What is a Triathlon?

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Whether you’re just starting to get motivated to get off the couch, or are already a seasoned athlete, a triathlon can seem like a daunting endeavor.

What is a Triathlon?

Swimming, biking, and running all in one race might feel overwhelming, but don’t panic! You’re here, and that’s a good first step. I’m going to let you in on all the knowledge you need to get started and succeed in the world of triathlons

History of Triathlons

The root of this multisport race can be traced back to France in the 1920s, but the more formal rules and structure we’re familiar with today are as modern as the 1970s. Jogging was starting to become trendy, and races became a popular event. Some of these athletes missed their involvement in other sports in their youth, and felt that a more varied event would encourage more well-rounded fitness. 

Triathlon History

The first formal incarnation of the triathlon was held in California in September of 1974, and was  a grueling combination of multiple legs of running, biking, and swimming. This attracted the attention of the sports world, and over the next decades, the modern structure of the triathlon we’re familiar with today was established.

What is the Order of Events in Triathlon?

The standard order of events for the modern triathlon is swimming, followed by cycling, and ending with running. Swimming ultimately took the starting role in the sport due to the added danger of being in water.

Read more: What is the Order of a Triathlon and Why?

A runner succumbing to exhaustion at the end of a long, tiring race might only collapse on the road. A swimmer unable to go on doesn’t have the safety net of stopping for a rest, and risks cramping or losing consciousness, potentially leading to drowning. 

Triathlon Order

Another factor that led to establishing the current order of events is the ease of transition from one discipline to the next. Removing swim clothes such as a wetsuit takes longer than putting one on, so for the love of speed, triathlons start in full swim gear. 

What is Transition?

Speaking of transition, this is sometimes known as “the fourth event”. Although only three sports are actually involved, moving smoothly from one to the next is a vital part of a successful triathlon. 

There are two transitions in a triathlon. The first, known as T1, is moving from swimming to biking, and the second, known as T2, is moving from biking to running. T1 is generally considered the more challenging of the two, and on average takes a little more than twice as long as T2.

You can think of your bike as ground zero, because the crux of both transitions will occur there. Before the race starts, you will park your bike in an assigned spot or area, and you will have some space (sometimes more or less than others!) to lay out the gear you’ll need for the middle parts of your race so that it’s ready for both transitions.

To make the most of T1, ideally you want to have a good understanding of the course you’ll be competing on. The distance between exiting the water and getting on your bike will be an exercise in multi-tasking!

Removing your goggles, swim cap, and wetsuit if you’re wearing one, will all be accomplished as you run from the water to your bike. This is something you’ll want to practice a fair bit before arriving on race day. You’ll then need to put on whatever gear you need for the next stage, such as socks, shoes, a helmet, and possibly gloves or additional clothing.

You’ll find T2 faster and easier than T1. Parking your bike and removing your helmet in a hurry are trickier than you might imagine, but once you’ve done that you’re in the final stretch! You’ll probably feel a surge of energy, but beware that you might also find your legs may be wobblier than you expect.

What is a Sprint Triathlon?

Depending on your athletic experience, a sprint triathlon is a great place to start. It’s one of the shortest available courses, and is a perfect way to get a feel for how a triathlon works. A sprint course involves a 750m swim, a 20k bike, and a 5k run.

Sprint Triathlon

Some areas or clubs might also offer something called a “Try-a-Tri” which is half the distance of a sprint. Don’t feel discouraged if that’s where you feel comfortable starting, or even if that’s all you ever feel interested in pursuing – most people never compete in any athletic endeavor this challenging, and you should be proud!

What is an Olympic Triathlon?

An Olympic Triathlon is the distance most people are familiar with, as it’s the standard course for the Olympic games. This course is double the sprint, consisting of a 1500m swim, a 20km bike, and a 10km run.

What is a 70.3 Triathlon?

The 70.3 triathlon is also known as a half-Ironman, and is named for the total distance covered in miles. It consists of a 1.9km swim, a 90km bike, and a 21.1km run. This race is often run by athletes who are building up to run a full Ironman, or by former Ironman competitors who can no longer sustain the level of training required. 

What is an Ironman Triathlon?

The Ironman triathlon has gained a lot of popularity over the last few decades, providing a significant additional challenge to the standard Olympic triathlon. This race is as challenging as it gets! It starts with a 3.8km swim, followed by a 180km bike, and ending with an actual full marathon run of 42.2km. 

Ironman Triathlon

How do I get Started in Triathlon?

