It wasn’t very long ago that most didn’t know what a triathlon was. In fact, it was only back in 1978 when the first triathlon took place in Hawaii on February 18 when a group of people got together and decided to swim, bike, and run around the island.
Times have changed, though. According to a recent report by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, there were 1.2 million on-road triathlon participants in the United States in 2009. Not all of these racers are racing longer distance triathlons, though.
Instead, these numbers are spread out between the following four different distances, going from shorter to longer:
Sprint Triathlon Distance
Swim: ~750 meters
Bike: ~20 kilometers
Run: 5 kilometers
This is the most popular distance with triathletes in general and very popular with first-time triathletes. Its popularity has caused an explosion in the number of sprint triathlon races available across the United States. The sprint distance provides a great opportunity for first-timers to take part in a race without having to commit hours and hours to training.
Olympic Triathlon Distance
Swim: 1500 meters
Bike: 40 kilometers
Run: 10 kilometers
The Olympic distance is the second most popular triathlon distance and is still what I would consider to be a shorter triathlon distance, as most racers can usually finish the distance in under three hours.
It’s called an Olympic distance but is often referred to as a standard or international distance. It was first introduced as a sport in the Olympics in 2000 at the Sydney, Australia games and has been included in the Summer Olympics since. One interesting fact about the Olympic distance is that the distances were taken from existing race distances of the individual sports that already had a spot in the Olympics (a 1.5km swim, a 40km bike ride, and a 10km run).
Many people new to triathlons skip the sprint distance all together and go straight to the international distance, especially if they already have a good background in one of the sports.
Half Triathlon Distance
Swim: 1.2 miles
Bike: 56 miles
Run: 13.1 miles
Now we’re leaving the short distance races behind and getting into the world of middle distance triathlons. This is the world of half-distance triathlons, also often referred to as half-Ironman races or 70.3 distance (which refers to the total distance of the race, in miles).
This is the distance where racing is taken to a whole new level. And by that I mean that with shorter distance races like the sprint and international triathlons, most racers have enough energy and nutrition at the start of the race to get them through the whole thing without having to manage their body’s nutritional deficits during the race.
But with half and full distances, this is no longer the case. Competitors not only have to train at the longer distances required for the longer race, but have to learn how to go beyond mere swim, bike, and run training into the world of nutrition. And this makes the half distance triathlon more complicated to manage and control, which could be one of the reasons why it isn’t as popular as compared to the shorter distances.
Full Triathlon Distance
Swim: 2.4 miles
Bike: 112 miles
Run: 26.2 miles
The big daddy. The mother of all triathlons. The Ironman.
This is the race distance that really started the whole triathlon craze. It wasn’t until the question was asked in Hawaii in 1977 which sport had the fittest athletes, running, biking, or swimming, that the sport became a reality. It’s been growing ever since. And while most new triathletes don’t set out to complete an Ironman as their first ever triathlon, lots of triathletes do consider that distance to be an ultimate goal.
No matter the distance, though, pushing your body to race at its maximum level and potential is what every triathlete should be striving for and that is one of the things that makes triathlon such a great sport.