Find out all you need to know about triathlon, the exhilarating sport of swim, bike and run including triathlon distances, age-group triathlon and the sport’s history.
Most people know that triathlon is made up of swimming, cycling and running – but with multiple distance options, disciplines, transition zones and even spin-off sports, it can sometimes seem a little impenetrable at first. We give you the low down on your new favourite sport.
In its purest form, a triathlon is made up of swimming, cycling and running sections, which are raced in that order with transitions from one discipline to another between each. With a range of different distances and race formats and a thriving and inclusive community, triathlon is equal parts exciting, challenging and rewarding – both in training and in racing – and can take you to exotic locations with events popping up all across the world.
Triathlon’s roots can be traced back to the early 1970s with the first triathlon race being held in Mission Bay, San Diego on 25 September 1974, consisting of a 5.3-mile run, a 5-mile bike and a 600-yard swim. In 1978, the first-ever Ironman took place in Oahu, Hawaii, an epic challenge of 3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42.2km marathon – the beginning of what would become triathlon’s biggest brand.
The sport’s official governing body, the International Triathlon Union (ITU), was founded in 1989 with the first World Championships won by the USA’s Mark Allen in Avignon, France, the same year. The ITU’s main goal was to see triathlon validated as an Olympic sport and in 2000, it was featured for the first time at the Sydney Olympics.
Triathlon has continued to grow since then with both the professional and age-group (amateur) sides of the sport blossoming. Super League triathlon came along in 2017, mixing up the order of the sports in multiple frenetic short-distance races over two days.
In 2020, the mixed team relay format will be added to the Olympics in Tokyo – a frantic and exciting form of racing where two women and men from each country each complete a mini-triathlon in turn. Meanwhile, Ironman has become a global triathlon enterprise synonymous with the sport, adding hugely popular half-iron distance Ironman 70.3 events alongside full Ironman races around the globe.
Today there are triathlons in virtually every corner of the world from local grassroots events to international races with thousands of competitors. What hasn’t changed is the adventurous thrill of standing on the start line to take on the challenge of the three-discipline sport.
There are a variety of triathlon distances, with sprint, Olympic, Ironman 70.3 and Ironman being the most popular race formats. There are also shorter races, such as super sprint, which are ideal for beginners or younger athletes, and even double-iron distance Ultraman events held over two gruelling days. Here are the major race formats.
- Super sprint triathlon: 400m swim / 10km bike / 2.5km run
- Sprint triathlon: 750m swim / 20km bike / 5km run
- Standard / Olympic distance triathlon: 1500m swim / 40km bike / 10km run
- Ironman 70.3 / Middle distance triathlon: 1.9km swim / 90km bike / 21.1km run
- ITU Long Distance Triathlon: 4km swim / 120km bike / 30km run
- Ironman / iron-distance triathlon: 3.8km swim / 180km bike / 42.2km
- Ultraman: 10km swim / 421km bike / 84km run
The Triathlon Swim
The swimming leg of a triathlon is where it all starts, that nervous pre-race energy and weeks of hard work finally put to work when the air horn blasts to signal the beginning of the race.
Swims can either take place in a pool or in ‘open water’, which could be a lake, the sea or even a river. There are a few different types of starting protocol for triathlons. For pool-based events, it’s typical to seed three or four swimmers in each lane by ability – or guesstimated swim time – and have multiple a wave starts. In open water events, there can also be waves – often split by age groups or genders.
Then there are rolling starts – the gun goes off and athletes stream out into the water, your race time beginning when the timing chip attached to your ankle cross the start-line timing mat. Finally, there’s the mass start where all competitors begin at once in a spectacular thrashing of arms and legs that sets the water frothing and foaming.
Wetsuits are usually used in open water events unless the temperature is sufficiently warm to make them optional or even prohibited. Some open-water events may include ‘Australian exits’ where competitors exit the water, run along the beach or lakeside and dive back in between laps. It’s great for spectators but takes practice for jelly legged triathletes.
T1 – Swim to Bike Transition
The transition area is where you’ll store your bike, bike kit and run kit so you can quickly swap from one discipline to another. Bikes are usually racked by race number or wave. In most events, you simply organise your kit beneath your racked bike but in bigger triathlons – such as Ironman 70.3 – you’ll receive coloured bags for each discipline. In this case, you’ll grab your bag and change in enormous changing tents before transitioning to the next stage of the race.
T1 occurs after the swim and usually consists of removing your swimming wetsuit, getting your bike gear on and collecting your bike. This is sometimes easier said than done. With the body sending blood to your arms in a prone position during swimming, suddenly tipping upright and asking your legs to run can often cause a feeling of jelly legs and dizziness. Check out our guide to avoid post-swim dizziness to combat this.
