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The three events of the triathlon (from left to right): Swimming, cycling, running
The three events of the triathlon (from left to right): Swimming, cycling, running

Triathlon is an athletic event consisting of swimming, cycling and running over various distances. In most modern triathlons, these events are placed back-to-back in immediate sequence and a competitor's official time includes the time required to "transition" between the individual legs of the race, including any time necessary for changing clothes and shoes. As a result, proficiency in swimming, cycling, and running alone is not sufficient to guarantee a triathlete a competitive time: trained triathletes have learned to race each stage in a way that preserves their energy and endurance for subsequent stages.


According to triathlon historian and author Scott Tinley, the origin of Triathlon is anecdotally attributed on a race in France during the 1920-1930s that was called "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 Meulan and Poissy. 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 crossing of the channel Marne. Those three parts were done without any break. 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 Rochelle, a race with: (1) a channel crossing (c. 200 m), (2) a bike competition (10 km) around the harbour of Rochelle and the parc Laleu, and (3) a run (1200 m) in the stadium André-Barbeau.

Modern triathlon

Since the 1930s, very little was heard about triathlon until 1974 at San Diego's Mission Bay in Southern California, where a group of friends began training together. This occurrence is well-documented and was not based on the French events. Amongst them were runners, swimmers and cyclists and before long training sessions turned into informal races. Directed and conceived by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, the first Mission Bay Triathlon was held on September 25th 1974 and welcomed 46 athletes. This date is celebrated as the day modern triathlon began.

The first modern long-distance triathlon event (2.4 mile (3.86 kilometer) swim, 112 mi (180.2 km) bike ride, and a 26.2 mi (42.2 km) run) was the Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon, the idea for which arose during the awards ceremony for the 1977 Oahu 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. CDR 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, California 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 CDR 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 (115 miles; originally a two-day event) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.219 mi./42.195 km). It is worth noting that no one present had ever done the bike race so did not realize it was a two-day, not one-day, event; CDR Collins calculated that, by shaving 3 miles 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 Tower, 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:

Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!
CDR Collins, (1978)

With a nod to a local runner who was notorious for his demanding workouts, Collins said, "Whoever finishes first, we'll call him the Iron Man." Of the fifteen men to start off the in early morning on February 18th, 1978, twelve completed the race and the world's first IRONMAN®, Gordon Haller, completed 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 1.5/40/10k was created by long time triathlon race director, Jim Curl in the mid-80's after he and partner Carl Thomas successfully produced the U.S. Triathlon Series between 1982 and 1997. USTS, as it was known, did more to bring accessible triathlons to the masses than any other group. The Hawaii Ironman Triathlon now serves as the Ironman world championship, but the entity that owns the race, the World Triathlon Corporation, hosts other triathlons around the world that are also called Ironmans. Long-distance multi-sport events organized by groups other than the World Triathlon Corporation may not officially be called "Ironman" races. Such triathlons may be described as "Iron-distance" or "Half-Ironman", but the "Ironman" label is the official property of the World Triathlon Corporation.

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 triathlon, choosing to retain its focus instead on the shorter races geared toward the Olympics.

The sport made its debut on the Olympic program at the Sydney Games in 2000 over the Olympic Distance (1500 m swim - 40 km bike - 10 km run).

Since its founding, triathlon has grown significantly and now includes thousands of races with hundreds of thousands of competitors worldwide each year. The history of the sport is documented in Scott Tinley's book, "Triathlon: A Personal History" (Velo Press, 2002).

Standard race distances

The ITU accepts a 5% margin of error in the cycle and run course distances.

Name Swim Bicycle Run Notes
Kids of Steel 100 - 500 m
5-15 km
1-5 km
Distances vary with age of athlete. See: Ironkids
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.
Sprint 750 m
(0.5 mi)
20 km
(12.4 mi)
5 km
(3.1 mi)
A 500 m swim is also 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 3.0 km
(1.86 mi)
80 km
(49.6 mi)
20 km
(12.4 mi)
Shortened in 2006
Half-Ironman 1.9 km
(1.2 mi)
90 km
(56 mi)
21.09 km
(13.1 mi)
Also called an "Ironman 70.3", or "medium distance".
Triathlon one 0 one 3.0 km
(1.86 mi)
130 km
(80.6 mi)
30 km
(18.6 mi)
Made debut in 2007
Ironman 3.8 km
(2.4 mi)
180 km
(112 mi)
42.195 km
(26.2 mi) marathon
Also known as "iron distance" or "long distance".

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 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 and age-groupers. The professional world cup races are conducted in a draft legal format for the bike leg.

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'i (October, Ironman) and Clearwater, Florida (November, Ironman 70.3).

Nonstandard variations

  • Equilateral Triathlon: A triathlon in which each leg takes approximately equal time.
  • Formula One Triathlon: An event that consists of a swim-bike-run combination in multiple groups.
  • Ultraman Triathlon: An Ultra-long distance triathlon covering 320 miles.
  • Off-road triathlon: Consists of swimming, mountain biking and trail running. The best-known series of these races is known as XTerra.
  • Winter Triathlon: Typically includes two events of either Cross country skiing, mountain biking or outdoor-ice speed skating and finishes with running.
  • Aquathlon: Composed of only swimming and running stages.
  • Duathlon: Comprised of a running stage, a cycling stage and another running stage.

