When talking to non-triathlete friends (yes, I have some! 🙂 ), one of the questions which is always coming back is “what is the order in a triathlon,” and generally, it is followed by “why in this order?”
Until now, I answered that it is due to safety reasons: swimming in the end when athletes are already tired can be quite dangerous. To have better answers, I have decided to do some more research on the topic and summarize all the valid reasons I found why triathlon is in this order.
1. SWIM SAFETY
There is no doubt that triathlon training and racing can be dangerous and, unfortunately, deadly. In studying 32 years of data, Kevin Harris concluded that 67% of the fatalities in triathlon races are happening during the swim portion (16% on the bike, 11% on the run, and 6% during post-race recovery, link to his comprehensive research).
I can easily imagine that having the swim portion after another sport where athletes are already tired would only increase this risk.
Therefore, to guarantee the highest swim safety possible, swimming is usually at the beginning.
Good to know:
- You can swim breaststroke if you cannot use the freestyle stroke for the entire swim distance. You would be surprised how many athletes are actually switching or even swim breaststroke for the entire race.
- You can rest during the swim portion of a triathlon! I was astonished to learn that when I looked up the triathlon rules (link to my article). As long as you don’t make any forward progress, you can rest on a buoy, kayak without being disqualified.
2. AVOID A GIGANTIC BIKE DRAFTING ZONE
Imagine a second if all non-drafting triathlons would start with the bike portion: first, the start would take forever, and then it would be an absolute nightmare for any race official to control drafting. By putting biking after swimming, the triathletes are already spread out at the beginning of the biking portion.
Making the event draft legal would reduce the importance of the biking portion in a triathlon significantly. I don’t know many people who would spend all of their energy on an attack during the bike, knowing that a full peloton is chasing them, and on top of that, you still need to swim and run afterward.
3. AVOID MASS BIKING SPRINT FINISH
By putting the bike in the end, the chances to get regroupings and a sprint finish are relatively high. It can be really dangerous for the athletes and the spectators, but it is also tricky for race organizers to attribute proper rankings when they are tight.
Having a run finish instead is a safer option and at the same time gives the spectators a breathtaking experience of several minutes. Don’t you agree? Below a tight race finish video from World Triathlon:
4. MAKE IT SPECTATOR FRIENDLY
Having the swim portion last would make it extremely complicated for spectators to know who is in the lead. While you might recognize a triathlete based on his/her swim style on TV, you have no chance to see that when you are 700m away.
Here is a picture my husband’s dad took when Clément did a triathlon in Allgäu. Halfway through the swim, triathletes are coming really close to the spectators. But even being that close, it is not easy to know who is who (Clément still didn’t find himself in this picture 🙂 )
5. AVOID A WETSUIT COMPETITION
Sure, triathlon consists of three different sports, but you also need to transition between them. In T1 (between swim and bike), you need time to remove your wetsuit and other swimming equipment, put your helmet on and take your bike. In T2 (between bike and run), you need time to rack your bike, remove your helmet and cycling shoes, and put on running shoes.
Having run then bike instead of the traditional bike-run would not be an issue during the transition. However, not having swimming as a starting discipline would bring the difficulty of the transitions to another level. Taking off a wetsuit is relatively easy; putting it on is a complete mastery, especially if you are sweating and under stress.
This would be a competition on his own. It could be fun to watch but definitely not to do 🙂
Having the swim portion in a warm lake or swimming pools would eliminate the need for a wetsuit, but do we really want that as triathletes?
6. EASIER LOGISTICS FOR LOCALS
Biking is often the sport that necessitates most of the work from volunteers, police officers, and local firefighters due to its larger distances. Having the bike as the last portion of a triathlon would mean that volunteers need to stay longer for helping, and locals will experience longer road closure.
You could fix this by doing short biking laps, but I think it would also make triathlon less attractive.
7. EASIER CONTROL IN THE WATER
Having everyone in the water simultaneously (or almost the same time for wave starts) is extremely helpful for controlling the swim portion. It makes the life of the lifeguards, the kayakers, and scuba divers way easier. They know at all times where are the first and last swimmers. Imagine if swimming was the second sport…
If it makes their job easier, it also means it will make the life of triathletes safer.
When you think about those 7 reasons, I am actually quite happy that triathlons are ordered the way they are currently: swim, bike, and run. I don’t think I would prefer it any other way.
The swim-bike-run is not a rule per se. There are events in which order is different. See below a couple of exceptions.
BONUS: THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS
The vast majority of triathlons are held in this order, but you can find some exceptions. Here are two examples:
- Zot Trot Reverse is, as the name suggests, a run-bike-swim event. It is held in California and has a pool swim to end the race.
- Super League Triathlon series: those races are mainly pro triathletes events where the formats are mixed up to keep it interesting for the telespectators. I have written an in-depth article about this race series, which will explain everything you need to know before watching it.