Looking for something a bit tougher? Understanding the range of Triathlon distances


Some people will already have picked their first race because of a charity or work event, but if not, the choice of triathlon distances, format and race terrain can have a major impact on your enjoyment and how you proceed into the future.

Depending on where you live, you are likely to have a lot of options, so let’s consider some of the options and the factors which may impact on the best race for you.

Why are there different triathlon distances?

The more time you spend with triathletes you come to realise that there are two similar but different groups that organise events, one coming from the shorter distances and the other from the longer distances and this has led to the development of two different definitions of the race distance. Understanding the history of triathlon will help you understand where these differences come from.

Triathlons, as managed by the ITU, sprang from the San Diego Track Club in the early ’70s, where a multisport event was devised as an alternative to constant track running. This started with a 10k Run, followed by an 8k run and finishing with a 500m swim.

Since winning Olympic status in 1989, this was standardised to the format we know today with a standard Olympic distance race being a 1.5km swim, a 40km ride and a 10k run, although the majority of races are run over the shorter sprint distance.

At the other extreme is the Ironman race, which is now run by the WTC under the IRONMAN brand ( although other organisers use the same distances under different names like the Challenge series or the famous extreme Norseman event, where you aren’t even guaranteed to be allowed to finish!). This developed as a challenge between extreme athletes in Hawaii who wanted to prove that their sport was the toughest and its competitors were the fittest, so they developed a race on Kailua-Kona Island which combined 3 existing extreme events, a 3.9k swim, a 185km cycle and culminating with the Honolulu Marathon.

The Kona Ironman has legendary status amongst long-distance triathletes and completing a full Ironman is still at the top of most Triathletes bucket lists!

However, you don’t need to go to those extremes to enjoy the sport and the vast majority of people who regularly compete in triathlons are more than happy to stick to the standard distances

Common Triathlon Distances

Depending on who’s running the Triathlon there are a couple of different race distances.

ITU events are based on the Olympic standard distance with the shorter and longer version being multiples of the standard Triathlon distance. The 3 main variants are:

  • Sprint race – 750m swim, 20k cycle 5k run
  • Olympic – 1500m swim, 40k cycle, 10k run
  • Long/Double Olympic – 3km Swim, 80km Cycle, 20k run

Ironman events have the same format but are fractions of the original Kona triathlon distance so tend to have a longer cycle and run legs. There three versions are:

  • 51.50 – a relatively new race designed to compete with the Olympic format with the same distances 1.5km swim, 40km cycle and a 10km run.
  • Half Ironman or 70.3, which may be called a middle distance triathlon for non-ironman brand events. This is a 1.9km swim, a 90km cycle and a half marathon ( 21.1km)
  • Full Ironman ( long distance triathlon) – the original ironman distance with a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and a full marathon ( 42.2km)

There are longer triathlon distances or combined races which appeal to the extreme athlete, plus variations to account for logistical and geographical peculiarities.

There are also a range of hybrid races, like aquathons, duathlons and Swim Cycle races if you fancy something a bit different. There are more details here