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The three components of triathlon: swimming, cycling, running
A triathlon is a multi-sport endurance event consisting of swimming, cycling, and running in immediate succession over various distances. Triathletes compete for fastest overall course completion time, including timed "transitions" between the individual swim, bike, and run components.

Triathlon races vary in distance. According to the International Triathlon Union, and USA Triathlon, the main international race distances are Sprint distance (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run), Intermediate distance commonly referred to as "Olympic distance" (1.5km swim, 40km ride, 10km run), the Long Course 1.9km swim, 90km ride, 21.1km run, such as the Half Ironman), and Ultra Distance (3.8km swim, 180 km ride, and a marathon: 42.2km run), the most popular branded Ultra Distance is the Ironman triathlon.

Transition areas are positioned both between the swim and bike segments (T1), and the bike and run segments (T2), and are often just one checkpoint, especially in shorter courses. These areas are used to store bicycles, performance apparel, and any other accessories essential for preparing and gearing for the next stage of the race. The transition times (T1 and T2) are included in the overall time of the race. So speed during transition - removing the wetsuit, putting on the helmet, putting on the running shoes - is essential. Elite triathletes have the bicycle shoes mounted on the bikes before the race and place their feet into them when riding. In large races, transitions areas maybe up to a kilometer long, and be storing over 2000 entrants bicycles. In addition, these areas provide a social headquarters prior to the race, and are an integral part of triathlon culture.

The demanding nature of the sport focuses primarily on persistent and often periodized training in each of the three disciplines, as well as combination workouts and general strength conditioning to ensure the highest levels of endurance, strength, and power possible come race day. Proficiency in swimming, cycling, and running alone is often not sufficient for success in triathlon.


Triathlon is considered by some to have its beginnings in 1920s Francemarker . According to triathlon historian and author Scott Tinley (and others), the origin of triathlon is attributed to a race during the 1920s-1930s that was called variously "Les trois sports", "La Course des Débrouillards", and "La course des Touche à Tout". Nowadays, this race is held every year in France near Joinville-le-Pont, in Meulanmarker and Poissy.

An earlier tri-sport event in 1902 featured running, cycling, and canoeing. There are documented tri-sport events featuring running, swimming, & cycling (not necessarily in that order) in 1920, 1921, 1945, and the 1960s . In 1920, the French newspaper "L´Auto" reported on a competition called "Les Trois Sports" with a 3 km run, 12 km bike, and a swim across the channel Marnemarker. Those three parts were done without any break. Another event was held in 1921 in Marseillesmarker with the order of events bike-run-swim. Among the participants was American athlete Charles Sector . There are also articles in French newspapers about a race in Marseille in 1927. There is a 1934 article about "Les Trois Sports" (the three sports) in the city of La Rochellemarker, a race with: (1) a channel crossing (c. 200 m), (2) a bike competition (10 km) around the harbor of La Rochelle and the parc Laleu, and (3) a run (1200 m) in the stadium André-Barbeau.

Modern triathlon

The first modern swim/bike/run event to be called a 'triathlon' was held at Mission Bay, San Diego, California on September 25, 1974. The race was conceived and directed by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, members of the San Diego Track Club, and was sponsored by the track club. 46 participants entered this event. It was reportedly not inspired by the French events., although a race the following year at Fiesta Island, California is sometimes called 'the first triathlon in America'.


The first modern long-distance triathlon event was the Hawaiianmarker Ironman Triathlon. It included a 2.4 mile (3.86 km; 77 lap) swim, a 112 mile (180.2 km) bike ride, and a 26.2 mile (42.195 km) run. It was conceived during the awards ceremony for the 1977 Oahumarker Perimeter Relay (a running race for 5-person teams).

