How to do triathlon on a budget

Triathlon has never been known as a ‘cheap’ sport, but in a postpandemic era, with living costs hitting astronomical new highs, how is it possible to continue tri racing and training? We investigate...

how to do triathlon on a budget

Anyone who has ever packed a transition bag understands why triathlon is not – and never will be – the cheapest of sports. The typical triathlete has way more gear than they need, but even stripping it back to essentials there’s still a lengthy checklist to tick off.

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Then there’s race entry to consider, and by the time travel, food, accommodation and some nervous, late kit purchases are included, the cost starts to add up.

However, there is choice. While £1,200 for a wetsuit, £10,000 for a bike and another five-figure sum entering enough Ironmans to qualify for a legacy place in Hawaii might be out of reach, you can compete in second-hand neoprene and on a bike one-10th of the price and still be competitive. And while a Pacific-island adventure has obvious allure, there are great races available on home soil, too.

The tri landscape

There’s no denying costs are on the rise. Brexit, a pandemic and global conflict have all contributed to inflationary pressures, and triathlon is not immune.

Gary Roethenbaugh from the Triathlon Industry Association (TIA) and founder of Multisport Research says the appetite to spend is still there but the sport needs new blood. “We’ve had two years of no new starters due to the pandemic,” Roethenbaugh says. “It puts triathlon at a disadvantage because unlike running it’s inextricably linked to the event landscape.”

Roethenbaugh believes 2022 will prove to be a “transitionary year”, with those reluctant to sign up for organised events continuing with informal activities such as Everesting or Strava challenges. “But because the majority come to tri from a run background, and because the pandemic sparked a boom in running, 2023-24 should see triathlon as a beneficiary,” he adds.

Drilling into the detail, TIA’s recent research shows the intent to buy running shoes (63%) over the next few months far outstrips any other purchase. It also shows around a quarter are considering buying a new wetsuit in the first half of 2022 and one in five a new bike.

Tellingly though, more than one-in-three are reluctant to spend because they already have the required kit. Roethenbaugh also thinks the desire to be more environmentally friendly is creeping into the psyche, such as buying more second-hand products and making demands on race organisers to go green. “It’s part of the COP26 zeitgeist,” he says, referring to 2021’s summit in Glasgow.

Training and coaching

However much the sport is dressed up, there will always be a purity to tri: you can run and cycle from your doorstep, and – as long as swimming pools remain open – head out for a dip. Training can almost always be done, and usually at low cost.

Yet all of us need a bit of guidance from time to time, especially if we’ve a lofty event goal and aren’t 100% sure how to navigate to the finish line.

“I definitely think coaching is a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘need to have’, especially when starting out,” says Adam Gibson, head coach of GreenlightPT in Milton Keynes. “There’ll be plenty of good – and maybe some bad! – advice at your local tri club or training squad, so that’s a good place to start.”

Whereas a one-to-one plan might set you back between £50 to £250 per month, you’ll pay the equivalent for an annual club membership, and the value will quickly be recouped through kit discounts or pool time.

“If someone wants to step up from that, it’s better to read books, listen to podcasts and make your own informed training plans rather than use a free generic plan [although 220tri.com does have a wealth of great, free training plans available to download],” Gibson adds.

“Once you understand the basic principles you should be able to apply these to the sessions you have time for. A tri coach is the next logical step.

Personalised training plans avoid ongoing costs. You usually submit information to a coach and they’ll knock something up for you to get on with. “The top tier option would be having a coach reviewing and adjusting your training on a weekly basis. Just be careful you’re getting what you pay for.

There are plenty of horror stories of athletes paying for what is technically a copy and paste job. “Ultimately, it comes down to where you are in your ‘triathlon journey’ and your budget. Some people have had great results without any coaching, but don’t underestimate the value of having someone with the right skills and knowledge in your corner.”

The TIA research backed up Gibson’s view that triathletes take differing approaches. One in four (26%) used a free training plan last year, 28% hadn’t had any coaching, and 22% were coached through a club. In addition, 29% also used training platforms such as Zwift and TrainerRoad.

Kit and nutrititon

Triathletes can be obsessed with kit and brands love them for it. But while a feather-light tri bike and the latest carbon-plated trainers undoubtedly aid performance, bigger gains will always be made through training.

