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Beginning Triathlon: What Is A Triathlon and How Do I Begin Training for One?

Updated on January 26, 2011

So you are interested in doing a triathlon. Perhaps you have seen one on television or had a friend who participated in one. Maybe you have a weight loss goal or just a desire to become more healthy. Or maybe you are just interested in the challenge. Whatever your motives are you have made a great choice. Triathlons are fun, challenging, and can appeal to a broad spectrum of abilities and fitness levels. But just what is a Triathlon? I'm so glad you asked! On a basic level a triathlon is an endurance race. But it is an endurance race unlike any other. It is a race consisting of multiple events covering multiple disciplines. As you can tell by the name, a triathlon consists of three parts and is normally performed in the same order without stopping: swim, bike, and run. But you will find out that a triathlon is so much more than a race; it is an experience and achievement that will leave you wanting more. Triathlons come in 4 basic sizes: the sprint or mini triathlon, the olympic distance triathlon, the 70.3 or Half-Ironman triathlon, and the Ironman Triathlon.

The Sprint Triathlon.

The sprint triathlon is designed specifically for beginners or first timers to a triathlon or to veterans who want to iron out some kinks before hitting the longer races. It is also referred to as a 'mini-triathlon'. An ITU (International Triathlon Union) sanctioned sprint triathlon consists of a 750 meter swim, a 20 kilometer bike ride, and a 5 kilometer run. These distances are half the length of an olympic triathlon. There are sprint triathlons held all over the world that are non-sanctioned events and therefore have varying distances for each of the legs. In the United States, the standard distance for a sprint triathlon is a quarter mile swim, a 15 mile bike ride, and a 3 mile run. These distances are adaptable depending on the course and conditions on race day.

The Olympic Triathlon.

This triathlon distance is the most common distance found in international races, which makes it an obvious choice for the Olympic Games. It is also referred to as the 'standard' distance triathlon. An ITU sanction olympic triathlon consists of a 1500 meter swim, a 40 kilometer bike ride, and a 10 kilometer run. The ITU has held Triathlon World Championship in the olympic distance since 1989. In 2009 the format was changed from a single world championship race to a series of six races with a seventh Grand Final race. These races are open to elite or professional triathletes. It is also worth noting that the olympic distance triathlon is a 'draft-legal' race for the cycling leg.

The Half-Ironman and Ironman Triathlon.

The Ironman series of triathlons is the most grueling of the triathlon distances. The distances for an Ironman Triathlon are a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 (marathon) mile run. There is a 17 hour time limit in order to finish an Ironman race. The Half-Ironman is often called a "70.3" because that is the total number of miles traveled in a half-ironman race. The most prestigious triathlon in the world is the Ironman World Championship which has been held in Hawaii since 1978. Official Ironman and Half-Ironman Triathlons are held all over the world and carry with them the award of a qualifying spot to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. The Ironman races are not 'draft-legal' on the bicycle leg of the race.

How To Train For Your First Sprint Distance Triathlon.

On a basic level a triathlon is an endurance race and therefore your training should be focused on maintaining a high level of cardiovascular activity for a prolonged time. Any exercise regimen should be complimented by resistance work as well, but remember you want long, lean muscles that can maintain their work over time. For resistance work focus on more repetitions with less weight to make yourself stronger, leaner, and better suited for a triathlon. Depending on how much time you have before your triathlon, your workouts should gradually build in length and intensity up to the week before your race. The pointers here are intentionally general and focused on a first time triathlete preparing for a sprint length race. These are not guidelines to win the race but simply tools to help you finish while enjoying yourself. Here are some tips for training for each stage of the triathlon:

The Swim.

Most triathlons are done in open water such as a lake, river, or the ocean. Swimming in open water is much different than swimming in a pool. You will need to get some open water experience prior to your race so you will be prepared for the unique challenges. Typically one or two open water swims will suffice. If your race is held early in the year when the water is colder, you may want to fit more than two into your training to get your body used to working hard in cold water. When training in a pool, you will want to focus on establishing a good rhythm of breathing and strokes that you can maintain over a distance of at least 500 meters (20 laps in a 25 meter pool). The crawl stroke is the preferred stroke for races but you are allowed to use whatever stroke you feel most comfortable with. Because your legs are so heavily involved in the other two parts of the race, it is advised that you develop your upper body to do most of the work while swimming. No-one has ever won a triathlon in the swimming leg, but many people have lost a race there. You should have one swimming workout per week leading up to your triathlon. You should be able to swim for 1000 meters without stopping. The more comfortable you are in the water the more you set yourself up for success in the other stages.

The Bike and The Run.

The best way to train for specific legs of the triathlon is to participate in those activities. Varying your intensity levels, or interval training, while cycling or running will help push your body and prepare it for the rigors of race day. Spin classes, plyometrics, and weightlifting are all great ways to compliment your cardiovascular exercise and make you a more powerful athlete. Also, cross training with different cardiovascular activities will help develop your lungs to supply you with the oxygen you need. When you are training for the bike and run in a sprint triathlon you want to first work up to the actual distances you will be competing at. After you are comfortable at those distances you will want to move beyond them until you can do twice the distance (6 mile run or 30 mile bike ride). When you are able to do this you will want to shorten those distances, but do each exercise back-to-back. For example, on a Monday you do a 6 mile run. Tuesday is resistance training and 30 minutes on a row machine. On Wednesday you run 2 miles and immediately follow it with a 5 mile bike ride. Thursday is a rest day. Friday you bike for 10 miles and immediately run 2 miles. Saturday is more resistance training and a swim day. Sunday is a rest day. Then you do it all over again, gradually increasing your distances and intensity. You want your body to get used to changing the way it moves while working very hard. The week leading up to race day you will want to taper your workouts down to give your body adequate time to rest and recover. You should still run, bike, and swim but at a lesser distance and lower exertion level.

Obviously this is a very general guideline for how to prepare yourself to finish your first sprint distance triathlon. Make sure you are listening to what your body is telling you and that you don't go overboard in your training. Do not hesitate to bring in a trainer or physician if you are having issues. Make sure you have adequate time to get your body ready for a triathlon. Just because it is a sprint distance doesn't mean it will be easy! The more time you have before your race, the better prepared you will be.

Congratulations on taking the first step to becoming a triathlete. You will find triathlons are a fun and challenging activity that you can enjoy for many, many years to come. If you'd like to know more about what you need to participate in your first triathlon, please read the article "What Do I Need To Do My First Triathlon?". There are also multiple tools online to help you find a triathlon in your area, my personal favorite is Good luck with your training and we'll see you at the finish line!


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      joe 2 years ago

      I am overweight. 5'10" 220. I run up to 5 miles at a time. Is it realistic to think I can try a triathlon or do I need to drop weight first?

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      Triathlon Distances 6 years ago

      Great summary. I would say that the Sprint is a great all-around race. It is good for first-timers, and it is also challenging for experienced triathletes -- there is always the chance of doing the race faster and faster.