Among the participants were numerous representatives of both the Mid-Pacific Road Runners and the Waikiki Swim Club, whose members had long been debating which athletes were more fit: runners or swimmers. On this occasion, U.S. Navy Commander John Collins pointed out that a recent article in Sports Illustrated magazine had declared that Eddy Merckx, the great Belgian cyclist, had the highest recorded "maximum oxygen uptake" of any athlete ever measured, so perhaps cyclists were more fit than anyone. Collins and his wife, Judy, had taken part in the triathlons staged in 1974 and 1975 by the San Diego Track Club in and around Mission Bay, California, as well as the Optimist Sports Fiesta Triathlon in Coronado, Californiamarker in 1975.

A number of the other military athletes in attendance were also familiar with the San Diego races, so they understood the concept when Collins suggested that the debate should be settled through a race combining the three existing long-distance competitions already on the island: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 mi/3.862 km), the Around-Oahu Bike Race ( ; originally a two-day event) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.219 mi/42.195 km). No one present had ever done the bike race so they did not realize it was a two-day, not one-day, event. Collins calculated that, by shaving 3 miles (5 km) off the course and riding counter-clockwise around the island, the bike leg could start at the finish of the Waikiki Rough Water and end at the Aloha Towermarker, the traditional start of the Honolulu Marathon. Prior to racing, each athlete received three sheets of paper listing a few rules and a course description. Handwritten on the last page was this exhortation:

With a nod to a local runner who was notorious for his demanding workouts, Collins said:

Of the fifteen men to start off in the early morning on February 18, 1978, twelve completed the race and the world's first Ironman, Gordon Haller, completed it in 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 58 seconds.


Today, a number of triathlon events over varying distances are held around the world. The standard "Olympic Distance" of 1.5/40/10 km (.93/24.8/6.2 miles)was created by long time triathlon race director Jim Curl in the mid-1980s, after he and partner Carl Thomas successfully produced the U.S. Triathlon Series (USTS) between 1982 and 1997. The Hawaii Ironman Triathlon now serves as the Ironman world championship, but the entity that owns the race, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), hosts other triathlons around the world that are also called Ironmans. Long-distance multi-sport events organized by groups other than the WTC may not officially be called "Ironman" or "Iron" races. Such triathlons may be described as Full distance triathlon or "Half distance", but the "Ironman" and "Iron" labels are the official property of the WTC.

The International Triathlon Union (ITU) was founded in 1989 as the international governing body of the sport, with the chief goal being to put triathlon on the Olympic program. The ITU has never officially sanctioned the Ironman Triathlon. Some believe that the Hawaii Ironman should be recognized as the official world championship for the sport as a whole, and as such should be sanctioned by the ITU. For its part, however, the ITU has expressed little interest in supporting longer distance triathlons, choosing to retain its focus instead on the shorter races geared toward the Olympics.


The symbol for triathlon in the Olympics
The sport made its debut on the Olympic program at the Sydney Games in 2000 over the Olympic Distance (swim: - bike: - run: ). (See Triathlon at the Summer Olympics.)


Since its founding, triathlon has grown significantly and now includes thousands of races with hundreds of thousands of competitors worldwide each year.

Standard race distances

Name Swim Bicycle Run Notes
Kids of Steel 100–750  m

5–15 km

1–5 km

Distances vary with age of athlete. See: Ironkids
Novice (Australia) 300 m 8 km 2 km Distances vary, but this is a standard Novice distance course in Australia.
Super Sprint 400 m
(0.25  mi)
10 km
(6.2  mi)
2.5 km
(1.5 mi)
Distances vary, but this is a standard Super Sprint course.
Novice (Europe) 400 m
(0.25  mi)
20 km
(12.4 mi)
5 km
(3.1  mi)
Distances vary somewhat, but this is a standard novice/fitness distance course in Europe.
Sprint 750 m
(0.47 mi)
20 km
(12.4 mi)
5 km
(3.1  mi)
For pool-based races a 400m swim is common. The sprint distance is the fastest growing triathlon race distance in the United States
Olympic 1.5 km
(0.93  mi)
40 km
(24.8  mi)
10 km
(6.2  mi)
Also known as "international distance", "standard course", or "short course"
ITU-Long Distance (O2) 3.0 km
(1.86 mi)
80 km
(49.6 mi)
20 km
(12.4 mi)
Double Olympic Distance
ITU-Long Distance (O3) 4.0 km
(2.49 mi)
120 km
(74.6 mi)
30 km
(18.6 mi)
So-called triple Olympic Distance, distance of the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships in 2008, originally the distance of the Nice triathlon
Half 1.9 km
(1.2  mi)
90 km
(56  mi)
21.09 km
(13.1  mi)
Also known as "middle distance", 70.3, or "half-ironman".
Full 3.8 km
(2.4  mi)
180 km
(112  mi)
42.2 km
(26.2  mi) marathon
Also known as "long distance" or "Ironman Triathlon".
The ITU accepts a 5% margin of error in the cycle and run course distances.

