Triathlon Training and Racing On a Budget

It is no secret that training and racing for any triathlon, including Ironman branded events can be extremely expensive. For some, participating in a triathlon is prohibitively expensive. The aim of this post is to not only document how I train and race on a limited budget, but offer some guidance on how others can too. It’s important to note that this is about triathlon training and racing on a budget. Sometimes spending more (such as on higher quality food and nutrition) can have significant positive impact on performance. You can skip to the end for a chart of the investments you can make from low to high. Read on for more.

Breaking Down The Numbers

According to a 2014 demographic study conducted by USA Triathlon, the average annual income of triathlete participants is $126,000. Yes, $126,000. The article goes on to break down the average annual discretionary spending of approximately $4,000 on triathlon as:

  • $2,274 spent on bikes
  • $564 spent on race fees
  • $524 spent on bike equipment
  • $370 spent on training, running and athletic footwear
  • $277 spent on nutritional supplements

I know several people who spend far more than the above amounts. They also spend money on:

  • Coaches and training plans
  • Transportation and accommodations for destination races
  • Masters or triathlon specific swim classes
  • Training camps

When adding in all the above, I’d estimate the average annual spending is north of $5,000-6,000. What follows will be how I train and race on a budget while swimming, biking, and running.

Swim Spend

Swimming in triathlon is one of those things that can be extremely cheap or prohibitively expensive. For most people, swimming will be the hardest sport. For some, it’s fear of the water, for others it is simply they never learned how to swim properly. So, let’s break down the primary places you can spend money in swimming and how you might be able to save some pennies.

Goggles

Goggles are one of those things that shouldn’t be terribly expensive. I swim with Aqua Sphere Kayenne goggles. They are pretty cheap and can usually be found on Amazon for less than $20. There are plenty other brands in the same price range. You don’t need to spend $50-100 on goggles.

I’ve also seen and heard the question “Do I need to have several sets with different color lenses?” My short answer is no. I have a single pair with smoke grey lenses. They aren’t mirrored, but they also aren’t clear. They work pretty well in sun and in shade. My goggles last me a full season. When next season rolls around, get yourself a new pair. Now you have a backup to bring to a race.

The Pool & Form Improvement

Calm before the storm
Pools are great places for form improvement

I was lucky that I learned to swim from a very good competitive swimmer. So for me, my body position is pretty good even without training. For others, they aren’t so lucky. Of course, the primary way you improve is to simply swim. The “free” option is go find a lake or ocean and go swim. But for many of us in climates where lakes freeze over, you need an indoor pool. For most of us, that means your local YMCA. The YMCA (or any place with a pool for that matter) usually have a variety of membership options including family options. The cost of adding an additional family member is cheap if you already have a family member with a membership. Your health insurance provider or employer might also provide an incentive for you to go to provided you check in so many times per month/year so check on that. This might help you offset your membership fee.

The YMCA also has treadmills, weights, and stationary bikes as we’ll discuss more below. The pool usually always has pull buoys, kick boards, and fins for member use. So, do you need to purchase all these training tools? No. Can you purchase your own? Sure. I use the YMCA provided equipment when I swim in the pool.

To improve form you probably will be doing drills. While many have hired swim coaches or attend paid swim classes, if you are disciplined enough to self-coach, you can watch any number of Youtube videos on drills and how to improve form. Ask your pool if they have group swims (sometimes they are free) where triathletes meet and swim together. There’s bound to be someone in the pool who might be able to offer advice.

Wetsuit

Wetsuits are fun
Wetsuits add warmth and buoyancy

This is controversial. Do you need a wetsuit? Not unless the water will be very cold. But the buoyancy offered is unmatched and is incredibly helpful. If you decide to purchase a wetsuit, look second hand as there are often several great deals. If you are part of a triathlon club, they likely have great sponsors who periodically throughout the year offer incredible discounts on one or two year-old models. I got an $800 wetsuit for $200. Also check Amazon. Sometimes you can find great deals on a wetsuit such as an Xterra Vortex. It should last you several seasons if you take care of it (rinse it out, don’t leave it in hot cars, etc.)

