There are generally four distinct distance categories for triathlon races:
- Sprint triathlon. These can vary slightly, but consist of approximately an 800 yard swim, a 12- to- 15-mile bike ride, and a 2- to 3-mile run. These will usually take a novice racer anywhere from 1:00 to 1:45 to complete.
- Olympic triathlon. These can also vary, but consist of approximately a 1,500 yard swim, a 25-mile bike ride, and a 6-mile run. These will usually take a novice racer anywhere from 3:00 to 3:30 to complete.
- Half Ironman (HIM). The standard for this distance is 70.3 total miles, consisting of a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run. These will usually take a novice racer anywhere from 5:00 to 7:00 to complete.
- Full Ironman (IM). The standard for this distance is 140.6 total miles, consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run. These will usually take a novice racer anywhere from 12:00 to 17:00 to complete.
As soon as I became interested in doing a triathlon in the fall of 2015, I signed up for a full Ironman, nine months away, before I had even done my first bike ride. At that point I knew I’d better start training right away or I was going to be in for one painful race day. It’s not an approach I’d recommend, but it worked for me. I can’t give you advice on what distance to choose, but I’d encourage you to push yourself.
The genesis of the full Ironman race was formed in 1977 when a group of athletes at a Hawaii relay race were debating who were more fit, runners and swimmers. Soon, great cyclists were thrown into the conversation and it was decided that the debate be settled by combining the three long-distance races already existing on the island: a 2.4 mile open water swim, a 115 mile bike race, and the Honolulu marathon. The bike leg was eventually shaved to 112 miles and the now-famous motto coined: “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life.” Current participants have 17 hours to complete the course and earn the coveted Ironman designation and its accompanying bragging rights.
While a race of this magnitude may seem insurmountable upon first glance, it is doable for virtually any reasonably healthy and injury-free adult. Humans were made for such endurance sports; our ancestors tracked down prey on the African savannah until the animals literally died of exhaustion.
It’s a general fact of racing that no matter what distance you’ve done, the next step up looks nearly unachievable. After running your first 5k, you arrive at the end, sweaty and gasping, and think, “wow, I can’t imagine doing double that distance.” Then you gradually work your way up to a half-marathon and cross the finish line and think, “wow, I can’t imagine doing a marathon.” Here’s the secret: you can.
If you can currently run 4 miles in 45 minutes, you can successfully train for and complete a full Ironman race with one year’s worth of proper training. (Full disclosure: this will hurt.) If you can’t do this but can run one mile in 12 minutes, you can train for and complete an Olympic triathlon within one year of beginning your training. This is doable. This is the reason you’re holding this book. Push your limits.
Outside of regular swim/bike/run triathlons, there also exist duathlons (run/bike/run), aquathlons (swim/run), aquabikes (swim/bike), kayak tris (kayak/bike/run) and even reverse triathlons (run/bike/swim). These can be a refreshing change of pace for an offseason race, or if you are recovering from an injury or time off and aren’t in race shape for all three disciplines.
Next: Choose a Race