The Triathlon - A Complete Guide to the Sport
Ah triathlons… An exercise junkie’s favorite cardiovascular competition. If you’re looking to nurse overuse injuries back to health, are feeling burnt out on your current routine, have exercise A.D.D., or just want to add some variety to your training, then a triathlon may be for you.
At the most basic level a triathlon is composed of three cardiovascular-focused exercises: swimming, biking, and running. In fact, virtually every triathlon requires participants to complete the physical activities in this order.
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A participant cannot pick their least favorite activity first and save their strongest segment for last. From the exercise flow standpoint, swimming first allows your body time to warm up and (some-what) dry off during the biking and running segments.
You can expect virtually every triathlon event near you to take place outside rather than indoors. In most parts of the country, it’s unrealistic to have a multi-kilometer indoor space for running and cycling. The only exception would be the swimming portion.
Depending on where you live, there may not be a safe or accessible body of outdoor water of water to complete the swimming segment. If this is the case, you can expect to swim laps up and down the local community pool or fitness center.
However, I have encountered Sprint triathlons in which all three race segments occur indoors – the swimming is in a lap lane loop, the biking is on a stationary bike, and the running is around an indoor track. In my opinion, if you’re going to compete in a triathlon, try to do so outdoors – running around in circles and biking in place can be mind-numbing.
The goal of this article is to provide a foundation for understanding the most common triathlon distances, equipment required for success, supportive supplements, and a sample training plan that supports cardiovascular and resistance training goals.
While you may see a triathlon distance deviating from the four examples below, the Sprint, Olympic, Half Ironman, and Ironman distances are undoubtedly the most common.
Sprint – 400m swim, 20km bike, 5km run
Sprint triathlons exploded in popularity over the past decade and rightfully so – the relatively shortened duration decreases the training time required to be prepared for a race. The shorter distance also decreases the intimidation element often expressed by first time triathletes.
Furthermore, if you aren’t as spry as you used to be, the sprint triathlon typically has a decreased recovery timeline attributed to its shorter distance. However, sprint triathlons can still be a competitive and intense race environment appealing to even the most seasoned triathletes.
If you have a few triathlons under your belt but are looking to ratchet up your race intensity without destroying your body, then sprint triathlons are for you. Athletes should be aware that transition times are critical, especially during sprint triathlons. Taking too long to move from the swim to bike or bike to run segments could spell the difference between first and tenth place.
Olympic – 1.5km swim, 40km bike, 10km run
The Olympic triathlon, commonly referred to as the standard course or ironically as the short course, is the international standard for a triathlon distance. Unsurprisingly, athletes compete in the Olympic triathlon during the summer Olympic Games.
Unlike many other Olympic sports, there are no formal Olympic records as each course significantly varies from year to year. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janerio, Alistair Brownlee of Great Britain and Gwen Jorgensen of the United States took home the gold medals for the male and female Olympic triathlons, respectively.
Training for an Olympic triathlon requires a significantly larger time investment compared to Sprint triathlons, but that shouldn’t discourage you. While the race environment is competitive, there is a family-like element to the event and typically plenty of post-race celebrations.
Half Ironman – 1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21.1km run
If you find Olympic or Sprint triathlons boring and you have the desire to punish your body for longer distances, then be sure to check out Half Ironman races. Compared to Olympic triathlons, the swim is 27% longer, the bike is 125% longer, and the run is 111% longer.
For those struggling to put this race in perspective, a half Ironman involves swimming 20 football fields, biking from Princeton New Jersey to New York City, and running a half marathon. Training for a Half Ironman requires serious amounts of time and dedication.
You can expect to train almost every day, sometimes twice per day. An analysis of over 67,000 Half Ironman finishers in 40 different races found that the average completion time is six hours. Swimming took 45 minutes, biking took three hours, and running took two hours and fifteen minutes. 
Simply finishing a Half Ironman is a huge accomplishment and badge of honor that few athletes can claim.