Bike Spend

Who doesn’t just drool over the latest and greatest aerodynamic machine? Some of these bikes look more like fighter jets than triathlon bikes. It is tempting to read all about the aerodynamic benefits of these gorgeous machines and drop $7-10,000 on them. But, does the cost outweigh the aero advantage? There is a site I came across that helps illustrate my point here. Oh, and another site too. In fact the internet is full of these sites. The #1 cause of drag on a bike isn’t your helmet, your wheels, your bike frame…it’s you the rider. The above linked sites show some of the effects changing your position on the bike can have. Spoiler alert, it’s measured in seconds not minutes or hours.

Don’t Dismiss Used

While I wound up getting a brand new bike (as you’ll read below), there are MANY excellent deals to be found on used machines. Sure, they might have some cosmetic issues or be lacking in the flashy and new-factor department. Some used machines have also been upgraded with better components since the original owner purchased it. Sometimes the used bikes also have upgraded wheels and saddles. Simply put, don’t discount a used bike.

Getting the Best Bike For Your Money

Bikes are an extremely subjective thing. For some, there is intense brand loyalty to one manufacturer or another. I’m not one of those people. The way I approach bikes are first to find one that fits you and then get the best components for your budget. After coming off years of cycling, I already know the bike size I needed or wanted. But, I strongly recommend using a calculator on Competitive Cyclist to get a rough idea on bike sizing.

So in my case, I knew I needed a size 54. I also was very interested in the Felt brand. I found a brand new, yet three year old Felt B16 on eBay for $1,500 ($1,800 delivered). The bike had decent wheels a Shimano Ultegra drive train, and the rest “brandless” parts. So what were the compromises? First, the brakes are no-name. The wheels while somewhat aero, are only 30 mm deep. The saddle totally sucked. But, it was a great way to get into the sport for cheap.

Felt B16
Felt B16 “stock”

What did I get for my money? I got pretty solid derailleurs for shifting. The shifters were ok, but nothing great. I got solid aerobars. I got a wind tunnel proven frame design with slightly heavier carbon from their top-end model.

When the bike arrived, it was shipped to my house partially assembled which leads to.

Learn to Be Your Own Wrench

I have been around many people in the sport of cycling with huge ranges of mechanical abilities. There are some people who can’t change a flat tire, while others are comfortable taking the bike apart and putting it back together. As a teenager, I worked in a bike shop so I am quite comfortable working on my bike. The average tune-up for a bike costs around $100. At a minimum, to save yourself some money learn how to:

If you aren’t comfortable doing any of the above, don’t do it and break your bike. Establish a great relationship with your local bike shop. In fact, if you are part of a triathlon or bike club, figure out what shops are sponsors as they might offer discounts on goods and services.

Frozen and happy to be done
Add on hydration systems aren’t a bad investment

Balancing Power and Aerodynamics with Comfort

Should you get a professional bike fit? Maybe. There are plenty of articles on the internet that talk about bike fit for triathletes. For the average age grouper, however, I’m a proponent on set up your bike for comfort first. Then, once you get comfortable on the bike, make adjustments to become more aggressive and aerodynamic until you feel like you are at a happy medium of comfort vs. the aerodynamics and power you put out. This isn’t a bad start on bike fit.

See, my philosophy is that while you can sacrifice comfort to save 5 minutes on your ride, you might give back 15 or 20 on the run due to an overly aggressive position. Sure, it might be aerodynamic, but was it worth it for the run? I prefer to race smarter, not harder.

Run Spend

Of all the sports, running should be the cheapest. You lace up your shoes and go. But does the prospect of $200 per pair of shoes sound good to you? No? Me either. I’ve always been an Asics guy. I’ve been running in Asics shoes for over 20 years. Within the last two years I found the Noosa Tri series of shoes. Yes, they are supposedly triathlon specific shoes and they work quite well. But, in this case they happen to also fit my feet really well.

I strongly encourage those who run in major brands like Nike, Rebook, Asics, New Balance, etc. to see if there are any outlet stores near you. I recently was able to purchase the two year old model for $45 per pair. Yes, $45 per pair. Sometimes back-to-school shopping also have significant discounts on shoes if you go to the big box stores.

Get shoes on sale
Get shoes on sale

It’s important to not discount the value of your local specialty running shop. These guys know their shoes and often offer the ability to help you identify the right shoe for you. Just to yourself and the local running shop a favor, don’t take their time and expertise identifying the right shoe for you only to go online and get it elsewhere to save some cash. You might spend more here, but you may actually get great value that will help you prevent injuries.

