And at this point in the year, you've probably already weighed the costs and benefits. But just in case you're still on the edge ("I don't know if I can afford this . . . or if I want to!") or thinking about getting more serious ("I really liked doing that race; maybe I'm ready to invest a little more deeply in this thing.") I'm providing this Beginner's Guide to choosing, purchasing, and paying for gear.
For the absolute first-timer n00b: The Bare Necessities
Believe it or not, you need very little to get started.
For swimming, get a pair of goggles. You can get them anywhere, any kind (I have one pair bought at a big box store on vacation that actually worked tolerably well), but keep in mind that you get what you pay for. My recommendation? Speedo Vanquisher. That's what I use, and I love them. The link takes you to the mirrored version ("Vanquisher Plus," fancy pants Speedo), which I like because they transition better to outdoor (i.e. race day) usage. A pair of those will set you back $15 at your local swim shop (I got mine at Amazon.com for $10.50 + shipping).
Swim cap? Eh . . . if you have long, floppy hair that won't stay in a ponytail, you'll probably need one. If you can handle practicing with your hair in your face, just wait until race day, when they'll probably give you one for free. After a few races, you'll have so many swim caps you won't know what to do with them all!
For swimwear (remember we're looking at the absolute bare necessities), here's what I suggest: Fellas, use an old pair of bike shorts. They're going to stretch out with the chlorine (and, if you're outside, they'll fade in the sun), so do not use your $100 Descente comp shorts (you know who you are, cyclists). If you'd like, you can drop the extra $20 for a jammer-style suit (looks like bike shorts without the padding). Or be super trendy and buy a speedo! Women, if you don't have a training swimsuit your cheapest option is a grab bag suit, which you'll probably be able to find for $20-$30. If you have a local swim shop, they might have that option, also. If you're picky about color, pay the extra $5 to pick your style. And I strongly recommend that you buy a 100% polyester suit; otherwise, you might be buying a new one every other month (I know I have!), as they stretch out considerably as the lycra disintegrates from exposure to chlorine.
Bike. Ah, the bike. The huge money sink-hole of our sport (but we love it, you know). For the absolute beginner, I recommend that you use your old 10-speed, your $50 big box bike, or borrow one. Unless you are doing a half ironman distance (or longer) for your first race, just use what you have. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten e-mails from cycling or tri mailing lists to the effect of
hey i bought a bike when i started training 5 months ago but i can't do it anymore will sell my bike cheap 1400 oboThese people, for the most part, bought bikes before they were sure they'd be able to commit to the sport long-term and end up selling their gear at a loss. A good bike is expensive (and buying a cheap bike is even more expensive), so save yourself some hassle and do a few races before you make such a big investment. Ideally, check around with people you know and ask if anyone has a bike you can borrow. I borrowed a bike for my second and third races, before I was ready to invest in my own (the first race I did on an old $20 ten-speed from Goodwill).
Bike shorts, I would argue, are an absolute necessity. Believe me, you do not want to be on a bike seat for any longer than 10 minutes without them (although I have dozens of insane people who take spinning classes in street clothes). You can probably find a pair for $20, but pay an extra $15-$30 ($50 is probably about right) to for more padding and nicer fit.
You absolutely positively need a helmet. It is not an option, when racing or at any other time. Figure $30.
For the run, all you really need is shoes, but make sure that you get high quality shoes. Go to a running or triathlon specific store that employs knowledgeable, athletic associates. Have them watch you walk and run and then listen to their recommendations. Do not go to Dicks Sporting Goods, Sports Authority, or some other big box athletic store. Unless you've been running for years and know exactly what (kind of) shoe you need (i.e. motion control), get some advice; it's worth the extra cost. My shoes (I currently trade back and forth between a pair of Brooks Adrenaline and Mizuno Waveriders) cost around $100 (although I get a discount for being a member of the local tri club). You can run in your bike shorts on bottom and a sports bra (or nothing at all, if you're a fella) on top.
And for the first race, that's really all you need. Comes in at under $200.
