XTERRA Couch to Trail – The Gear You’ll Need


By Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance, 5x Age Group XTERRA World Champ

XTERRA, just like road triathlon, has three disciplines—you swim, you bike, you run. But unlike road triathlon, two of those disciplines take place on trails: the bike and the run.  Therefore some different gear is required.  You need a few key pieces of equipment to get yourself from the start line along the water’s edge to the finish line. And despite what you see at races–all the lightweight this and carbon fiber that–you don’t have to break the bank to get from point A to point B. Here’s a list of the Bare Essentials you really need to be ready for training and race day.  Also included in each section is a “Desirable, but NOT necessary” list.




For the swim you’ll want a set of goggles that stick to your face.  You want them to fit similar to a dive mask where the goggle cups can stick for a few seconds without even using the strap.  There are many types and shapes of goggles so take some time to try them on and select a pair that fits your face shape.  Note that many goggles also come with interchangeable nose pieces that allow you to change the distance between the lenses and get your ideal fit.  Some people like to keep a training pair and a pair for races.  Think about when and where you will be training and racing when deciding on tint color.  In the pool, many prefer a clear goggle.  For open water swims most choose a tinted goggle that cuts the glare of the sun.  However, If the water is not very clear or it’s a cloudy day, a low or no tint goggle is best.  If you want more coverage in a goggle, check out Aqua Sphere.

Swim Cap:

During the race you will need to wear a swim cap for safety so be sure to practice with one.  The cap increases your visibility, helps to retain heat, and keeps the goggles on your head and out of your hair.  Many races also have different cap colors to separate divisions and heats.



Depending on the water temperature where you are racing and training you may or may not need a wetsuit.  If you need to race in a wetsuit, but aren’t ready to buy one, check out XTERRA brand Wetsuit rental options in your area and at the race.  This is a great way to try out a wetsuit without committing to buying one.  Keep in mind though, it’s always best to practice at least once in a wetsuit before a race.  XTERRA brand has some great wetsuits and speed suits.  They seem to take the most abuse and still perform.  If possible, try on different wetsuits so you can make a good decision on size and type needed.  Most wetsuits are full body, sleeveless (farmer john), long legged, or “shorty” (short sleeves and legs).  Consider the water temperature, comfort, range of motion, and need when deciding on a wetsuit.  Make sure to read the instructions and care for your wetsuit properly.  If your race and climate does not require a wetsuit, you will want to wear a triathlon suit, and perhaps a speed suit, that reduces drag in the water.  The xterrawetsuits.com website is also a great resource for more info.


A speedsuit is a thin outer garment you wear in non-wet suit races that provides some hydrodynamic advantage over traditional triathlon racing suits. They are awesome for warm water races because they really slip through the water. Wetsuits are faster overall due to their superior hydrodynamic and buoyancy and should always be used when the rules permit — if you want to be as quick as possible.  You would only opt for the speedsuit if wetsuits are not allowed. Let’s say you want to get one.  What are the options?  Just like wetsuits, there are a myriad of manufacturers and different styles.  Some are unisex and some are men and women specific.  It pays to take some time to investigate all the offerings and find one that not only fits you, but fits your budget as well.



Mountain Bike:

XTERRA is off-road so the next piece of gear you will need is a mountain bike.  Get to know your local bike shop and talk to them about your goals, budget, and what type of races that you will be competing in.  Most bike shops offer rental bikes, maintenance classes, new, and used bikes.  Use this amazing resource and support them!  These are the guys who will be maintaining your bike and keeping you alive.  They will help you get the right fit, the right bike, and point you to where trails and rides are going on.  You get what you pay for, so try to spend as much money as you can comfortably afford to invest.

