What Is A Triathlon + What Is The Order Of Events?

We break down exactly what a triathlon consists of.

As a UESCA-certified triathlon coach, running coach, and personal trainer, I work with many beginners or avid runners and cyclists who want to try a triathlon race.

So, what is a triathlon, exactly? A triathlon is called a multisport race or a swim-bike-run because it involves swimming, biking, and running.

But, there are different triathlon distance events, so the length of the swim, bike, and run portions vary as will the courses and conditions.

In this beginner’s guide, we will discuss all of the basics of triathlons and their distinct distances to help you create a training plan for your first triathlon. 

People in wetsuits running into the water.

What Is a Triathlon?

Triathlons fall under the umbrella of endurance sports, though there are shorter triathlon events like sprint distance triathlons and longer distances up to the full Ironman race.

The sport of triathlon originated in France around 1920 to settle the hotly debated question among endurance athletes: “Which endurance athletes are the fittest: swimmers, cyclists, or runners?”

As such, a triathlon is a multisport event comprising three distinct disciplines: swimming, cycling, and running.

What does a triathlon consist of?

All triathlon races include just these three disciplines, and no matter the distance, the order is always a swim leg, then a bike ride, and then a run leg (swim-bike-run).

The governing body for triathlons in the United States is the USA Triathlon (called USAT), while the World Triathlon (formerly ITU) is the international triathlon governing organization.

What Is a Duathlon?

There are also duathlons.

Duathlons, called bike-runs, forgo the swim, so you do a bike, then a run, and then a second bike.

There are different duathlon distances just as there are different triathlon distances.

People cycling.

How Does a Triathlon Work?

As mentioned, a triathlon is a multi-sport event where triathletes complete a swim segment, transition to a bike segment, and finish with a run on race day without breaks in between.

Most triathlons take place outdoors, with an open-water swim (lake, river, pond, ocean, etc.) and then a bike and run course on the roads, but there are also off-road triathlons that include mountain biking and/or trail running.

Additionally, super sprint triathlons, the shortest of the standard triathlon distance races, may take place indoors at a gym or in an outdoor swimming pool rather than an open water swim.

In a triathlon, participants move from one discipline directly into the next, passing through what is called a “transition area.“

In these triathlon transitions, the athlete changes gear and kit to transition from one discipline to the next.

The triathlon transitions are timed and added as part of the race finish time, so the more efficiently you transition, the better.

The swim-to-bike transition, called T1, involves getting out of the water, removing your wetsuit (if you wore one), putting on your bike gear, unracking your bike, and setting onto the bike course.

The bike-to-run transition, called T2, is the transition between the cycling portion and the run. During this transition, you re-rack your bike, take off your bike gear, put on your running shoes, and head out onto the run course.

A transition in a triathlon.

How Far Is a Triathlon?

There are some common triathlon distances or universal triathlon events, similar to those for running races.

The most common triathlon distances include the mini sprint triathlon or super sprint distance triathlon, sprint distance triathlon, Olympic distance triathlon, half Ironman triathlon (often called a 70.3 triathlon), and full Ironman triathlon.

The distances for each of these types of triathlon events are standardized unless the race organizers have to adjust the distance of one of the segments based on the roads available for the bike course and run course.

What is a Super Sprint Triathlon?

The super sprint distance triathlon, sometimes called a mini sprint triathlon, is great for beginners. 

  • Swim: 400m
  • Bike: 10 km (6.2 miles)
  • Run: 2.5 km (about 1.5 miles)

What Is a Sprint Distance Triathlon?

A sprint triathlon is typically the most common of the triathlon distance events for first-time triathletes, and many beginners just use a regular road bike or even a mountain bike rather than an expensive triathlon bike.

Most beginners can finish a sprint-distance triathlon in roughly an hour, so it’s a great entry-level triathlon to see if you like the sport before taking on long-distance events.

Here are the standard distances for each segment of a sprint distance triathlon:

  • Swim Leg: 750m (approximately 0.5 miles)
  • Bike Leg: 20 km (12.4 miles)
  • Run Leg: 5 km (3.1 miles)
Triathletes running into the water.

What Is an Olympic Distance Triathlon?

Many aspiring triathletes ask, “What is an Olympic triathlon?” They often think that this is a specific triathlon race only for Olympic triathletes.

While Olympic triathletes do race the Olympic distance triathlon, an “Olympic triathlon” generally just refers to the set distances of a 1500m swim, 40 km bike ride, and 10 km run.

Although the official Olympic triathlon distances were formalized at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, the Olympic triathlon events had been using these standard distances for several years before that.

My first triathlon was an Olympic distance triathlon, and I think this is a great distance for recreational endurance athletes.

  • Swim Leg: 1500 m (almost 1 mile)
  • Bike Leg: 40 km (24.8 miles)
  • Run Leg: 10 km (6.2 miles)

What Is a Half Ironman Triathlon?

Note that the half-Ironman triathlon is often called a 70.3 because the total half-Ironman distance is 70.3 miles when you add the swim, bike segment, and run distance.

  • Swim Leg: 1.2 miles
  • Bike Leg: 56 miles
  • Run Leg: 13.1 miles (half marathon)
A triathlon.

What Is An Ironman Triathlon?

A full Ironman triathlon is regarded as the longest of all the standard triathlon distances. 

Crossing the line of an Ironman triathlon is a badge of honor that even some of the best endurance athletes in the world cannot claim.

There are also Ironman cut-off times that vary based on the race, so you have to cross the finish line under the cut-off to officially be considered an Ironman triathlete. 

The first Ironman distance triathlon took place in Hawaii in 1975, and Kona, Hawaii, USA, is now home to the annual Ironman World Championships every October.

The Ironman World Championships is the preeminent triathlon event for long-distance triathletes, and you need to qualify in your age group in order to compete in this prestigious event.

Here are the Ironman Triathlon (140.6) Distances

  • Swim Leg: 2.4 miles
  • Bike Leg: 112 miles
  • Run Leg: 26.2 miles (full marathon)

In addition to these main triathlon events, there can be other triathlon distances, particularly for smaller, local races.

A transition in a triathlon.

One final note: As a UESCA-certified coach of runners and triathletes (and aspiring triathletes), the single most common question I get asked about how to do a triathlon or about what a triathlon involves is: How far is a triathlon swim?

As seen above, the triathlon swim distances depend on the specific event.

The triathlon swim may be anywhere from 500 yards (for a Super Sprint triathlon) to 2.4 miles (for an Ironman distance triathlon). 

However, in all common triathlon distances, the swim portion constitutes the smallest relative percentage of the total race time, so if swimming is what is holding you back from doing a triathlon, it might not be as big of a “hill to climb“ to do triathlon swim training as you might think!

A triathlon training program for any triathlon race needs to address all three sports, but the amount of time you should spend in each discipline is somewhat dependent on your current strengths as an athlete and the triathlon race distance that you are training for. 

The best triathlon training plans include swimming, biking, and running, as well as strength training to help prevent injuries, correct muscle imbalances that form from triathlon workouts, and improve power and strength.

Overall, the sport of triathlon is exciting, challenging, and rewarding.

It tends to be a little less inclusive than running or walking, mainly due to the cost of gear and racing, but if you are interested in trying a triathlon, you don’t need any fancy equipment to participate!

You can check out our guide to strength training for triathletes here:

A cyclist in the trialthon.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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