Net result? You can keep kit costs down and still revel in the sport. The pandemic saw a cycling boom through a combination of furlough, working from home, quieter roads and the push for better health.

It also led to a thriving second-hand market, not just for workhorse commuter bikes, but for pre-owned premium bikes with warranties.

For example, Cycle Exchange is offering a 2018 Pinarello Dogma F8 Sram Force AXS road bike for £4,695 – marked down from £6,750. It isn’t just the bike, though. “When Boris [Johnson] said open water swimming is a good thing, wetsuit sales went crazy,” says Dean Jackson, founder of Huub.

But supply and distribution issues coupled with nervous companies initially pulling back on orders due to an uncertain outlook, has led to many being short of stock. “We continued buying knowing that when we came out the other side, we might be the only ones with product,” Jackson adds.

“Now it’s a mad rush. Factories that previously had a minimum order of 500 wetsuits are demanding 3,000. It’s why anyone ordering custom kit might have experienced issues.”

Overheads have soared. Jackson estimates the cost of raw materials for neoprene has risen by 15%. Container costs have tripled, with ships on a go-slow to save fuel resulting in longer lead times. Labour is also up, and the larger surfer wetsuit market has taken priority over swim wetsuits.

Where does this leave the consumer? “We’ve got to get away from the mentality of £99 wetsuits,” Jackson says. “If you get a wetsuit for £150 you should be pleased with yourself. We’ve done well with our ex-demo line. If a suit comes in for a size swap, we sell it as an ex-demo. So, you can get an incredible suit for £150-£200.”

Moving forward Jackson expects wetsuit prices to rise by 10-15%, although he is dismissive of recent eye-catching four-figure prices.

With retailers taking around 50% of the sale price, direct-to-consumer selling is seen as the golden ticket by sports nutrition brand 33Fuel, which has grown steadily over the past decade. “There’s no doubt that the pandemic put a huge squeeze on supply chain logistics, but being online-only gives us more headroom,” says its co-founder Warren Pole.

“We can spend more making a better product while retaining better prices. We aren’t the cut-price option as our ingredients cost more, but our products are priced competitively to be comparable to the market leader.”

Pole explains how 33Fuel has been forced to absorb rising overheads. “Consider how many pairs of hands a delivery goes through, from the raw materials to the customer. For every 10 people, suddenly five are isolating. It hit all e-commerce retailers.”

“For example, Royal Mail and Parcel Force use the hold of passenger planes and there weren’t many flying. Courier costs roughly doubled and in many cases are still rising. Then there’s Brexit. If you’re sending or receiving anything from within the EU, you have to supply paperwork. Even if no duty is applied, it’s several hours of work.”

Pole’s tips for keeping consumer costs down is to think of sports nutrition as a “supplement” and use sparingly. “Too many brands sell it as a mainstay of the diet,” he explains. “It’s just not true. You should be eating far more real food than sports nutrition. Most people will experience a significant uplift in performance simply by drinking more water and eating more veg and less ultra-processed foods.”

Tips to keep costs down

  • Search online for second-hand bikes but check them out thoroughly and make sure there’s a warranty
  • Look for ex demo model wetsuits, or hire a suit (approx. £30 for a fortnight / £60 a season)
  • Order ahead and avoid next-day delivery charges
  • Make your own race nutrition (see our energy balls recipe here) 
  • Run and cycle from your doorstep
  • Join a club
  • Consider a customised plan rather than ongoing coaching
  • Keep educating yourself! 

Race entry

If Ironman is the benchmark for triathlon events, then news it’s selling places to its World Championship event in Utah in May because not enough qualifiers want to go is a worrying sign for the sport.

But it might also be a cue to nab a bargain entry, because while some 2022 events are sold-out – often due to deferrals from previous cancellations – others are offering juicy discounts to entice sign-ups.

While few have gone as far as the Professional Triathletes Organisation (the PTO marketed its middledistance races in Dallas and Edmonton this summer for just under $400 and then slashed the price in half within days), UK race organisers are making concessions.

The World Triathlon event in Leeds, run by British Triathlon, is offering entry for £99 for its standard distance, currently also with 10% off.

Can you do Ironman on the cheap?

Compared to almost all other sports, long-distance tri is an expensive pursuit. However, unless you’re the rarest of breeds, you won’t be doing one every week.