You can likely find a number of triathlons near you, even if you live in a fairly small town. The popularity of the sport is far-reaching, and many races are run across the world every year. 

Reaching out to a running club, looking online for schedules and events, and checking gym bulletin boards are great ways to find information about what is available for you. There may be groups who meet to train together, or courses on how to train, or practice sessions to work on transitions. 

How Much Does it Cost to do a Triathlon?

The cost of doing a triathlon can vary enormously depending on the competitive level of the event you sign up for, and any travel or accommodation you may need to participate in an event that isn’t local to you. 

The amount to register for a race can range anywhere from free to over $100, and there may be additional costs for t-shirts, swim caps, and other fees. 

The equipment can also be costly, and can differ a great deal depending on the quality of gear you choose to use, and whether you buy or rent.

What Gear is Needed to do a Triathlon?

Triathlon Gear

Gear is an important part of a triathlon. With three separate disciplines involved, there is a lot of equipment you will need to have, and some more you may want to have.

What you need for your swim will depend on the body of water you’re swimming in. If it’s a pool, you may be able to compete in just a standard swimsuit. Open water swimming can be more complicated, as depending on the temperature and conditions, specific wetsuits may be mandatory. You’ll also need goggles, and will likely be provided a swim cap. 

Biking is generally the most expensive leg of a triathlon. You’ll be faster and use less energy with a road bike, but if all you have available is a mountain bike, you can use that too. You can also rent a bike for a race.

You’ll definitely need a helmet, not only for your own safety, but also most races require the use of a helmet. Gloves can be handy for longer bike rides, especially if your hands are still damp from your swim. You might also want athletic sunglasses or a visor.

For your run, all you really need is a good pair of shoes, and some socks. You’ll have already put them on after your swim for your bike ride, so you’re good to go!

What are the Rules for a Triathlon?

The rules for a triathlon are very similar to the rules for any race in each of its three disciplines. 

For swimming, a cap is usually required, and no flotation devices are allowed. Depending on the temperature and conditions of the water, there may be specific wetsuit requirements. While you can absolutely wear some of the clothes you plan to race the other legs in under your wetsuit, most races forbid any clothing under the knee while swimming.

A standard rule in most triathlons is that you can’t touch your bike without your helmet securely fastened. As easy as it might seem to hop on the bike and clip your helmet on as you set off, in most races that would be an immediate disqualification. Another rule in most races for the biking portion is in regards to drafting.

When you ride very closely behind another cyclist, it reduces your wind resistance, and this is known as drafting. Most races will have specific distances you are allowed to ride behind another competitor to avoid this unfair advantage.

Running has fewer rules, but one that does surprise many triathletes who have competed in running races before is that headphones of any kind are generally forbidden. This is a safety rule, ensuring that athletes at the end of a long and exhausting physical challenge are aware of their surroundings.

Tips and Tricks

You’re well on your way to getting on that course! Here are some last secrets I want to leave you with as you embark on this exciting challenge.

  • Never sell or give away the race number assigned to you. It may seem tempting if you can’t make the event for one reason or another, but if there’s a medical emergency, it could be a matter of life or death if the athlete’s identity isn’t accurate.
  •  Make sure you have your helmet on and buckled at all times you have even a finger on your bike! Don’t be tempted to start unbuckling as you glide into the transition zone. Always park your bike fully first before removing your helmet, or risk disqualification.
  • Not sure you’re a strong enough swimmer, or don’t know how to ride a bike? Make it a family affair! There are many relay events offered, where you can join forces with your friends or family and have each person compete in the event they shine in!
  • Read the race package! Never assume you know what’s expected – any rules or nuances that apply to a specific event will be outlined there. 
  • Eat well, an hour or two before your race. Avoid anything too heavy, and try to have a solid meal with protein, such as toast and peanut butter, or eggs and potatoes. You will get hungry, and you do need fuel!
  • For most triathletes, the run is the easiest part, and the swim is the scariest! Don’t let it get to you. Take your time, you can make it up later in a leg you feel stronger in. If you need a break, go onto your back for a few strokes, or tread for a while.
  • Hydrate when you can! Drink as much as possible in both transitions. There will be water offered on your bike and run route – don’t be shy about grabbing a gulp!

You Can Do This

It’s a challenge, no matter what distance course you start with. And good for you! Regardless of your course time or where you place, taking on a triathlon of any size is an accomplishment most people can’t even imagine. You can do it!

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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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