Ironman – 3.9km swim, 181km bike, 42.2km run/
The Ironman is one of, if not the most popular long distance triathlon. Infamous for its duration and stress on the body, competing in an Ironman is not for the faint of heart. If you think training for a Half Ironman is tough, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Training twice per day, every day, is virtually a guarantee. Be sure to block out your weekends, holidays, and other days off as these are the ideal days for completing the long swims, bikes, and runs programmed in your training plan.
Finishing an Ironman places you in the category of the fittest (and arguably craziest) athletes on the planet. Unlike most other triathlons, there is a time limit – 17 hours. Assuming a 7:00am start time, you may be disqualified from the race if you’re still swimming by 9:20am, biking by 5:30pm, or running by 12:00am. The average competitor takes 12 hours and 35 minutes to complete an Ironman. 
Preparing for an Ironman may take one year or more, but many feel the sense of accomplishment upon crossing the finish line is well-worth the sacrifice.
Below is a short list of equipment to consider, organized by race segment – swimming, biking, and running. While some of the equipment may be considered optional, much of it is critical for training and competing effectively.
Bathing Suit – This one is a no brainer. Unless it’s a Birthday Suit triathlon, you’re going to want something to cover your prized possessions. Many competitors opt for a wetsuit as it decreases friction in the water and provides a barrier between you and the water. If the water is mild then you may see females wearing a one-piece and males wearing neoprene bottoms.
Goggles – With everyone else splashing around or even if the water is choppy, a decent pair of goggles will make your swimming segment much more tolerable. Don’t cheap out on bargain bin goggles; you want a pair with a sturdy strap that will keep water out of your eyes for the entire swim.
Swim Cap – For those with long hair, a neoprene swim cap can help to decrease drag and keep your hair out of your eyes for the entire race. Depending on how you wear your hair, you may keep this on for the entire triathlon.
Bike – You might be surprised to see a bike on the list in the biking equipment section. If you are then triathlons are not for you. A multi-speed bike is critical for most triathlons as the terrain can be variable – steep inclines, declines, and long stretches of flat course. While I love riding a good single speed beach cruiser in the summer, you want a bike that can adjust gears and light enough so that you can lift it over your head.
Many elite triathletes use bikes made primarily of carbon fiber and with ultra-skinny wheels. While you do not need to drop thousands on a bicycle, you should borrow a decent bike from your friend or consider this an investment in the sport.
Helmet – Absolutely critical for safe competition. Even if the course is sectioned off from pedestrians and motor vehicles, just one small dip or pothole may cause you to go flying over the handle bars. Helmets are lightweight and can save your life. Don’t be a dummy – wear a helmet.
Socks – After swimming in frigid water for an hour or more, you’re going to want a lightweight non-cotton sock that wicks away water and sweat. There is no need to buy anything fancy – moisture wicking socks at your local running store or favorite online retailer will do the trick. You want to create a barrier between your foot and the shoe pedaling the bike.
Bicycle Shoes – Depending on your level of investment in the sport, you may elect to forgo bicycle shoes and that is completely fine. Bicycle shoes attach to clipless pedals and offer the benefit of a smoother pedal rotation.
Furthermore, bicycle shoes require the performance of a specific foot rotation in order to detach. If you have ever biked long distances in tennis shoes then you know how frustrating it can be for your foot to slip off mid-pedal rotation.
Socks – Hopefully you were wearing socks during the biking portion of the race, but if not, be sure to put on a pair of moisture-wicking non-cotton socks prior to lacing up for the running segment. Failure to wear socks may result in crippling blisters and hotspots all around the foot. If you were wearing a pair of socks during the biking segment then I would recommend changing in to a fresh pair at the bike to run transition point.
Running Shoes – Once again, not a groundbreaking recommendation but you would be surprised how many people ask about competing in everything but running shoes. If you have allegiance to a brand or style of shoe during training then I would recommend wearing that exact shoe on race day.
If you feel running shoes, specifically cross trainers, to be too clunky, then consider wearing racing flats or minimalist-style shoes. These shoes provide less support and typically do not hold up to the wear and tear of traditional training, but they are light as a feather and may help your feet to feel that much lighter during a brutal race. Do NOT wait until race day to break in a new pair of shoes. Doing so could ruin your entire race.
