Triathlon 101: Types & Distances

FitLegally’s, Rachel Brenke, shares about multi sport, triathlon, the distance names and types available. Feel free to share this with new triathletes!


Triathlon, what’s that? Swimming, biking and running? You do all three sports? Why? What? Okay, that sounds cool, tell me more.

I’m going to explain to you guys the different distances and information that you need to know about triathlon whether you’ve been doing it for 10 years or not at all. Hopefully you’ll learn a little something, or you can share this with others to help get them into the sport as well.

Hey guys, Rachel Brenke from FitLegally, the fitness resource for fitness professionals. But I’m also an athlete just like you so I’m sharing these every day athletes tips. And I just want to talk about, what is triathlon? What’s interesting is that getting into the sport, I never really heard about it before. I was a swimmer in high school, little bit in college, only ran when I was running after food or someone was chasing me and hadn’t biked since middle school. I had a friend who knew that I was trying to lose baby weight and invited me, and I had zero idea of what was involved. I never was one that had watched the Ironman World Champs on TV and was inspired, just didn’t know about it. And I never was one that was integrated in these different sports, except for swimming, and it was just foreign to me. So I wanted to break it down just a little bit for you guys. May sound a little common sense for some, but guess what? It’s not for everybody.

So yes, a triathlon is primarily going to be swimming, biking and running. The reason I say primarily is sometimes people confuse triathlon with multi-sport. There’s other variations such a duathlon which is run, bike, and run. Or aquathlon which is swim, run. Or aquabike which is swim, bike, aquabike, right? You’re not biking on the water. So multi-sport and triathlon sometimes people interchangeably use the terms. And it is true because triathlon is multi-sport but multi-sport is the umbrella, triathlon is specifically swimming, biking and running.

Within that, there’s a variety of distances, there’s a variety of companies and organization that you can compete under. We have Ironman, which is known extensively for their half irons and full irons, which are 70.3 and 140.6 miles. Then you have ITU or USAT and they are typically shorter distances that I’m going to go into here in a second. And they have the other varieties of multi-sport like the aquathlon, the duathlon and those sorts of things.

So let me give you guys a quick crash course on the distances. Understand though, when I’m talking about these distances, they can vary depending upon the race organization that is putting them on. And also, before we get into it, understand, don’t devalue yourself if you say, “I’m only doing a sprint.” Because you think in your mind, “Because it’s short distance, it’s not as important as, say, an Ironman.” Guys, sprints are hard. Sprints are really hard. I had a friend that excels at sprints, well she kicks my butt, but then on Ironman’s, I can run circles around her. Everyone is made differently. Don’t devalue the distance, just be grateful and proud of the accomplishments of whatever distance you decide to do.

Now, much like my running career, I went this trajectory that I’m going to give you. It’s in order of distances from shortest to longest. You don’t have to do this. I know some people who just jumped to Ironman’s or just jumped to half Ironman’s. Recognize that you can do these in any order. I’m just going to do them in order because it is shortest to longest and also the trajectory that I did.

So I started with a sprint triathlon. Sprints can either be pool and/or open water. I started with pool. It was roughly about 400 yards, 12 miles bike and 5K run. They can be shorter than that. Typically, they’re called super sprints, but they can also be sprint as well, depends on the organization. These are great beginner ones for you to test out or, if you’re just a sprinter, really good distance for you to get into.

Beyond that is Olympic. This is typically the distance that mirrors the triathlon that’s in the Olympics. This is the only distance that the Olympics have for triathlon. So often it’s going to be double what the sprint is, it can vary though. So if a sprint is 400 yards, it may be 800 yards in the Olympic. Sprint is 12 miles bikes, 24 mile bike for the Olympic. 5K for the run, 10K for the run in the Olympic. You see how this is going. Typically, it doubles from there, not always the case.

Then you go from sprint to Olympic and from Olympic you typically go to what is either the half iron or 70.3 mile distance. Now the term Ironman is a brand itself but people use the term half iron synonymously whether you do a 70.3 at a local race company versus with Ironman brand itself. So you have 70.3 which is half iron, 140.6 miles which is the full iron. Oh, let me break those down within that. So 70.3 for half Ironman is 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and a half marathon, a 13.1 mile run. So that’s all 70.3 for a half Ironman distance, that’s still a longer distance, obviously. That’s really, for me, where it starts to get challenging. I love the 70.3’s. And then you have the Ironman distance which is 140.6 and that is 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and a marathon of 26.2 mile run.

Beyond that, there’s Ultramans, the ultra Ironman’s that you can check out. And they’ll be multiples of the Ironman distance, just in different variations. So recognize in this scale that you can start anywhere. Don’t devalue where you’re at, they’re all hard in their own way, you’re trying to grasp three different sports. I just like the trajectory of starting with the sprint to Olympic to half to iron and I’d actually come back down to half iron. I much prefer the 70.3 distance as opposed to the 140.6. I can really hammer it out and then also I’m done before the sun comes down which is not the case when it comes to 140.6’s, maybe I’ll get there one day. But you will find the distance that works best for you that you most enjoy. I do recommend trying them all within your physical limits that you can and seeing which one you enjoy the most. And recognize that as your fitness grows, your taste in preference may change as well.

So I hope you guys have learned a little bit about triathlon through this video. I understand it’s a bit more basic, it’s walking through the distances and the types. But understand that I do have other videos. I’m going to talk about equipment, transitions and other things for other beginner tri-athletes. Please feel free to send this video to friends, let them know kind of what triathlon is, many don’t even understand. That’s okay, I didn’t either coming into the sport and now I live, breath it and eat it and sleep it every single day. And I hope you guys enjoy it. Please feel free to reach out with any other questions or comments that you have may have.