Treadmill

There are some people I know that will do anything in their power to not run on a treadmill. They’ll bundle up and head outside when it’s 15 degrees to run. For me, nothing beats the convenience of a treadmill. If you already have a membership to the YMCA or another gym, you probably already have access to a treadmill. Your membership fee often covers the use of these machines. If they break or need maintenance, that’s on the gym and not you. Those who live in apartment or condo complexes often have gyms that have treadmills in them for residents’ use.

Now, the convenience of having a treadmill in your home is certainly nice. I’d strongly encourage you if you are interested in buying a treadmill to search Craigslist. Treadmills that are lightly used can often be found for 10-25% of the original purchase price. Then, there’s the whole issue of moving the treadmill, but that’s another story. Find and borrow a truck if you don’t have one.

Training Plans & Coaches

I’ll start this section by saying there is simply no substitute for an experienced coach. Hands down, full stop, end of story. But for many of us, that luxury isn’t something we can afford. So, without a coach, what options do you have to ensure you are training properly?

I’ve found training plans all over the internet. Some are free, some are paid. You need to approach your training plan like you do any time there’s a “software ecosystem” out there. By that I mean, if you decide that you need to have TrainingPeaks as your software, you might consider purchasing a training plan through TrainingPeaks. For me, however, I’m a subscriber to TrainerRoad. For those who don’t know, TrainerRoad is an incredibly reasonably priced piece of software which provides for very specific workouts on the bike (see below for discussion). As part of your membership fee, you also have access to training plans which as of this writing are no additional charge.

2016 TrainerRoad Bike Excerpt
2016 TrainerRoad Bike Excerpt
2016 TrainerRoad Weekly Details
2016 TrainerRoad Weekly Details

The training plans range from sprint through full distance Ironman races. The training plans are simply stunning for the value that you get. I have seen more progress following their structured training plan than I have with any other plan.

I’ve subsequently subscribed to Training Peaks in addition to TrainerRoad as I enjoy the functionality Training Peaks gives me, but I held off for several years. I’ve even written a separate post on what I previously have used for software and some of the metrics I get out of them.

Gadgets, Accessories, and Trainers

So we’ve just talked all about the stuff you need to get through the swim, bike and run, but what about all the other stuff (gadgets, accessories, bike trainers, power meters, etc.)? Let’s chat a bit about that.

Gadgets

Today’s gadgets provide a lot of cool things to apply to your training and racing. Gadgets might be bike computers, multi-sport specific watch, heart rate monitors, recovery boots, etc. For me, I use electronics that are 2-5 years old. First, you can get the older models a LOT cheaper. Take for example the Garmin 910xt vs. the Garmin 920xt. As of this writing, the 910xt can be purchased for around $125 certified refurbished whereas the 920xt goes for around $370. Are there additional features on the 920? Absolutely, but if getting into training and racing on a budget is the name of the game, why spend extra? For me, a Garmin Edge 800 and 910xt are more than enough to get me through my swim, bike, and run.

Accessories

Accessories here include on-bike hydration systems, elastic laces, aero helmets, race wheels, etc. Remember that on an Ironman course, there are several aid stations. Your entrance fee covers taking fuel and liquids at these stations. It’s up to you whether you decide to use them. If you do decide to use the aid stations, that means you need to purchase and carry less fuel and liquid.

If you decide to invest in on-bike hydration systems look for sales or potentially “heavier” options. Take for example the Xlab Torpedo system. There is a version that comes in aluminum or carbon fiber. The carbon fiber version is marginally lighter, but also nearly twice the price.

The wind tunnels suggest that an aero helmet is well worth the investment from an aerodynamic savings. While I agree with that, I am not fast enough to make the investment worth it…yet. When my traditional road helmet breaks or is due for replacement, then I’ll consider the aero helmet.

Race wheels. Race wheels are another area where they can have significant aerodynamic value saving you time. But they are really expensive. And by expensive I mean some are as much as your bike alone. So, what are your options? First, you can just not have them at all. Second, you can rent wheels on race day. You can find some rentals for under $200. If this is important to you and you have an A race, it might be worth it. For me, I just ride my stock wheels for now.

