Ask the Coach – What to Wear?

Ask the Coach – What to Wear?

Kate is training for her first half-ironman and wants to know what to wear during the race. I don’t know if Stacy and Clinton will have an answer for this one, so I better step in…

If you’ve ever raced or been a spectator at a half-ironman triathlon, you’ve probably seen a lot of different choices of clothing. Clothing is always a personal choice, and comfort is key, but let’s remember one critical point:

  • There is no place to change clothes, unless you like changing in a port-o-potty and want a long transition time. So it’s unlikely in a half-ironman that you will swim in a bathing suit, ride in bike shorts, and run in running shorts. (Most Iron-distance races have changing tents, but we’ll not consider those now.) Even if you’re not modest, nudity is not allowed, so you can’t change in the transition area. Except for the possibility of changing a shirt, you are pretty much stuck with what you wear in the swim throughout the whole race.

The clothing needs are unique for triathlon compared to swimming, cycling, and running. Tri-specific clothing is sportswear that you can wear under your wetsuit, ride a bike for several hours and run more miles than you usually want to after you swim and bike. Here are the main options:

1) The bathing suit. Some women (and men) race the entire race in a sport-fitted bathing suit. This is usually not recommended for novice triathletes, as you need to be certain you will be comfortable on the bike and that it provides enough support on the run. Men, well, you can decide if the “speedo” look is right for you.

2) The tri-shorts and tri top combo. This is by far the most popular choice, as comfort is customizable. Find a fitted top of choice that is quick drying and pair it with tri shorts. Tri shorts are essentially bike shorts with a much, much thinner chamois or pad. This is ideal – the pad can dry quickly after the swim, provide some additional padding for the 3ish hour bike ride, and not get in your way on the run. Shorts come in different lengths and cuts, so with some shopping, you’ll find a pair that fits you well.
Tri-tops are quick-dry fitted tops. They are usually either sleeveless or tank-style. This makes it easier to swim in. Ladies, some tri tops have support built in, others not so much. You will have to decide how much support you need and your preferred sports bra. There are triathlon specific sports bras, and some female athletes will choose to race in just the sports bra (and of course shorts!)


3) The one-piece tri suit. This is another common option, but more often seen at the shorter races. The one piece can be quite comfortable, as it holds in place better than the top/shorts combo. No chance for the shirt to ride up or sag, and you won’t get that lovely sunburn on your lower back. I wouldn’t recommend this for a half-ironman unless you are really fast or don’t plan on stopping at the port-o-potty.

(Note: I’m not endorsing any of the brands of the images here – just posting them as representative examples. there are a lot of brands out there – find the one that fits you and your needs the best!)

Other options:
4) The bike jersey. If you need to stuff your pockets full of food and gear, you might opt for this. But if you are doing that, let’s talk about race nutrition and other options for storing gear. For the long race, I always find it a little strange to see people running in bike jerseys. For me unless they are very fitted, it’s not as comfortable as a tri-top. But it’s a long race and your comfort takes precedence over any fashion statement. You could change into a running top, and some do, but putting on technical clothing when you are sweaty is always a challenge and would just add to your transition time. I don’t recommend bike shorts…they might seem tempting due to the longer bike ride, but if your bike is fit to you properly and you have a saddle that works, you shouldn’t need them for the ride. Remember, the bigger pad will absorb more water during the swim and might not be pleasant on the run.

With all that said, your comfort is key! Try some things out and find what works for you. A half-ironman is about a 6 hour event for the average age grouper, so make sure you train in what you plan to wear for the race. Happy shopping!

Coach Nicole is the author of The Triathlete’s Guide to Race Week. She is also the founder and head coach for NEO Endurance Sports & Fitness, a Colorado-based endurance sport coaching company. She is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach and also coaches triathlon for Team In Training. Learn more at You can contact Coach Nicole on facebooktwitter or via email at

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Nicole Odell

  • Donna
    February 10, 2011

    I've never done a 70.3, but last season I got used to training long in tri shorts and a Shock Absorber swim top, then hopping out and throwing on a great run top (Sugoi) with back pockets and doing bike/run work. It was a combo that worked a charm for me, and the shock absorber suit was perfect support.

  • Nicole
    February 10, 2011

    Hi Donna, Thanks for sharing what you wear in your long training sessions!