Though there can be some variation in race distances, particularly among short triathlons, most triathlons conform to one of those above standards.

The International Triathlon Union (ITU) sanctions and organizes a World Cup series of Olympic distance races (13 in 2004) each year, culminating in an annual World Championship for both elite pro-triathletes, junior pro-triathletes and amateur athletes in 5-year age-groups. The professional world cup races are conducted in a draft legal format for the bike leg while drafting is not permitted at the amateur level.

The World Triathlon Corporation sanctions and organizes a series of Ironman and Ironman 70.3 distance races each year. These races serve as qualifying events for the World Championships held annually in Kailua-Kona, Hawai'imarker (October, Ironman) and Clearwater, Floridamarker (November, Ironman 70.3).

In addition, the ITU has a Long Distance Triathlon series. This circuit is smaller in scale than either the Olympic distance World Cup or the WTC Ironman or Ironman 70.3 series.

How a triathlon works

Major races require athletes to register and attend a race briefing the day before the actual race. This race briefing details the course, the rules, and any problems to look out for (road conditions, closures, traffic lights, aid stations). At registration the racers are provided a race number, colored swim cap, and, if the event is being electronically timed, a timing band. Often racers are also given competitor wrist bands that allow them in and out of the transition area or other athlete-only areas. At a major event, such as an Ironman or a Long Course Championship, triathletes are required to set up their bike in the transition area the day before and leave it overnight under guard.

For shorter distances the racers arrive at the venue about an hour (or more) before the race is to begin. They register and receive their swim cap and number, then proceed to set up their spot in the transition area. For most races, competitors have their race number marked on their arms and legs, along with having their age group marked on their calf. Some triathlon races also require you to have your number stuck on your bike and also wear a chestplate when running with your number on it.
Transition area (bicycles) of Hamburg Triathlon, 2002
In the transition areas, athletes will generally be provided with a rack to hold their bicycle and a small section of ground space for shoes, clothing, etc. Generally, transition spots are allocated to racers by their competition number, though in some events, athletes choose their spot in the transition area on a first-come, first-served basis. In some races, the bicycle stage does not finish in the same place it begins, so athletes set up two transition areas: one for the swim-to-bike transition, and one for the bike-to-run transition.

Racers are generally categorized into separate professional and amateur categories. Amateurs, who make up the large majority of triathletes, are often referred to as "age groupers" since they are typically further classified by sex and age. One feature that has helped to boost the popularity of such a complex, time-intensive sport is the opportunity to compete against others of one's own gender and age group. The age groups are defined in five or ten year intervals.

In some triathlons, heavier amateur athletes may have the option to compete against others closer to their own weight since weight is often considered an impediment to speed. "Clydesdale" athletes are generally those men over 200 pounds, while "Athena" athletes are generally women over 150 pounds. These weight based divisions are not officially sanctioned in any of the professional or Olympic events.

As in most marathons and other competitive endurance sport events, there is typically a lower age limit, though many races have been organized to allow children and teens to compete in their own categories.

