The variety of triathlon distances allows you to progress from one endurance adventure to the next or literally dive right into the longest race of them all: the full-distance Ironman triathlon covering 140.6 miles or 226 kilometers.
Combining swimming, biking, and running, triathlons occur over a substantially longer period than your typical shorter races. For most casual runners accustomed to the occasional 5k or 10k, the idea of moving into triathlon racing might seem daunting for this reason. But is triathlon strictly an ultra-endurance event? How easy is it, and what makes up a triathlon race? How long is a triathlon, really?
Triathlons come in various distances and even formats, which means you can get your feet wet in the sport with options to race over longer distances as you get stronger and more experienced. The four most common distances are: sprint, Olympic, half distance (often referred to as 70.3), and full distance Ironman (140.6) triathlons. Each one roughly doubles the distance of the one preceding it.
Which distance is right for you, and how well would you stack up against the competition? Let’s find out! In this article, you’ll learn:
- How long the swim, bike, and run portions are in each triathlon distance;
- The average finishing times for each discipline over each distance;
- The times achieved by elite triathletes for each event over each distance; and
- How many weeks you’ll need to train to complete each of these distances.
Starting Out: Sprint Distance Triathlon
The sprint distance triathlon consists of a 750m swim, followed by a 20km bike, finishing with a 5km run. This is one of the most popular entry points into the sport of triathlon because it isn’t overly long, doesn’t require huge amounts of training to complete, and makes for a fun morning of racing with friends.
Sprint triathlonDistanceAverage Finish TimesElite Finish Times (Male/Female)Swim750m (0.47 miles)20 minutes8 minutes/10 minutesbike20km (12 miles)40 minutes30 minutes/33 minutesrun5km (3.1 miles)30 minutes15 minutes/16 minutesfinish1 hour 30 minutes53 minutes/60 minutes
Sprint triathlon training lets you become accustomed to the three disciplines while learning key triathlon skills such as handling transitions. And, if you’re not already very comfortable in either the swimming, biking, or running part of the event, it's a great way to hone your skills in each of them. And a good training plan will ensure that you enjoy yourself on the day.
Tips for preparing for a sprint triathlon
- Set aside around 12 weeks to prepare for the event if you’re planning to race competitively;
- Follow a structured plan to give equal attention to each discipline;
- Practice the feeling of transitions by doing back-to-back “brick” sessions like a bike followed by a quick run to get your legs accustomed to the change between sports;
- Research the kit you’ll need and make sure it complies with the race requirements;
- To get prepared try to build up to being able to complete a continuous 1000m swim, a 30-40k bike, and a 7-10k run;
- You can get away with using a hybrid bike for your first sprint triathlon, but you may want to look at a road bike for future races;
- Don’t neglect strength training and stretching to make sure your body is strong enough to perform at its best on the day of your triathlon.
Leveling Up: Olympic Distance Triathlon
The Olympic distance (also known as the International Distance or a 5150) got its name in the late 1990s after the triathlon became an official Olympic sport. The first Olympic competition was held during the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, The distance is a 1.5km swim, a 40km bike, and a 10km run to bring you to the finish.
Olympic TriathlonDistanceAverage Finish TimesElite Finish Times (Male/Female)Swim1.5 km (0.93 mi)40 minutes18 minutes/19 minutesBike40 km (25 mi)1 hour 20 minutes60 minutes/1 hour 6 minutesRun10 km (6.2 mi)60 minutes30 minutes/36 minutesfinish3 hours1 hour 48 minutes/2 hours 2 minutes
Tips for preparing for an Olympic triathlon
- As you increase the distance of each of the triathlon disciplines, ensure you're giving each equal attention during your weekly training plan. Aim to complete at least two sessions of each activity during the week;
- Continue to practice brick sessions and hone your transition skills;
- Increase distances gradually by no more than 10% each week to allow your body to get acclimated to the additional time spent on your feet, on the bike, and in the water;
- To get prepared try to build up to being able to complete a continuous 2000m swim, a 55-65kk bike, and a 13-15k run;
- Work on your strengths, focusing on the discipline where you’ll spend more time on race day - the bike. Ensure you're familiar with handling your road bike or triathlon bike; and
- Don’t be intimidated by the swim - work on your and remember, this is the shortest part of the whole day!