The Triathlon Bike
The bike leg of triathlon events usually takes place on roads, though some events might be self-contained at venues such as race tracks. There are also some off-road triathlons, such as the Xterra series, which feature challenging mountain bike courses after the swim and follow these up with tough mixed-terrain runs.
Depending on the scale of the event, roads may or may not be open to traffic on race day, so it’s always important to stay alert for other competitors and vehicles. With the exception of a select few ITU age-group championships, almost all triathlon events are non-drafting. This means you’re not allowed to ride within a certain distance – typically 12m – of the rider in front unless overtaking or you could face a time penalty or even disqualification.
During longer triathlon events – usually those above Olympic distance – there are aid stations placed along the bike route so you can top up on fluids or extra nutrition to keep you energised.
T2 – Bike to Run Transition
Following the bike ride, T2 is where you’ll change into your running kit before heading out onto the final discipline. This is usually a simpler and quicker transition than T1, but preparation is still key to ensure you have all the nutrition you’ll need for the run. Plus, you don’t want to be the one running out onto the course still wearing your bike helmet!
Times for each discipline, as well as transition, are added together to give you a final overall time. For this reason, many athletes practise transitions to make getting their kit on fast second nature. Equipment such as elastic laces and techniques including having shoes already mounted on the bike are also employed to shave off crucial seconds. The longer the event, the less pressure there is for an ultra-fast transition time – unless you’re at the pointy end of the race in the running for a high age-group finish.
The Triathlon Run
The running leg of a triathlon can take place on a variety of surfaces including paved roads, park trails or footpaths. Most run courses are multi-lap, which not only helps to break up the distance mentally but also gives more opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of the crowd or get a lift from your own support crew if you have friends and family on the side lines. Running off the bike with tired muscles is a completely different experience from running fresh. Legs can feel oddly stiff or loose and floppy, so practising this in training is key.
As with the bike, longer events will feature aid stations to help you avoid energy levels becoming completely depleted. In bigger races, these areas also tend to take on something of a party atmosphere helping to keep spirits up as the miles drag on.
When the run ends, so does the race, giving you the opportunity to experience the ecstatic feeling of crossing the finish line. No matter how much experience you gain in the sport, the relief, elation and thrill of the finish line coming into view never diminishes.
While there’s a world-wide professional triathlon scene to provide inspiration at every distance the sport has to offer, the vast majority of athletes who take part in triathlon are everyday people. Usually split into five-year age groups from age 18 upwards, amateur triathletes are commonly referred to as ‘age-groupers’.
Triathlon events are generally very beginner friendly, with huge numbers of first-time triathletes regardless of the race distance. However, the top positions in each age-group are highly coveted as these can lead to qualification to regional or world championships competitions such as the sprint and Olympic-distance ITU championships, the Ironman 70.3 World Championships or the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Usually referred to as simply ‘Kona’, the Ironman world champs is the sport’s pinnacle event – like triathlon’s Wimbledon – and it’s the dream of many an age grouper to one day compete there.
Hundreds of triathlon events take place every year around the world, from small local events to big-name series races such as those run by Ironman and Challenge Family. If you’re into the pro triathlon scene, one of the most exciting aspects of an Ironman or Challenge event is that you’re generally racing at the same time as the professionals on the same course. Weird as it sounds, it does give you a boost when a pro athlete blasts past on the run – even if they’re a few laps ahead!
Generally speaking, the more you pay, the grander the race experience. For example, Ironman events offer an expo full of triathlon gear for sale, a pasta party before the race, branded rucksacks for entrants, a finishing grandstand, finishers t-shirts and high-end medals while there are also organisational benefits such as closed roads during the bike leg. With thousands of racers, hundreds of volunteers and armies of supporters, these events also tend to create a fantastic festival atmosphere, giving the day a fitting sense of spectacle in keeping with your effort.
On the other hand, more participants can mean a more congested course so low-key events score points for value for money and fewer athletes on the course, allowing you to race your own race and not get caught up in the crowds. You can also take pride in supporting your local triathlon scene. Depending on the event, the atmosphere can be just as charged at a small race and the camaraderie between athletes even closer.
Other Race Formats
In addition to triathlon, there are also duathlon, aquathlon and aquabike competitions, all of which have grown into sports in their own rights.
Duathlon is a run-bike-run race, giving weaker swimmers and stronger runners the chance to shine or an opportunity to get some race practise in before or after the main triathlon season. Duathlons typically take place before and after the triathlon season when the open water is too cold to swim in.
Aquathlon (sometimes called aquathon) is usually a swim-run race held over a variety of distances. Aquathlons can also be run-swim-run, a format used at the 2016 ITU Aquathlon World Championships which was won by double Olympic gold medallist Alistair Brownlee.
Aquabike is the newest of the formats and while not officially recognised by the sport’s governing body, these swim-bike events are becoming very popular – especially with athletes who’ve developed running injuries.