The Stuff You Actually Need: The Ultimate Race-Day Checklist

By Joe Rich | Sept. 24, 2019, 7 p.m. (ET)

race day checklist

When it comes to endurance racing, specifically triathlon, there is a ton of literature and talk about training, racing, fueling, motivation, recovery and everything in between. As there should be — every athlete’s experience, preparation, fitness level and mindset are different!

I myself have literally written a post called “The Stuff You Need.”

From all of this experience, however, there is one constant, and it’s very simple. In order to race, there is a list of things you physically need to actually participate in a triathlon.

This seems pretty straight forward to most. Race directors generally provide a solid checklist in the pre-race athlete guide.

There are two things to know about this:

  • This is not straightforward to everyone. I’ve seen a lot of things at races and did many of them myself when I started the sport.
  • Many athletes skip right over the athlete guide (apologies to my race director friends — I, of course, always read your literature!).

But because everyone is different, there are varying levels of “need” for certain items to each athlete. Finally, you have an answer! I have broken down your race day checklist into four sections.

"Things you Absolutely 100000% Need to Race." These items need to come with you if you want to start/finish the event, and not throw away the money you paid for the event.

"Things you Absolutely Should Bring to a Race." Can you survive without these items? Sure! Can you still complete the race without them? Yeah, I guess! Could forgetting one of these items hinder you from finishing? You bet!

"Things that might Enhance Your Race Experience." These items will help aid in your completion of the event. While racing can be an uncomfortable endeavor, these items will assist your body and your muscles in completing, while helping to enhance your future training and races.

"Things that are Non-essentials, But May Help." On most days, many folks could leave all of these items at the front door and have the exact same result or experience, and not notice they forgot these items. But on a cold day, if you are extra hungry, or like to be comfortable, you might want to pack these up and leave in the car.

So, here it is — your ultimate race day checklist!

The things you Absolutely 100000% Need to Race

Triathlon kit (or something to wear): What? You actually need clothing to participate? This should be a no-brainer. You could race in simple shorts and a T-shirt, but you can find a triathlon kit (one or two-piece suit designed for multisport racing) cheap, if needed. 

Goggles: Because you have acquired a triathlon kit, at a minimum, you can swim right in that! But in order to see – grab a pair of goggles. You can also find this relatively cheap. TIP: If you have the means, grab two pairs. One clear lens, and one “shaded” or “mirrored”. The darker pair will assist your vision in the event of a sunny morning, so you can see where you’re headed!

Bicycle: The 2nd leg of the triathlon will be impossible to partake in without bringing a bicycle to the event. As long as it’s pedal-powered, it’ll do! Helmet. Of course, the race officials and race directors won’t allow you to ride said bicycle if you don’t have a properly fitting helmet. Don’t borrow a friend’s bike or use the one you had from years ago when you were a kid. You want the helmet to still be able to protect, and most importantly, fit YOU. Protect your head, buy the new helmet.

Running shoes: At a minimum, this is one pair of shoes you NEED. Your bike may have flat pedals or cages, which running shoes will work just fine for. And, you can run in them, of course. Don’t expect to do the whole race in bare feet. TIP: Quick laces (sometimes known as lock laces) can help quicken your transition times. Rather than sitting down to tie your shoes, invest in a pair of laces that allow you to slip the shoe on and get going!

Photo ID: What? They are going to ID me at the race? I’m not buying a beer! YES! They are! Rules are rules, and before they give you your race packet (with timing chip, swim cap, bike tags and run numbers), they need to know that it’s YOU who has purchased the right to partake in the event.

The things you Absolutely Should Bring to a Race

Wetsuit: Many non-summertime races, as well as most northern based races, will be deemed wetsuit legal (under the temperature deemed “safe” by the governing body and race directors). And they are a good tool to have! The added buoyancy allows for quicker times, and the ability to rest your legs a bit for the bike and run

Cycling Shoes: If the bike you bought or borrowed is a road or triathlon bike, it likely came with clipless pedals, so you’ll NEED your cycling or triathlon shoes (which would then put this into the top category). They are actually beneficial – you can generate more power, and pedal more efficiently, while clipped in! TIP: Be sure to practice – we don’t want anyone falling off the bike because they can’t clip/unclip!

Race belt: Unlike a pure cycling event or running race, you don’t want to attach your race number via safety pin to your race kit. It’ll cause discomfort, and you may lose or damage the number in the water! Numbers can be attached to race belts, which you put on in transition after the bike portion (in some cases, before the bike. Check the rules of the race director and governing body before your race). Some of these belts, better known as fuel belts, can also carry small items to fuel with (gels/checks/etc.)

Bike bottles: For short course events, you might only need one on the bike, but regardless of the distance, you want to bring 2-3 bottles of your preferred sports/electrolyte drink. TIP: You want to avoid straight water here – your body is sweating out salt/magnesium/potassium with its fluids, so you want to replenish your body with those same electrolytes!

Sunglasses: Who doesn’t want to race on a beautiful day? If it were me, however, I need a pair of sunglasses to be able to see on the bike and run!

Tools: Last minute seat adjustment? Something being creaky on the bike? At the very least, a set of allen keys, and/or a multitool, will set your mind at ease and fix most things. TIP: Have your bike looked at by your local bike shop and do so WELL IN ADVANCE of your event. Shops get busy, especially during race season, but they will make sure your bike is in working condition for race day.

