-month-old son, he still knows a thing or two about the unique challenges of the “mobile tri life”—as shown by his new YouTube series on vanlife construction.

“I think self-supported tri is a cool opportunity to do a course that isn’t really realistic, or even one that is, but doesn’t exist,” Feltner said. “For instance, I’ve always thought a race based out of downtown Bend with a river swim, an on/off-road bike course (think: gravel bikes), and a paved path/trail run would be super fun. It would be a logistical nightmare to actually put on that event, but would be doable (and super fun!) to do alone or with a small group.”

You know that nearby park with dozens of miles of trails that you usually piece together for occasional long runs? That’s your run course. What’s on the other side of that park? Those beautiful winding roads an hour or two outside your town? That’s your bike course. That lake you always wondered if you could swim all the way across? Swim it. Now’s the time to explore, get creative, and find your tri-stoke in places you never thought to look—unrestricted by race courses, entry fees, or even concrete race dates. Use your God-given (and training-honed) swim, bike, and run skills to explore any area you see fit.

“At first, I didn’t really expect the whole COVID thing to last long, and just kept on with the normal programming,” Feltner said. “I did one of the Zwift races and had great numbers, and ran a PR 10K just for fun. But as it became more clear that racing wasn’t going to be happening for quite some time, I turned to the dirt. We have hundreds of miles of great XC trail in the Bend area, and racing off-road is something I would like to do in the future. So I figured now is as good a time as any to start working on the dirt skills… plus I feel like long single track rides are so fun that they don’t require as much internal motivation to get out and do.”

With restrictions still in place for many triathletes, what you do may look a little different than Lagerstrom’s version and may or may not involve any dirt, but we’ve added some self-supported tri rules to make things a little more “fun.”

The Self-Supported Tri Rules:

  1. No outside assistance of any kind, just like a race. But unlike a race, there won’t be any volunteers manning any aid stations, so no help from friends or family. You’re on your own.
  2. You CAN stop to rest, relax, read, meditate, do yoga, or just take a nap. 
  3. If you’re a traditionalist, try to minimize stops to buy or pick up food or liquids—aside from in “transition.” This is where the hardcore planner will really shine. We’ll talk about the special gear/nutrition you might need to make that happen.
  4. Transition can be your house, a car, or just a place to stash stuff. Obviously be sure your gear is safe while you’re out.
  5. While you can time it, you don’t have to. This is about covering ground, seeing new things, and putting your base training—whatever that’s looked like—to use. Go hard if you want, but it’s not a requirement.
  6. The event doesn’t have to take place on just one day. If your adventurousness level is off the charts, feel free to bikepack and camp. We won’t crawl deep into the gear-hole of bikepacking, but if your self-supported tri goals are ambitious, make it a weekend and pack “light and tight.”
  7. Make your own rules! Race any distance you feel like, stop as much as you want, but make it fun. Think about covering ground (and water)—let tri actually take you somewhere rather than just where you started from. Find some open space on a map nearby and explore!

The Self-Supported Tri Gear:

Though the rules might look a little different than your regular tri, the idea’s still the same: You swim, then bike, then run (or mix it up!), but now you also do it all without any aid stations—aside from in “transition.” While the race itself will no doubt be hard, figuring out the logistics and finding the unique gear required to stick to the self-supported rules can actually be almost as challenging as the event itself. At the very least, you’ll come out of it with some great training gear for going long in any conditions:

Garmin Forerunner 945

$550, Rei.com

self-supported tri

Though there are other multisport smartwatches out there, this model has the best all-around open-water swim, bike, and run functions for self-containment. Does your self-supported tri go swim, bike, run, swim, run, bike? The Forerunner can handle it. Do you need to know when to turn back on your swim to get the distance you want? This watch will buzz your wrist at a preset distance. Stats for days and a handy “resume later” function allow you to stop for lunch (or to sleep for the night) and resume your tri time when you’re ready without keeping it in training mode. If your self-supported tri is super long, you can rest assured that the watch has 36 hours of non-music GPS-mode juice, and preloaded maps will help you out on the trails.

