An Introduction to Triathlons

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What is a triathlon?

A triathlon is a race event that includes swimming, cycling, and running. There are generally four common distances for triathlons: Sprint, Olympic, Half Iron Man, and Full Iron Man. The approximate distances, dependent on the individual course, for each of these races are as follows:

  • Sprint: 1/2 Mile Swim, 10-18 mile ride, 3 mile run
  • Olympic: 1500 meter Swim (.9 miles), 40 K ride (24.8 miles), 10 K run (6.2 miles)
  • Half Iron Man: 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile ride, 13.1 mile run
  • Iron Man: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile ride, 26.2 mile run


Triathlons are held throughout the world based at different times of the year based on the climate of the race location. In the northeast region of the United States, triathlon season usually runs from early May until October because these tend to be the warmest months of the year and make conditions ideal for swimming.

Most triathlons are held near a lake, river, or ocean to provide a location for the swim. At times, some triathlons conduct the swim portion of the race in a pool, but these races are less frequent than those that involve an open water swim.


Training for you first triathlon will depend on your current level of conditioning and experience with each individual sport. Many people choose to do a Sprint distance triathlon as their first race because it is the shortest triathlon.

There are many different sources for training plans and advice available for beginner triathletes. Some plans advocate training four days a week, while others emphasize the need for training six days out of seven. Each athlete must determine which plan is best for him or her based on the amount of time available to train, current level of conditioning, and goal for their race. Regardless of the training plan, many athletes find it very helpful to have a training partner or partners to support them in their goals.


In order to be prepared for training and race day, triathletes need a variety of equipment.

For the swim, a triathlete will need goggles, a swim cap, and a comfortable swimsuit that will stay in place during the movement of the swim. Many triathletes prefer to wear a triathlon uni-suit, a one piece suit intended for use in all three legs of the race. A wetsuit can also be a useful piece of equipment because it provides both warmth and added floation during the swim.

A decent road bike or tri bike, a helmet , and a water bottle or two are necessary for the cycling segment of a triathlon. Athletes might also consider using clipless pedals because they help utilize the power of both pushing and pulling on the pedal as you ride. A cycling computer may also serve as a useful tool because it gives important information such as the number of miles ridden, speed, and time spent on the bike.

Finally, for the run portion of the race, athletes will need a comfortable pair of running shoes. Many triathletes use tri-specific shoes or add zip cords to their sneakers to eliminate the time taken to tie the laces.

Race Day

A triathlete has much to consider on race day. One of the first considerations is setting up equipment in order to be prepared for each element of the race. The night before the race, athletes must be sure that all of their equipment is carefully packed and ready for the race. A triathlon checklist can be very helpful in ensuring that the athlete has all of the gear necessary for race day.

On the morning of the race, triathletes set up their transition area in a way that allows for them to quickly switch equipment between legs of the race. The bike is positioned on a rack that corresponds to the race number of the athlete. Many triathletes lay out a towel underneath their bike and position their bike shoes, running shoes, socks, a hat or sunglasses, and some extra nutrition in a way that is organized and quickly accessible. Often, the bike helmet and gloves are hung on the handlebars of the bike for easy access. Carefully setting up the transition area can aid in shorter transition times and ultimately shave minutes off a triathlete's race.

Many races have strict guidelines as to how a triathlete must mark both their equipment and their body. The race packet that is given out during the race expo (for larger races) the day before, or the day of the race (smaller races) usually contains a swim cap, ankle computer chip tag to used to record when an athlete passes through a transition area, and numbers for the bike, helmet, and body of the athlete. Large black markers are often used to write the race number on the athlete's arms and legs as well.


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