XTERRA is a cross country race so a cross country (XC) type mountain bike will likely be your best choice.  Cross country bikes come in hardtail and full-suspension.  A hardtail has a front shock and a hard back with no suspension where full suspension bike has a shock on the front and the back. Suspension on the bike makes the ride more smooth, improves control, aids with braking, and absorbs impact.  However, all that smoothness comes at a price.  Full suspension bikes almost always weigh more than hardtail bikes.  Talk to your shop to see what best suits your training and racing area and your lifestyle.  If you live in an area without steep inclines and descents, you can probably get away with a hardtail.  Furthermore, If you are strapped for cash, a hardtail can be less expensive and just as effective at helping you finish your race.  But if you want a plush ride and have a bad back you may need a full suspension bike.  Whatever suspension you choose, be sure to set it up correctly based on your weight and riding style.  Many people don’t have their suspension set up correctly so be sure to talk with the shop about how to setup and maintain your suspension.  It can be adjusted fairly easily once you know how to do it.

There is too much to cover here on “How to buy your first mountain bike,” so look for a separate XTERRA Tip called “A Primer to Buying Your First Mountain Bike.”


When choosing a mountain bike pedal, the first thing you’ll want to decide is if you want platform (aka flat) or clipless pedals. Most entry level mountain bikes come equipped with platform pedals made from either plastic or some type of metal. The main advantages of platform pedals are:  You don’t need special shoes to use them; any sturdy pair of shoes with a flat bottom will work.  It’s easy to bail off the bike if necessary (great for beginners, but also downhill/dirt jump/freeriders). And, Entry-level platform pedals are generally less expensive than entry level clipless pedals. Platform pedals have come a long way in recent years. They are lighter, sleeker, and grippier than ever, and specially-designed shoes by brands like Five Ten make the experience even better. Some people who ride flats claim that it’s just as stable as being clipped in.

However, many people will turn to clipless pedals in search of a really solid foot-pedal attachment.  Clipless mountain bike pedal systems feature a special cleat that is attached to a mountain bike-specific shoe to give the rider a true connection between foot and pedal. The rider clips into the pedal by stepping down and releases by twisting his heel to the side. It can take beginners a bit of practice to get used to clipless mountain bike pedals, but there are some advantages:  Improved pedal efficiency, as energy is transferred throughout the pedal stroke.  Improved handling on technical rides (clipless pedals keep your feet attached to the bike on bumpy descents and make things like bunny-hopping much easier.).  Clipless pedals are also smaller.  They cut a smaller footprint than platform pedals can make clearing rocks easier. They also tend to be lighter for a similar-quality pedal.  The major clipless pedal standards are SPD, Time, and CrankBrothers. At the moment, SPD is the most widely-used standard across many brands.

In the beginning it may be smart to get a pedal with more platform.  Get used to your bike without clipping in.  Once you gain confidence on how to move and shift the bike, practice the clip ins by riding in a soft grassy field.  Practice turns, getting clipped and unclipped, and stopping and getting off your bike.  Don’t get discouraged when you fall.  We have all been there.  Part of mountain biking is learning how to fall correctly.


Since you will be hopping off and on the bike in off-road triathlon you will want shoes with some tread.  Most racers use cleated shoes.  Almost like a football or soccer cleat with a clip in adapter for your pedal.  Find a pair that will stay comfortably on your feet with a sturdy sole for good power transfer to the pedal.  I also like to find a shoe with good ventilation and something that appears easy to clean.  Mountain bikers get dirty!  Unfortunately off-road triathlon shoes are difficult to find.  If you go with clipless pedals, your best best for racing is to wear your mountain bike shoes.


This should be a no-brainer.  Never ride without a helmet.  Most races will disqualify you if you are riding without a helmet, even from your car to transition.  Protect your melon!  Many people ask if there are specific mountain biking helmets and the short answer is “yes,” however a road helmet will work just fine.  Look for a helmet that is first and foremost comfortable and has cooling vents.  Sometimes mountain bikers prefer a helmet with a visor.  These can be nice for  hot, sunny days and to help protect the face from tree branches or other objects flying through the air.


