What is a Triathlon?

Just thought this may be useful as a start-up guide, all info taken from the BTF which also provide info of Events, Local Clubs, Coaches (and much more). Please feel free to reply and add more useful info. Thanks

What is Triathlon?

Getting started in the world of triathlon can appear to be complicated. The British Triathlon Federation (BTF) has plenty of advice, assistance and a whole bundle of benefits to get you going.

Triathlon has come a long way since its beginnings in 1974 when a group of friends began to train together. The group consisted of swimmers, cyclists and runners, and before long they were organising competitions combining the three sports.

Triathlon is an exciting multi-discipline sport involving a continuous race over various distances in the three disciplines of swimming, cycling and running. A standard triathlon is made up of a swim, followed by a cycle ride, followed by a run.

Competitors race against the clock, which starts as they enter the swim and stops as they cross the finish line after the run.

For this reason, triathlon is often reported as having a 'fourth discipline' known as the transition. The transition is the point in the race when competitors change from swimming to cycling, and from cycling to running.

Race Distances
Distances of individual events may vary from race to race, but there are some standard triathlon distances, quoted in terms of swim/bike/run:
Super sprint - 400m/10km/2.5km
Sprint distance - 750m/20km/5km
Olympic distance - 1500m/40km/10km
Middle distance - 2.5km/80km/20k
Half Ironman distance - 1.9km/90km/21k
Ironman distance - 3.8km/180km/42km

Triathlon Clubs
Belonging to a club is an excellent way to get more involved in triathlon. There are around 350 affiliated triathlon clubs in Great Britain ranging in size from five or six members to well over 100. Clubs cater for all levels of ability and experience, and either have their own coach or access to one.

Apart from help and camaraderie, being a club member also entitles you to Home Nation membership at a reduced cost. Clubs enter teams in the Mazda National Relay Championships, a popular annual event. Details of local clubs are available on the BTF and Home Nation web sites.

Competition Status
Triathletes fall into two categories - Elite, the professional triathletes who compete at an international level, and Age Group - triathletes who are non-professional. The Age Group system allows you to compete against other triathlete entrants of the same age (within a five year band) and sex. Triathlon and duathlon World Championships give all triathletes the chance to enter - they have an Age Group category as well as an elite category.

Great Britain can enter 20 women and 20 men in each Age Group - that's a total of over 300 competitors flying the British flag. This provides opportunity and incentive to athletes who have never considered competing at an international level.

What do I Wear?
You don't need to spend bundles of cash on all the latest tri gear. A few of the basics are all you need to get started. It couldn't be simpler:

Novice events tend to be pool-based, although some may involve open-water swims. The type of event will affect what kit you need. A swimming hat lowers water resistance and saves you vital seconds in the water, so it definitely counts as a triathlon essential. You can pick them up for a couple of pounds in any sports store and they're worth it.

Goggles are a godsend when you're swimming in a pack of enthusiastic triathletes. Being able to see what's going on is the difference between getting stuck in the pack or making a breakaway lead. Cold British open water swims mean you can't overlook wetsuits - they're compulsory with water temperatures below 14 degrees. Summer is officially the triathlon season but a full-length wetsuit is still advisable.

Top Tip
When changing kit in transition, be quick but don't be too hasty. If you rush you can get into a mess and end up taking more time getting changed than is necessary. The best piece of advice about putting gear on is 'less haste, more speed', meaning don't rush too much or you will get in a real mess and end up spending more time getting changed.

Nobody is excused from wearing a helmet, so you'll never see a triathlete riding without a lid, not even an elite. Modern helmets are reasonably priced, simple to use and they give the best protection to your most important parts. One nasty tumble is all it takes.

You don't need a purpose-made tri suit to compete in, but something close-fitting and comfortable and, if you are taking part in an open-water swim, that can be worn under a wetsuit is ideal. A singlet and shorts will serve you just as well, but extra padding in the saddle area is desirable.

A bike has to count as an essential piece of triathlon equipment, but until you get to a more advanced level you don't have to worry about the quality of your bike. Drag your old one out of the shed, but be sure to give it a good service - punctures could almost certainly be the end of your race.

Cycling shoes are a luxury if you're just starting out, but you definitely want shoes that are easy to get on and off during transitions. The advantage of cycling shoes is that they attach to the pedals giving you better cycling stability and power.