After setting up their transition areas, athletes don their swim gear and head to the swim area (usually a lake, river, or ocean) for the race start. Depending on the water temperature, swimmers may be permitted to wear a wetsuit - triathlon specific wetsuits are now common. Depending on the type and size of the race, there may be any of the following methods implemented to start the race. Mass starts, traditional in full distance events, see all the athletes enter the water at a single start signal. In wave start events, smaller groups of athletes begin the race every few minutes. An athlete's wave is usually determined either by age group or by predicted swim time. Wave starts are more common in shorter races where a large number of amateur athletes are competing. Another option is individual time trial starts, where athletes enter the water one at a time, usually 3 to 5 seconds apart. And there is also the beach start, where the athletes line up, a hooter is sounded, and everyone tries to get into the water as quickly as possible.

The swim leg usually proceeds around a series of marked buoys and exits the water near the transition area. Racers run out of the water, enter the transition area, and attempt to change from their swim gear into their cycling gear as rapidly as possible. In some races, tents were provided for changing clothes. However, competition and pressure for time has led to the development of specialized triathlon clothing that is adequate for both swimming and cycling, meaning many racers' transitions consist of little more than removing wetsuit and goggles and pulling on a helmet and cycling shoes. In some cases, racers leave shoes attached to their bicycle pedals and slip their feet into them while riding. Some triathletes don't wear socks, decreasing their time in transition even more.

The cycling stage proceeds around a marked course, nearly always on public roads. In many cases, especially smaller triathlons, the roads are not closed to automobiles, though marshals are often present to help control traffic. Typically, the cycling stage finishes back at the same transition area. Racers enter the transition area, rack their bicycles, and quickly change into running shoes before heading out for the final stage. The running stage, also typically held on public roads, usually ends at a separate finish line near the transition area.

In most races, "aid stations" located on the bike and run courses provide water and energy drinks to the athletes as they pass by. Aid stations at longer events will often provide various types of food as well, including such items as energy bars, gels, fruit, cookies, and ice.

Once the triathletes have completed the event, there is typically another aid station for them to get water, fruit, cookies, and other post-race goodies. At the end of most larger or longer events, the provisions and post-race celebrations may be more elaborate - ranging from ice cream and professional massage tents to cookouts and barbecues.

Rules of triathlon

Traditionally, triathlon is an individual sport: each athlete is competing against the course and the clock for the best time. As such, athletes are not allowed to receive assistance from anyone else inside or outside the race, with the exception of race-sanctioned aid volunteers who distribute food and water on the course. This also usually forbids team tactics, such as drafting, a cycling tactic in which several riders cluster closely to reduce the air resistance of the group.

This has begun to change with the introduction of triathlon into the Olympics. Many Olympic-distance races, including the Olympics themselves and ITU World Cup events, now allow drafting during the cycling stage. This change has sparked extensive debate among the triathlon community, with supporters feeling that it brings triathlon rules closer in line with international cycling rules and practices, and opponents feeling that drafting has the potential to negate gains achieved by an individual in the swim, and gains an individual would have the potential to achieve during the cycling leg. Drafting has become the standard format for professional-level ITU events and the Olympics. However, the majority of amateur events retain the non-drafting format.

Triathlons are timed in five sections: 1) from the start of the swim to the beginning of the first transition (swim time); 2) from the beginning of the first transition to the end of the first transition (T1 time); 3) from the start of the cycling to the end of the cycling leg (cycling time); 4) from the beginning of the second transition to the end of the second transition (T2 time); 5) and finally from the start of the run to the end of the run, at which time the triathlon is completed. Results are usually posted on official websites and will show for each triathlete his/her swim time; cycle time (with transitions included); run time; and total time. Some races also post transition times separately.

Other rules of triathlon vary from race to race and generally involve descriptions of allowable equipment (such as wetsuits, which are allowed in the swimming stage of some races—generally when the water temperature is below 79 degrees Fahrenheit or 26 °C), and prohibitions against interference between athletes.

One important rule involving the cycle leg is that the competitor must be wearing their bike helmet before the competitor mounts the bike and must remain on until the competitor has dismounted; the competitor may remove their helmet at any time as long as they are not on the bicycle (e.g. while repairing a mechanical problem). Failure to comply with this rule will result in disqualification.

