What's in the Bag? Transition Guide
article & images by Nick Salazar
Jan 26, 2014
Most of the articles on TriRig are written for the experienced athlete. I don't often write for the novice. But today, I'm doing a breakdown of what's in my typical transition bag, which could be useful for the newbie and veteran alike. At some points I might stop to explain certain choices at a novice level, so if you're an old hat at the sport, just be patient.
As always, it's up to you to determine the exact setup you need for yourself, which will depend things like the distance you're racing, the climate and potential weather conditions, your personal preferences, etc. But people often ask what I personally use in a given situation, and that's what the last section of this article is for.
Personally, I like to pack as light as possible, bringing the bare minimum I think I can get away with. Other folks like the belt-and-suspenders approach, and want to plan for every possible contingency, packing their entire wardrobe and toolbox. There's no wrong approach, but it's best to know why you go the route you do and what you'll do if things go wrong. As long as you are mentally prepared, you won't waste energy panicking if you hit a snag on race morning.
As they say, there's a perfect tool for every job. Racing a triathlon can be thought of as a series of small jobs that have to be accomplished, one-at-a-time, in a specific order. And that includes not only the race itself, but in your race prep as well, including what you pack in your bag. Here's what I bring in mine.
Before getting to the contents, I should talk about the bag itself. I've used a variety of bags over the years, and come to the conclusion that I don't really want anything fancy in this department. Triathlon-specific bags tend to be big, bulky, and cumbersome. Lately, I've been cramming everything into an old backpack. There's no waterproof pocket for the wetsuit, but I find that to be pretty moot. On the way TO the race, nothing is wet to begin with, and on the way BACK, everything is dirty anyway, so who cares if it gets wet? Again, this is just me, and your mileage may vary. But since I pack light, I find that I don't really need 18 pockets and 10 zippered compartments. Just one main compartment for gear and a secondary pocked for keys/gels/phone is enough for me.
This is the only thing you’ll need to wear on race day. There are a lot of great options on the market, and we've reviewed several of them in the past. Ladies, add a sports bra underneath if you want, which may or may not be necessary depending on your build. The suit can either be a one-piece or a separate top and bottom. The latter is preferable if you anticipate needing to hit the bathroom during the race, but I prefer the smooth feel of a one-piece suit, especially when they're built right. In either case, the shorts will have a chamois that is slightly thinner than the pad on regular bike shorts. This helps to prevent it from soaking up too much water, so it doesn't weigh you down on the swim, and stays out of the way on the run.
I like to think of the tri suit as a uniform. Put on the suit, and you're on the job. To that end, I really like a suit that not only functions well, but looks awesome. I had Epix Gear make me some custom-printed suits with TriRig branding, and every time I put it on, I feel like a boss. I highly recommend checking out their custom program, where you can order a custom suit with any design you want – they'll even help you design one if you aren't artistically inclined.
Pre-race, it's a good idea to wear some sweats on top of the tri suit - it can be pretty brisk at 5am when transition opens, and you don't want to waste any energy keeping warm, if you don't have to.
- Goggles - find a set that you like that doesn't leak. A lot of people get along very well with the minimal Swedish-style goggles, which are great, but they require a little time to carefully customize, particularly getting the width of the nose bridge correctly. TYR and Speedo make some really fantastic goggles that fit well out of the box, but they usually charge quite a bit more … as in, up to 10 times the price of the $3 Swedes. I like to put mine on under the race-provided swim cap, to protect the strap from accidentally getting snagged and ripped off by another competitor.
- Swim Cap - this is usually provided to you. If it is, you’re required to wear it, to identify your race division. If you're bringing your own, get one made of silicon (latex ones are cheaper, but are more likely to tear out your hair).
- Towel - I like to bring a small one, about 12x24 inches. It's small enough to fit anywhere, and just the right size to clean your feet off if they got any dirt, sand, or gravel on them running up from the swim. You don't need anything bigger than that, unless you're worried about a particularly cold bike ride, in which case you may want to dry off completely with a bigger towel.
