Which Triathlon Distance to Choose

author : Team BT
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Let's start here: Not every triathlon is an Ironman.

So you are making "become a triathlete" your fitness goal? Awesome! We're here to help.

The most common first step is to find a triathlon training plan and take a look at what is required. However, in order to do that, there's a decision to be made. What distance triathlon are you planning to complete? Are you planning to try to finish it? Or to try to place in the top three in your age group? Or win?

People in the non-triathlon world often falsely equate Ironman with triathlon. Ironman means two things: One, it's a name brand. It's a company that puts on races. At one time, they only managed and hosted the longest common distance of triathlon, a 140.6-mile competition, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile run. These days, Ironman Corporation plays host to many distances of triathlon, especially 70.3, or half-Ironman. Athletes commonly refer to the 140.6-mile competition as an Ironman. The Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, is the race you have probably seen on TV.

But talking about Ironman like it *IS* triathlon is like calling every organized running race a marathon. It's factually incorrect, and lacks precision.

There are four common distances of triathlons (although there are other variations):

  • Sprint: 0.5-mile (750m) swim, 12.4-mile (20K) bike, 3.1-mile (5K) run

  • Olympic: 0.93-mile (1.5K) swim, 24.8-mile (40K) bike, 6.2-mile (10K) run

  • Half-iron: 1.2-mile (1.9K) swim, 56-mile (90K) bike, 13.1-mile (21.1K) run

  • Full Iron Distance: 2.4-mile (3.8K) swim, 112-mile (180K) bike, 26.2-mile (42.2K) run

Clearly, training for a shorter race can be accomplished in less time, although competitive professionals who race to win may put in many hours honing speed and form for a sprint.

In general, a beginner can train for a sprint triathlon in five or six hours per week.

An Olympic triathlon training plan can range from eight hours to more than 20, depending on your goals. By the end of the training program, an athlete should be comfortable swimming a mile in open water, biking 30 or 40 miles straight, and running 7 miles for the longest run. Such distances aren't strictly necessary if an athlete is aiming to complete the race and isn't concerned about speed or finish time.

Half-iron distance requires a bigger time commitment, with longer bikes and runs on weekends to work up to the race distances and beyond. A triathlete needs to be able to complete a run longer than 13 miles in order to train the body for the full day of the race, and to approximate the strain on the cardio and digestive systems that will occur when starting a 13-mile run after three or four hours of swimming and biking.

Iron distance training is often compared to a part-time job, and requires 15 to 25 hours per week, especially on peak weeks. It's a serious commitment, and often requires buy-in from others in your life such as your spouse and even your employer, if you'll be adjusting your work schedule to accommodate workouts.

The most obvious way to start is to begin with the shortest distance, but some beginners insist on jumping into a more formidable race distance right from the start. It depends on your relative fitness level. A college athlete who has graduated and is looking for something new may well be able to slide into a training program for a half-iron distance race without much trouble. 

A 40-year-old who is just taking up running will likely develop overuse injuries, sprains, strains and joint problems if they don't work up more slowly. 

Our forums, mentor groups and articles are full of advice on where to begin, and online coaching is available, too, as an add-on to our membership levels. Still not sure? Just ask!


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date: December 31, 2017

Team BT