A triathlon is a multiple-stage competition involving the completion of three continuous and sequential endurance disciplines. While many variations of the sport exist, triathlon, in its most popular form, involves swimming, cycling, and running in immediate succession over various distances. Triathletes compete for fastest overall course completion time, including timed “transitions” between the individual swim, cycle, and run components. The word “triathlon” is of Greek origin from treis (three) and athlos (contest).
Triathlon races vary in distance. According to the International Triathlon Union the main international race distances are:
- Sprint Distance; 750 meter (.465 mi) swim, 20 kilometer (12.5 mi) bike, 5 kilometer (3.1 mi) run
- Intermediate (or Standard) distance; commonly referred to as the “Olympic distance”: 1.5 kilometer (.93 mi) swim, 40 kilometer (25 mi) bike, 10 kilometer (6.2 mi) run
- Long Course; commonly referred to as 70.3 or the ‘half-Ironman’; 1.9 kilometer (1.2 mi) swim, 90 kilometer (56 mi) bike, and a 21.1 kilometer (13.1 mi) run
- Ultra Distance; commonly referred to as 140.6 or the ‘Ironman’; 3.8 kilometer (2.4 mi) swim, 180.2 kilometer (112 mi) bike, and a full marathon: 42.2 kilometer (26.2 mi) run.
A transition area is set up where the athletes change gear for different segments of the race. This is where the switches from swimming to cycling and cycling to running occur. These areas are used to store bicycles, performance apparel, and any other accessories needed for the next stage of the race. The transition from swim and bike is referred to as T1 and that between the bike and run is referred to as T2. The athlete’s overall time for the race includes time spent in T1 and T2. Transitions areas vary in size depending on the number of participants expected. In addition, these areas provide a social headquarters before the race. The nature of the sport focuses on persistent and often periodized training in each of the three disciplines, as well as combination workouts and general strength conditioning.
Triathlon is considered by some to have its beginnings in 1920s France. According to triathlon historian and author Scott Tinley (and others), the origin of triathlon is attributed to a race during the 1920s–1930s that was called variously “Les trois sports”, “La Course des Débrouillards”, and “La course des Touche à Tout.” This race is held every year in France near Joinville-le-Pont, in Meulan and Poissy.
An earlier tri-sport event in 1902 featured running, cycling, and canoeing. There are documented tri-sport events featuring running, swimming, & cycling (not necessarily in that order) in 1920, 1921, 1945, and the 1960s. In 1920, the French newspaper L´Auto reported on a competition called “Les Trois Sports” with a 3 km run, 12 km bike, and a swim across the channel Marne. Those three parts were done without any break. Another event was held in 1921 in Marseilles with the order of events bike-run-swim. French newspapers reported on a race in Marseille in 1927, and in 1934 an article about “Les Trois Sports” (the three sports) in the city of La Rochelle was written about a race with: (1) a channel crossing (c. 200 m), (2) a bike competition (10 km) around the harbor of La Rochelle and the parc Laleu, and (3) a run (1200 m) in the stadium André-Barbeau.
The first modern swim/bike/run event to be called a ‘triathlon’ was held at Mission Bay, San Diego, California on September 25, 1974. The race was conceived and directed by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, members of the San Diego Track Club, and was sponsored by the track club. 46 participants entered this event. It was reportedly not inspired by the French events, although a race the following year at Fiesta Island, San Diego, California, is sometimes called ‘the first triathlon in America.’
The first modern long-distance triathlon event was the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon. It included a swim of 2.4 miles (3.9 km), a bike ride of 112 miles (180 km), and a marathon run of 26.219 miles (42.195 km). It was conceived during the awards ceremony for the 1977 Oahu Perimeter Relay (a running race for 5-person teams).
Among the participants were numerous representatives of both the Mid-Pacific Road Runners and the Waikiki Swim Club, whose members had long been debating which athletes were fitter: runners or swimmers. On this occasion, U.S. Navy Commander John Collins pointed out that a recent article in Sports Illustrated magazine had declared that Eddy Merckx, the great Belgian cyclist, had the highest recorded “maximum oxygen uptake” of any athlete ever measured, so perhaps cyclists were fitter than anyone. Collins and his wife, Judy, had taken part in the triathlons staged in 1974 and 1975 by the San Diego Track Club in and around Mission Bay, California, as well as the Optimist Sports Fiesta Triathlon in Coronado, California, in 1975.
A number of the other military athletes in attendance were also familiar with the San Diego races, so they understood the concept when 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 miles (3.9 km), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (115 miles (185 km); originally a two-day event) and the 42.195 kilometres (26.219 mi) Honolulu Marathon. No one present had ever done the bike race so they did not realize it was a two-day, not one-day, event. Collins calculated that, by shaving 3 miles (4.8 km) off the course and riding counter-clockwise around the island, the bike leg could start at the finish of the Waikiki Rough Water and end at the Aloha Tower, the traditional start of the Honolulu Marathon. Before racing, each athlete received three sheets of paper listing a few rules and a course description. Of the fifteen men to start off in the early morning on February 18, 1978, twelve completed the race and the world’s first Ironman, Gordon Haller, completed it in 11 hours, 46 minutes, and 58 seconds.
The sport made its debut on the Olympic program at the Sydney Games in 2000 over the Olympic Distance (swim: 1,500 m (1,600 yd) – bike: 40 km (24.9 mi) – run: 10 km (6.2 mi)).
Paratriathlon at the Summer Paralympics will debut at the 2016 Summer Paralympics to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Paratriathlon is a variant of the triathlon for athletes with a physical disability. The Paralympic event will be a sprint race with athletes competing in six categories according to the nature of their physical impairments.