Again, there is no real need for specialist running gear at first. Swim, run and bike kit can double up; just make sure that the outfit you choose to wear is comfortable, even when you've been cycling in it. Breathability is always an advantage.

Shoes are the most important part of your running equipment. If your feet are well supported and comfortable, it will make your run seem much easier. Check it out with a running shoe expert before you buy, as individual running styles dictate your trainer requirements.

Tri Kit Costs
This introduction to tri kit necessities is a good point for getting started. Triathlon equipment costings can be pretty reasonable, but professional gear can add up at an astounding rate.


Toll Collector on the Road to Nowhere
Thanks, mimi, - although that list appears to be a little incomplete or not entirely accurate - at least IME outside the UK.

One thing it misses is what used to be called the 'Half-Ironman' distance, which is now (in Ironman-run events) termed 'Ironman 70.3'. This distance is: 1.9km / 90km / 21km

Ironman is a trademarked term, and you will find most often the 'Ironman' distance now being called 'Long' or 'Iron distance' in non-Ironman events in North America - not sure about Europe. Correspondingly, the 'Half-Ironman' is often just called 'Half-Iron Distance' in those events.

While I've seen many 'half-Iron' or 'Ironman 70.3' triathlons I have never seen a 'middle distance' triathlon, the nearest equivalent in the list above, and I am not sure it is used in any actually existing event in North America at least.

Oh, and the 'standard distance' is generally refered to by most triathletes as the 'Olympic distance' or an 'oly' or 'oli' for short. Just so you know what people are talking about!


Let's not have an argument, but I reckon "Ironman 70.3" (which is now the Ironman branded term) = "half ironman" (incorrect but understood) = "Middle Distance". Both the races over this distance that I entered this year (Bala and Aberfeldy) were refered to as "X Middle Distance triathlon". So it is used in the UK (I appreciate you are not UK based).

Arsen Gere

Über Member
North East, UK
One problem I had when starting in triathlons was how to find a race and how to enter.
A lot of this is done on-line now and for the northeast try http://www.entrylive.com/
The list grows as events are added by the organisers.
Pehaps a list of well known sites would be useful to help people locate events?


Toll Collector on the Road to Nowhere
Let's not have an argument, but I reckon "Ironman 70.3" (which is now the Ironman branded term) = "half ironman" (incorrect but understood) = "Middle Distance". Both the races over this distance that I entered this year (Bala and Aberfeldy) were refered to as "X Middle Distance triathlon". So it is used in the UK (I appreciate you are not UK based).
I am sure that's the case - and there's no argument from me. But there does seem to be an ongoing, if not battle, at least vocal disagreement, between the ITU and its national ruling bodies on the one hand and Ironman on the other about who defines and controls longer distances in triathlon. Of course there are even longer distances recognised by neither group - ultras and so on - too. Strictly for completely insane people!


Oh, that is a fair point about longer distances - you also get "O2" and "O3" races which are 2x or 3x Olympic distance - which makes the swim longer relative to Iron distance - which are usually ITU organised. "Challenge" and independant race organisers seem to favour the iron distance format, though.

I know a bit about over iron distance racing as my boyfriend completed a Double last year...

jay clock

Massive member
Hampshire UK
There is also ITU long distance..... 4k/120k/30k!


Active Member
best advice i can give is to avoid the big one's like the London triathlon until you have done a triathlon elsewhere, i did it two year's ago at the sprint distance 800m swim, 20k bike then 5k run.
you'll need a wetsuit as it's in the lock next to city airport and even though the event is well organised i'd think it would be better if the entrants had been trained before.
soo many people were hyped up, too much so tbh, the rule is your not racing the guy next to you, you are setting a time you think is good for you. man it was like an open water brawl, 500 blokes going from an upright position to horizontal trying to swim literally kicking the crap out of each other and a ll trying to beat each other! i had my goggles knocked off during the swim by a bloke in front of me panicking, i ended up finishing the race but spent half of the night in moorfields eye hospital with a damaged retina due to the force of his kick.
now don't let me put you off, if you do it and aren't great at swimming then move closer to the back, practice longer distance swimming, try and go to a 50m pool, the ride is easy tbh, it's mainly flat and hits a couple of ramps but nothing hard, the run is fun as most people get of the bike and then have a cycling leg style run for the first 100 meters. very funny to see.
All in all it was a great day, and would recommend triathlons to everyone, i plan to get back in training for them, oh and also train for it, you'll struggle in each leg without the appropriate training.
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