Additionally, while on the bike course, a competitor is required to ride their bicycle at all times. Should a competitor's bike malfunction they can proceed with the race as long as they are doing so with their bicycle in tow.

Triathlon and fitness

Triathletes tend to be spartanly fit, and many amateur athletes choose triathlon specifically for its fitness benefits. Because all three events are endurance sports, nearly all of triathlon training is cardiovascular exercise. In addition, since triathletes must train for three different disciplines, they tend to have more balanced whole-body muscular development than pure cyclists or runners, whose training emphasizes only a subset of their musculature.

Each element of the triathlon is slightly different from those sports if encountered alone. While amateur triathletes who also compete in individual swimming, cycling or running races generally apply the same techniques and philosophy to triathlon, seasoned triathletes and professionals have specialized techniques for each discipline that improve their race as a whole.

Athletes that participate in endurance events spend many hours training for those events and this is true for triathlon as well. Injuries that are incurred from long hours of a single activity are not as common in triathlon as they are in single sport events. The cross training effect that athletes achieve from training for one sport by doing a second activity applies in triathlon training. Additional activities that triathletes perform for a cross training effect are yoga, pilates and weight training.


Triathletes competing in the swim component of race.
Wetsuits are common but not universal

Triathletes will often use their legs less vigorously and more carefully than other swimmers, conserving their leg muscles for the cycle and run to follow. Many triathletes use altered swim strokes to compensate for turbulent, aerated water and to conserve energy for a long swim. In addition, the majority of triathlons involve open-water (outdoor) swim stages, rather than pools with lane markers. As a result, triathletes in the swim stage must jockey for position, and can gain some advantage by drafting, following a competitor closely to swim in their slipstream. Triathletes will often use "dolphin kicking" and diving to make headway against waves, and body surfing to use a wave's energy for a bit of speed at the end of the swim stage. Also, open-water swims necessitate "sighting": raising the head to look for landmarks or buoys that mark the course. A modified stroke allows the triathlete to lift the head above water to sight without interrupting the swim or wasting energy.

Because open water swim areas are often cold and because wearing a wetsuit provides a competitive advantage, specialized triathlon wetsuits have been developed in a variety of styles to match the conditions of the water. The Springsuit, for example, sleeveless and cut above the knee, was designed for warmer waters, while still providing buoyancy. Wetsuits are only legal in sanctioned events with a water temperature equal to or below 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25.5 degrees Celsius). Some events allow wetsuits regardless of water temperature, and sometimes they are required. Or, in a single event, wetsuits may be allowed for "age groupers" but not for professionals, as the temperature rules differ slightly between the two groups.


Triathlon cycling, with the exception of Olympic triathlon and ITU World Cup races, is very different from most professional bicycle racing because it does not allow drafting, so racers do not cluster in a peloton. It more closely resembles individual time trial racing. Triathlon bicycles are generally optimized for aerodynamics, having special handlebars called aero-bars or tri-bars, aerodynamic wheels, and other components. Triathlon bikes use a specialized geometry, including a steep seat-tube angle both to improve aerodynamics and to spare muscle groups needed for running (see also triathlon equipment). At the end of the bike segment, triathletes also often cycle with a higher cadence (revolutions per minute), which serves in part to keep the muscles loose and flexible for running. It is believed, though, that the primary benefit to cycling in a triathlon is that the strain of the effort is placed disproportionately on the slow twitch muscle fibers, preventing the athlete from accumulating an oxygen debt before the run.


The primary distinguishing feature of running in a triathlon is that it occurs after the athlete has already been exercising in two other disciplines for an extended period of time, so many muscles are already tired. The effect of switching from cycling to running can be profound; first-time triathletes are often astonished at their muscle weakness, maybe caused by lactate accumulation and the bizarre, sometimes painful sensation in their thighs a few hundred yards into the run, and discover that they run at a much slower pace than they are accustomed to in training. Triathletes train for this phenomenon through transition workouts known as "bricks": back-to-back workouts involving two disciplines, most commonly cycling and running.

