Triathlon Distances – A Beginner’s Guide

For the uninitiated, the sport of triathlon seems like something that is exclusively for the super-fit athlete. And it’s only the pros and semi-professionals who attempt such energy-sapping endurance events, right? Wrong! Most of the general public who hear the word triathlon do not realise there are several triathlon distances, and that all triathlons are not necessarily gruelling ironman races. Once you know what kind of triathlon race distances are available, it starts to make sense to think about entering a few of the shorter ones, especially if you see yourself as a potential beginner triathlete but didn’t know how to get started. So, what are the most common triathlon distances you’ll encounter?

Super Sprint Triathlon Distances

If you are looking for a beginner triathlon event to take part in, and perhaps you already know you are awful at one of the disciplines – perhaps you are not a very strong swimmer, and worry about long-distance open water events – then a Super Sprint triathlon is ideal (often the swim will take place in a pool rather than open water). These are really good if you are great at just one event, as you will very quickly find that executing three consecutive sports is very different. If you’re a good runner, but overdo it on the bike stage, you might find that your legs refuse to work for you in the last leg! So a very short course is a nice way to see which muscles start moaning at the various stages of the race, so you can begin to work on your technique, and how to optimize your energy expenditure at each stage.

Super Sprint Triathlon Distance
Swim: 400m – Bike: 10K – Run: 2.5K

The Super Sprints are very popular in the UK and Australia, whereas in the USA they are often referred to as ‘Beginner’ triathlons, and since these are non-official races, the distances do vary pretty widely, so you will need to check what is expected when you sign up for any particular race. For example, in Victoria, Australia there is the Gatorade Triathlon Series, which also includes very short courses (150m/7K/1.5K) called the Active Feet Fun Tri Series.

Sprint Triathlon Distances

The next distance to look for, if you are after a beginners triathlon but can’t find a good Super Sprint near you, is the Sprint Distance triathlon. You will probably find that, depending on the actual race and organizers, the distances of all the various triathlons are slightly different. But there are also events which follow official rules on the lengths of the three stages. Sprint triathlons will normally all be over the same distances, wherever you encounter them.

Sprint Triathlon Distance
Swim: 750m – Bike: 20K – Run: 5K

Olympic Triathlon Distances

Triathlon had its first outing as an Olympic sport at the Sydney Summer Olympics in 2000. It has been included at the Games ever since, and has adopted the stage distances normally used for a standard or international triathlon. So you will often hear the phrases ‘Olympic triathlon distance’, or ‘standard triathlon distance’, or ‘international’ or even ‘intermediate’. They are all basically the same thing, though. So generally, if the name does not contain the word ‘sprint’ or ‘ironman’ you are usually safe to assume this is the one people are talking about!

Olympic Triathlon Distance
Swim: 1500m – Bike: 40K – Run: 10K

Half Ironman Triathlon Distances

This is where things can often be tricky. Different organizations and different races do not always use the same numbers when it comes to the Half Ironman events. You might see these advertized as ‘Long Course’ or ‘Middle Distance’ triathlons, and their approximate distances involve a slightly longer swim than the Olympic triathlon, combined with double-distances for the bike ride and run. A very well-known version is called the Ironman 70.3, which is the total distance in miles for the race.

Half Ironman Triathlon Distance (Ironman 70.3)
Swim: 1.9K – Bike: 90K – Run: 21.1K

Middle Distance Triathlon
Swim: 2.5K – Bike: 80K – Run: 20K

Ironman Triathlon Distances

This is the one that many people often associate as being the triathlon, rather than simply the hardest of a family of multi-discipline events. Actually there are harder events out there, and sometimes it is not just the distance which makes the race a tough one! The ironman triathlon is sometimes referred to as ‘Ultra distance’ but the name ‘Ironman’ is so well-known even among non-athletes these days, that most people know what it is, even if they aren’t too sure just how far and for how long the brave competitors have to battle with themselves and the course. It starts out with a very long swim, followed by a monster cycle ride, and tops off with a nice little full-distance marathon run. Not one for the chubby beginner, then!

Ironman Triathlon Distance
Swim: 3.8K – Bike: 180K – Run: 42.2K

Wanna Give It A Tri?

Now you know a little bit more about what sort of distances are involved, you might want to try a sprint if you are a triathlon beginner, or take your time to train hard for an Olympic distance triathlon. The good news is that triathlon is a very popular sport these days, and there are events all over the world. So there is bound to be something near you that covers the distance you want to take part in. And you might even decide that you would prefer to travel around the world to compete, to you can take in the sights and be a tourist while you recover from your exertions.

The best places to start are your national triathlon body’s website, and the international sites, which will all have a section called ‘Events’. Just spend some time perusing these for races which you like the sound of. Then it’s a case of apply, train hard and go compete.

Useful Links

British Triathlon Federation
Triathlon Australia
Triathlon – International Triathlon Union
USA Triathlon
TriFinder UK
The American Triathlon Calendar
Australian Triathlon Calendar

Ironman

Neil (nickname Ironman) is an avid runner and sports fan, who writes about all things triathlon-related, especially running and cycling. He also writes about sports injuries and regaining fitness - mainly from personal experience rather than academic knowledge - although he does study that too!

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