Stepping it up
But what if you've had your first race, and maybe your second and third, and are ready to invest a little more in all the sweet, sweet tri gear? Where do you start? What gets you the most bang for your buck? And how much is it going to cost? Here's where I'll get a little more into my personal experience and let you know what worked for me. So here's a list of gear (what you need), cost (how many spare organs you'll need to sell), and explanation (why it's worth the arm and leg), in order of importance (that is, this is the order in which I wish I'd bought these items).
USAT membership - $35
Suddenly all of your races just got $10 cheaper! If you're going to do 4 or more races in one year, the USAT membership is worth it.
Bicycle - $500-$1500 (for a beginner set-up)
In almost every triathlon you do, you spend more time biking than doing anything else, so improvements in bike performance are going to give you the greatest improvements in race times. Here's my recommendation: buy a road bike, not a beginner-level tri/time trial bike. If you get a beginner-level tri bike and get really into the sport, I guarantee you're going to want to upgrade that bike later. If you buy a road bike, you'll (probably) eventually end up with two bikes: one for tri racing, and another for weekend rides, local tours/centuries, or commuting. I bought a Fuji Ace on ebay two years ago, and I love it. I'm upgrading to a Cervelo P2C, but you better believe I'm holding on to my $300 road bike (even though it weighs 1.5 metric tons).
Cycling shoes - $60-$120
This is what I bought. Very easy to get in and out of these in transition. Cycling shoes are going to make a big difference in your bike performance, as well. Besides which, if you go to spinning classes, suddenly you look like a "serious" athlete.
Cycling tools - $50+
I recommend buying a multi-tool, a small pump for your frame, and tire levers. That price doesn't include extra tubes and tires. Also, you should learn at this point how to change your own tires (but I can't put a price on that).
Body Glide - $7
Body Glide is a lube that is very (very very very) popular with endurance athletes. Yeah, you can use vaseline, but this feels better.
Race belt - $5
A race belt holds your race number on, so that you don't have to pin it onto your jersey/shorts. Does it make a huge difference in race times? No, not really. It's more for convenience than anything else. This way, you don't have to worry about pinning your number on or putting on a shirt in transition. And it's not like it's a huge investment, anyway.
Heart rate monitor - $80-$200
You might already have a heart rate monitor, but this is a good point to upgrade to a model with more bells and whistles. Is it necessary for your training/racing? Absolutely not; there's plenty of evidence that a scale of perceived exertion is every bit as useful as heart rate monitoring. But it is sort of a cultural thing within the sport. Triathletes just love having numbers to look at and play with, and a heart rate monitor provides those (for a much more economical price than a power meter).
Tri-specific clothing - $80-$150
Tri shorts have a thinner chamois for quicker drying. Tri tops tend to be lighter and more breathable than most cycling jerseys. But--as with the HR monitor--we're moving into matters of style and culture, rather than pure performance boosters.
Wetsuit - $200-$500
By the time you buy a wetsuit (unless you live near the ocean or in a very cold climate), you've arrived. I would consider a wetsuit a transitional purchase; if you're going to drop a couple hundred dollars here, you're probably experienced enough to do your own research.
So that's kind of the quick-and-dirty guide to what it'll cost to get started in the sport. For your first race, assuming you're starting completely from scratch (i.e. most people already have goggles, running shoes, and maybe even bike shorts), figure about $200 for equipment, $50 for race entry, and $10 for training aids like gels and sports drink. After that initial foray into triathlon, your gear upgrades can be much more spread out (i.e. I bought a bike two years ago and a wetsuit last year), so you don't have to worry as much about up-front costs.
In the long run, though, how much will this sport cost you? Here's a rough approximation of what I've spent on triathlon in the last three years (and this is with minimal research, so I'm probably low-balling it):
Memberships, maintenance, and miscellaneous: $350
And looking at those numbers . . . those are pretty big. Have I really spent almost $4,000 on my hobby? Yes, over the past 3 years. I absolutely have.
And I can say with no hesitation whatsoever that it's totally worth it.
Fellow veterans, do you agree? Newbies (and tentative explorers), what do you think?