Running shirtless in a triathlon (rules & recommendations)

Triathlon is often seen as an expensive sport. Especially if you are new to the sport, you don’t know yet if it is worth spending money on lots of equipment for your first races. Even buying a tri suit can be expensive for a first race. Therefore, it is quite common to wonder: can I run shirtless in a triathlon?

As a general rule, it is possible to run shirtless during a triathlon held in the US. Indeed, USAT does allow to run shirtless contrary to World Triathlon (ex ITU). However, running shirtless is not allowed during Ironman events, US included. In other countries, the WT rules often apply.

Even if racing shirtless is allowed, some rules still apply regarding nudity. So let’s dig in more details into the rules.

Do you have to wear a shirt during a triathlon?

You don’t need to wear a shirt in a triathlon organized by USAT in the United States. In other countries, you may need to cover your top, but it does not necessarily need to be a shirt. Any piece of equipment that covers the torso, such as a tri suit, will do.

Let’s look at what the different triathlon organizations state.

According to World Triathlon (ex ITU)

Wearing a top, whether a shirt or another equipment, is compulsory by the World Triathlon rules:

5.1. General Rules:
a.) An athlete is not permitted to:

(ii) Cycle with a bare torso;

6.1. General Rules:
a.) The athletes will:

(iv) Not run with a bare torso;

Extract from the ITU competition rules chapter 5 and 6.

Not complying with these rules may lead to disqualification.

In the United States, however, most competitions are organized by USAT. In such a case, the World Triathlon rules are overwritten by the ones from USAT.

According to USA Triathlon (USAT)

Wearing a shirt is not compulsory by USAT rules, even if it’s not expressively stated anywhere. Indeed, contrary to ITU rules, you cannot get disqualified for not wearing a shirt. In other words, you can compete shirtless in a USAT race.

Several USAT officials did confirm this interpretation of the rules regarding shirts. You can even find articles covering this topic on their website. One of the triathletes of the year 2019, Justin Lippert, does many of his triathlons in a speedo with many photos to prove it.

A shirtless triathlete in San Diego. Photo by Chris Hunkeler
under CC license.

Actually, many people think you can’t compete shirtless because of the rule about nudity:

3.4 Race Conduct.
n. Indecent Exposure. Public nudity or indecent exposure at any time during the event is prohibited. Any violation of this Section may result in disqualification.

Extract from the USA Triathlon Competitive Rules Article III

But this rule is not about competing shirtless. It is to ensure no one exposes their genitals. Here is what an official said about this 3.4.n rule:

If one wishes to change clothes and there is no changing tent, then one may be wrapped in a large towel where the change can be made modestly. If no portable restrooms are available on the course, then the participant needs to move well off the course, preferably in the cover of trees or shrubs, to relieve himself.

Details given by USAT about the Indecent Exposure rule

In short, you need to be careful when changing during transitions not to expose genitals. For women, you will also need to be careful not to expose nipples. But if you are a man, there is no rule that forbids you to cycle or run without a shirt in a triathlon held by USA Triathlon.

According to WTC (Ironman events)

The rules for Ironmans are very similar to the ones from World Triathlon (ex ITU). Racing shirtless is forbidden in any Ironman events:

Section 5.01

h) Cycling with a bare torso is prohibited. Athletes must wear a shirt, jersey, or sporttop/sports bra at all times during the cycling segment of the Race; (30 or 60 Second Time Penalty (as applicable), DSQ if not remedied promptly)

Section 6.01

d) Running with a bare torso is prohibited. Athletes must wear a shirt, jersey, or sporttop/sports bra at all times during the run segment of the Race; (30 or 60 Second Time Penalty (as applicable), DSQ if not remedied promptly)

Extract from the Ironman 2021 competiton rules

No shirts allowed: does it mean I have to wear a tri suit?

It is never compulsory to wear a triathlon suit. If being shirtless during the run and bike leg is forbidden, you can still compete with a tri short. In other words, you can start shirtless during the swim and just put a shirt on in the first transition.

In fact, competing with tri shorts and a technical shirt is a great way to optimize your transitions if you don’t own a tri suit. For sprint races, you can even consider running in a speedo and a shirt. On such distances, a padded short may not be necessary and may slow you down during the run leg.

Also, if you ever wondered if you can run using a cycling jersey, here is the answer.

Can you change clothes during a triathlon?

Hopefully, you can change clothes during a triathlon. Not everyone has the money to own a tri suit. During an event, you will notice several people getting changed after the swim. On long-distance triathlons, such as Ironmans, they sometimes provide changing tents for transitions.

There are some rules to follow when getting changed since nudity is forbidden. In triathlon that means you cannot show private parts. So no genitals or boobs allowed. If there are no change tents, that means you will need to change under a towel.

Since changing under a towel is not always practical, I recommend using a changing robe, such as this one. It’s fast to put on and won’t fall off like a towel. It is really worth the investment and can avoid getting disqualified. For instance, you can use them when training like after open water swims to change in front of your car…

Changing rooms looking as nice are very unlikely during triathlon races 🙂

What gear I recommmend for your triathlon

First, it is always best to come prepared for different scenarios. Indeed, even if there are rules given by national federations, they can change from one year to another. Moreover, they are always prone to interpretation, even by race officials.

You have probably read or heard people mentioning “no nipple rule”, “covered sternum rule”, “not unzipping your tri suit rule”, etc. These are points not specifically mentioned by the governing bodies and are susceptible to local referees’ interpretation. In shorts, it is always best to come with something to cover your top and to ask a referee. You can therefore adapt and compete without worrying. This is far better than being disqualified because of a disagreement about the rules.

Gear recommendations for men

Long distances

For racing long distances, a tri suit will always be preferred. If you start racing long distances, investing in a good triathlon suit is worth it. A tri suit will greatly improve your performance, especially during the transitions.

Medium distances

If a triathlon suit is not an option for you, I recommend using tri shorts and a shirt (if needed). Triathlon shorts have a slim pad for the bike and you can run and swim in them. You can wear the tri shorts under a wetsuit for the swim.

All you would need to do is to put a shirt on before cycling (and remove the wetsuit if you used one of course =D). A technical shirt will dry up quickly during the bike leg and will not be uncomfortable when running.

A man doing a triathlon with Izumi tri shorts.
Photo by Chris Hunkeler under CC license.

Short distances

For sprint triathlon, a padded short is not mandatory. Thus, if you want to save on tri shorts for your first race, you can compete only with a speedo and a shirt (or even shirtless in the US). Just keep in mind that this element of clothing will protect your skin against the sun and if you fall off your bike!

On short-distance triathlons, the transitions account for a bigger proportion of your run. Optimizing the transitions on such races can definitely have a great impact on your performance.

Gear recommendations for women

Long distances

On long distances, the recommendation for women won’t differ from men’s: a triathlon suit is the preferred option.

Medium distances

On medium distances, I recommend wearing a sports bra or a tri bra under the wetsuit along with a tri short. This way you can save time on the transitions by only removing the wetsuit.

Short distances

For sprint triathlons, a one-piece swimsuit is probably the best gear to wear if you can’t afford a tri suit. If you are not comfortable running without a sports bra, just wear it under your one-piece swimsuit, and that will do the trick!

Going cheap for a first race is not a shame, you can always upgrade your equipment afterward if you fall in love with the sport 🙂

A women running in sports bra.
Photo by John Benson under CC license.
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