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What is the Order of a Triathlon and Why?

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Have you ever wondered why the order of a triathlon is always swim, bike, and then run?
Is there a special reason for this or is it just the way it has always been done?

Let’s take a look at why the order of events in a triathlon is always swim, bike, and run. 

What is the order of events in Triathlon?

triathlon order: swim, bike, run

A standard triathlon consists of a swim, followed by a bike ride, and finished off with a run. The distances for each leg are set, and there is often a maximum time allowed to complete each portion.

There are two transition periods, sometimes called the fourth event as it can require significant training and planning to effectively move between events without breaking any rules or losing too much time. The first is between the swim and bike, and the second is between the bike and the run. 

Swim First 

The first leg of a triathlon is always the swim. This is for safety reasons as athletes tend to get progressively fatigued throughout the race. It’s important that the more difficult disciplines are completed while athletes are still feeling fresh. 

Bike Second 

The bike leg comes next in a triathlon. Biking is often considered to be the most difficult discipline in a triathlon as it takes a lot of endurance to keep pedaling for an extended period of time. 

Run Last

The last discipline in a triathlon is the run. Even though running may not be as difficult as biking, it’s important to save the run for last because it’s relatively easy to maintain a good pace and form during this stage of the race. 

Why is the Order of Events in Triathlon “Swim-Bike-Run”?

Many people wonder why every triathlon follows this same order. Although similar multi-sport races have been traced back to the early 1900s, modern triathlons were really born in the 1970s. These early races didn’t always adhere to the order we’re familiar with today, but as the sport grew in popularity, the order of events quickly settled into the swim-bike-run we know today.

There are a number of reasons that this order makes a lot of sense. Let’s take a look at some of the factors that have influenced the shape of the modern triathlon.

1. Safety of the Triathletes

The most important part of any sporting event is making sure that everyone involved is safe. While some personal injuries can’t be avoided in any serious athletic endeavor, there are external factors that do need to be taken into consideration to minimize risks from the conditions the athletes are faced with.

2. Avoid a Wetsuit Competition

If you have ever tried to put a wetsuit on, you probably know that it could almost be considered a sport of its own! The amount of pulling, tugging, and bodily contortions involved to squeeze your body into one of these things is a feat. If the swim was not the first event, one of the transitions would have to involve getting yourself into a wetsuit, while your body is already tired from one or more events, covered in sweat, and under stress. 

3. Easier Control in the Water

There are a lot of people involved in ensuring athletes are safe in the water. The majority of serious injuries or deaths that occur in triathlons happen in the water. To keep swimmers as safe as possible, there are lifeguards keeping an eye out, kayakers following for quick support if required, and divers in case something goes wrong. When everyone starts the triathlon in the water, it’s much easier for these people to keep track of each person as they enter, progress, and exit the water. 

Many triathletes find the swim to be the most daunting portion. For anyone who is not strong in the water, starting the swim portion after exerting themselves on one or both of the other legs, and possibly in the dark, can be extremely dangerous. 

4. Avoid a Gigantic Bike Drafting Zone

Most triathlons like Ironman and Challenge don’t allow drafting (following closely behind another cyclist to benefit from reduced resistance). If a triathlon started with the bike leg and everyone got on their bike at once, it would be next to impossible for officials to manage drafting.

Some people question why drafting isn’t legal in triathlons, as it is in many professional cycling races. The reason for this is it would diminish motivation to spend energy to be ahead in the cycle portion knowing that you have a run still waiting for you.

So why not make the bike leg the final leg? Let’s look at why.

5. Avoid Mass Biking Sprint Finish

Having a large number of cyclists giving their all to make it to the finish line first can be dangerous for participants and spectators, and can make it harder for race officials to call a winner.

The bike portion also requires more cooperation from the community and local officials, so keeping this leg closer to the beginning of the event can allow for a smoother return to normalcy on the streets being used.

6. End on a High

The majority of triathletes are runners at heart, who have decided to branch out and challenge themselves by taking on two other sports that may be a little bit out of their wheelhouse.

Even participants whose main sport is cycling or swimming very likely incorporate running into their training regimen, so almost everyone entering a triathlon feels pretty comfortable with a run.

It doesn’t take a lot of special equipment, and even after tackling a grueling swim and bike, most participants can safely take on a run to the finish, and it’s much easier to stop for a break if needed than it is in the water or on a bike.

7. Make it Spectator Friendly

Another reason ending on the run gained popularity is that a triumphant burst through the finish line is particularly spectacular on foot! A mass swimming finale would be difficult to track through the splashes, and as discussed above, a mass biking finish can be chaotic at best and dangerous at worst.

8. Easier Logistics for Locals

A triathlon requires a huge amount of cooperation from the community, volunteers, and local emergency workers. The swim and bike portions are the most complicated to coordinate and manage safely.

Ensuring that those two legs are finished as early in the day as possible allows for the most efficient cleanup of barriers, support stations, and any remaining litter, to allow the neighborhood that has graciously hosted a race to return to normal as soon as possible. 

9. Exceptions

There are some variations of the standard triathlon order that are offered if this schedule doesn’t suit you as a competitor or spectator. One is a reverse triathlon, called a Zot Trot, where as you would expect, the order is run-bike-swim. Notably, the swim is held in a pool, which allows for an increased control of the safety, 

There is also the Super League Triathlon, which is geared towards experienced athletes only, for safety reasons. While the distances aren’t particularly daunting, this race throws all the rules you think you know to the wind!

Safety, Safety, Safety

Triathletes are among the toughest athletes there are. Wanting to push limits, take on new challenges, and overcome barriers is a big part of why people choose to compete in these races. Carefully curating how races are managed helps keep athletes safe, and encourages new heights in athletic accomplishments.

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Ryan Jones

Ryan Jones is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 3 Certified Coach. Since graduating college, Ryan has coached over sixty triathletes, runners, cyclists, and swimmers. He focuses on helping them select appropriate goals and guiding them towards achieving them.

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