Once you’ve nailed down a solid training plan, diet, and recovery approach, supplements may help facilitate expedited recovery and promote overall health. Staple supplements for triathletes include multivitamin, fish oil, protein powder, creatine, and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs).
Multivitamin - A high quality multivitamin acts as a form of inexpensive insurance to cover any nutrient deficiencies arising from gaps in your diet or resulting from the expelling of electrolytes via sweat during exercise. Some of my favorites include MTS Nutrition Machine Greens, HPN V1 Multivitamin, and Optimum Nutrition Opti-Men.
Fish Oil – Molecular distilled fish oil is an excellent supplement for boosting your Omega-3 fatty acid intake. Increased consumption of Omega-3s may help to decrease whole-body inflammation, facilitate muscle recovery, alleviate aching joints, and improve cardiovascular health. My top three fish oil products include Ethitech Nutrition Fish Oil, NOW Foods Omega-3, and Controlled Labs Oximega Fish Oil.
Protein Powder – This supplement is not just for meatheads and CrossFit junkies. Performing hours upon hours of cardiovascular exercise stresses your body and breaks down muscle fibers. Insufficient protein intake may lead to slower recovery, decreased performance, and extended periods of soreness. Just one to three scoops per day can bump up your protein intake to the recommended one gram per pound of bodyweight.
My favorite protein powder is whey protein, but based on your dietary needs you can also take soy, egg, beef, hemp, or rice protein. Dymatize Elite 100% Whey, Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey, and MTS Nutrition Machine Whey Protein make my short list of top protein powders.
Creatine – No, creatine is not a steroid. In fact, it is naturally found in foods like steak and is one of, if not the most studied supplement on the planet. Just five grams per day of creatine monohydrate with a big glass of juice or water will help to decrease fatigue, improve power output, and prolong endurance.
There is no need to buy an expensive designer variety of creatine – the monohydrate variety is the most economical and arguably most effective. Reputable producers of creatine monohydrate products include Dymatize, Optimum Nutrition, NutraKey, and Met-Rx.
BCAAs – Branched chain amino acids include leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These three amino acids play the most significant role in protein synthesis and muscle recovery. BCAAs are the most optional supplement on this list and otherwise not required if you consume adequate quantities of protein from other source.
However, BCAA consumption, particularly pre/intra/post workout may help to further speed muscle recover, decrease perceived fatigue, and encourage increased fluid consumption as the powder will need to be mixed in a liquid. If you plan to create your own sports drink or pre-workout, go ahead and get the unflavored BCAAs.
If you plan to consume BCAAs as a standalone supplement in water then I would strongly encourage you to purchase a flavored variety. Dymatize BCAA Complex and MTS Nutrition Machine Fuel are my go-to flavored BCAA products. For unflavored BCAAs, I buy in bulk and stick with a reputable manufacturer like NOW Foods, Optimum Nutrition, or NutraKey.
Sample Triathlon Training Plan
The sample training plan below provides a foundation for structuring your training plan so that you can maximize individual workout performance, minimize carryover fatigue from one work to the next, and facilitate reasonable recovery. Distances and time durations are intentionally excluded so that you can tailor this plan for your ability, goals, and desired triathlon distance. If pushed, I would say someone competing in a Sprint or Olympic triathlon would benefit most from this plan.
- AM – Upper body resistance training
- PM – Long bike
- AM – Moderate Swim
- PM – Lower body resistance training
- AM – Long swim
- PM – Moderate run
- AM – Rest
- PM - Rest
- AM – Upper body resistance training
- PM – Moderate bike
- AM – Light run & light swim
- PM – Light bike
- AM – Long run and practice transition from biking to running
- PM - Rest
References1) Britt, Raymond. “RunTri.” How Much Time Does It Take to Finish a Half Ironman 70.3? Average Half Ironman Finish Times, Run TriMedia, 2016.
2) Britt, Raymond. “RunTri.” Ironman Cut-off Times: Can it Really Take 17 Hours to Finish an Ironman?, Run TriMedia, 2016.
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