Triathlete swimming in a lake with a wetsuit

What Is A Triathlon?

Whether you heard the word triathlon for the first time or want to learn more about it, this article will give you all the essential information you need to know about our sport.

A triathlon is a single event that combines three sports one after the other: swimming, cycling and running. Depending on its distance, one discipline might be more important than the others.

Let’s check that in more detail.

TRIATHLON ORDER

With very few exceptions, a triathlon always follows the same order: swim, bike, and run, no matter the distance. Only the length of each sport will change depending on the race distance.

Having this order is mainly for the safety of the triathletes, but not only. If you want to learn more about the logic behind this order, have a look at this article.

TRIATHLON DISTANCES

We are fortunate as triathletes to have plenty of distances to choose from. If you like racing full speed from start to finish, look at the Super Sprint or Sprint distances. If instead, you want a pure endurance event, an Ironman is a great challenge to take on.

NameSwimBikeRunAlso Known As
Ironman2.4 mi112 mi26.2 mi140.6, XXL
Half Ironman1.2 mi56 mi13.1 mi70.3, L
Olympic0.93 mi24.8 mi6.2 miStandard, M
Sprint0.47 mi12.4 mi3.1 miS
Super Sprint0.25 mi6.2 mi1.6 miXS

The most famous triathlon event is probably Ironman Kona in Hawaii. As a full-distance race, it is also the World Championship of Ironman.

For more details about each distance, have a look at this article: A Quick Overview Of All Triathlon Distances

The weight of each sport varies depending on the distance of the race. As you can see on the graph below, the shorter the triathlon is, the more time triathletes will spend in the water and in transitions (relative to the total time)!

Relative weight of triathlon sports per distance based on time
Weights for Ironman to Sprint are based on my article on Triathlon Time. The Super Sprint weights are an estimation.

TRIATHLON AGE GROUPS

That is my favorite part about our sport. I am pretty competitive, to say the least, and triathlon is fantastic because it maintains rankings per age group. So it doesn’t matter how old you are. You can still go on the podium or even participate in the world championship.

It is pretty common to see the followings age groups for adults (women and men are also separated):

  • 18-24
  • 25-29
  • 30-34
  • 35-39
  • 40-44
  • 45-49
  • 50-54
  • 55-59
  • 60-64
  • 65-69
  • 70-74
  • 75+

Depending on the event’s size and the organizer, the groups might differ slightly.

TRIATHLON RULES

There are quite a few rules that triathletes need to obey. I listed here the most important ones per discipline:

SWIM
  • swim style: it is allowed to swim breaststroke and freestyle
  • rest: it is allowed to rest by standing on the bottom or by holding to an inanimate object (ex: buoys, stationary boats, floating objects) as long as you don’t make forward progress.
  • wetsuit: depending on the weather condition, it might be compulsory to wear one, optional or even forbidden. Always check the athlete’s guide of the race you are participating in.
BIKE
  • helmet: simply compulsory in all races
  • no drafting: triathletes must maintain a distance between each other (generally between 10 to 20 meters depending on the race). They will receive a time penalty otherwise.
    Be aware that on short-distance triathlon, the elite are sometimes allowed to draft. One example is the Olympics.
  • mounting and dismounting line: A physical mount and dismount line will be present to separate the transition area and the biking course. In most races, those two will be placed at a different location
RUN
  • run or walk
  • wear the official race number

TRIATHLON TIME

The ranking in races is based on the total time to complete the triathlon. It comprises the swim, bike, run, and transitions times. Most organizers also publish those splits in the final results.

As a beginner, the time you will need to complete a race will depend on a couple of factors:

  • the distance, obviously 🙂
  • the profile of the bike and run courses
  • your level of fitness
  • your gender
  • your age

I wrote an article summarizing the average time a triathlete needs per distance, have a look here: Triathlon Times Across Age Groups And Distances