Your Triathlon Change Tent Questions, Answered

A race director explains the logistics of utilizing the changing tent (or changing clothes) during a triathlon.

Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images for IRONMAN

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During a swim workout, you likely wear a swimsuit. On bike rides, you probably have a favorite pair of padded shorts. Ditto for the run, where you have other gear to keep you cool and dry. Because triathlon workouts can require more costume changes than a Cher concert, many new athletes wonder how this shakes out on race day: How do you change your clothes in the middle of a triathlon? What the hell is a change tent?

We tapped Christine Cogger, former race director of Ironman Canada (Whistler) and current age-group team manager at Triathlon Canada, to answer this and other common questions about the changing tent and race day clothing changes.

Where do I change my clothes during a race?

In shorter triathlon races, athletes typically wear the same clothes (or “tri kit”) from start to finish—usually some variation of a triathlon suit with quick-drying capabilities to dry out after the swim and a thin chamois that is comfortable to wear on both the bike and run. But in a day-long race, like an Ironman or iron-distance triathlon, many triathletes like to swap out certain elements of their kit for comfort or performance. “Given the length of the race, athletes often want to change into fresh, dry gear between legs of the event,” Cogger said. “But given that most communities have some kind of public nudity bylaw or ordinance, a change tent is needed.”

Athletes will typically only find change tents at the 140.6 distance. “Some shorter races, like a half-iron distance race, may offer a smaller tent for changing clothes, but don’t expect this to be the norm. Those who wish to change in transition can usually do so by using a port-o-potty or a large beach towel,” she said.

What are change tents?

Most iron-distance races offer separate men’s and women’s changing tents. These typically resemble a locker room at a gym: rows of benches or folding chairs, a few stalls for privacy, and same-sex attendants (in this context, race volunteers) helping to keep things in order. Most change tents also have basic first aid (Vaseline, band aids, tampons, and sunscreen), as well as a bottle fill station.

In the transition from swim to bike (T1) and bike to run (T2), athletes who wish to change their clothes can run into the change tent and out the other end. Those who wish to wear the same kit to the next leg of their race can bypass this tent altogether or, in some case, simply run straight through the tent if the transition flow requires it.

Where do I store my clothes?

Unlike shorter races, which often require you to store all your gear under your racked bike in transition, most iron-distance or half-Iron events do not allow anything in transition except for bicycles and adaptive equipment for athletes with disabilities. Everything else is contained in marked gears bags, often stored on racks either in transition zone or just outside of the men’s and women’s changing tents. These bags are usually labeled “Bike Gear” and “Run Gear” and have your race number printed on the front, which allows volunteers to organize and quickly find your bag in transition. 

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Some races require you to drop off these bags the day before the race, at the same time you drop off your bike; others allow you to drop your bag the morning of the race. It’s important to read the athlete handbook for each race so you know exactly when and where you’ll need to drop off your gear and clothing bags.

During the race, volunteers will help you find your bag quickly and point you in the right direction of the change tent. Yell your number as you approach, and often they’ll help pull out your bag for you.

What should I expect inside a triathlon change tent?

Upon entering a change tent, things may seem a little chaotic. After all, you’ve got hundreds of athletes trying to get out of wet or sweaty clothes and into clean ones as quickly as possible. This can be overwhelming, so Cogger recommends staying focused on your own transition: “Take a few seconds to gather yourself when you sit down before starting to change. Those few seconds of calm will save you minutes of frantic movements and mistakes.

A change tent volunteer may come over to help by handing you items from your bag or offering to apply sunscreen after you’re done changing or even helping to repack your bag once you’re done. If you don’t want assistance, you can politely refuse.

When you’re done changing, your discarded clothes will go into your now-empty bag marked with your race number, which will be set aside for you to collect after the race.

Isn’t it weird to change in front of all those people?

The triathlon change tent isn’t much different from a gym locker room. Yes, there’s nudity, but everyone’s so focused on their own thing, they’re not paying much attention to others. Of course, there are some general rules to follow for respect and privacy. For starters, no cameras or recording devices are allowed (from athletes or volunteers). Gawking or inappropriate comments are also frowned upon. Respect whoever is in your change tent.

Though some change tents offer private stalls, not all do. “There usually isn’t much privacy in the big tent,” Cogger said. “If you are bashful, bring a towel or beach cover-up.”

How can I get through the change tent faster?

“When you check your gear in, take the time to walk through the change tent to get an idea of the layout and visualize how you will get through it,” Cogger said. This process will help you get in and out of the tent as quickly as possible, since you know exactly what to expect inside.

Organization also speeds the changing process. Don’t just stash everything in the bag! Instead, pack mindfully, with like items together: socks in shoes, glasses in helmet, nutrition in a sealed bag that you can stash in your jersey pocket. Organization also applies to your changing process as well, Cogger said. “Memorize how you will want to change. Start with socks, then shorts, then shoes. It may sound dumb, but I’ve seen my fair share of athletes too overwhelmed to make a decision! Socks, shoes, and a bare bum, anyone?”

The most important advice for a speedy stop in the change tent is the one athletes are most reluctant to take: Use the volunteers. “Never, ever be afraid to ask volunteers or staff what to expect. They are there to help,” Cogger said. It may feel a little awkward to have a total stranger help you put on a sports bra, take off your sweaty socks, or gather your dirty clothes on the ground, but these volunteers are often triathletes themselves and know the particular struggle of covering 140.6 miles. They signed up to help you—let them, and you’ll get in, get out, and get on your way in no time at all.

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