Let’s start with the basics here – what is the order of events in a triathlon? Well, that’s easy:
This is the reason you see all those bumper stickers on the back of everyone’s cars that look like these:
You may also see it abbreviated in triathlon forums and on other blogs as S/B/R.
Why are the events in this order? That’s a little bit tougher. Some say it’s because of the order of the worst things that can happen during each discipline: drown, crash, fall. Since the athletes get more tired as the race goes on, it makes more sense to have the most dangerous part at the beginning and the least dangerous part at the end. If you’ve ever watched the infamous footage of Jule Moss repeatedly trying to complete the 1982 Hawaii Ironman, you may realize that she is very lucky that the run came last instead of the swim or bike:
The order may also just be an artifact of the original Ironman competition, first conceived during a debate in Hawaii in 1977 about who the most fit athletes in the world were:
Collins suggested that the debate should be settled through a race combining the three existing long-distance competitions already on the island: the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 mi./3.86 km), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (115 mi./185.07 km; originally a two-day event) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.219 mi./42.195 km).
Another reason for holding the swim first is smooth transitions. When a triathlon includes an open water swim (as opposed to a pool swim), the race will generally allow the athletes to wear wetsuits as long as the water is less than a certain temperature (generally 76-78 degrees Fahrenheit). Wetsuits reduce drag by allowing the swimmer to float higher in the water and buoying the legs and hips. Some studies assert that they can speed times by 5-10%, so they are frequently used when allowed. However, wetsuits can be extremely difficult to get on even in normal conditions, much less when an athlete is sweating and breathing heavily. This is one enormous reason to place the swim first, and in such cases when the swim is not first, the triathlon is usually held in a pool or warm water and is not wetsuit-legal. I can’t imagine a transition area where all the athletes are struggling to put on a wetsuit quickly – it would be chaos.
And, of course, there are always some non-standard triathlon versions, such as duathlons (run/bike/run), aquathlons (swim/run), aquabikes (swim/bike), kayak tris (kayak/bike/run) and even reverse triathlons (run/bike/swim). Read more about how to choose a triathlon race distance, or learn about the transitions, the unsung fourth component of triathlons. While transitions make up a small percentage of overall race time, they are sometimes not attended to and practiced, and precious minutes can be lost needlessly.
No matter what the initial reason was for ordering triathlon events this way, you will need to get used to doing the events in this order, and transitioning smoothly between them. And there’s really only one way to achieve that goal – practice, practice, practice.