How a triathlon works

In a typical triathlon, event organisers take advantage of a host town's hospitality. The racers arrive at the venue about an hour (or more) before the race is to begin, to set up their spot in the "transition area". Here they will generally have a rack to hold their bicycle and a small area of ground space for shoes, clothing, etc. In some races, the bicycle stage does not finish in the same place it begins, and athletes will 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 groups; amateurs are often referred to as "age groupers" who form the great majority of triathletes. 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 typically set at between five and ten year intervals.

In some triathlons, amateur athletes may have the option to compete against others in heavier-weight divisions. "Clydesdale" athletes are those men generally over 200 pounds, while "Athena" athletes are women generally over 150 pounds. This is not officially sanctioned in any of the professional or Olympic events.

There is usually (as in most marathons) a lower age limit (typically 18) for the longer triathlons (all of the 5 events listed above) but many shorter races have been organized to allow children and teens to compete in triathlon.

After transitions are set up, the athletes don their swim gear and head to the swim area-- usually a lake, river, or the ocean--for the race start. Depending on the type and size of the race, either all the athletes will enter the water at a single signal ("mass start", traditional in Iron-distance races), in waves spaced every few minutes, usually by age group (wave starts are more common in shorter races where a large number of amateur athletes are competing), or individual "time trial" starts where the athletes enter the water one at a time, usually 3-5 seconds apart.

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 and attempt to change from their swim gear into cycling gear as rapidly as possible. In some of the earliest races, tents were provided for changing clothes. In the modern day, 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 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. Professionals often don't even wear socks.)

The cycling stage proceeds around a marked course and finishes back at the transition area, where racers rack their bicycles and change quickly into running shoes before heading out for the final stage. The run finishes at a finish line usually near the start and transition areas.

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

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 means that team tactics, such as drafting, a cycling tactic in which several riders cluster closely to reduce the air resistance of the group, are not allowed.

This has begun to change with the introduction of triathlon into the Olympic Games. 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 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 78 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 anytime as long as they are not on the bicycle (i.e. while repairing a mechanicial problem). Failure to comply with this rule will result in disqualification.

An interesting twist to the rules is that while on the bike course, a competitor is not 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.

Professional competitions

The world of professional triathlon is primarily split into three circuits:

  • The "short course", or Olympic-distance competitive circuit, run by the International Triathlon Union (ITU), which includes the ITU World Cup series and ITU World Championships. In 2004, the ITU World Cup included over 75 different events.
  • The "long course", or "Ironman" circuit, run by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), which culminates each year with the Hawaii Ironman World Championship. These races are not recognized as "official" by the ITU, but are unquestionably the best-known series of races in the sport.
  • The XTerra off-road triathlon championship series.

In addition, the ITU has a Long Distance Triathlon series, with races slightly shorter (except for the swim) than the Ironman standard. This circuit is a new addition, with four annual events as of 2005. Many of the same athletes compete in Ironman and ITU Long Distance races.

The term Ironman Triathlon is a trademark of the World Triathlon Corporation and refers to the series of races organised by the WTC. Races of this distance which are not organised by the WTC are commonly referred to as Iron Distance Triathlon.

Triathlon and fitness

Triathletes tend to be extraordinarily 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.

Specialization of swimming, cycling and running in triathlon

Each element of the triathlon is a little 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.


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

Triathletes will 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, specialized triathlon wetsuits have been developed. In addition to warmth, wetsuits add buoyancy and cut water resistance, both of which increase swimming speed. 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 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 spinning 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 very profound; first-time triathletes are often astonished at 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 or "bricks": back-to-back workouts involving two disciplines, most commonly cycling and running. (The term "brick" has multiple claims of origination/derivation. Among those is the derivation from a partial anagram of Bike-Run. Also, it may simply be a descriptive term for how your legs feel for the first part of the run. Another is credited to Mark Sisson and Scott Zagarino (1988), who associated the term brick with the idea of "Just another brick in the wall"... as noted in a song by the group " Pink Floyd". Another association of this term has been claimed to originate from a New Zealand athlete by the name of Matt Brick.)

Legendary and well-known events

Hundreds (perhaps 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, Hawaii. First held in 1978 on Oahu, only five years after the sport of triathlon was founded; it was later moved to Kailua-Kona 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, Nice, 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 4km, Bike 120km, Run 30km) 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 was a Nice-Distance race until it was shortened in 2006.
  • Escape from Alcatraz, San Francisco, California. This non-standard-length race begins with a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) swim in frigid San Francisco Bay waters from Alcatraz 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 1st at Lake San Antonio 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. An Olympic distance race offering the largest professional prize purse in triathlon. The Women are given a headstart on the men by an amount of time that theoretically gives each gender an equal chance of winning. The men attempt to close the gap over the course of the swim, bike and run hopefully resulting in a sprint to the finish between the top male and female athletes.
  • HP Norseman Xtreme Triathlon. The race is the world’s toughest iron-distance. It is also the northmost iron-distance, taking place at the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. The race travels through some of the most beautiful parts of Norway, and is far from a regular circuit-race. HP Norseman starts in one of the beautiful fjords on the West Coast and finishes inland at 1,850 meters above sea level. Total ascent is 5,000 meters.

Notable triathletes

Winners of 3 or more world titles.



  • Mark Allen
  • Dave Scott
  • Simon Lessing
  • Peter Reid
  • (1 ITU, 6 WTC)
  • (6 WTC)
  • (4 ITU)
  • (3 WTC)
  • Paula Newby-Fraser
  • Natascha Badmann
  • Erin Baker
  • Emma Snowsill
  • Michellie Jones
  • (8 WTC)
  • (6 WTC)
  • (1 ITU, 2 WTC)
  • (3 ITU)
  • (2 ITU, 1 WTC)
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