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What is a Triathlon?
Learn Order of Events and Race Types

what is a triathlon

In simple terms, a triathlon is a multisport event that comprises three different disciplines consecutively run in one sequential event. While countless variations of triathlons exist, the most common form involves swimming, cycling, and running.

This common triathlon format involving swimming, cycling, and running is the most popular and standardized race type. Professional organizations like Ironman, Super League, and ITU are a few recognizable platforms in this realm of triathlon.

what is triathlon

Triathlon, Duathlon, & Creative Multisport Events

As the multisport scene has evolved, it’s becoming more and more common to see creative triathlon events with an alternative discipline to swimming, such as paddle sports (i.e. kayaking, cycling, running). Or in the case of winter triathlon, running (or snowshoe running), fat tire biking, and cross-country skiing has become a cold season alternative to triathlon. 

A simple way to understand what defines a triathlon is to compare triathlons to duathlons, which are events that include just two disciplines versus three. Most commonly, duathlon involves cycling and running, but in three successions.

At the professional level, the duathlon order of events will be running, cycling, and running, with the first run leg slightly longer than the final run leg. However, only two disciplines are involved, compared to triathlon which always entails three disciplines. 

what is a triathlon transition

Oftentimes called the “fourth discipline,” each leg of the triathlon is separated by a transition. The most common transitions are “T1” (swim-to-bike) and “T2” (bike-to-run). For competitive athletes, the objective is to get in and out of transition as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Almost every triathlon event will have some sort of transition area where athletes can rack their bikes and set up their gear before the race. But because each event is different, the amount of space can range widely. 

What is the Order of Events in a Triathlon?

The order of events in a triathlon will vary depending on the disciplines involved. For a traditional race, such as standard USA Triathlon events, the order of events in a triathlon will always be swim, bike, and run. For safety reasons, the swim is always the first leg of the event, as athletes progressively fatigue throughout the race.  

The same order of events applies to all distances, such as sprint, Olympic, half-and full-Ironman triathlon, as well as off-road races like XTERRA. Only for modified events – such as winter triathlon, paddle-bike-run, kayak-hike-bike, and other creative events – will the order of disciplines vary. Adventure triathlons, like Sea to Summit, are hybrids of traditional events but involve longer distances and significantly higher elevation gain. 

What is a Sprint Triathlon? what is a sprint triathlon

The standard Sprint triathlon is an entry-level distance that includes swimming 0.5 miles (750 meter/2,460 feet), cycling 12.4 miles (20 kilometers), and running 3.1 miles (5 kilometers). While these lengths are the common benchmark for each leg, Sprint triathlons are often modified to accommodate the roads and terrain of the local area. 

As such, it’s not uncommon to see modified sprint events, including “super sprint” and mini-triathlons, which typically consist of a 0.3-mile (500 meters/1,640 feet) swim, 6.2-mile (10 kilometers) bike, and 1.6-mile (2.5 kilometers) run. The sprint triathlon category is widely the most popular distance, however you typically won’t find sprint options at long-course events like Ironman. See more about sprint distance triathlon.

What is an Olympic Triathlon?

Exactly double the length of a sprint, Olympic distance triathlon is a 0.93-mile (1.5-kilometer) swim, 24.8-mile (40-kilometer) bike, and 6.2-mile (10-kilometer) run. While similar distance ITU and long-course races have been around for several decades, Olympic triathlon was officially formalized in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. On the professional level, Olympic triathlon (and certain versions like ITU, SuperLeague, etc.) are the only types that are considered draft legal.

what is an olympic triathlon

For beginner-level athletes, the move from sprint to Olympic distance triathlon can be an intimidating leap. While sprint triathlons can take anywhere from 1-2 hours to complete, depending on the athlete, Olympic distance triathlons average 3 hours or more for most age grouper athletes. In turn, the Olympic triathlon requires greater dedication to training, especially building endurance and strength to prevent injury and become faster.

What is 70.3 Triathlon?

Half-Ironman triathlons are otherwise known as “70.3” events based on the combined mileage for all three disciplines. 70.3 triathlon distances entail swimming 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers), cycling 56 miles (90 kilometers), and running 13.1 miles (21.09 kilometers), or a half marathon. 

what is a 70.3 triathlon

70.3 triathlons are often considered the perfect distance, as they’re not as demanding as full-Ironman but they still test the endurance, stamina, and mental resilience of triathletes. For age grouper athletes, 70.3 triathlons are far more approachable, as the level of commitment and training significantly escalates for full Ironman triathlons. This is often why most Ironman events will either be exclusively 70.3 races, or a vast majority of registered athletes will race the half event over the full.

For elite and professional athletes, 70.3 triathlons fringe on near sprint triathlon speeds. For example, the fastest half-Ironman time was Jan Frodeno’s 3:36:30 at the 2018 Ironman World Championship in South Africa where he ran 5:05 mile run splits to break the world record. But for amateurs and age groupers, good 70.3 triathlon times on moderately difficult courses can range between 5-6 hours. But for busy athletes who have minimal time training for triathlon, it’s not uncommon for finisher times to be 6-7+ hours. 

What is an Ironman Triathlon?

Ironman triathlon (the full 140.6 distance) is the holy grail in the world of multisport. Originating from a grassroots race that started in Hawaii back in 1975, Ironman quickly evolved into what is now the iconic event for long-course athletes. Every year in October, the Ironman World Championships are held in Kona, Hawaii where only the top qualifying age groupers and professionals meet to take one of the toughest courses.  

what is an ironman triathlon

The distances of an Ironman triathlon are composed of a 2.4-mile (3.8 kilometers) swim, 112-mile (180 kilometers) bike ride, and run 26.2-mile (42.195 kilometers) run, or full marathon. While the fastest time for full Ironman distance triathlon was Tim Don’s 7:40:23 in 2017, finish times for top age groupers typically averages between 10-12 hours, and the vast majority of athletes arrive at the finish line well beyond the 12-hour mark.

Extensions of Ironman have evolved over the years, with Ultraman being a prime example that also takes place on the big island of Kona. Limited to a field of 40, this race requires each athlete to complete a 6.2-mile (10 kilometers) open ocean swim, a 261.4-mile (421 kilometers) bike ride, and a 52.4-mile (84 kilometers) ultra-marathon run for a total distance of 320 miles (515 kilometers). This race spans over the course of 3 days and is a true test of ultra-endurance.

For more information about “what is a triathlon,” see related content on triathlon distances, triathlon coaching, triathlon bikes, and triathlon inspiration.

Head of Content at Better Triathlete | Website

Endurance athlete, professional off-road cyclist, and avid blogger, Tyler Tafelsky participates in long-course multisport and cycling events. Today, Tyler competes in ultra-distance cycling races at the professional level. Since starting Better Triathlete in 2014, he has been the head of content for the site's editorial team. Learn more about Tyler