Towel: This isn’t as much of a necessity as you may think. After the swim, most folks don’t take the time to towel off prior to mounting the bike. The towel is good to keep transition area neat, clean up any grease or drink on the bike, or to dry/clean the bottoms of your feet off before going on the bike.

Spare tube/flat kit: Hey, it happens! Whether you find the flat before the race or during the race, you’ll need a tube to replace, and a CO2 cartridge (and adapter) to fill it! TIP: Practice flat replacement! Change a tube at home or have someone show you how! Otherwise, you’ll be left on the side of the road, waiting for a pick-up. And you don’t want it to end your race!

Bike pump: Most races will have a few pumps to use in a transition area, or at worst, you can borrow one from another competitor. But why wait – bring your pump, fill the tires at your car, and knock one thing off the checklist.

Things that might Enhance Your Race Experience

Nutrition (gels/sports drink): Working out in any form requires fueling. Gels and a electrolyte filled drink will help fuel you properly for the race. Your needs will vary from your peers, and your needs will vary based on the race distance, so make sure you have the correct amount! TIP: Practice fueling during training, and train with what you plan to use on race day! If a long course event, figure out what the race will be providing on course, and practice using that or a similar product.

Hat/visor: This is truly optional – some folks HATE hats, but others use them. A hat can provide extra shade on a sunny course. You can also use a hat or visor to put ice in or tuck cold sponges into to keep your head cool!

Chamois cream: Without going into tremendous detail…you want this. Actually, this is probably misplaced…it should honestly be in the “ABSOLUTELY NEED TO RACE” category. BUT, you can participate without it. Long story short, if you prefer not to have any chaffing underneath your triathlon kit, specifically the bottoms, you’ll want this.

Sunscreen: No one wants a sunburn! And triathlon kits can give you very interesting tan lines. Don’t anticipate borrowing from a competitor – bring some!

Body glide: If you’ve got a wetsuit, or experience chaffing around the neck, arms, or ankles from your triathlon kit, grab body glide (or slide, depending on your brand). This will make removing the wetsuit much easier, and also stop any added irritation! TIP: If the timing chip around your ankle causes any discomfort, body glide is your answer.

Chapstick: In line with sunscreen, probably the body part that gets omitted most with sun prevention is your lips! Bring it…you definitely don’t want to share this!

GPS watch/activity tracker: For those tracking their progress, or using data as a tool to help racing, purchase and train with an activity tracking device. For multisport, a watch is great, because you can use in all three sports!

Heart Rate Monitor: If speed isn’t the metric you are most concerned about, then be sure your activity tracker is linked with a heart rate monitor – often a strap around your chest. This is a great added tool to track data in training and racing!

Swimskin: For the non-Northern based races, especially those in the summer, a Swimskin is your legal “wetsuit”. With shorter sleeves and a less buoyant material, this suit is allowed at higher temperatures than wetsuits. Not TOTALLY necessary, but this can be an added benefit, if it fits your budget.

Water: If you haven’t pre-mixed your sports drink, then put this in the “ABSOLUTELY SHOULD BRING” category. But water can also help cool off the body in transition, clean out your mouth if it feels sticky from gels, or give you a brief break from the sports drinks. 

Things that are Non-essentials, But May Help

Electric tape & scissors: Often, race numbers meant for the bicycle can be large and unruly, and don’t fit on the bike very well. Because of the adhesive on the number, it’s hard to manipulate the number to fit properly. Bring a pair of scissors and electrical tape…if the number is in one piece still, and visible on the bike, you are good to go!

Extra nutrition: You might find yourself a little dehydrated, or extra hungry. Or, you might be feeling generous and hand out a gel or two to a competitor. The extra nutrition might keep you in the race AND earn yourself a new friend!

Post-race clothing: The last thing any of us want to do is sit in our wet, sweaty, sticky, smelly race outfit all day. Bring some clothes to change into. TIP: Did you bring that towel? Hard to find places to change? I won’t promote changing out in the open, but if your sneaky enough…I’ll leave it at that.

Pre-race clothing: Since most triathlons occur earlier in the day, you’ll often find the temperature to be a little chilly in the morning. Wear sweats or compression gear (maybe gloves and a hat!) to help keep warm, and to get a good sweat going on your warm up!

Headphones: You cannot use headphones while racing. You cannot use headphones while racing. I repeat: you cannot use headphones while racing. But, if you like to listen to Eminem, The Backstreet Boys, Beyoncé, or the Dixie Chicks to get ready, bring your headphones along for before the race. Then store them in your transition area. Oh, another tip: you cannot use headphones while racing.

Cash: Many races provide post-race meals as part of your registration fee, but to enjoy anything extra, like the lemonade stand or the ice cream truck, bring some cash!

A good attitude: Speaking from experience, it’s very difficult to think positively during the entirety of a race day. But if you remember that this is all just for fun, you’ll stay in the sport a lot longer, and grow from any of the negative things that happen.

Did I forget something? Disagree with a category I placed an item in? Disagree with the music selections I offered for you to listen to (NOT WHILE RACING)? Let us know!

Joe Rich is a USAT Level 1 Coach, a Level 3 Coach for OutRival Racing, and the Operations Director of Cycle Life Studio in Whitman, MA, all of which are part of the QT2 Systems Family of Brands. You can contact Joe by e-mail: joe@cyclelifestudio.com.