First Step to Endurance: Half Distance 70.3 Triathlon
The half distance 70.3 triathlon consists of a 1.9km swim, a 90km bike, and a 21.1km half marathon run to finish it off. This is where triathletes truly test their endurance prowess.
Half Ironman (70.3)DistancesAverage Finish TimesElite Finish Times (Male/Female)Swim1.9 km (1.2 mi)45 minutes24 minutes/26 minutesbike90 km (56 mi)3 hours2 hours 17 minutes/2 hours 33 minutesrun21.1 km (13.1 mi)2 hours 15 minutes1 hour 8 minutes/1 hour 18 minutesfinish6 hours3 hours 49 minutes/4 hours 23 minutes
Tips for preparing for a half distance triathlon
- Respect the distance: you'll be racing for several hours, so be ready to put in the work during training to get used to the effort and build your endurance;
- At a minimum, follow a 12-week training plan. If you’re new to triathlon, consider starting even earlier and allowing yourself 24 weeks to train;
- A half distance triathlon is still short enough that you can probably complete all the individual disciplines in training to see how it feels. Make it a fun challenge to run the half-marathon on your own or with friends one weekend. Getting others involved in your sport is a great way to split up the time you’re spending on your own training;
- To get prepared try to build up to being able to complete a swim workout of 3,000m, a 110-125kk bike, and a 24k run; and
- Don’t neglect nutrition and hydration. When you’re out for a longer time, you’ll need to know how much moisture is lost through sweat and how to best rehydrate (especially on hot days). Test out various options before the race to understand what works for you.
At this distance, especially if you’re racing on a relatively flat and non-technical course, you may consider upgrading to a tri bike. Make sure you get it fitted correctly and practice with it before the race, so you’re as comfortable handling it as possible.
Full Distance 140.6 Ironman Triathlon
The full distance Ironman triathlon is the longest distance of them all. You’ll cover a total of 226km broken up into a 3.9km swim, a 181km bike, and a 42.2km marathon run.
Finish this, and you’ll earn the right to boast about the achievement for a lifetime!
Beyond the on-road endurance event that Judy and John Collins created under the Ironman brand, you’ll find many local races that cover the full distance. You might also be tempted by more “extreme” challenges like swimming in wild open waters at low temperatures and covering very hilly terrain on the bike, then running up a mountain for the marathon. The range of offerings in the full distance category ensures that you’ll never get bored training and competing in one.
IronmanDistancesAverage Finish TimesElite Finish Times (Male/Female)swim3.9 km (2.4 mi)1 hour 16 minutes47 minutes/54 minutesbike180 km (112 mi)6 hours 25 minutes4 hours 16 minutes/4 hours 50 minutesrun42.2 km (26.2 mi)4 hours 54 minutes2 hours 42 minutes/2 hours 51 minutesfinish12 hours 35 minutes7 hours 51 minutes/8 hours 40 minutes
Tips for preparing for a full distance triathlon
- As you increase your distance in training, do so progressively to avoid the risk of injury;
- Allow yourself enough time to be fully prepared on race day by completing a 24-week training plan;
- Try to have a “B-goal” alongside your “A-goal” race, i.e., sign up for one or two shorter triathlons as “warm-ups” where you can test your kit and your mental and physical endurance in the run-up to the big race. One Olympic and one half-distance triathlon are effective events to use in training;
- Test your nutrition and hydration strategy well ahead of the race so you can adjust as needed;
- Create a kit list and bring it to the race location. You should also use this to pack. You’d be surprised by how easy it is to overlook small things in the run-up to such a big event;
- Research the course and do a little recon if possible. This will influence your choice of kit, from bike to running shoes, and will also help mentally on the day as you rediscover familiar places rather than feel thrown into the deep end;
- Full-distance triathlons usually involve an open-water swim. This can be quite intimidating, involving familiarity with sighting in the water, coping with colder temperatures, and generally not panicking in a lake! That's why you should include open-water swimming in your swim workouts, which also helps you be more relaxed on race day; and
- Just like with all the smaller distances, continue to incorporate strength training, stretches, and cross-training into your workout program to keep you injury-free and develop a strong and resilient body.
