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What is Triathlon

The definition of "what is triathlon" is simple. A triathlon is a multi-sport event combining swimming, cycling and running one immediately following after the other.

The History

The first modern triathlon was held in San Diego, California in September 1974. The race, which took place in Mission Bay was a 5.3 mile run, a 5 mile cycle, and a 600 yard swim.

Four years later, in 1978, the first Ironman competition was held in Oahu, Hawaii. It was an independent event, which combined three existing Hawaiian endurance events into one single event. The original events, which became the first Hawaii Ironman, were the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles), the Around Oahu Bike Race (112 miles) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles).

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was impressed with the phenomenal growth of the triathlon, and in 1988 started discussions on including the triathlon events in the Olympics. A committee was organized, which eventually became the beginning of the International Triathlon Union (ITU).

The initial triathlon congress in 1989 defined the Olympic triathlon distance as a 1.5-km swim, 40-km bike and 10-km run. However, it wasn't until 1994 that the IOC agreed to add the triathlon as an Olympic event starting with the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

The Events

When you ask, what is triathlon? The answer is that every triathlon is different.


Typically, a triathlon starts with a swim event. The swim may be open water (rivers, lakes, oceans, etc) or in a pool. The participants may start en masse, staggered or individually. A wet suit may be required depending on the water temperature, or may be disallowed if the water temperature is above a certain mark.

Transition One

After the swim, is the first transition (T1). The T1 is a staging area where the athletes exit the water and prepare for the cycling portion of the triathlon. All equipment is placed in the T1 prior to the race starting.


Cycling is the next event in a triathlon and typically occurs in a park or on public roads, which are often but not always closed to traffic. The cycling event may be a loop, an out-and-back, or any variation that meets the distance requirement.

Transition Two

The second transition (T2) is a place where the athletes rack their bikes, and typically change into running shoes. Time in the transitions can make or break a competitive athlete. A fast transition may shave off the few seconds that you need to win the race.

The Run

The final event is usually the run. The running course varies with the event, and may take the athletes through a variety of terrains.

Triathlons fall into the following categories:

  Sprint Olympic Standard Half Ironman Full Ironman
Swim 5 miles 93 miles 1.2 miles 2.4 miles
Bike 12.4 miles 24.8 miles 56 miles 112 miles
Run 3.1 miles 6.2 miles 13.1 miles 26.2 miles

You can enter a triathlon to compete against others, or as a personal endurance event. You can start with a Sprint, or the smaller Super Sprint, and never try for the ultimate Ironman. In any case, Super Sprint or Ironman, what is triathlon will ultimately be defined by you.

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