Hydration Pack:

Another piece of gear that comes in handy for mountain biking is a hydration pack.  When you are riding on trails it is often difficult to reach for a bottle, especially when you are beginning and definitely while racing.  Choose a pack that has a small pocket in which to pack some tire irons and fuel, and has a bladder that supports your race distance.  Some hydration packs strap around your waist and others you wear on your back like a backpack.  Choose a pack with a removable bladder and replacement pieces so you can keep it clean from mold & mildew.  I like to only put water in my hydration pack and use bottles for other calorie options.  You have to carry this thing and water is heavy!  1 liter of water weighs 1000 grams or 2.2 pounds.  Once you get really good on the bike you can try riding with bottles and choose what best suits you for racing and training.


When you think of bike gear, the first piece of equipment that comes to mind isn’t typically what you’d wear on your hands. But gloves are important!  They protect your hands from cold, vibrations, blisters, and, in the case of a fall, abrasions.  One of the biggest benefits of wearing bike gloves is the added grip and control you’ll achieve. Everything from sweat to rainy conditions can make your handlebars slippery, and without gloves, you’re much more likely to make an avoidable mistake while riding.

When it comes to mountain biking, gloves are most essential for grip and protection. When you’re riding trails and hopping down boulders, your hands need to be more or less an extension of your handlebars to maintain control. Choose a mountain biking glove that’s textured on the palm for maximum grip. These gloves should also have padding in the palm to protect your hands from injuries that can develop over time.

Because there’s an added risk of crashing when mountain biking, gloves should also be durable enough to withstand any impacts you may encounter while riding. This will help you use your hands to brace yourself if you do take a spill. Full fingered gloves are preferable to fingerless gloves because of the added protection they provide.  Make sure to try on a few different sizes of gloves. If they’re too big, your hands could slide around while riding, negating the benefits of added grip.


Since XTERRA is on the trail, glasses can come in handy by preventing rocks, twigs and other debris from flying into your eyes.  While not necessary, many people wear them.  You may find at times, especially during the summer when the foliage is dense, the trails are a dark environment, and you might prefer a lighter or even clear lens for your glasses.  Or, no glasses at all!  Keep in mind that if your glasses become smeared with mud or start fogging it can be pretty difficult to see the trails clearly and stopping to clean them during a race is a real pain in the butt.  Weigh the pros and cons of wearing glasses and you’ll figure out what’s best for you.


Now that you have your bike, be sure to invest in some tools to help you ride it safely.  At a minimum you need to have a multi-tool kit to adjust it, a spare tire kit, a bike pump and chain lube. Also, take a maintenance class or befriend the workers at your local bike store and have them help you with the basics.




Now it is time for the run!  Since you are racing on trails you will want to think about terrain.  Is it loose, hard packed, covered in roots, usually muddy?  Just like you need to pick tires on your bike to match the terrain, you want to think about the tread on your shoes.  Different shoes are good in different conditions so ask around and check the respective areas in which you will be training and racing.  You may also need to train in a certain type of shoe and race in another.  Most of the professional and seasoned XTERRA racers train in trail shoes and race in racing flats but some prefer trail shoes all the time.  If you will be doing both trail and road training runs, you probably want to save the trail shoes for the trails only.  Train like you are going to race.  If you want to wear socks on race day, wear socks to train.  If you want to race without socks, train without socks.  Race day is not the time to try anything new. No new shoes, no new nutrition, no new anything!


There are a few other items that, while not necessary, can make your life as an XTERRA triathlete better.  You might consider: a triathlon backpack to hold all of your racing and training gear, a race belt, and a hat to wear on the run.  The backpack can be any bag in which you keep all your stuff, and extra gear items too (there are always racers that forget their goggles!).  It can also hold any other items you need in transition, such as a towel, empty water bottles, nutrition, lubrication (or body glide) and sunscreen.

The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA

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