Want to Complete a Triathlon? Here’s What You Need to Know

Sara Lindberg
·6 mins read
Photo credit: David Madison - Getty Images
Photo credit: David Madison - Getty Images

From Bicycling

There are approximately 4 million people in the U.S. who participate in triathlons each year. And while a small percentage of them have their sights set on the pinnacle of all races—the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii—many of the participants are just looking to cross the finish line.

If you happen to be part of the second group, you probably have a lot of questions about the various distances, training programs, and time required to compete in one of these popular events. Well, the good news is, we have some answers for you—from the athletes and experts themselves.

Bicycling talked with Tom Holland, M.S., C.S.C.S., and Michael K. Ryan, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center to find out everything you need to know about the different triathlon distances.

Both avid triathletes, Holland is a 26-time Ironman triathlon finisher, and Ryan has completed more than 15 Olympic-distance triathlons, three half Ironman triathlons, and one full Ironman triathlon.

While triathlon races, like other races, are mostly being postponed in 2020 because of COVID-19 (including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii), now is as good a time as any to start building a base for your training. Keep reading to learn some of their tips for training for and completing one of the greatest athletic events of all time.

Sprint Triathlon

Whether you’re a weekend warrior looking to test your endurance and strength, or a fitness newbie needing a goal to work toward, the sprint distance is the perfect starting point in your triathlon journey.

“The sprint is an excellent way to break into the multisport world of triathlon,” says Ryan. “It’s challenging, but does not require huge lifestyle modifications to train adequately, and it may be the bug that bites you— enticing you to try the next level.”

On average, you will swim 1/2 mile (750 meters), bike for 12.4 miles (20K), and run for 3.1 miles (5K). Depending on your fitness level, course conditions, and the weather on race day, you can expect to complete these three legs in about 1.5 hours.

When training for a sprint triathlon, you can plan on carving out at least three to four months if you’re a novice. However, if you’re an experienced triathlete, Ryan says you may only need four to six weeks to get race-day ready.

Since the sprint is a popular choice for novice racers, Holland says if your triathlon involves an open water swim, be sure to get out of the pool and into the open water for at least a few practice swims.

“Swimming in a protected pool environment is exponentially different from swimming with hundreds of other people in the open water,” he explains.

There are thousands of sprint triathlons all over the country, but some of Holland’s favorite sprint races include the Chicago Triathlon and Wildflower Triathlon in California.

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Olympic Triathlon

Once you’ve conquered the sprint triathlon, it’s time to tackle the Olympic distance. Fair warning: the Olympic distance is no easy feat. In fact, this is a popular choice for competitors who are training for an Ironman, which means you will meet some fierce competitors on race day.

When you line up on the starting line, get ready to swim 0.93 miles (1.5K), bike 24.85 miles (40K), and run 6.2 miles (10K). Plan on spending about three to four hours outdoors swimming, biking, and running when you get to this level. While not overly long, Ryan does say that by the end, it will test your endurance, make your quads burn, and put your mental fortitude to the test.

Ryan says novices may require three to five months to be ready for this distance, while experienced triathletes may only require six to 12 weeks.

By the time you’re competing in the Olympic distance, there’s a good chance you’ll know what your strengths and weaknesses are. That’s why Holland says this is an ideal time to identify which leg you feel the least confident about doing on race day and spend more time working on that during your triathlon training.

If you’re looking to compete at one of the more popular Olympic distances, Holland says to consider trying the New York City Triathlon or Malibu Triathlon.

Half Ironman Triathlon

The Half Ironman is the primer for the ultimate race: the Ironman. This distance (70.3 miles) will test both your mental and physical strength as you swim 1.2 miles (1.9K), bike 56 miles (90K), and run 13.1 miles (21.1K). It’s important to note, says Holland, that there are Ironman-distance triathlons as well as specific “Ironman” branded tris, since “Ironman” is a trademarked name.

Once you reach this level of competition, you can expect to spend about five to seven hours completing this race. So, if this triathlon is on your to-do list, make sure you plan accordingly. Ryan says novices may require four to six months to be ready for this distance, while experienced triathletes may only require three to four months.

Nutrition on the course becomes much more important as you get up to the half Ironman and Ironman distance triathlons,” explains Holland. He suggests figuring out what your specific fueling plan will be—hydration as well as nutrition—as you will exercise continuously for an extended period of time.

When you’re ready to test the waters with this challenging distance, Holland recommends the 70.3 Lake Placid triathlon and 70.3 Ironman Superfrog in California.

Full Ironman Triathlon

This is the “real deal,” says Ryan. Not only is it the most mentally and physically challenging feat of human fitness (hello, 140.6 miles!) but it’s also a huge investment to train properly. Each year, over 96,000 athletes register to compete in Ironman races, representing over 90 countries, regions and territories.

This triathlon distance requires a 2.4 mile swim (3.9K), 112 mile bike (180.2K), and 26.2 mile run (42.2K). Depending on your fitness level, course conditions, and the weather on race day, you can expect to complete these three legs in about 10 to 17 hours. Ryan says novices may require six to nine months to be ready for this distance, while experienced triathletes may only require four to six months.

Probably the most well-known IronmanTriathlon is the Hawaii Ironman World Championships in Kona. According to Ryan, this is the “be-all-end-all” of triathlon racing. That said, Holland also likes the Ironman Florida.

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