So, in the context of an annual goal, it’s easier to justify the price. At least, in theory. The big difference between racing Ironman and a different brand is in the cost of entry.

Other expenses, such as accommodation, travel and kit purchase remain the same. But for Ironman you’re likely to find up to a 100% premium over the same distance if you want to race in the UK this summer.

Currently, Ironman had released additional race places for some of its most popular UK events, including the previously sold-out Ironman Wales, Ironman UK in Bolton, and the new Ironman 70.3 race in Swansea. Ironman Staffordshire 70.3 in June has Tier 5 slots available at £369, plus a 10% ‘processing fee’ through Active to total £406.

You could also choose Weymouth 70.3 in September which has Tier 4 places available for £319, plus the 10% fee, and remains your cheapest M-Dot option.

Compared to the Castle Series middle-distance equivalent, the Gauntlet at Hever Castle in September, which with the current 15% saving is £204, it’s a substantial mark-up.

The new Challenge Wales in Pembrokeshire is £214 when the Active fee is included, and the Outlaw Half events range from around £230-240. The Northumbrian is cheaper still at £155 for the middle distance.

The Castle Series, which hosts a series of event weekends across the UK in locations such as Hever Castle in Kent is offering 15% off. “All established events have seen a drop-off,” says Allison Curbishley of Events of the North, who are launching The Northumbrian, based at the picturesque Kielder Water in June.

“Everyone was running, cycling or swimming through the pandemic and we thought we’d see a surge in entries once restrictions were lifted. But it’s a different world now and we’ve got to work to entice people back in a safe environment.”

The Northumbrian is priced competitively at £155 for the middle distance and £295 for full-irondistance entry, with both options including an event-branded cycling jersey. They’re hoping for around 400 entrants for the first year. “The main thing is to showcase the race for next year. We’ll make sure we put on a show and won’t scrimp on anything so people say it was epic.”

The expanding Outlaw series of UK races are not immune from the economic landscape either. “Our entries are down this year, some of which we’ve put down to people going back to races where their entry had been deferred,” says Helen Gorman from organisers One Step Beyond (OSB).

“Next year, we’ll do a price freeze on the half and the full distance. It’ll remain £215 for the half and £315 for the full. We’ll also open entries earlier with payment plans in place and those entering on the first couple of days will get a discount that we’ve never given before.”

Gorman says costs have risen by 20% or more, including signage, barriers, toilets, security, hosting and food – “It’s not just athletes, but 300 essential volunteers to feed.”

OSB have responded to rising fuel and travel costs by paying travel expenses for volunteers, but the idea of removing the race T-shirt to save money is a misnomer. “The real cost to the T-shirt is a lot lower than the perceived cost,” she explains. “The bigger issue we have is people being devastated when T-shirts don’t fit!”

Travel and accommodation

“We need to champion British racing. There’s a lot to be said for sticking your bike in the car and only needing one night’s accommodation – nearly all our events have onsite campsites.” Gorman is making the case for racing in the UK.

While you might expect that, there are cost benefits to racing on home soil. “There’s no compromise in quality, but it’s budget-minded,” she adds. “We’re aware triathlon can be an expensive sport, but compare it to other sports where you race more regularly and it’s not that much more.”

UK racing certainly has advantages. You remove the cost of flights, transporting a bike (and the worry of it arriving intact) and the additional logistical hassles of racing overseas.

While travel restrictions are starting to ease, there’s also none of the stress or cost of pre- and post-flight testing. You might just have to compromise a little on the road surface and the sunshine isn’t always guaranteed.

While fuel costs are pushing 170p/ litre, getting anywhere is expensive, but sharing transport wherever possible helps, and gives you someone to dissect the event with on the journey home.

Triathlons in the UK are typically during peak seasons, so cut-price accommodation will be limited, but whether you choose a hotel, Airbnb or even hire a campervan, how you stop over is likely to be as much about personal preference as cost savings.

A hotel room could be sought for around £100, AirBnB is slightly cheaper if you’re prepared to settle for one room in a house, and campervans start from about £70 a day.

One way you can almost guarantee to save is to camp, where pitches are likely to be around £30 a night. But you might just need the weather to hold for longer than the race.

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All images: Steve Sayers