Triathlon Basics


What is a Triathlon?

Finishing a triathlon is an incredible experience and achievement but let’s start with a more technical definition: A triathlon is an endurance race that consists of swimming, cycling and running (always in that order, various distances). The word triathlon means „three competitions“ based on its origin which is a combination of the two Greek words ”treis” and ”athlos”. While there are shorter distances as well, the most popular, longer triathlons are some of the most challenging endurance races that exist. The sport is enjoyed by a growing global community that loves to share knowledge and experiences while pushing each other to keep going as thorough preparation, many hours of training and the right training intensity distribution are needed to master a triathlon. A coach or a smart training app like TRIQ can not only make sure athletes train right based on their goals. It can also help save a lot of time otherwise spent on planning, adjust the plan 24/7 if something changes and monitor athletes’ recovery and training progress.

How Long is a Triathlon?

That depends. There are several common triathlon distances (however, sometimes the exact segment lengths are defined differently by organizers). Records are also tough to judge as every course has its own challenges and distance accuracy is sometimes not guaranteed. Nice detail: For most races, amateurs and pros always follow the same course at the events so everyone beats the same challenge at their own speed.

Starting with the shorter distances the five most popular triathlons, their common segmentation and records are:

Super Sprint:

Based on a quarter and on half of the Olympic Distance (OD) the Super Sprint (1/4 OD) consists of a 0.25 mile (400m) swim, 6.2 miles on the bike (10km) and a 1.6-mile run (2.5km) and can last a little over 30 minutes (elite) to close to 2 hours.


The Sprint (1/2 OD) consists of a 0.47 miles swim (750m), 12 miles bike (20km) and 3.1 miles run (5km) and can take anywhere from 50 minutes to almost 3 hours.

Olympic Distance (OD): Swim 0.93 miles (1.5km), Bike 25 miles (40km) and run 6.2 miles (10km). It’s also sometimes called ”international distance” as well as ”short course” and ”standard course”. As distance accuracy has sometimes been an issue the world records lie around 1 hour 45 for men and 1 hour 55 for women. Therefore, pros and recreational athletes can expect times between 2 and 5 hours.

Triathlon 70.3: This „half-ironman“ is probably the most popular distance among triathletes. It consists of a 1.2-mile swim (1.9km), cycling 56 miles (90km) and 13.1 miles of running (21.1km). The world record is 3:29:04 (Kristian Blummenfelt, 2018) for men and 3:55:50 for women (Helle Frederiksen, 2014). Race times range from 4 hours (pros) to 7+ hours for recreational athletes.

Ironman Triathlon (or Full Distance): This is the toughest, most famous race type and also known as Triathlon 140.6 or Full Distance. The number is the mile sum of the swimming (2.4 mi / 3.9 km), cycling (112 mi / 181 km) and marathon running (13.1 mi / 42.2 km) portions of the race. The world records of 7:35:39 (Jan Frodeno, 2016) for men and 8:18:13 for women (Chrissie Wellington, 2011) were both set at Challenge Roth. An Ironman distance takes from about 8 hours (pros) to many recreational athletes needing quite a bit more than 13 hours to finish.

Other Triathlon Types: There are several other short triathlon distances that take less training. Some can even be done by kids. There are also other European variations with total distances that fall between the more popular triathlon types.

What Regulations do Apply?

We’ll just give you a quick overview. For more exact details check out the comprehensive triathlon rules by the International Triathlon Union (recently renamed to ”World Triathlon”) which is the governing body for the sport and mostly in charge of non-full-distance triathlons. However, there are also separate regional rules to consider. Ironman is a brand of its own and you can find the rules here. For some races, the cycling portion is ruled by the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, world governing body of cycling).

The sequence of sports is always swimming, then cycling, then running. This is based on swimming being the riskiest and cycling also being more challenging than running which is the safest discipline to do while fatigued. Triathlons are timed in five separate sequences: The three sports and the transitions in between. There are several separate regulations for each of the three sports.

Swimming Stage of Triathlon Races

Triathlon swimming usually happens in open water but can also take place in swimming pools for some races. Depending on this there are different types of starts determined separately for each race by the organizers. The athletes can jump or run into the water or start from inside the water (known as a deep water start). To manage larger amounts of athletes there are wave starts, often grouped by age and gender and time trial starts that take part one racer after another by racer numbers. In rolling starts, racers are grouped by expected swim time to allow clearer swim paths. Actual mass starts are a tradition of sorts in IRONMAN® races and probably the most iconic (and stressful) starts as all competitors run into the water together.