How old do you need to be to participate in a triathlon?
One of the coolest things about the triathlon community is how open and welcoming it is. No matter your age, ability, or fitness level there is an event for you. We see this throughout the year around the world.
There are events for youth athletes all the way on up to those older athletes in the 75 and over age groups. Ironman often hosts an IronKids event prior to Ironman races around the world where teens and kids participate in some combination of swim, bike, or run. More grassroots races on the local level often have youth divisions too.
Not all triathletes share the same body type either. Races typically offer Clydesdale and Athena divisions for men and women. According to USA Triathlon, the Clydesdale and Athena competitive divisions are based on weight minimums. Men competing in the Clydesdale division must be a minimum of 220 pounds (99.8kg), and women in the Athena division must be a minimum of 165 pounds (74.8kg).
How much do you need to train to finish a triathlon?
If you’ve set your sights on completing a triathlon, you'll first need to assess your ability level and set a goal. Obviously, training to complete your first sprint triathlon won’t take nearly as long as training for your first full distance event. However, you should always work backwards from race day and allow yourself plenty of time to be as prepared as possible, physically and mentally, in equal measure.
In a general sense, you can expect to train anywhere from 3 to 12 weeks (depending on the distance) if your only goal is to cross the finish line. If you're competing for podiums and top-level performance, it’d be wise to expect to train for three and four times that duration. As a good rule of thumb, the full distance will take you 24 weeks to train for a first-timer.
Curious to know how much time you need to train relative to your specific experience and expectations? Use this calculator to determine your tailored individual needs!
Triathlon Training Calculator
Course cutoffs - a necessary evil
Unfortunately, training for a half or full distance triathlon means incorporating their restrictions. These longer events feature cutoff points for athletes to finish each leg of the race. This is mainly for safety reasons as it ensures that everyone starts the next leg in good condition without jeopardizing their chances of finishing healthily.
To make sure you breeze through the cutoffs, know them and calculate the performance in each discipline required to keep you in the clear. For example, you might just make it in time for the swim cutoff if you’re not the strongest swimmer, but you know you’ll kill it on the bike to gain back time. In any case, these calculations should feature in your race preparation to avoid disappointment on race day.
As always, follow a good training plan and work through the transitions in practice to be as efficient as possible, which will help you move through cutoffs.
What are the usual cutoff times for triathlons?
The race director generally decides cutoff times for sprint distance triathlons, and as you step up in distances, the mandatory cutoffs do come into play. For example, Olympic distance races typically require you to finish within 4.5 hours.
At the half and full distances, athletes must meet cutoffs for each discipline to continue racing.
Generally, athletes competing at the half distance have:
- 1 hour and 10 minutes to complete the swim
- 5 hours and 30 minutes after the start to finish the bike, and
- 8 hours and 30 minutes after the start to finish the run and, ultimately, the race.
- Athletes who take longer than 8:30 to complete the swim, bike, and run are not given a result.
Full distance races require similar cutoffs relative to the longer distances. Athletes have:
- 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete the 3.9km swim,
- 8 hours and 10 minutes from the start to get through the bike, and
- 6 hours 30 minutes from there to finish the run.
- This gives you a total of 17 hours to complete the entire race.
You can eliminate the stress of worrying about a looming course cutoff by knowing the average finish times for your age group. Use this calculator to see how long it takes your competition to finish each leg of the race.
Average Triathlon Finish Times
Training for your first triathlon
Regardless of race length, training for your first triathlon should be structured, varied, and - importantly - fun! Your next step is to read through our beginner guides for:
- 70.3; and
- Ironman training.
Once you decide which distance you want to tackle, it’s time to get started on your training! Each of the beginner guides comes with a free training plan to best suit your needs.
Race faster and don’t stress over cutoff times by avoiding these three bike fit mistakes
Always keep track of your time by discovering the best triathlon watch for beginners