XTERRA Couch to Trail - Questions You're Afraid to Ask

Aug. 24, 2017

By Mimi Stockton

Triathlon can be one of the most overwhelming sports to attempt because really, it's three sports in one. And if that wasn't enough, you have to change gear between events. It's normal to have so many questions you aren't sure what to ask, so that's why this week's Couch to Trail article is going to focus on everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.

Keep in mind that for most of these questions, there are no right or wrong answers.  Yes, there might be more efficient or advanced ways of doing things, but sometimes, keeping it simple is best.

What kind of biking shoes should I wear for an XTERRA?
Some companies, specifically SIDI and Specialized, used to make cross triathlon specific shoes, which were a marriage of a triathlon shoe upper and a mountain bike sole. Some companies still make these special shoes for the pros--like Flora Duffy's sweet kicks from Pearl Izumi. These were and still are the ideal shoe to wear.  They have two velcro straps, with the top one fastening inward (opening away from the drive train) and the bottom one fastening outward, making entry and exit of the foot seamless. 

Unfortunately, it is a challenge to find them on the market anymore.  If you're fortunate enough to find a pair, you're in luck, otherwise your best option is a pair of mountain bike shoes. I prefer shoes with velcro straps or the BOA system because of the ease with which you can get them on and off. The ratchet closure system is more difficult to adjust and can make transitions slower. For most racers who are new to XTERRA, any mountain bike shoe will suffice. Choosing the type of closure on your shoe only really becomes a consideration once you are worried about shaving seconds off your race time. Before this happens, choose the shoe you are most comfortable wearing. Spend more time mastering your flying mount than worrying about how fast you can fasten your shoes.

Can I wear a road bike helmet or do I need a specific mountain bike helmet?
Despite the differences in design, there are some commonalities to cycling helmets. Most important, in order to be sold as a cycling helmet in the US, a helmet must pass the Consumer Product Safety Commission test and carry the CPSC label.  As long as your lid carries this label you should be good to go. 

But what are the differences?  And can I wear a road helmet? Really, any road helmet WILL work in off-road triathlon. Road helmets are designed to be as lightweight as possible and offer excellent ventilation--two things that I definitely want in a helmet. They do however sacrifice a bit of coverage for this added ventilation and lighter weight.

Mountain bike specific helmets, on the other hand, are typically a bit heavier, not as breathable, and are geared more toward downhill and enduro riders, not cross country riders. Because they are not as light, they are less expensive than road helmets. Some do offer more protection for the back and the sides of the head, and new riders may want this extra protection. They almost always come with a visor - which is removable - to help keep low branches from hitting the rider's face. While these are nice, this same protection can come from a good pair of sunglasses. 

You can also get a full-face mountain bike helmet. These encompass the entire head and have the most coverage of all the types of bicycle helmets on the market. They are designed for very aggressive riding where violent crashes are likely. While crashes are inevitable and part of the sport of mountain biking, you most likely will not find yourself hurling off a cliff or performing Evil Knevil stunts, so this full-coverage helmet is unnecessary. 

One helmet not recommended is an aero helmet. There’s no benefit to aerodynamic performance at the speed you will be riding. Aero helmets are over-kill for off-road triathlon and will make you look like you showed up for the wrong race.  Except when you're flying downhill, you'll never be going fast enough to warrant an aero helmet. Stick with a lightweight road helmet or lightweight mountain bike helmet (with or without a visor) and make sure it fits! Your choice should really come down to finding the helmet that is the most comfortable.  You will not enjoy your ride or race if your head is hurting or sweating profusely.

What kind of running shoes are best to wear?
XTERRA run courses can cover some incredibly diverse terrain.  Sometimes the trail run includes serpentine single track, creek crossings, steep craggy ascents, rough descents, sandy banks, mud-filled shallow pools and rocky scrambles.  Sometimes there's no trail at all. But other times, the course presents a relatively flat, grassy or hard-packed dirt trail.  Therefore, the shoes you choose should really be course-dependent (and you should know what you're in for because you will have checked out the course BEFORE the race).  

If the run trails are not technical or are connected by sections of pavement, regular racing flats will more than do the job.  However, if the course requires you to rock hop and climb, ascend a canyon wall or run over lava, 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. Furthermore, if the weather is looking like rain or the trail is already a muddy mess, forget the racing flats.  That mud will suck the race flat right off of your foot, especially if you are using elastic laces. This has happened to me twice!. 

If you go with a trail shoe, make sure it's light.  This is especially important if the run is going to be fast and require a lot of leg speed. On the other hand, If the run is more of a trail/hike and is everything BUT fast, the weight of your shoes is not going to matter much. In these instances, using a shoe that will protect the soles of your feet from rocks and your ankles from slippery roots is the way to go. 

Should I wear socks on the bike?  How about the run?
Socks or no socks? This is a common question. Many racers will choose to go sockless, spending a shorter time in transition and reducing the risk of biking and running in wet socks, which can cause blisters.  

Nowadays, many biking and running shoes have built-in soft liners making the transition to sockless a breeze. Still, most beginners tend to use socks.  If you train with socks on the bike and the run, then you should race that way.  Or maybe you're okay biking without socks, but can't imagine running sockless. 

This debate really comes down to personal preference.  There is no "right" or "wrong" here--just a matter of how much time you're willing to give up in T1 and T2 putting on socks and how tough your feet are. It takes a bit of practice and "wearing in" the shoes before I would recommend racing without socks. Also keep in mind the type of terrain you will be traversing.  If you know there are several water crossings, you might consider ditching the socks.  There really is nothing worse than biking and running with soaking wet feet...no matter how tough those feet are!  

