Comparing Road Triathlon to Off Road Triathlon Gear

XTERRA Maui race gear photo

Triathlon Gear List: Off Road vs On Road

What gear do I need to race off road triathlon?

 

In this article I compare road triathlon to off-road triathlon gear.  Athletes trying off-road triathlon (or ‘cross triathlon’ as the discipline is now defined) for the first time often find they need some new gear to start competing.

This is the typical pre-race gear organization photo for an Ironman event:

Here I am with my stuff before the World Champs in Maui:

Melanie McQuaid compares road triathlon with offroad triathlon equipment XTERRA Maui 2014
This is me with all of my pre race gear before XTERRA Maui 2014

You can see that racing an Ironman road event and racing an XTERRA off-road event requires very different gear.  I made this list so athletes coming from any distance of road triathlon can figure out what they need to get to start racing in the dirt. 

Bike

This should be obvious, given cross triathlon is a MOUNTAIN BIKE triathlon, but there is actually a rule that says you have to ride a mountain bike in a cross triathlon.  You may hear ex-mountain bikers racing cross triathlon (like myself) lament courses that can be ridden on a road or cross bike, but this is ‘lack of technical challenge’ hyperbole, not a statement of fact.  You need a mountain bike.  What mountain bike to ride is a long discussion, so to keep this from getting too heavy an article my advice is to start with one that fits you and is in good working order.

Melanie McQuaid Trek Superfly mountain bike
Did I mention I race for Trek Factory Racing? This little number will do nicely for cross triathlon racing

 

Helmet

I personally ride in the Rudy Project Sterling since it’s comfortable, but really any road helmet will work in cross triathlon. Some off-road riders prefer to have a visor on their helmet to help keep low branches from hitting their faces, but the same protection can come from a good pair of sunglasses. One kind of helmet that’s getting popular nowadays for road that isn’t recommended, is an aero lid. There’s no benefit to aerodynamic performance at the speed you will be riding. Off-road is too slow to look for aero equipment like that.

However I did try an aero lid?

Melanie McQuaid Boost aero helmet
Four of these girls are wearing mountain bike helmets. I am wear testing the new Rudy Project Boost aero helmet on a mountain bike trip – it stood the test off road but is really unnecessary in cross triathlon.

That said, if you want an aero helmet for road racing, try the new Rudy Project Boost01. I’ve been testing it and it rocks -it slices through the air like a hot knife through butter and feels just like a regular road helmet.

Glasses

 

It is a good idea to wear sunglasses when racing both on and off-road.  Glasses are not only for sun protection, they also protect your eyes from dirt, branches, and water spraying off the ground.  In cross triathlon, there is more danger of foreign objects flying in your eyes.  Wearing sunglasses is safer and will keep your eyes free, or at least relatively free, from chunks of mud.

Rudy Project Tralyx sunglasses
Darker lenses are more common for road racing. Low light conditions in the trails make this lens a bit too dark for most road triathlon. However, this Rudy Project Tralyx glass comes with light lenses and is my favorite FRAME for off-road racing.

Choosing eye wear for the race conditions is crucial.  The best glasses for mountain biking offer venting to keep them from fogging in humid and wet conditions.  Find glasses that fit your face – glasses with adjustable nose pieces and temples will help with this.  A variety of lenses to choose from enables you to choose the right lens for the conditions.  In mountain biking or cross triathlon, I choose a lighter lens than I would for a road event.  For races that start early in the morning, I use a photochromic lens that will adjust to the increased brightness as the sun rises.  If the cross triathlon course is wide open in a field, I probably would choose a darker lens.  Before the race, think about the light conditions on the bike and run course and choose accordingly.  For cross triathlon I often put a second pair of glasses in T2.  I then have a clean pair of glasses for the run and a second option of lens in case I want a slightly darker or lighter lens.

Rudy Project Sunglasses
Rudy Project photochromic lenses and racing red tint lenses for off-road and low light racing

Goggles

Cross triathlon is identical to road triathlon in the swim.  You will use the same goggles and wetsuit that you use at any other race.  There are differences from one-off road triathlon to another according to the rules under which the race falls.  If the race is a “cross triathlon” using ITU rules, you cannot use a swimskin in a non-wetsuit swim unless you choose to wear that swimskin the entire race.  You can’t change any of your clothes under ITU rules.  If the race is an “XTERRA” event, you can wear a swimskin and you can use the rubbery kind that were banned by Ironman six years ago.

I recognize this is somewhat confusing but knowing what rules your offroad event is following is important.  Nobody wants to wear a two piece trisuit when they swim and nobody wants to wear a swimskin on the bike.  Make sure you figure out the rules before you pack for the race.  Then check the rules again in case I have missed anything.

Bike Shoes

Mountain bike shoes have a different cleat than road shoes.  Mountain bike pedals also allow entry from both the top and the bottom of the pedal – which is useful as you will come off your bike very frequently in the trails.  Mountain bike shoes accept mountain bike cleats and road shoes accept road cleats.  Generally, a road shoe will not mount a mountain bike cleat therefore you will need some mountain bike shoes.

Some companies make cross triathlon specific shoes which are a marriage of a triathlon shoe with a mountain bike sole. The main challenge with some mountain bike shoes is the ratchet closure makes transitions slower.  Ratchets are more difficult to close and open on the fly than Velcro or boa closures.   Choosing the type of closure on your shoe is a consideration once you are shaving seconds off your race time.  Before a few seconds are a factor, choose the shoe you are most comfortable wearing.  Spend more time mastering your flying mount than worrying about how fast you can tie your shoes.