- Wetsuit or Speedsuit - I haven't written much on the topic of neoprene rubber, mostly because the water in Colorado isn't the most exotic or crystal clear around, and I avoid open-water swim training whenever possible. But open water is unavoidable if you're doing a major race, and a good wetsuit is probably the best bang-for-the-buck in terms of gear that will make you go faster. They provide buoyancy that takes your body out of the water, reducing resistance and making the swim a lot easier.
- Bike - obviously.
- Bike helmet – the big question for most novices is whether or not to get an aero helmet. And for the budget-conscious, it may not make sense to buy an aero helmet that you aren't going to use in training. I'm a big fan of the Giro Air Attack, which is basically a perfect bridge between the standard helmet and the aero lid. It's not as fast as some of the better helmets like Giro's own Selector, but it's got some serious appeal, and I really love mine.
- Bike shoes – tri-specific cycling shoes can allow you to get through transition faster, if you take the time to practice trasitions. I'm a fan of tri-specific shoes, particularly the brand new S-Works Trivent. If you're going to put your shoes on in transition and then get on your bike, you can get away with regular cycling shoes, and some people prefer them for their fit or retention mechanism. Personally, I LOVE the new Trivents, and use them all the time.
- Sunglasses - I'm very nitpicky about all my gear, but especially so about eyewear. Without going into too much detail here, I highly recommend Oakley Radar XL for running and road riding. But if your position is sufficiently low, you will want a rimless pair of shades to maintain maximum visibility. I love the Smith Pivlock V90 for that reason. However, I often race in an aero helmet that has its own visor, meaning I don't actually need sunglasses on the ride, and can pick whatever I want on the run. The Oakley models typically have a nice tight grip that doesn't bounce while running - the Smiths are a bit looser, and for some smaller head sizes, they may bounce around while running. If your helmet has an integrated visor, I'd use that on the ride and pick up the Oakleys for the run. If not, I'd pick the Smith Pivlock V90 for both the ride and the run.
- Hydration - this is a much bigger topic than can fit into a little bullet point. We've written a full Hydration Guide to cover it with the justice it deserves.
- Nutrition - if you don't take all your calories through liquid sources, you'll likely want to bring something else with you. A popular choice is some kind of energy gel. I like PowerBar's PowerGel because it contains sodium (and if you want, caffeine). But some people like to take sodium separately. The amount you need will depend on the length of your course, how much you're already consuming via liquids, and your own physiology. Practice this beforehand and figure out what works for you.
- Running Shoes – obviously.
- Speed Laces - Do yourself a favor and equip your shoes with elastic laces. I wrote a pretty thorough laces shootout comparing some popular options. My opinions continue to evolve on the topic, and my current favorites are the Flatlines, although at the time I wrote that shootout, I thought Xtenex had it nailed. Ignoring the finer points, the idea is that when you get to T2, you just slip your shoes on and don't have to tie anything. They’re a big time saver. If you want to leave them on your shoes all the time, then read the article above to learn why selection can be important. If speed laces are going to be a race-day-only item for you, then it doesn't much matter which version you get, because long-term comfort won't be an issue.
- Cap or visor - if you're racing long course (half or full-iron distance), these can be a huge advantage in keeping your face out of the sun, keeping you just a little bit cooler.
- Race belt - sometimes you're required to wear your bib on the bike AND run, sometimes just the run. Since you don't want to spend time in transition pinning your number on, someone long ago got the great idea to pin the number onto an elastic belt, and just slap it on in transition. These take all of two seconds to put on. But the guys T1belt weren't satisfied with that, and built a version with magnetic buckles that are supposed to be even faster to put on.
Okay, got all that? Quite a bit more involved than your average 5k run, isn’t it? Well, we’re not through yet. The key to making a tri go smoothly is to have everything prepped before you start. Hit the next page for the full rundown of what you're gonna do on race day.