Triathlon participation has skyrocketed since its induction as an Olympic sport in 2000.

According to RunSignup’s 2019 report, triathlon participation has almost tripled over the last few years, from 34,166 in 2015 to 101,927 in 2018.

With so many new athletes venturing to compete in this exciting endurance sport, many questions remain unanswered.

Which triathlon distance matches your abilities? What equipment do you need? And how do you optimize your training for a triathlon?

You should keep reading if you are serious about triathlon and are wondering about the questions mentioned above. This article will help you choose your ideal triathlon distance and explain how to prepare for it.

What are the Different Triathlon Distances?

There are four main distances in a triathlon: Sprint, Olympic, Half Ironman, and the Full Ironman.

Although the distances can vary in small degrees, these are the most common distances for each race:

If you take a closer look, you will notice that the swimming distance percentage-wise becomes less critical as the total distance goes up.

Consequently, in half and full Ironman, you will spend roughly 10% of your time swimming, 50% biking, and about 40% running.

Whereas in the Sprint and Olympic distances you will spend closer to 20% of your time in the water with a little less time biking (45%) and running (35%).

Which Triathlon Distance is Right for You?

Choosing the correct distance for your ability level can be hard, especially if it is your first race. The general recommendation is first to try out a shorter distance race like the Sprint triathlon. A shorter race allows you to become familiar with swimming, biking, and running in large groups.

Additionally, the Sprint triathlon does not nearly require the same training volume and equipment as a full Ironman does. Thus, if for whatever reason your first triathlon was not what you hoped, then at least you did not invest too much time and money in the sport.  That being said, a lot of triathletes have extensive backgrounds in other endurance sports.

These athletes may be able to jump right in and do an Ironman after a couple of months of training. However, staying injury-free and avoiding illness cannot be underestimated while completing large volume training sessions.

Assessing training and competition readiness is multifactorial and can be hard to do. Before starting a triathlon training plan, it is essential to have an understanding of your current fitness level. The following minimum parameters, based upon research studies on triathlon preparation and injury prevention, should give you a better idea of which triathlon distance is right for you.

Sprint Triathlon Minimum Fitness Level:

  • Swim: You should be able to comfortably swim 200 meters non-stop – preferably in freestyle (front crawl)
  • Bike: You should be able to bike 20 minutes at a pace of about 20 km/h (12.5 mph)
  • Run: You should be able to run 10 minutes without walking

Minimum preparation time: 8-12 weeks with 4 training sessions per week.

If you think you are ready to start training for a Sprint triathlon, here is a 10-week Sprint triathlon training schedule to get you started today.

Olympic Triathlon Minimum Fitness Level

  • Swim: You should be able to comfortably swim 800 meters non-stop – preferably in freestyle (front crawl)
  • Bike: You should be able to bike 1 hour at a pace of about 22.5 km/h (14 mph)
  • Run: You should be able to run 40 minutes without walking

Minimum preparation time: 12-16 weeks with 5 training sessions per week.

More advanced athletes that are in a time crunch can get away with a more intense 8-week training plan.

Half Ironman Minimum Fitness Level

  • Swim: You should be able to comfortably swim 1000 meters non-stop – preferably in freestyle (front crawl)
  • Bike: You should be able to bike 50K in under 2 hours 20 minutes
  • Run: You should be able to run 15K with minimal walking

Minimum preparation time: 6-8 months with 5-6 training sessions per week.

Full Ironman Minimum Fitness Level

Swim: You should be able to comfortably swim 1500 meters non-stop – preferably in freestyle (front crawl)

Bike: You should be able to bike 100K in under 4 hours 30 minutes

Run: You should be able to run a half marathon with minimal walking

Minimum preparation time: 9-12 months with 5-6 training sessions per week.

If you think you have what it takes to become an Ironman, here is the essential Ironman training guide to get you started today.

What Equipment Do You Need?

Triathlon can be an expensive sport, but it doesn’t have to be.

Most of us already have the basic gear lying around the house to complete a shorter distance triathlon successfully.

For the swim, all you need is a swimsuit and a pair of goggles.

For the bike, instead of shelling out $4000 on a new aerodynamic road bike, you can dust off any old bike in your garage.

For the run, you need a comfortable pair of running shoes that can carry you over the finish line.

If you are looking for a complete list of triathlon gear, please refer to the equipment section in this triathlon training plan.

This bare-bones list sums up the 8 essential items you need to succeed in your first triathlon.

Choose an Alternative to Triathlons

Besides the classical triathlon distances that you will find above, a list of variations of the triathlons has gain much popularity over the years. We have listed some of the main alternatives to the classical triathlon.

Aquathlon

The Aquathlon combines the two elements of classical triathlon: running and swimming. The races are often combined into variations of the two disciplines, for example, 400 m swim - 2 km run - 500 m swim - 3 km rum etc. The Aquathlon is gaining fast popularity among athletes because it presents new ways to physically challenge the body's endurance. With shorter distances the Aquathlon, therefore, targets the athlete's abilities within the swim/run field, preparing them for the greater multisports such as the triathlon and Ironman races.

Duathlon

If you are looking to improve your bike and running skills, the Duathlon presents you with exactly this. Like the Aquathlon, the Duathlon challenges racers to shifts between biking and running, such as the ITU Duathlon World Championships that have been held since 1990, consisting of a 10 km run, 40 km bike and ending with a 5 km run. Below you can see the different race distances for the Duathlon, depending on your skill and motivation.