Can you listen to music during the race? When can you wear a wetsuit? Can you stay in the slipstream of the biker ahead of you?

This article will provide you with the answers to these crucial questions and will present eight of the most common rule violations made during the Ironman competition.

The Basics

Before you dive into your first Ironman, you must be familiar with the basic rules outlined in the official 28-page rulebook of the Ironman.

This article is based upon the most recent rulebook, the official 2019 competition rules. Ironman updates their standards annually right before the major races start, so be sure to keep an eye out for 2020 updates.

What Happens When You Break a Rule?

To emphasize the importance of following the rules, let’s start by clearing up what happens when you don’t.

When you violate a rule, a referee will notify you immediately without giving any (prior) warnings. Based upon the nature of your violation, you will incur one of five different penalties:

I. Yellow Card = sixty-second-time penalty (thirty seconds in a half Ironman), i.e., Cycling or running with a bare torso (see rule *)

II. Blue Card = five-minute time penalty,
i.e. Discarding the wrapper of your energy bar outside of the designated trash drop zones (see rule *)

III. Red Card = Disqualification from the event.
i.e., Wearing a wetsuit when the water is above 24.5 degrees C/ 71.5 degrees F (see above)

IV. Suspension from multiple events,
i.e. Intentional course cutting

V. Expulsion for life from all events,
i.e., Anti-doping rule violation

IMPORTANT! If you accumulate three blue cards for your Ironman race, it results in an automatic disqualification from the event.

Where do you Serve Your Time Penalties?

The discipline in which you received your time penalty dictates how you serve your time.


Time penalties incurred while swimming will be served in the swim-to-bike transition area (T1) under the supervision of a referee.


Time penalties presented along the bike-course must be served in a designated penalty tent (“PT”) along the course. It is your responsibility to know where the next PT is and tell the PT official the color of the card received.


Only during the run, you must halt your race at the exact point of the rule violation.

Unfortunately, the PT is not designed for comfort. You can only consume the food and water that you have on yourself or your bike.

You are also prohibited from using the restroom or doing bike maintenance.

What are the Ironman Wetsuit Rules?

Wetsuits can provide a considerable advantage during the 2.4-mile swim.

Besides keeping you warm in cold water, wetsuits will reduce drag and increase your buoyancy considerably.

Wetsuits can save valuable energy and shave minutes off your swim time. So – if conditions allow it – you should wear one!

Here are the specific Ironman wetsuit rules based upon water temperature:

  • 24.6 degrees C (76.2 degrees F) and warmer: Wetsuits not allowed*
  • 18.4 – 24.5 degrees C (65.1 – 76.1 degrees F): Wetsuits allowed
  • Colder than 18.4 degrees C (65.1 degrees F): Wetsuit + Booties allowed

*Some competitions make exceptions and do allow age-group athletes to wear a wetsuit above this temperature. However, if the wetsuit is worn, the participant is not eligible for age-group awards and/or IRONMAN World Championship slots.

You are allowed to wear any other layers – like your race kit – underneath the wetsuit as long as the total thickness does not exceed 5 mm. Your wetsuit can cover everything except for your face, hands, and feet. When wetsuits are not allowed, your swimwear cannot cover any part of your arm past your elbow. Nor must it cover any part of your leg below the knee.

Finally, the Ironman wetsuit rules are a little stricter for professional athletes. They are not allowed to wear a wetsuit above 21.8 degrees C/71.5 degrees F. If your event does not allow wetsuits, or you choose not to wear one, be aware that prolonged immersion in colder water markedly increases your ventilation rate, and this has been shown to result in inefficient stroke mechanics for athletes.

To counter this, you can take advantage of respiratory muscle training, to improve the strength and efficiency of your breathing muscles. Using an assistive device such as the Airofit can improve your vital capacity so that you can maintain a good swimming technique in colder water temperatures.

Adding this type of training can also increase your lung volume, improving your buoyancy in the water and decreasing drag.

Running for victory in Triathlon

5 Common Ironman Rule Violations

1. Watch Your Draft

Unlike in biking competitions and shorter triathlon distances – such as the Olympic distance – drafting is strictly forbidden in the Ironman.

The Ironman is the ultimate test of an athlete’s endurance, and there is zero-tolerance for slipstreaming, because that would give some athletes an unfair advantage.

Committing a drafting violation will cost you a five-minute penalty. “Drafting” in Ironman is defined as:

“Remaining within the draft zone (described below) of another athlete for a period longer than 25 seconds.”

Think of the draft zone as an imaginary rectangular box around every cyclist. From the front wheel, it extends twelve meters behind (about six bike lengths), and one meter to the left and right.

Once entered into the draft zone, you have twenty-five seconds to overtake the cyclist ahead. You must make continuous forward progression and cannot back out of the draft zone after entering it.

Luckily, other riders cannot use this rule against you because:

“Athletes who impede the forward progress of other athletes will be given a blocking violation.” - Ironman 2019 Competition Rules

2. No Littering

There are designated trash disposal points and aid stations along the course where you can dispose of any trash or equipment.

Littering of any kind is strictly forbidden.

Therefore, keep your energy bar wrappers, empty water bottles, and broken bike parts to yourself until you pass one of these designated trash areas.

3. If You Bring Your Phone, Don’t Use It

This one is tricky. While the official Ironman rules do not forbid you from possessing a phone, their rules do render the device pretty much useless.

If you carry your phone or any electronic device – including smartwatches or headphones – you are not able to use it in a “distractive manner”.

This rule includes but is not limited to:

Making and receiving phone calls, sending and receiving text messages, playing music, using social media, taking photographs, and mounting the device to a bike for purposes of using the device like a bike computer.

Despite this rule, some opt to bring their phone anyway. One reason would be for emergencies or to reconnect with loved ones after the race.

Even then, it remains debatable if it truly serves a purpose since most Ironman races have plenty of judges, staff, or volunteers throughout the course who could lend you their phone for an emergency.

If you do plan to bring your phone, make sure to double-check the rules of your particular race. You do not want to jeopardize your hard work by possessing a phone.

4. Keep Your Clothes On

  • General: This should go without saying, but it is a rule that is commonly violated – especially in transition zones: Avoid indecent exposure and public nudity at all times during an event.
  • Swim cap: Make sure to wear the official swim cap provided to you in your race package. Losing it during the swim will result in a time penalty.
  • Helmet: Before you even touch your bike, snap in your helmet strap! You must fasten your helmet at all times when you are on your bike. Just having your chin strap unbuckled is enough to warrant a sixty-second-time penalty.
  • Uniform: Race officials are strict on this one, and the rules are tricky. To be safe, make sure to always keep your uniform around your waist with at least the bottom of your zipper connected. Biking or running with a bare torso is not allowed, and you must wear a shirt, jersey, or sport top/sports bra at all times.

5. Crawl to the Finish Line Alone, but Fully Zipped

There is a specific finish line etiquette in the Ironman. Don’t let all the previous 140 miles fall in the water by following these three particular rules:

1) You must cross the finish line alone. If you cross the finish line with friends or family, you will be disqualified.

2) You may run, walk, or crawl, but you cannot accept any assistance – resulting in forward progress – by other athletes or spectators.

3) Finally, make sure you fully zip your uniform when crossing the finish line.

If you abide by these rules, you should be able to avoid any unwarranted penalties during your race!