Tri-Alphabet Soup

author : Team BT
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Important terms and definitions for many words encountered in the world of triathlons

by Drusilla Moorhouse


The sport of triathlon is so complex. It has enough terms to cover every letter of the alphabet. Read the following, and you’ll soon be speaking triathlese with the pros.

Aero Bars: Aerodynamic handlebars (built into triathlon bikes but also available in less expensive clamp-on models) that help decrease wind resistance and increase your pedaling power. Also a yummy chocolate bar sold in the United Kingdom.

Brick: Combining two or more triathlon events in one training session, usually a bike followed by a run.

Clipless pedals: Those tiny little pedals (e.g., SPD, Look) that attach to the cleats of your cycling shoes, so that you maintain power throughout the circumference of the pedal stroke. These replace toe cages or “clips” that attach to traditional bike pedals. But paradoxically, cyclists describe the process of attaching/detaching cleats to pedals as “clipping in” or “clipping out/unclipping.” There’s a lot of confusing jargon to learn in the wonderful world of triathlon. Keep reading.

Drafting: Riding or swimming closely behind a competitor or teammate to conserve energy because of reduced wind resistance and water drag. Drafting is usually permitted during the swim but is rarely allowed during a triathlon’s bike event (unless the race lists itself as “draft legal”).

Electrolytes: The current buzz word in sports nutrition. Sports drinks can help you maintain the proper balance of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium to prevent cramping and hyponatremia (water intoxication).

Fartlek: Mention this in mixed company and you might get some startled reactions, but most runners know that fartlek is Swedish for "speed play." In this workout you vary speed and intensity to build up lactate tolerance and increase speed and power. (Note: “lactate tolerance has nothing to do with dairy products and your GI tract.)

Gel:     Most lightweight energy gels, like GU, contain 20–30 grams of carbohydrates and are great to “take” during and just after a workout or race (make note of the lingo—you don’t “eat” or “drink” a gel). Always wash each gel down with 8–12 ounces of water—and don’t litter.

HRM/HRT: Heart rate monitoring/heart rate training. Heart rate monitors measure beats per minute (BPM) so athletes can instantly gauge their body's response to workout intensity. This gauging makes workouts more efficient and effective. The “target heart rate zone” is the objective, which is determined by your individual physiology—that is, based on your resting heart rate (RHR) and maximal heart rate (MHR)  — aren’t these acronyms fun? MHR is the highest rate you can attain during exercise. (Target heart rate calculators are available on many fitness Web sites.)

Ironman: A 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile (marathon) run. A Half-Ironman, for those of you who are a little rusty on your arithmetic, comprises a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run.

Jersey: A snug cycling top in a wicking fabric — usually wildly colorful — with back pockets to store your fuel, extra gear (legwarmers, sunglasses, etc.) and small pets.

Kona: Home of the Hawaii Ironman World Championships. Athletes must qualify by competing in other sanctioned Ironman events. I hear it’s an OK vacation spot too.

Lacing systems: Save time in T2 (see “Transition,” below) by replacing your running shoes’ original laces with a brand like Yankz or Speedlaces. Forget what you learned in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood —if you stop to tie your shoes in a triathlon, even Mr. McFeely would zoom past you.

Masters: Nope, you won’t catch champion triathletes donning ugly green blazers after a big win. In this sport, masters refers to adult “swim teams” that offer training and competitive opportunities for novice to elite swimmers. Some masters clubs are welcoming to novice swimmers while others have a more competitive focus, so take advantage of their free trial workouts to find the best fit for you.

Negative split: Completing the second half of a workout or specific distance faster than the first half. Ergo, a split is the time for a specific part of a race or workout. (The different elements of a triathlon—swim, bike, and run times—are also referred to as splits.)

Olympic/International: A middle-distance triathlon, usually a .9-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike, and 6.2-mile run.

Periodization: A long-term training plan that breaks your year down into “periods” according to which races you want to emphasize. Each period focuses on a specific type of training and builds on its precedent, so that you’ve reached your peak fitness level at the competition date(s) you’ve targeted.

Quintana Roo: We’re not endorsing this particular triathlon retailer (of bikes, wetsuits, apparel, and other tri gear), but this is the only “Q” entry I could come up with. (And they’re a pretty big player in the sport—did you notice what kind of bikes the male and female champions of the 2003 Ironman Wisconsin were riding?)

RPE: Rating of perceived exertion—that is, monitoring the intensity of your workout based on how hard you feel you are working. It’s not as accurate as HRM but is still considered a pretty reliable indicator of effort. You’ll also hear this referred to as the Borg scale (no relation to Star Trek’s cubist antagonists—it was developed by a dude named Gunnar Borg). 

Sprint: All triathlons with significantly shorter distances than Olympic/international courses are considered sprints (usually a swim of 450–500 yards, a bike course of 11–15 miles, and a 3.1-mile run). Many triathlons offer both sprint and international options.

Transition: Triathlon’s “fourth” event, or the interval between each leg of the race. "T1" refers to the swim-bike transition and "T2" refers to the bike-run transition. The “transition area” is where athletes rack their bikes, lay out their gear (often before the crack of dawn), and strive to ensure that their helium balloon is more prominent than everyone else’s.

USAT: USA Triathlon, the governing body of the sport. To compete in a USAT-sanctioned event, you have to either have an annual USAT membership or pay a fee for that race. If you plan on competing in several races a year, you’ll save money by joining USAT and receiving other membership benefits.

VO2 Max: Not the latest sports car, VO2 max is a measurement of how efficiently your body converts oxygen into energy. The more oxygen your body processes, the faster you will swim, bike, and run because of your body’s increased aerobic capacity.

Wetsuit: when not prohibited by race organizers because of warm water temperatures, many triathletes favor wetsuits because they aid buoyancy and decrease water resistance.

Xterra: Hosts of Global Tour off-road triathlon series and brand name products related to the sport.

Yoga: I swear I’m not just filling the “Y” space here—many triathletes truly have incorporated yoga classes into their training regimen to increase flexibility, build strength, and aid recovery.

Zones: Used in heart rate training (HRT) and RPE to judge intensity of the workout. Come on—surely you didn’t doubt I’d find a triathlon term beginning with a zed?


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date: September 5, 2004

Team BT