There are also a few other more rare starting procedures than the ones mentioned based on special courses or indoors.

The swimming style of choice is normally front crawl (though any swim stroke is legal) as this is the fastest and most efficient swimming stroke. Based on temperatures athletes often wear wetsuits or approved triathlon suits that don’t cover the arms and also include no neoprene. Wetsuits are mandatory for 15.9 ºC and below and usually forbidden from 20-24.6 ºC and above depending on swim length and age group. In addition, the official event swim cap must be worn during the swimming segment.

As long as the official course is followed athletes can stand in between or rest by holding on to buoys. By raising an arm and calling for assistance emergency help can be called and athletes automatically retire from the competition.

After swimming the racers exit the water into the transition area and change from swim gear into cycling gear. Many racers wear tri-suits under their wetsuits that can be worn for cycling and running as well so they simply remove their wetsuit, goggles and cap while walking, put on their helmet and slip into their bike shoes which some pre-attach to their bike pedals to save even more time.  

Biking Stage of Triathlon Races

The cycling portion leaves the most room for technology and special equipment. From aerodynamic clothing, equipment weight, bike frame and handlebar shape, to sitting position (tested in wind canals for pros) there are many things to tweak in order to be faster. Drinking water and food (gels etc.) for longer races are also stored on the bikes by many athletes.

Triathlon biking usually takes place on a marked course on public roads. For smaller triathlons, roads often aren’t closed to cars but the traffic is coordinated by helpers. There are also strict rules on drafting and proximity to others during a race as well as what frames, bikes and wheels are allowed, plus more rules regarding handlebars, helmets, brakes, saddle position and logos or stickers. It’s definitely advised to check the most recent ITU competition rules (or UCI / IRONMAN®) and the organizer’s rules in detail before signing up, as especially drafting is often not allowed and instead keeping a three bike distance can be the rule. Triathlon bike rules also include not being permitted to block others when passing. The cycling stage again finishes in the transition area where the participants put their bikes on racks, take off helmets, quickly put on running shoes and begin the final run.

Running Stage of Triathlon Races

Triathlon running is the last and essentially the least complex part of the race regarding equipment and procedure. What makes it hard however is that it’s the last part of the race and running after a long bike ride is a special challenge on the legs. Along the run course (and the bike course as well) there are aid stations in most races that provide water and energy drinks to the athletes passing by, as well as food in longer triathlons. The running course can partially be the same as the bike course. Some rules for the run are: It’s legal to run or walk, crawling isn’t allowed and you need to wear the official race number. The bike helmet must be taken off and no external pacemakers or other assistance is allowed on course. Again for the full rules be sure to check with the organizer.

How to Train for a Triathlon

A triathlon training plan should be based on several factors. The main questions are: What kind of triathlon would the athlete like to compete in and when? How much time are they able to afford spending on training? Are they physically able to stick with and consistently fulfil the planned training for several months? For an IRONMAN® event for example the athlete will usually need to spend a larger amount of time per week on their triathlon preparation and train for several more months leading up to the race than for a shorter triathlon.

The TRIQ app is a great tool for truly personalized training plans as it gathers, tests and manages all of the information initially needed and plans the training according to individual progress, available hours and recovery. It also adjusts and optimizes sessions immediately if there are schedule changes.

Training intensity for all three sports is usually described in five training zones (sometimes 3, then 1+2 and 4+5 are summarized) that are based on maximum heart rate and lactate threshold. A very simplified description for triathlon preparation would be that the required training intensity distribution to succeed should generally follow a more polarized approach. This means a large portion (about 80%) of slow pace long endurance training sessions (zone 1+2) mixed with some high intensity (zone 4+5) training sessions (about 20%) while skipping the mid-level intensity. There is also a more pyramidal training intensity distribution that is more suited to those athletes focusing on 70.3 and Ironman distance races. Again, the TRIQ algorithm follows these principles in an even more detailed and intelligent way than what can usually be achieved by planning manually. However, many triathletes still like to get additional coaching advice—sometimes for the entire process, sometimes for certain areas like swimming technique. Joining a triathlon club is also a great way to become part of a community of other triathlon enthusiasts.

