For the Record: March 2016 – Does Having the Latest Triathlon Equipment Help the Average Age Group Triathlete?

Does having the latest triathlon equipment help the average age group triathlete?

NO: COACH CASEY ARENDT

When I walk onto the deck of any pool, I can spot the presence of triathletes immediately – they are the ones with the pile of equipment at the end of their lane. Our sport is full of people who like to have the latest gear, and there are hundreds of companies vying for our hard-earned dollars. Flip through any triathlon-oriented magazine, and you’ll be barraged with the latest in running shoe technology, ultralight carbon bikes, aero wheels and helmets, GPS watches, electronic shifting, power meters, watt-based trainers, swimming paddles and gadgets, etc. It’s enough to make any newcomer to the sport hang onto his wallet in fear and the gearhead drool with anticipation.

But will the average age group triathlete benefit from dropping thousands of dollars on the latest and greatest gear pictured in those magazines? Because most age groupers are not looking to edge out an opponent on the top step of the podium by a few seconds, typically the answer is NO.

The average guy or gal will benefit from having good (but perhaps not great) gear that fits their needs, abilities, budget, and personality. It may be just as beneficial to your climbing ability on the bike to lose 5 lbs. and do more hill training than it is to buy a lighter bike or wheel set. Splurging on aero wheels or a $300 aero helmet before you can speed along at 20+ mph is unlikely to improve your performance measurably. If you don’t get excited about looking at the data that is collected by your Garmin 920XT or bike power meter, it is likely you will not use it to tweak your training approach or your race plan, and a more basic watch/bike computer might be a better investment. If your expensive paddles and Tempo Trainer never leave your swim bag because you’re not really sure what they’re for or how to use them to help you with your particular needs, they are likewise a waste of money. Does the most expensive wetsuit really make people who are shaped and swim like you measurably faster than a less expensive one?

Also beware of the truly new product. Early adopters should know that they are taking risks when using a product that is significantly different from anything that has hit the market before (pedal-based power meters, minimalist running shoes, tri suits with sleeves, running power meters). Waiting a few product cycles for improvements and information from others about how well the product actually works for an athlete like yourself (vs. a pro athlete) and any risks of injury can save you money and pain.

Ultimately your choice to purchase a top-of-the-line piece of gear should be based on consideration of the true return on investment that YOU can expect. Know yourself. Will you actually use it and learn to use it well and frequently enough that it will actually improve your performance or your enjoyment of the sport in a measurable way? And use the triathlete community to get to know the product. Is the product you’re interested in safe? Does it work reliably? Is it designed for someone like you, with your unique strengths, weaknesses, and body? Is customer service responsive?

YES: COACH NATASHA VAN DER MERWE

While the latest and greatest gear isn't necessarily the “be all, end all” of triathlon training, there are many tangible benefits to all athletes, including the average age group athlete. The most effective training plans are efficient, consistent, fluid, and customized to each athlete. Many of today's training gear provides all of those important factors, giving even the most average age group athlete the opportunity to train like a pro and alleviate a lot of training unknowns.

Let's consider a few pieces of valuable equipment and the benefits they provide:

GPS Watches/Heart Rate Monitors: In addition to telling you how far and how fast you've gone, many top-end GPS devices now provide additional metrics including heart rate and zones, run cadence, training stress scores, stride length, and the ability to create and customize workouts. As a coach, if you want to improve an age group athlete's run efficiency or help her get to the bottom of a nagging injury, knowing metrics like cadence and stride length can go a long way in helping to weed out some potential culprits.

Pacing and heart rate are also vital training metrics as a way of determining an athlete's training paces and effort levels. It's one thing for a plan to say, “Run 45 minutes,” but it's much more effective when the plan says, “Run 45 min with 10 minute warm up in your zone 1, followed by 30 minutes in zone 2.” Knowing and having access to these numbers allows athletes to track their pacing so that they can better predict their race plan.

High-End Indoor Cycling Trainers: While it may not be imperative to have the $1000+ indoor cycling trainer, a high-quality, mid-level trainer is important and can also provide valuable metrics such as power and heart rate data. They can also provide a safe and effective training environment during inclement weather conditions. Much like running, knowing these important individual numbers will help a coach and athlete progress their training plan in a safe and effective manner. On race day, you want to know exactly how hard (or easy) to go out so as not to crash and burn during the race.

Aero Wheels and Helmets: While it's true that these high-end pieces of equipment can shave off valuable minutes on race day, this is the equipment that is least imperative for an average age group triathlete. Ultimately, you want your race day experience to be a positive one, and the tools that are most likely to help you with that are knowing your pacing, effort level, calorie consumption and power output. Expensive aero equipment is the “icing on the cake” and makes the most difference in top-level athletes where every second counts.

The goal of any training plan is to get to the start line feeling healthy, fresh and confident. Fortunately, many of today's high-end training gear provides the keys to developing a clear roadmap to success and, as we all know, a positive experience on race day is priceless!

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