Bike Trainers & Power Meters

I’ll lump these together. I train a significant amount of time indoors. Part of this is due to six months of the year being cold, rainy, or unfit for training outdoors. I also prefer the training plan I use from TrainerRoad (more below). So for me, I had a choice, I could invest in a super expensive trainer, like the Wahoo Kickr, or a comparatively cheap trainer such as the Cycleops Fluid 2. Again, you don’t “need” a bike trainer if you have the ability to train outdoors or if you chose to ride a stationary bike at your gym such as the YMCA.

The thing I like about the Cycleops is that you can both find it online used cheap (check Craigslist) but it’s a damn good trainer.

The next thing is power meters. I am now a believer in training with power. Do you need to train with power? No. But, it is quite helpful when training to make sure the hard is hard and the easy is easy. You get immediate feedback with power. Certain apps like Zwift and TrainerRoad have the ability to use a supported trainer like a Cycleops and extrapolate power for you. No investment in a power meter necessary.

But, if you do decide to invest in a power meter, think about how and where you’ll get the maximum use. For me, it was a single sided pedal based power meter. If you have multiple road bikes, you’ll probably want to move it between bikes. If you have two sets of wheels (one of training and one for racing), you might not want a wheel based power meter like a PowerTap. I’d strongly encourage anyone interested in a power meter to read the options on DC Rainmaker‘s website. He has fantastic reviews to help you identify which would fit your budget and needs.

The Pedal and Sensor
The BePro Pedal and Sensor. Under $500

Other Items

The other stuff includes transition bags, nutrition, etc. For me, I use a basic duffle bag I’ve had for years. Are the transition bags cool? Sure. Do you need to spend $100+ on them? Nope. A plastic garbage bag would do if it means getting your stuff in and out of transition.

Same goes for nutrition. There are a lot of great options out there that are reasonably priced. Check Amazon to buy your nutrition in bulk. Also check Target or Walmart. I’ve found great deals on Clif products there. Some of my friends also make their own food as it meets their dietary needs and is reasonably cheap. Plus it is more natural than anything compressed into a bar.

Race Entrance Fees

Races can be expensive. Branded events such as Ironman can be a $100-200 more per race compared to a lesser known brand. To save money on entrance fees I use the following techniques:

  • Pick an “A” race. This can be the race you are working hardest to do well at, complete the longest distance, etc.
  • Sign up for races as soon as you can afford them. Race fees usually increase as you get closer to the event.
  • Purchase a USA Triathlon annual membership instead of buying one-days if you plan on doing multiple triathlons per year.
  • Mix branded (ex. Ironman) races with non-branded. Not only are the non-branded events cheaper, you often can place better in your age group with less people. Plus they are more local and can have some awesome draw prizes.
  • Volunteer at one race and potentially race for free the next. Some race organizations will give free entrance to a future race just for volunteering in a prior race.

My Annual Spend

After the one-time purchase of a bike in 2015, my spending for 2016 on triathlon is as follows:

  • BePro power meter (one-time) – $500
  • USA Triathlon License – $50 annually
  • Ironman Timberman 70.3 Race – $265
  • Two local olympic distance races – $225
  • Training Peaks – $16/month – $192 annually
  • Trainer Road – $10/month – $120 annually
  • Fuel & Nutrition – $60/year
  • Team tri kit (one-time) – $120 annually
  • YMCA (incremental cost to family) – $240 annually
  • Total: $1,772

Note this doesn’t include gas to races, but I stay local. Yes, I only have three races a year with one being an A race. But, still, I can make this happen for far less than the average. Big purchases this year were a power meter and a new tri kit. That’ll be $620 less I’ll spend next year. Sure, it’s still expensive, but much less than the average of $4,000+.

In Summary

In an effort to summarize the post, here’s a simple table showing the basic investments necessary all the way up to significant investments in the sport.

 SwimBikeRunOther
MinimumGogglesBike
Helmet
Running ShoesDuffel bag
Sunglasses
Basic Add-onEntry-level wetsuitBasic Triathlon bike
Clipless Pedals
Bike shoes
Race number belt holderMulti-sport watch
Triathlon race suit
Medium Add-onMid-range wetsuit
Pool training tools (ex. pull buoy)
Mid-range triathlon bike
Aero helmet
Hydration system
Indoor bike trainer
FuelBelt hydrationBike computer
Full InvestmentTop-end wetsuitHigh-end triathlon bike
Power meter
Race wheels
Electronically controlled bike trainer
TreadmillTransition bag
Custom fuel & hydration mixes
Coaching services