Triathlon for Beginners

As a complete triathlon beginner, it’s first important to make time for prolonged endurance training sessions. Access to a swimming facility and a bike is also key. For the race, you will also need a legal helmet. To make tracking the training easier most athletes choose to use a smartwatch or other wearable devices as early as possible. At first, any bike will do as being fast isn’t the focus yet but building basic endurance is. However, shifting to a lighter, low handlebar racing bike (potentially with a triathlon handlebar / aero-bar) is usually part of the journey. It’s much faster and an aero-bar can save the arms from getting tired while being even more aerodynamic. Switching to a dedicated triathlon bike frame goes even further as the leg muscles used are slightly different based on a different sitting position which saves even more energy for the run. Setting up access to an indoor cycling option is also helpful as you will be less dependent on weather conditions. Measuring watts with smart pedals allows for the most exact training intensity. Most triathletes get a stationary smart trainer and attach the bike they usually use by replacing the rear wheel with the trainer. Many smart trainers can simulate climbs and automatically adjust resistance which is important for virtual racing. Of course, regular home trainers (spin bikes) can also be used for training but usually don’t offer the same connectivity, automated resistance and no shifting of gears.  

Some other beginner tips: Remember to work on improving your technique from the start in all three sports. Especially add technical swim workouts that allow you to constantly work on your technique as the right movement is almost as important as improving your endurance in order to get faster and waste less energy. Another important aspect is core stability and mobility. Strength and mobility training sessions should be part of the training to prevent injury and set up the body for long-term endurance sport success and sustainability in training.

Triathlon for Advanced Athletes

Advanced triathlon training puts a larger focus on details like performance analysis and increasing the training volume while not overtraining. For those who already have advanced endurance athleticism, finding the sweet spot to train as much as possible while not getting injured becomes the main objective. Nutrition optimization and recovery monitoring can help advanced triathletes to improve further. Perfecting and maintaining ideal technique for the three sports remains a vital aspect even for world-class triathletes. Constantly optimizing equipment and experimenting with different settings and tools is also an important way to get faster.

Triathlon for Professionals

Triathlon professionals usually train 20 or more hours per week. In order to maintain and endure this type of steady stress on the body a smart and systematic training regimen is needed. This is usually achieved through feedback from one or multiple coaches and by monitoring and checking on many physical parameters to ensure that the training effect is maximized and maintainable. Planning, optimizing and spending extended time and resources on recovery and optimized nutrition is pretty much the standard. Optimizing the weight, shape and materials of the equipment is pushed to a further extent and sponsors can help to afford this. Many pro triathletes are also part of triathlon teams for camaraderie, exchange of knowledge, motivation and competing together.

Pros can also become part of the PTO which is the Professional Triathlon Organisation and a representative body for (non-drafting) triathletes much like athlete organizations in tennis or golf. It’s a non-profit with the mission to advance the sport of triathlon, strengthen the community and support triathletes via world rankings and events.

Triathlon at the Olympics

Since triathlon debuted at the Sydney Games in 2000 the Olympic distance has been Swim 0.93 miles (1.5km), Bike 25 miles (40km) and run 6.2 miles (10km). However, exact course accuracy has not been a given at all Olympic games. For example, the bike course at the 2016 Rio Olympics was 38.48 kilometers instead of 40. Triathlon in general also has been contested ever since it became Olympic. The qualification for the Olympics is governed via National Olympic Committees (NOCs) with a maximum of eight nations each having the chance to earn up to three spots. All others can earn up to two. Qualification for the 50 spots for each woman and man are awarded to the winners of one of five regional qualifying tournaments, the top three of the last Triathlon World Championships and the highest-ranked triathletes in the ITU ranking. Of the final three spots, one can go to the host country, and the other two are awarded by the Tripartite Commission which grants spots to athletes from countries with less than eight participants in the last two Olympic Games.

Ironman World Championship Hawaii

The Ironman World Championship takes place every year in Kailua-Kona on the island of Hawaii. It’s probably the most mythical triathlon event that exists and one of the toughest long course triathlons due to heat and humidity. For age-groupers, the Ironman in Hawaii is the pinnacle of the sport and a lifetime goal for many in order to once get the chance to race there alongside the world’s top pros and age-groupers. It’s a big goal to achieve since there are only limited slots available. As an age-grouper, you have to qualify at an official IRONMAN® long-distance race and rank amongst the best of your age-group. Each event only has a limited number of slots that are evenly distributed over different competition categories. The bigger the age-group the more slots are available.

The pros have to win or step on the Podium of an Ironman event beforehand (depending on the rating of the event) to secure their slot. The winners of the IRONMAN® World Championship Hawaii are crowned with a leaf collar as the “Queen and King of Kona”.

Stay tuned