Legendary and well-known events

Thousands of individual triathlons are held around the world each year. A few of these races are legendary and/or favorites of the triathlon community because they have a long history, or because they have particularly grueling courses and race conditions. A few are listed here.

  • Hawaii Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaiimarker. First held in 1978 on Oahumarker, only five years after the sport of triathlon was founded; it was later moved to Kailua-Konamarker on the island of Hawaii. The cycling stage of the race covers more than a hundred miles over lava flats on the big island of Hawaii, where mid-day temperatures often reach over 110 °F (43 °C) and cross-winds sometimes blow at 55 MPH (90 km/h). The race is often challenging even to competitors with experience in other iron-distance events.
  • Nice Triathlon, Nicemarker, France. A race that existed until 2002 when the course was adopted by the WTC as Ironman France. During the 1980s the Nice Long Distance triathlon (Swim 4 km, Bike 120 km, Run 30 km) was, alongside the World Championships in Kona, one of the two important races each year with prize money and media attention. Mark Allen won here 10 consecutive times. The ITU's Long Distance is a Nice-Distance race except a short period from late 2006 to early 2008, in which it was 3 km + 80 km + 20 km.
  • St. Anthony's, St. Petersburgmarker, Floridamarker. The unofficial season opener for the triathlon year. Held in the last week of April every year, this race attracts professional and amateur triathletes from around the world. One of the largest Olympic Distance triathlon in the U.S. with over 4000 participants each year.
  • Escape from Alcatraz, San Franciscomarker, Californiamarker. This non-standard-length race begins with a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) swim in frigid San Francisco Baymarker waters from Alcatrazmarker Island to shore, followed by an 18 mile (29 km) bicycle and 8 mile (13 km) run in the extremely hilly terrain of the San Francisco Bay area. The run includes the notorious "Sand Ladder"--a 400-step staircase climb up a beachside cliff.
  • Wildflower is a Half-Ironman distance race held on or near May 1 at Lake San Antoniomarker in Southern California since 1983. In recent years it has become a highlight on the race-calendar of many professional triathletes. Known for a particularly hilly course, it has expanded now to include three races of different lengths and is one of the largest triathlon events in the world, with over 8,000 athletes attending each year.
  • Life Time Fitness Triathlon Series. A series of 5 Olympic distance races: The Lifetime Fitness in Minneapolis, the NYC Triathlon in New York City, the Chicago Triathlon, the LA Triathlon in Los Angeles, and the U.S. Open in Dallas. There is a combined $1.5 Million prize purse at stake for the professionals who come from around the world to take part in the series.
  • Hy-Vee World Cup, Des Moines, Iowa Started in 2007 by the Mid-West grocery store chain. Famous for the richest prize purse ever awarded at a single triathlon ($700,000). Part of the draft-legal ITU World Cup circuit and the only one on USA soil in '07 & '08. Also hosts a sold-out age group race, youth races, and a Junior Development race. Given the honorable distinction of the third and final USA Triathlon Olympic Trials event in 2008.
  • Norseman Extreme Triathlon, Hardangerfjordmarker, Norwaymarker. Norseman is an Ironman-distance triathlon which starts with a swim in Norwegan fjord and finishes on top of a Gaustatoppenmarker mountain at 1,850 meters above sea level. Famous of its lower temperatures and 5,000 meters total ascent, this race accepts only 200 competitors each year.
  • Ironman 70.3 World Championship, Clearwater, Floridamarker, USAmarker. Since 2006 this has been the final of the Ironman 70.3 series on the half Ironman distance.

Nonstandard variations

See also



  1. See
  2. ESPN - Triathlon milestones
  3. This Was Triathlon - Timeline
  4. This Was Triathlon
  5. This Was Triathlon - Petit Pavillon Swim Club Course des Trois Sports
  6. Triathlon' A Personal History by Scott Tinley Page 6
  7. ITU Competition Rules 2008, p. 52
  8. Because "Ironman Triathlon" is a registered trademark of the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), only races licensed by the WTC may be called "Ironman" or "Iron". As a result, other races of the same distances are called "full" or "long" distance.

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