Should I clip my mountain bike shoes onto my pedals or put my shoes on in T1?
It is usually not faster to have shoes clipped to the bike, given that you have terrain considerations right out of transition. Unless you have a one or two strap shoe and have practiced it many times, I would definitely recommend putting your shoes on in T1. 

Odds are you are never going to have a smooth road at the beginning of the mountain bike course and the last thing you want is to be fumbling with your shoes while navigating tight single track and other riders. The amount of time you might save is seconds and it's just not worth crashing over!

Do I have to wear sunglasses?
Many people like to wear sunglasses when racing off-road.  Glasses can provide sun protection and protect your eyes from dirt, branches, and water spraying off the ground.  In off-road triathlon, there is more danger of foreign objects flying in your eyes. 

Some think wearing sunglasses is safer and will keep your eyes free, or at least relatively free, from chunks of mud. With that said, I do not wear sunglasses when racing. I see much better with the naked eye than I do through glasses. There are many nuances of the trail that are sometimes hard to discriminate through sunglasses and if it's dark in the trails or raining, I absolutely prefer to be without shades. 

The eye is pretty amazing at removing small objects that fly into it--it's almost like it was built to flush foreign objects out of it as quickly as it can. Furthermore, if mud or water splashes on the lenses, it's often difficult or impossible to clean them while riding. There's nothing worse than not being able to see through a mud-splashed lens and not having an opportunity to clean it.  Whether you wear sunglasses or not really comes down to your own personal preference and comfort.  If you always wear sunglasses when training, then you might feel more comfortable racing with them.  

One important thing to keep in mind  - if you do choose to wear sunglasses, make sure you pick the right lens color. Check out the light conditions the morning of the race and try to discern how much of the trail is exposed versus in the woods. If it's cloudy or the race is in the woods, then you want clear or very light lenses. If it's very bright and the course is exposed, a darker lens is the way to go.  

The same principle applies for the run. Wearing sunglasses is truly your preference.  I don't wear sunglasses for the run either.  My eyes are actually quite sensitive to light (that's why you'll never find me driving without shades), but I find sunglasses cumbersome when I run.    

Is it better to wear a one-piece tri-suit or shorts and a top?
For triathletes, “what to wear” is an age-old concern. Everyone knows that some sort of triathlon suit worn during all three legs of a triathlon is a key item you should have for race day. There are a variety of options with different functionalities for all types of athletes. While this is definitely a good thing, it can be a bit confusing and overwhelming if you’re purchasing your first tri suit or upgrading to a newer model. 

You have two basic options when it comes to tri suits: one-piece or two-piece. A two-piece tri suit (also called a tri kit) has a separate top and shorts. A one-piece is a complete suit with either a front or rear zipper. A key element with tri suits is their functionality while swimming. While it’s fairly simple to find gear you can both bike and run in, one-piece and two-piece tri suits are designed to be worn in the water as well. They have minimal padding (but enough to keep you comfortable on the bike) to decrease drying time and are tight (like spandex) to make you more aerodynamic.

Some pro and top age-groupers wear one-piece suits, while others wear two-piece suits.  There’s an ongoing debate and both options have advantages. With one-piece triathlon suits, you don’t have to worry about the top riding up or the shorts slipping down as you might with a slightly bunchier two-piece. Because a one-piece is smoother, tighter, and much less bulky, you’ll be more hydrodynamic in the water and can get away without wearing a skin suit. You can even find suits made entirely with one piece of fabric, which eliminates chafing and drag even more than a suit with multiple seams. 

Two-piece suits are a little more versatile. You’re more likely to use the shorts or top from a two-piece tri kit during training. In general you’ll only wear a one-piece on race day, making it a bigger investment.  Also, for some, a two-piece feels less restrictive and can keep you cooler.   One-piece suits tend to hold in more body heat, which can be a big issue for some racers.   Keep in mind, each suit varies by brand and design. More expensive suits are made of higher quality, more breathable material.  If you prefer a one-piece but are concerned about overheating, check out the suits with a front zipper. It’s easily accessible while racing (as opposed to a back zipper) and by unzipping a bit, you can increase air flow to your skin.

In the end, the decision really comes down to personal preference and budget (remember if you opt for the one-piece you can get away without a skin suit). Many brands offer similar functionalities in both two-piece and one-piece options.  No matter what you decide, make sure to test your gear before race day to ensure it fits and most importantly, that it’s comfortable enough to wear throughout the race. Make a point to check for chafing around any zippers, seams, or elastic. But keep the Body Glide around just in case. 

Do I really need a skin suit?
This answer is not as straight forward as you might think. The bottom line is that you definitely do not NEED a skin suit, especially if you are going to wear a one-piece tri suit.  But, if you decide to wear a two-piece suit, you might think twice about buying a skin suit. 

Here's why: A skin suit is designed to be very snug and it enhances speed through the water despite lacking buoyancy.  It does this by compressing the body and creating minimal friction with the passing water. The suit provides a solution to maintaining speed and hydrodynamics in the water while wearing a bulkier tri kit.  It can also help keep you warm if it's chilly race morning and the water is just above wetsuit legal temperature.  

Stay tuned for the next installment of the Couch to Trail "Questions You are Too Afraid to Ask,  Part 2: Technical Stuff."  We'll discuss nutrition, how to handle technical parts of the bike course, and other important topics.


The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little, Jeffrey Kline, and four-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of PRS Fit.  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.  

Read past training articles from PRS Fit at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/couch-to-trail and learn more about their coaching programs at prsfit.com.

Couch to Trail