The Secret to Buying Speed in Triathlon 

You don’t need to spend huge amounts of money on gear to see significant gains in your triathlon times.

Blurred image of a woman riding a bike with aerobars.
Natasha van der Merwe competes in the bike leg of the 2013 IRONMAN Coeur d’Alene triathlon. Photo: Freed

When I first started in triathlon I did so on a modest budget. Then, at my first couple of races, I marveled over what the other athletes had. I began to lust for all the fancy tech that—even though I could not afford—I was convinced I needed to be a more competitive athlete. 

Soon I started to make those fancy purchases. I got a set of race wheels, an aero helmet, different aerobars, a time trial bike, and so on. Imagine my surprise that despite all the money spent in “buying speed,” I still was nowhere close to the top third of my age group. 

Eventually I came to realize that it is the athlete who contributes the most to their own successes, while the expensive toys just play a minor part. To anyone in the sport and wondering whether they should try and spend their way to be faster, I have the following advice. 

Understand the concept of marginal gains 

Coined by David Brailsford, the manager of the British National cycling team and later Team Sky, the concept of marginal gains is that if you can eke out the smallest of gains in every aspect of the athlete and their equipment, the sum of those gains will be substantial.  
In triathlon, athletes are always looking for marginal gains. Save a little bit here and a little bit there and you will eventually end up saving a whole lot. BUT—and this is the crux of the matter—that savings is going to cost you plenty of money and the results may not be as amazing as you think. 

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For example, there is no question that a carbon disc wheel is a faster wheel than any other rear wheel on a time trial bike. However, while a disc wheel is known to save time, you may be surprised to learn just how much time we are talking about. 

Over a 40km race, the time savings for a disc wheel is 30 seconds over an aero wheel and as much as 2 minutes over a standard wheel. When you figure the cost of a disc being over $1,000, that works out to as much as $33 per second saved. 

Ask yourself if the gains are worth it

Recognizing that marginal gains are real but that they can be prohibitively expensive leads to an important consideration: Are they worth it? If you are competitive and fighting for a podium spot or a qualifying slot to a World Championship, then every second counts—and at that point $33/second may not seem like that big of a deal. But for the average athlete, this kind of expenditure does not seem justifiable.   

Buying speed in triathlon without breaking the bank  

The good news is that you don’t need to spend huge amounts of money to get appreciably faster in triathlon. The biggest speed gains to be made relative to dollars spent should be invested in the athlete first and equipment second. You do not have to do all the things listed below, but investing in just a couple can help you see real gains. 

  • Probably the number one way to get faster is to invest in a personal coach. This is an ongoing expense and one that can range in price, but the returns are substantial—in more ways than just an improved finishing time. ($150-$500/month) 
  • Invest in aerobars and get a professional fit for your bike to be as aerodynamic as possible. ($250 for aerobars + $250 for fit) 
  • Purchase an aero helmet. ($200-300) 
  • Purchase a well-fitting tri suit with sleeves. ($300) 

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The combination of a super bike with aero wheels and/or a disc wheel will get you even more time savings, but this should be reserved for advanced or serious athletes who have fewer budgetary constraints as this is where the dollars per second saved goes way up. 

When buying speed in triathlon, be disciplined in your spending and prioritize low-cost solutions that pay off with bigger time savings. You’ll see the gains are worth it at the finish line and in your wallet.