Profile Design FC System

$117, Amazon.com

self-supported tri

While there are other hydration systems out there—and trust us, you’ll need as much hydration as you can get if your self-supported tri is long—this is one of the largest that still remains aero. Boasting a huge 35-ounce version, you can effectively fit almost two extra water bottles between your arms. Combine that with two bottles in your triangle and another two behind the seat—with something like Profile’s RML ($64)—and you could be riding with almost 120 ounces of fluid. That’s nearly a gallon just on your bike alone. 

Rapha Bar Bag

$65, Rapha.cc

self-supported tri

If you’re already running out of room in your jersey and rear seat storage, take a page out of the gravel riders’/bikepackers’ guidebook with a bar bag that’s becoming more popular right now. This compact version from Rapha won’t affect handling as much as a larger one, but still provides you with 2L of storage—enough for your food, at least. If you’re going the bikepacking route and using a non-tri bike, check out Rapha’s cavernous Waterproof Bar Pack ($115) with 16L of storage or their similarly gigantic 15L Waterproof Rear Pack ($130). 

Ultimate Direction Adventure Vest 5.0

$180, Rei.com

self-supported tri

Ok, this is a huge running backpack, but this is what you’ll need if you’re truly going to take your time, maybe stop, maybe go long, maybe even camp (yes, it can be done!). With 17L of storage space, a spot for a hydration bladder (not included), room for a 500mL front bottle (included), and a rain fly for literally any conditions, this is a pack that works for hiking even when you’re not doing your self-supported tri. Ultimate Direction also offers a women’s-specific version with slightly less storage. If you’re looking for something slightly less massive, check out the 8-liter Race Vest 5.0 and the ladies’ Race Vesta 5.0 (both $125).

GSI Outdoors Folding Water Cube

$10, Rei.com

Even if you’re not doing a self-supported tri, pretty much every triathlete should own one of these. Lagerstrom says this is one of his favorite pieces of gear, and it probably costs less than the parking fee at your local state park. With a nearly 4-gallon capacity, this is your mobile aid station—fill it with ice, load it into your car, and now you’ve got enough water for almost any distance self-supported tri. The best part? It folds flat when not in use.

Bu Sunscreen

$10 1-ounce spray bottle, Amazon.com

This small brand makes tiny bottles of gently scented SPF 50 spray sun protection, perfect for someone doing a longer self-supported tri. Just like most good waterproof sunscreens, this one needs re-application after 80 minutes, but because the bottle is so tiny, you’ll have no problem bringing this with you—in lieu of the regular sunscreen aid station you might find at a long-course tri. While it is free of nasty chemicals like PABA and oxybenzone, it still does contain some of the questionable -etes, -ates, and -ones that we dove into in our sunscreen roundup, it’s still a good option if those chemicals don’t concern you or you use it only occasionally.

The Self-Supported Tri Food:

Now remember rule number three above—if you want to truly go hardcore, try not to stop for food. While this doesn’t mean don’t eat food, it does make self-sufficiency extra challenging. If you want to stay well-fed (and not pass out) on your self-supported tri, you’ll need nutrition that’s not only well-balanced, but also compact. We’ve uncovered two nutrition options that check both boxes: tiny and packed with what you need. 

Honey Stinger Waffles

$1.50 per waffle, Rei.com

While there are plenty of on-the-go nutrition options, Honey Stinger is a favorite among the “light-and-tight” segment of fastpackers and ultralight hikers. Because they pack down flat, these are an excellent option when you need to carry tons of nutrition and space is a premium. Offered in either regular, gluten-free, or protein versions, these do a better job of preventing “palate fatigue” than gels and taste better than many bars. Stack them up in your pack or bag, and you’ll be able to bring as many calories as you need.

Katie’s Real Food Bars

$30 for a case of 12 ($2.50 per bar), Amazon.com

Known not only for their excellent non-GMO, USDA-certified organic ingredients, but also for their massive calorie content, these real food bars actually provide you with a substantial amount of sustenance for when space is tight and your self-supported tri is long. Our favorite is the Bivy Bar with lemon, coconut, and ginger that packs 300 calories, 20g of fat, 30g of carbs, and 6g of protein into each bar. For those keeping track, that’s a lot. The best part of these high-fat, high-calorie bars is that they’re made of real food that your body is actually familiar with digesting, so use these all day long.