Triathlon Deconstructed: Getting Your Feet Wet (Figuratively)

Last week I asked you guys if you'd be interested in hearing more about the ins and outs of triathlon. Some of you said you were interested but didn't know where to start, some of you said you might not ever do one but you think it's interesting, and some of you were somewhere in between. Today begins a series of posts that I hope will be informative and helpful no matter where you fall on that spectrum!

Let's just get one thing out of the way first (and this isn't meant to intimidate or overwhelm anyone, just keeping it real): triathlon is pretty...involved. Even if you're used to running races, you'll probably be surprised to find out that there are a few more logistics involved (I know I was). But don't let that scare you! It seems like a lot at first, but it's actually pretty easy to get it all down.

Before we get into the minutiae, let's talk basics. In case you haven't figured it out yet, it's called a TRIathlon because it's 3 sports rolled into one. Genius, right? Those sports are swimming, biking, and running. Always in that order. There are several different distance races, but the swim and bike portions can vary a little to a lot:

  • Sprint: 300-750 meter swim, 10-15 mile bike, 2 mile - 5k run (5k is most common by far but I have seen them with 2 mile runs)
  • International/Olympic: 1500 meter swim, 20-25 mile bike, 10k run
  • Half-Ironman (a.k.a. 70.3 - the total number of miles): 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run
  • Ironman: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run
I'm going to assume we're all starting at the sprint level. In case those distances mean nothing to you, I'll give you my time stats since I'm pretty middle-of-the-pack: 300 meters is 6 laps (down and back = 1 lap) in a pool and takes me about 6-7 minute; 750 meters takes around 15 minutes. A 10 mile bike ride takes me about 35 minutes, 15 miles is 50-55 minutes. The 5k run takes about 28 minutes. The whole thing usually takes me about an hour and 20 minutes from start to finish. 

So what are you getting yourself into? Some basics before we get into the details next week:

  • Time commitment: You can pull off a sprint with as few as 3 hours per week of training, spread over 5-6 days.
    • Swim: 2-3 sessions per week @ 30 minutes each
    • Bike: 2-3 sessions per week @ 30-60 minutes each
    • Run: 2-3 sessions per week @ 30 minutes each
  • Cost investment: $500+ to get you started
    • Gear: This is going to be the biggest up front cost (namely for the bike, if you don't already have one or can't borrow one from a friend). Plan to spend at least $400 on a decent road bike setup, plus another $100 for odds and ends like goggles, running shoes, and race belt if you don't already have them.
    • Race entry: Triathlons are going to run more than your usual 5k fee - but if you look at the cost per mile or the fact that you're getting 3 sports for that 1 fee, it actually comes out to be cheaper. Sprints are usually $50-$60 (and increase the closer you get to race day, so signing up earlier is always cheaper). On top of that race fee you'll pay an additional $12 1-day USAT membership as well, which is required for all participants (annual USAT memberships are $45, so if you think you're going to do 4 or more races, it's cheaper to purchase an annual membership than pay the 1-day fee every race; for 3 races or fewer, you're better off paying the fee).
  • Experience level required: So, I can only speak from my personal experience, so take it as you will.
    • Swim: I can swim....I like swimming...I'm naturally pretty good at swimming...but prior to training for my first tri I had never swam for exercise before. My swimming experience was limited to playing around in pools and at the beach in the summertime. Even though I knew how to swim, I had never swam a lap in a pool. If you have no clue how to swim, honestly I think that's a skill everyone should have so this is a great opportunity for you to learn! 
    • Bike: Like swimming, I knew how to ride a bike but had never done so other than recreationally. I got my first road bike about a year before I did my first tri (I had a running injury and needed something else to do for a couple months). So I had been riding about once a week for a year, but never more than 15-20 miles (actually I still don't ride much more than that if I can help it...I hate cycling). Riding a bike seems like another useful skill so even if you don't know how, now could be a good time for you to start. 
    • Run: Of the 3 disciplines, I had the most running experience. I had been running for two years and had completed distances up to half marathons so I was very comfortable with the 5k run for the tri. It would help to be comfortable running a mile or two, but you could totally work up to the 5k distance as part of your tri training.
And that's all you need to get started! Not too bad, right? If any of that seemed elementary, it's not because I think you're dumb, it's because I was (still am tbh) dumb. These are all things I had questions about or didn't even know to ask about. My goal is to provide as comprehensive a guide as I can so you can tackle your first tri. In the coming weeks we'll chat about gear, training, the race itself, and more. Please let me know if there is anything in particular you're curious about!


  1. Ah! This is great to know. I'd still LOVE to do a triathlon one day.

  2. Holy crap! That's so neat!!! Yeah if I EVER did one id definitely have to start out at the sprint level haha ...thanks for sharing!! You're a beast!

  3. I love that you're doing this series! Thanks for writing such a detailed post about the basics. I'm exactly like you were with swimming.. as in, not really a swimmer at all, haha. I know that'll be where I need the most training if I ever (when I?) move to the triathlon. Well... that and biking too, ha!

  4. Great series! I've always wanted to try a tri but I have been nervous. This is really starting to break it down. I'd like to know what you did to learn how to properly swim. That is where I am not sure what to do!

    1. Thanks, Julie, so glad you enjoyed it! I definitely plan to break it down even further, and talk about each individual discipline.
      I TOTALLY get being nervous but it's really worth it to just do it. They're a ton of fun and for as nervous as I was, I was totally hooked after my first one.
      I am definitely not an expert when it comes to swimming, even now. I started off doing a lap or two at a time, then resting, then repeating until I got up to the number of laps I needed to do during the swim of my first tri. After I could do sets of 2 laps in a row I moved up to 4 in a row (with rest in between sets), and then repeat. Eventually I got to a point where I could swim over a mile without stopping. I know there are lots of different swim workouts and sets and exercises but I have personally found it most effective to just swim for endurance. I've never really tried to get any faster, but I'm happy with my swim times and that's what works for me.
      (P.S. You're no-reply so I can't email you! :( )

  5. interesting - I have close friends who do triathlons but I've never sat down and really asked them about it. I honestly think I could possibly, one day, maybe do a sprint. Maybe. A little one. I don't have a bike though and I know they are almost like running shoes - you can't just borrow a friend's running shoes and be good (or at least I know my friends wouldn't lend it to me, not in a mean way). But I guess I'm curious about how you get dry after swimming? I know there are outfits that you can wear the whole time rather than changing, but doesn't it get uncomfortable?

  6. I think having to do quick transitions is what would stress me out more than the actual event, though I'm sure that's probably the easiest part once you're actually racing!

  7. Thanks for this article! I am planning on doing a tri this spring and the entire thing seems so intimidating. I love riding my road bike, though, and used to swim on the swim team, so I feel like that is at least a little bit of an advantage. Our local Y has a tri training class that is also supposed to be pretty helpful!

    1. That's awesome, Sam! Liking to ride is a huge advantage and so is being a swimmer, so I'd say you're ahead of the curve. A tri training class would be so awesome. You'll definitely be prepared but hope you stick around anyway :)


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