Triathlon FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

What are the typical triathlon distances?

• Ironman: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run
• Half Ironman: 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run
• Olympic Distance: 1500 meter (.93 mile) swim, 40k (24.8 mile) bike, 10k (6.2 mile) run
• Sprint Distance: usually about one half of an Olympic Distance race
• Super Sprint Distance: Usually about one-quarter of an Olympic Distance Race

What are the best races?
Here are our choices for Top 25 Best Triathlons.

Do you really think I can finish a triathlon?

Yes, I do. If you’re reading this, the chances are pretty good that you could finish a triathlon. You’re interested in fitness, in endurance and fitness. As long as you pick a triathlon that’s suited realistically to your abilities, you can finish.

What you really need, ultimately, is to want it bad enough. If you do, you will. [Note: see your doctor before attempting anything related to endurance training and racing.]

What triathlon distance is right for me?

In my view, it really hinges on your comfort in the water. You can probably ride or run (or walk) the distance in longer events. But don’t put yourself in the water for a longer distance than you can handle.

If you’re just starting out, you may want to consider a super sprint distance, with roughly a 375 meter swim (equal to about 13 lengths in a pool) in shallow water. A Sprint race doubles that to 750 meters, and an Olympic Distance race covers nearly a mile in the water. I mistakenly chose Olympic Distance, above my abilities, for my first race. The swim was too long, but the bike and run were fine.

Do I need to have a strong background in one of the events?

Not necessarily. While you will encounter athletes who swam in high school meets or ran cross-country, many new triathletes are approaching these events for the first time.

I would have done a triathlon earlier, but I don’t like to swim. I envy those who glide through the water like a fish, speeding their way through the first leg of a triathlon with ease. For me and many others, the swim can be a challenge, but early on I told myself that part of triathlon is about encountering challenges and overcoming them. I’m not the best swimmer, but when I exit the water in a triathlon, it’s a small victory each time.

I’ve heard that a triathlon swim is rough, and people even try to swim over you; true?

The talk about the swim typically surpasses the reality, which is: there are no lane markers, everyone’s trying to go in the same direction, some with more success than others. Yes there is occasional contact, but it’s unintentional. Do not take it personally, just keep swimming.

I like to run, but people tell me I shouldn't run marathons and compete in triathlons in the same season; thoughts?

No reason at all that you can't run and compete in triathlon. I'm convinced I train and race better by having marathons and triathlons in my racing plans. See Runner or Triathlete? Why Not Both? and Planning Your Training and Racing Season.

Do I need to train a zillion hours?

Short answer: no. You've got limited time to train; be realistic. Train hard in the time you've got. You can do very well while training far less than you think you have to. See our article: How Much Training Time?

Can a training log help?

Absolutely. But it doesn't need to be very complex to be of tremendous value. See our Training Log Tips. Also see our actual Season-by-Season Training Plans.

What's the most important concept in creating and executing on a training plan?

In my view, Periodization. Train in 4-week blocks, increasing time and mileage week by week. At the end of four weeks, back off; start the process again, at a slightly higher level that you did in the previous period. See our article Periodization.

Do I need to buy a lot of expensive gear?

No. It’s possible to compete in a triathlon with equipment you have in your garage and your closet. See next questions.

Do I need to buy a wetsuit?

A triathlon wetsuit can cost $200 to $400, so it’s a pricey investment. The reasons to get one: help you stay warm in longer swim distances, and the buoyancy will make most amateur swimmers swim better.

But a wetsuit is not mandatory for most triathlons, and certainly not needed in the short distance races like Super Sprints, held in water that’s warm. Some triathlon stores will rent wetsuits, and that’s a good bet if you only plan to do one or two triathlons. If you can see yourself staying engaged in triathlon longer, the cost of a wetsuit makes sense.

Do I need to buy an expensive triathlon bike?

Anything with two wheels in your garage can get you started at no extra cost. I pulled my L.L. Bean faux-mountain bike out of the garage for my first two Olympic Distance triathlons. And my bike times in those two triathlons were not all that bad.

When I decided to take on longer triathlons, I bit the bullet and bought an entry-level triathlon bike. I got a little heartburn because at $1500 it was far more expensive than any bike I’d ever considered. But those dollars paid off over the long term, as I rode it for thousands of miles in subsequent years.

Will a new bike make me faster?

There’s a saying ‘if you think a new bike will make you faster, then it will.’ Part is psychological. But in the first place, you are the one powering your wheels. If you are not in shape, a $5000 dream bike with tricked out wheels and components won’t make a difference.

On balance, at any triathlon transition area, the bikes will be more impressive than the bike riders in many cases. It’s another way of saying just buy the bike that works for you, don’t worry about trying to have the hottest bike out there. Better to be the hot rider.

What about those disk wheels some triathletes use?

Rear wheel flat disc wheels look wicked cool, don’t they? Makes your bike kind of look like a Stealth Fighter. Two problems: good ones are very expensive, and they really won’t help you at all until you can ride well over 25mph. I’m putting it too simply, and the rocket scientists can give you the specifics, but in short, they will only help the very fast riders. Until you are one of them, save your money.

There are companies out there that rent disk wheels to triathletes for a few hundred bucks. Again, save your money.

Can I get a decent set of wheels that are better than the basic ones that came with my bike? 

Sure. But I'll start by saying that the wheels that come with your bike out of the box tend to be good and efficient. I'd say they are fine for most triathletes.

I upgraded from stock wheels to basic carbon-fiber Spinergy wheels after racing for a couple of years. Friends swore by them, called them bullet-proof. They are. They've lasted me 12 years and remain my main non-disk training and racing wheels. I can't speak to how solid the current Spinergy or other upgrade choices are today, though.

I'd estimate they cost about half what disk wheels do, so they were not an inexpensive choice. I saw them as helpful for riding fairly consistently at 20-21mph, and they are. So apply that rule of thumb before you upgrade.

Should I buy an aerodynamic helmet like Tour de France riders wear in time trials?

Everybody does, or so it seems, but I'll encourage you not to follow the crowd.

My view: like disk wheels, if you can ride 25mph over many miles in your triathlon, sure, a time trial helmet might help. Otherwise, save your money, get a normal helmet.

But everybody else is doing it?

Overall, whether it's wheels helmets, or wetsuits, it's way too easy to get caught up in the feeling that you have to have the absolute best available, to use what the pros use.

The rationale for spending several thousand on your triathlon gear: if I'm spending so much time and effort to prepare for an epic triathlon, shouldn't I invest to get every possible advantage I can?

Well, think long and hard about what extra advantage you might be buying. It's not worth a couple more thousand dollars to shave a few seconds here, maybe a few minutes at the finish.

Unless you're on the cusp of qualifying for Kona; by then you'll be racing at the speed where the expensive gear will really be worth it.

What if something goes wrong in the Special Triathlon I’ve spent so much time preparing for?

For some, understandably, a triathlon is a culmination of much dedication, preparation, training time, and family support. It’s a project, it’s a big deal, and you want it all to be worth it.

But sometimes things go wrong out there, in the same way that it might rain on a long-planned outdoor wedding. The swim might not go as well as you expect. You might get a flat tire on the bike. You might experience unexpected cramping on the run.

What's it like?

Triathlon is about the expected as well as the unexpected. The successful triathlete – you – earns that internal and external respect by taking whatever the day, the course and the competition hands you.

There are never answers to all the questions. But there is victory, on your terms, at the finish. And that’s what it’s all about.

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