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What Is Triathlon?

By Teri deCocq

What brought you here? Did you make a bet with a buddy that you could do a triathlon? Are you looking for a personal challenge? Were you inspired by a triathlete’s story?

No matter what has raised your curiosity, you are on the road to starting a long love affair with an incredibly addicting and life-changing sport. The sport of triathlon will allow you to challenge yourself in ways you never thought possible.

Who Does Triathlons?

The answer: Anyone!

I witnessed an obese grandmother with a prosthetic leg finish her first triathlon to the cheers and tears of her grandchildren. I’ve shared race courses with the famous nun, Sister Madonna Buder, including her 2012 finish at Ironman Canada at the age of 82. I’ve volunteered at kid’s triathlons where herds of kids as young as 4 splashed their way through a “swim”, rode the bike course on training wheels, and then sprinted their hearts out on the run course.

Throw out all of your doubts; you can do a triathlon.

A standard triathlon consists of three disciplines: a swim, bike and run in that order, with quick transitions for equipment changes between each leg. Transitions are often referred to as the fourth discipline because of the importance of doing them quickly.

Typically, the swim leg is done in “open water” such as a lake or protected part of the a ocean. The bike and run legs are done on the road, but there can be variations. For instance:

  • Like getting dirty? There are off-road triathlons with an open water swim, mountain biking, and a trail run
  • Don’t want to swim? A cousin to the triathlon, the duathlon, consists of a run, a bike, and then another run. Or it may just have a bike and run.
  • Is running not your speed? Try an aquabike race, with a swim and a bike leg, but no run.

When you hear “triathlon”, many people think of the awe inspiring Ironman™ Championship in Kona, a grueling 140.6 mile race in the tropical heat, humidity and unrelenting winds. If this is your only vision of a triathlon, no wonder you may be tempted to think “no way” and give up before you start.

In reality, triathlons come in many different lengths, many that are very doable for novices willing to put in a little training.

  • The shortest distance is generally known as a “supersprint” and can be completed so quickly that you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. Most people finish in less than 90 minutes.
  • The longest standard triathlon distance is a daylong event frequently referred to as an “Ironman”, but is more accurately called the “iron” distance or “full” distance. The iron distance race feature a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run.

Between these two extremes are multiple distances including the sprint, Olympic and half iron distances (see the notes section below). Also, many smaller local races offer nonstandard distances.

It’s easy to find a distance that appeals to your strengths as an athlete and your available time to train.

How Do You Get Started?

Get moving! There are many ways to launch your multisport dream. For example:

  • Start researching training plans and/or think about hiring a coach.
  • Not a swimmer? Check out swim lessons or “clinics” at a local pool or find a masters swim group if you have a swimming background.
  • Not sure about your bike or cycling skills? Get your bike out of the garage and have it checked out by a local bike shop. You don’t need a fancy bike to get started; if you want to spend money, you can get a tri specific bike after you’ve gotten a few miles under your belt.
  • Go to the local running store and get fitted for a pair of quality running shoes.
  • Get online and explore the different types of races in your area. Volunteer at a race to see what this sport is all about. Helping at a race is a perfect opportunity to talk to triathletes in your community to learn more about local resources and to be inspired. (Wait until after they’ve crossed the finish line and aren’t focused on their race).
  • Check out tri clinics offered by local clubs or coaches.
  • Wander into your local tri shop and start asking questions. (Please, not on a busy weekend afternoon). Don’t worry that you might be a newbie at this sport; most triathletes enjoy helping new triathletes get started and love talking about their sport.

Your first goal is to get across that start line; you can worry about competing with others after you’re gotten your feet wet (literally and figuratively). Remember, you can do this. All you have to do is tri.

Race Distances

Notice the distances are not always equal between miles and kilometers. The actual distances will vary depending upon the race venue and criteria. These distances are just those most frequently available.

  • Super Sprint: .25 mi (400 m) swim | 6.2 (10 km) bike | 1.5 mi (2.5km) run
  • Sprint: .5 mi (750 m) swim | 12 - 14 mi (20 km) bike | 3.1 mi (5 km) run
  • Olympic: .92 mi (1500 m) swim | 25 mi (40 km) bike | 6.2 mi (10 km) run
  • Half Iron (70.3 or Long Course): 1.2 mi (1.9 km) | 56 mi (90 km) bike | 13.1 mi (21 km) run
  • Full Iron (Ironman™ or 140.6):2.4 mi (3.8 km) swim | 112 mi (180 km) bike | 26.2 mi (42 km) run


The term “Ironman™” is a trademark of the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) and is properly used when referring to WTC races only.

A number of races fall under the rules of the United States Triathlon Association (USAT), the national governing body for triathlons.

The most common off road races are the XTERRA brand off road triathlon races owned by Team Unlimited LLC.

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