A triathlon is a multi-sport event involving the completion of three continuous and sequential endurance events. While many variations of the sport exist, triathlon, in its most popular form, involves 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. The word “triathlon” is of Greek origin from trei (three) and athlos (contest).
Triathlon races vary in distance. According to the International Triathlon Union, and USA Triathlon, the main international race distances are Sprint distance (750 metres (0.47 mi) swim, 20 kilometres (12 mi) bike, 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) run), Intermediate (or Standard) distance, commonly referred to as “Olympic distance” (1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) swim, 40 kilometres (25 mi) ride, 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) run), the Long Course (1.9 kilometres (1.2 mi) swim, 90 kilometres (56 mi) ride, 21.1 kilometres (13.1 mi) run, such as the Half Ironman), and Ultra Distance (3.8 kilometres (2.4 mi) swim, 180 kilometres (110 mi) ride, and a marathon: 42.2 kilometres (26.2 mi) run); the most recognised branded Ultra Distance is the Ironman triathlon.
Transition areas are positioned both between the swim and bike segments (T1), and between the bike and run segments (T2) and are where the switches from swimming to cycling and cycling to running occur. These areas are used to store bicycles, performance apparel, and any other accessories needed for preparing for the next stage of the race. The time spent in T1 and T2 is included in the overall time of the race. Transitions areas can vary in size depending on the number of participants expected for the race. In addition, these areas provide a social headquarters prior to the race.
The nature of the sport focuses primarily on persistent and often intense training in each of the three disciplines, as well as combination workouts and general strength conditioning.
The History of Triathlon
Triathlon is considered by some to have its beginnings in 1920s France. According to triathlon historian and author Scott Tinley, 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”. This race is held every year in France near Joinville-le-Pont, in Meulan 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 Marne. Those three parts were done without any break. Another event was held in 1921 in Marseilles 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 Rochelle, a race with: (1) a channel crossing (c. 200 m), (2) a bike competition (10 km) around the harbour of La Rochelle and the parc Laleu, and (3) a run (1200 m) in the stadium André-Barbeau.
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.’
How Triathlon Works
n general, participation in a triathlon requires an athlete to register and sign up in advance of the actual race. After registration, racers are often provided a race number, coloured swim cap, and, if the event is being electronically timed, a timing band. Athletes will either be provided or briefed on details of the course, rules, and any problems to look out for (road conditions, closures, traffic lights, aid stations).
At a major event, such as an Ironman or a long course championship, triathletes may be required to set up and check-in their bike in the transition area a day or two prior to the race start, leaving it overnight and under guard.
On the day of the race, prior to the start of competition, athletes will generally be provided with a bike rack to hold their bicycle and a small section of ground space for shoes, clothing, etc. within the transition area. In some triathlons, there are two transition areas, one for the swim/bike change, then one for the bike/run change at a different location.
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; which offers 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.
There is typically a lower age limit; which can vary from race to race. 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. As an example, under USA Triathlon rules, a “Clydesdale” athlete are those men over 200 pounds, while “Athena” athletes are women over 150 pounds. Other races and organisations can choose whether or not to offer Clydesdale and Athena—type divisions and set their own weight standards.
Depending on the type and size of the race, there may be any of the following methods implemented to start the race. In a mass start, all athletes enter the water and begin the competition following 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, a few seconds apart.
The swim leg usually proceeds around a series of marked buoys before athletes exit the water near the transition area. Racers exit out of the water, enter the transition area, and change from their swim gear and into their cycling gear. Competition and pressure for faster times have led to the development of specialised triathlon clothing that is adequate for both swimming and cycling, allowing many racers to have a transition that consists of only removing their wetsuit and goggles and pulling on a helmet and cycling shoes. In some cases, racers leave their cycling shoes attached to their bicycle pedals and slip their feet into them while riding. Some triathletes don’t wear socks, decreasing their time spent in transition even more.
The cycling stage proceeds around a marked course, typically on public roads. In many cases, especially smaller triathlons, roads are not closed to auto-mobiles; however, traffic coordinators 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 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 may often provide various types of food as well, including such items as energy bars, energy gels, fruit, cookies, and ice.
Once the triathletes have completed the event, there is typically another aid station for them to get water, fruit, and other post-race refreshments. Occasionally, at the end of larger or longer events, the provided amenities and post-race celebrations may be more elaborate.
General Rules of Triathlon
While specific rules for triathlon can vary depending on the governing body (e.g. USA Triathlon, ITU), as well as for an individual race venue, there are some basic universal rules. Traditionally, triathlon is an individual sport and 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 outside the race, with the exception of race-sanctioned aid volunteers who distribute food and water on the course.
Triathlons are timed in five sequential 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 (for example, wetsuits are allowed in USAT events in the swimming stage of some races when the water temperature is below 79 °F (26 °C), and prohibitions against interference between athletes. Additionally, the use of flippers or other swim propulsion and flotation aids are illegal in triathlon and can result in disqualification.
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, all bicycles shall be propelled only by human force and human power. Other than pushing a bicycle, any propulsive action brought on by use of the hands is prohibited. Should a competitor’s bike malfunction they can proceed with the race as long as they are doing so with their bicycle in tow.