Choosing a triathlon distance is like selecting from a mouth-watering box of chocolates – there’s a favourite flavour for everyone.
While each triathlon always comprises the same three disciplines of swimming, cycling, and running, races cover an extensive range of distances and terrains.
So whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned triathlete, there are no limits to how far you can challenge yourself.
(If you’ve ever wondered why the order is always the same in every race: swim, bike, run, it’s for safety. You can walk your bike, or pause for a moment during the run, but stopping during the swim is a challenge in itself!)
What are the different triathlon distances?
Here’s a list of recognised triathlon event distances:
- Super Sprint
Now let’s drill down into the detail for each one.
Distance: 400m swim, 10k bike, 2.5k run
You’ll sometimes hear a super sprint triathlon referred to as a ‘mini-triathlon’. Whatever you like to call it, this is the shortest race you can do, so it’s particularly perfect for beginners.
Timing-wise, aim to complete a super sprint triathlon in under an hour, and you’ll be flying.
Oh, and if you need some extra motivation to sign up and start training, in 2013 Arthur Gilbert completed a Burnham-on-Sea super sprint event aged 92… making him the world’s oldest triathlete.
(If Arthur can do it, so can you!)
Distance: 750m swim, 20k bike, 5k run
Now we’re getting warmer.
Sprint distance triathlons may seem quick and easy – they’re half the distance of an Olympic event – but don’t be fooled. You’ll have to put in some serious effort to finish under 90 minutes.
The current world record for sprint triathlon is thought to be held by Mario Mola, who completed the 2018 ITU Edmonton WTS sprint race with a finishing time of 51:15 (which includes an incredible 14:25 run!)
And if you don’t think sprint triathlons prove much of a challenge, here’s a story that might change your mind. 14-year-old Ben Turnbull set a Guinness World Record in April this year, when he completed four consecutive sprint events in every UK country… all in under 24 hours.
Distance: 1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run
You won’t be surprised to learn that the Olympic distance triathlon is part of the Olympic Games, debuting at Sydney 2000.
But you might be surprised to learn that the idea for a more accessible triathlon (than the long, arduous Ironman) was conjured up by a Speedo marketing executive! A triathlon enthusiast, Carl Thomas reasoned that the shorter distance would fit more easily with the standard format of the Olympic Games, and the rest was history.
If you’re a novice, aim to finish an Olympic triathlon in just under 4 hours. More experienced athletes can expect to complete in around 2.5 – 3 hours.
(You probably won’t come anywhere close to Alistair Brownlee’s gold medal-winning performance of 1:46:25 at London 2012, but you can try!)
Distance: 1.9k swim, 90k bike, 21.1k run
A half-Ironman event is also known as an Ironman 70.3, because the total distance adds up to 70.3 miles.
(Maybe some athletes feel the word “half” belittles a truly awesome achievement!)
Originally conceived to prepare Navy SEALs for the full Ironman triathlon, the first Ironman 70.3 Superfrog was held on the Silver Strand State Beach, California, in 2006. These days, the half-Ironman World Championships are so popular that the global location changes every year.
You can expect to burn a whopping 4,000 – 6,000 calories during this mega-event – not to mention 2 litres of fluid during each of the 6 to 7 hours you can expect to finish in. So you probably don’t need us to tell you that fuelling your body properly is essential.
The current Ironman 70.3 records are held by Kristian Blummenfelt (2018) and Helle Frederiksen (2014), with completion times of 3:29:04 and 3:55:50 respectively, both achieved in Bahrain.
Distance: 3.8k swim, 180k bike, 42.2k run
The idea for the original Ironman Triathlon was conceived in Hawaii during a heated debate in 1977, between the Mid-Pacific Road Runners and the Waikiki Swim Club.
The question was, which group of athletes are fitter: runners or swimmers?
Then a military athlete in attendance, U.S. Navy Commander John Collins, mentioned that a recent Sports Illustrated article seemed to conclude that cyclists are the fittest!
Collins suggested that the debate should be settled through a high-endurance triathlon. “Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Iron Man!” he said, and… well, you know the rest.
Although you can compete in Ironman events all over the world, the annual Hawaiian Ironman World Championship remains one of the most prestigious today. The event grew to prominence around the world as it was broadcast on TV, even providing inspiration for the establishment of the British Triathlon Association in 1982.
As for your expected finishing time, we recommend setting aside a whole day. Most finishers tend to peak at around the 12-14 hour mark… but don’t forget, you’ll also need time to recover!
(If you’re an elite triathlete, your ‘inspiration’ times are 8:18:13 and 7:35:39 – spectacular Ironman finishes set by Chrissie Wellington in 2011, and Jan Frodeno in 2016, both at Germany’s Challenge Roth.)
There are lots of variations in ultra-triathlon; its official definition simply being a race that’s longer than an Ironman.
As you might imagine, ultra-triathlon events are held over more than just one day. Popular events include the Ultraman, which is a three-day, three-stage race comprising a 6.2-mile swim and 90-mile bike on day one, a 171.4-mile bike on the second day, and a 52.4-mile run on the third.
But if you’re up for the ultimate ultra-challenge, a Deca Continuous triathlon is ten – yes, ten! – iron-distance events completed consecutively. You’ll do a 24-mile swim, then a 1,120-mile bike ride, and finally, a 262-mile run.
(We can only imagine the thrill of crossing the finish-line after all that!)
Ready to begin a new challenge?
If you’ve always wondered how you might fare in a triathlon – or you’d love to set a new PB – our race calendar is full of fun, friendly events.
(Tip: try the Sundowner Triathlon, our fantastic half-Ironman distance event, for a glowing photo-finish!)