Bontrager road and mountain bike tri shoes
Bontrager made me these fancy mountain bike triathlon shoes where the upper was the road tri shoe and the bottom was from the mountain bike shoe. You do not need these shoes to race but you do need to have a mountain bike sole. Don’t wear a road shoe that you have managed to jam mountain bike cleats into – you run off the bike a lot when you mountain bike so you will not be comfortable running on a road sole.

You want the last of the shoe to be comfortable with wet socks or bare feet.  You may choose to wear socks as often sand and dirt will get in your shoes in cross triathlon.  Keep this in mind when choosing your shoes and deciding whether you also want to race with socks on.

Running Shoes

 

The shoes you choose will be course-dependent.  If the run trails are not technical and/or are connected by sections of pavement, race flats are going to be perfect.  However, if the course is a mountain scramble through recently created wild animal trails in deep rhubarb, you will want to have trail shoes.  The level of support, sole thickness, and amount of tread is entirely dependent on what the course looks like.  Similarly, if the weather is looking suspect, muddy trails can suck the race flat right off of your foot if you are using elastic laces (this has actually happened to me so this tip is from experience).  Light shoes are great if the run is going to be fast and require a lot of leg speed.  If the run is more of a trail/hike and is everything but fast, the weight of your shoes is not going to matter.  In these instances, use a shoe that will protect the soles of your feet from rocks and your ankles from slippery roots.  My favorite shoe for trail racing (I am sponsored by Asics) is the Fuji Trailracer.  This shoe offers all of the above:  super light and a great tread.  I think having a shoe like that in your arsenal is useful and the shoe doubles as an excellent choice at races like Wildflower where you hammer on the trails for the half marathon.

Asics Gel Fujiracer running shoe
The Asics Gel Fujiracer is a kickass super light trail racing shoe.

I advise wearing socks in off-road triathlon races on the run.  I have had terrible blisters that have prevented me from running for weeks because dirt is an excellent skin abrasive.  I have used both the no-sock and the sock method and the time to put on socks is worth it especially in your first few tries.

Racing Outfit/Apparel

Trisuit

Wear a trisuit with legs or a top/shorts combination in off-road racing.  Although some hardy souls do still choose the speedo/budgie smuggler routine, getting dirt in your crotch is not ideal.  You want more protection from dirt/dust/sand and full legs offer this protection.  Despite the trisuit being a thin layer, it is still a LAYER of protection when you hit the deck so it is a good idea to choose that layer.

Champion System elite trisuit
Four out of five pro women agree that the one piece is the way to go – Danelle (LUNA) chose to race in a two piece suit. NO ONE races in a swimsuit without legs.

Gloves (see above photo?)

The first thing you aim towards the ground when you fall are your hands.  Covering them with some protection can make the difference between getting back up off the ground and staying down because you can’t hold your bars.  The second good reason to wear gloves is to avoid your sweaty palms slipping off the bars when making a hard turn.  Gloves make mountain biking SAFER.  They are not mandatory but they should almost be.

Socks

I touched on whether to wear socks or not above but I would say yes… at least for the run.  Wearing them on the bike may not be a great idea because if it is muddy you then have to change your socks for the run or stuff muddy socks into your run shoes.  Both of these options aren’t ideal.  Plan on wearing socks for the run and then adjust your plan for the conditions.  For instance, I wore socks in Lake Tahoe one year just because it was so cold I needed to keep my feet warm.  The conditions of the race will factor into your decisions so all of my rules are subject to amendments.

Nutrition and Hydration

The nutrition and hydration products you use in road racing will work great for off-road racing.  The only issue is delivering the food/water to your mouth while navigating single track.  Practicing drinking and eating while riding your mountain bike is essential.  Similarly, planning where to eat and drink on the race course is part of your course reconnaissance.  You need to know when you can take your hands off the bars safely and then use that time wisely.

Powerbar food options for racing triathlon
Any of these food choices are an option. You will just scale them to the distance. For cross triathlon events I will use anywhere from 6-9 gels depending on the distance. Ironman multiply that by 3.

Many athletes choose to use a hydration pack when they race cross triathlon.  This eliminates taking your hands off the bar and allows athletes, particularly those riding small frames, to carry more water.  Using a hydration pack in training will help you figure out if you are going to be faster using it than grabbing water in the feed zones.  Using the hydration pack means you can drink your own energy mix for more of the race so if you are fussy about your race products this is a good option.

2013 XTERRA racing photo
I like carrying water bottles and taping gels to my bike in XTERRA vs carrying a hydration pack

GARMIN/POWERMETER/HEART RATE MONITOR

All of these items are useful for objectively evaluating your performance but are less valuable for executing a great race.  To be a great off-road racer you need to be in tune with proper perceived exertion as the race will be incredibly inconsistent.  No power data or heart rate measure is going to be accurate in assessing your limits – only strong connection with what you are feeling is going to allow you to push yourself correctly.  I believe wearing a Garmin/heart rate monitor and riding with power are useful for post race evaluation with your coach, so go ahead and get those things.  However, when the gun goes off it is time to ignore the numbers and just giver.

Garmin 920
This is very useful AFTER the race to assess your performance.

If there is anything I missed please just fire you questions away.  My advice is to keep everything as simple as possible and as close to what you are accustomed to as you can.  You want to adapt your current program to match the demands of cross triathlon – not reinvent a plan that works well.

Good luck and keep it rubber side down!

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