If you happen to be visiting this blog as a newcomer to the world of triathlon, or indeed any multi-sport racing, it might be slightly confusing coming across the various race terms, so  thought it would be useful to explain it all here.

Multi-sport Events

In fairness, absolutely anything can be put together to make up a multi-sport event, so what I will focus on is combinations of swimming, cycling and running.

A triathlon comprises a swim, followed by a cycle, and finishes with a run. People are often put off triathlons because there will be one discipline in there that they can’t do/won’t do/don’t like. Increasingly, there are now other options available to race in, if you just fancy a couple of the disciplines, but not all three.

Aquathlons are made up of a swim followed by a run – these are very popular for children as it can be difficult to arrange safe locations for the cycle legs of triathlons – but are becoming more commonly available for adults too. Certainly these are easier to train for and require much less in the way of kit! A variation on the aquathlon is the SwimRun which is an event involving multiple alternating swims and runs – these are usually outdoor events and can include taking part as a duo where you complete the whole course side by side with a partner.

For those folk who are anxious of the swim segment of a triathlon (this, I would say, is the commonest reason I hear for why people don’t fancy triathlon) (other than ‘why on earth would you want to do a triathlon?’), there are duathlons. I hate these. Although I’ve only ever done one. I certainly won’t be doing another one. They are a run, followed by a cycle, followed by another run. As someone who is particularly bad at running, having to do it twice in a race is particularly unappealing.

And finally, is the relatively new event (maybe it’s been around for a while but I’ve not really been aware of it) of aquabike. Which, as you might imagine, is a swim, followed by a cycle. In some ways this sounds ideal, especially if you’re not great at running. (But if I’m totally honest, now that we’ve been doing triathlons for a wee while, I kind of regard aquabikes as kind of cheating.)

Not only do these events vary in terms of the disciplines they involve, there can be variations also within them in terms of eg terrain. For example, the swim can either be a pool swim (common for shorter distance races) or open water (commoner for the longer distance races), the cycle might be a road bike or a hilly mountain bike, and the run could be a flat, tarmac-ed road, or an off road, hilly run. This means it can be difficult to compare one race with another, even if the distances are the same.

Triathlon Distances

Novice Triathlon

Swim 400m/Cycle 10km/Run 2-3km

On paper these look like really short distances, and indeed when you do any of the bits separately they are not particularly taxing. I found it astonishing though how tiring it was doing the whole thing together for the first time. My first ever novice triathlon was on the Isle of Bute in May 2016. A beautiful setting, with glorious scenery for the cycle section, which in fact was a bit longer than usual at about 13km. And it started with an instant 2km quite steep (I thought so anyway) climb (this is a recurring theme I have found in many triathlons, especially those with open water swims. But then it dawned on me that we are, of course, starting at sea level so really the only option is to go up). I completed this in a time of 1:02:04, and was flat out that whole time. At that point, it would take me about an hour to complete a 10km run, but what struck me was that I was much more stretched and out of breath during this triathlon than I ever am during a run, which I think explains why I believe I am far fitter doing triathlons than I ever was when I was just running. I was exhausted but elated at the end. And hooked.

Sprint Triathlon

Swim 750m/Cycle 20km/Run 5km

The thing that makes me giggle a little about these races is their name, as if one should be sprinting for the duration of the race. After a couple of novice events in 2016, we graduated to some sprint distance races in 2017 and frankly I regard these as relatively long distance thank you very much. As with all the events you can take part in, the distances can often vary, as can the settings and terrains, and as triathlon grows in popularity, you can find sprint distance races to suit your preferences all over the country. I typically take about 1hr 35min to do a sprint race (this is slow). I have completed one (Knockburn, June 2018) in 1hr 28min but it had a slight shorter cycle at 18km and run 4.7km so I don’t think I can count it. I am interested to see if my times improve for the shorter distance races, which I might do a couple of in the run up to the Ironman, with the increase in my training.

Standard Triathlon (Olympic Distance)

Swim 1500m/Cycle 40km/Run 10km

I thought this might be the pinnacle of my triathlon career. I certainly didn’t have a desire to go much beyond this distance. And we completed our first standard in July this year at the St Mary’s Loch Triathlon. After weeks of unprecedented hot weather, a storm blew in the night before the event, and we battled rain and wind for the duration of the race. I thought the cycle would be my strongest leg, but in fact I struggled with it the most. It took me just under 3.5 hours and the thought of doing all of that times four and a bit fills me with abject terror, which I suspect is the source of sleepless nights.

Middle Distance Triathlon (roughly ‘Half Ironman’)

Swim 1900m/Cycle 80km/Run 20km

When I saw these distances for the first time I was actually relived to see that although everything else essentially doubles, the swim actually only goes up slightly (from the standard distance race). The distances for a half Ironman differ slightly in that they are based on miles, so the swim is about the same, but the cycle is 90km and run is a half marathon so 21.1km. I have never done a middle distance event – I probably need to do one in the run up to the Ironman although I know it will only make me anxious. An excellent time for one of these is somewhere around 6 hours. I think if I could finish under 7.5 hours I would be delighted but we’ll need to see.


Swim 3.8km/Cycle 180km/Run 42.2km

What on earth was I thinking?

There is a 17 hour time limit for the race. For me, this will be a miracle.


One thought on “Triathlons Explained

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