How Non-Standard Triathlon Events Work

By: Dave Roos
Jo Lawn raises her arms in triumph after winning the 2010 Ironman New Zealand triathlon in March 2010.
Hannah Johnston/Getty Images

Triathlon is one of the fastest growing athletic events in the world. According to the International Triathlon Union (ITU), the sanctioning body for competitive triathlons worldwide, triathlon participation grew 300 percent in the past five years [source: ITU]. Membership in USA Triathlon, the American racing body, jumped 20 percent between 2008 and 2009 alone [source: USA Triathlon].

Despite the grueling nature of the sport, over 1.2 million Americans participated in a traditional triathlon in 2009 [source: USA Triathlon]. A traditional triathlon consists of three legs: swimming, cycling and running, in that order.


Even among traditional triathlons, the lengths of each leg can change considerably. The Olympic triathlon involves a 1.5-kilometer (0.93-mile) swim, a 40-kilometer (24.9-mile) bike ride and a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run. But there are also shorter and longer courses. The shorter "sprint" triathlon -- by far the most popular triathlon in America -- requires a 750-meter (0.46-mile) swim, a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) bike ride and a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) run. It's exactly half the length of the Olympic triathlon. Then there's the famed Ironman triathlon with a 3.86-kilometer (2.4-mile) swim, 180-kilometer (112-mile) bike ride followed by a 42.2-kilometer (26.2-mile) run -- yup, a full marathon.

The exploding popularity of the sport -- which is attributed to a growing health-consciousness among adults in the United States and the visibility of triathlon starting with the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney -- has led to innovative new course designs, distances and disciplines [source: USA Triathlon]. Fans of outdoor sports like mountain biking and cross-country skiing have thrown their hats into the ring. Some people even run the race in reverse.

The variety and creativity of non-traditional triathlons is proof that triathlon is a living, breathing, expanding sport with a bright future. On the following pages, we'll talk about some of the most popular twists on the traditional triathlon, starting with the duathlon.



Traditional triathlons are something of a logistical nightmare. The cycling and running portions are easy enough, as long as you can block off several miles of paved roadway for half a day. But what about the swimming portion? You could use a large pool, but how do you fit all the competitors in at once and keep track of how many laps each person has completed? You could use a natural body of water, like a lake, river or ocean, but what if your location is landlocked?

Duathlons solve this problem by getting rid of the swimming portion of the triathlon altogether. There are still three legs to the race, but the order is run, bike and another run. The advantages are two-fold: The course logistics are considerably simpler, plus duathlons are attractive to athletes with relatively weak swimming abilities.


Like traditional triathlons, sanctioned competitive duathlons come in all different lengths. The "international" course calls for a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run, 40-kilometer (24.9-mile) bike ride and 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) run, while the "Powerman" course bumps it up to a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run, 60-kilometer (37.3-mile) bike ride followed by another 10-kilometer run [source: USA Triathlon].

Duathlon is a fast-growing non-traditional triathlon discipline. In 2008, USA Triathlon sanctioned more than 400 races in 48 states, each race drawing between 50 and 200 participants [source: USA Triathlon]. Next we'll look at a triathlon designed for strong swimmers, the aquathlon.



Aquathlons tend to reward strong swimmers who feel shortchanged by the traditional triathlon format.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Strong swimmers complain that they get shortchanged by the traditional triathlon format, in which the swimming leg is by far the shortest. In an aquathlon, the cycling portion of the triathlon is tossed out in favor of a run/swim/run combo or simply two swims followed by a run.

Aquathlons are also attractive to race organizers, who don't have to worry about securing road space for the cycling leg of a triathlon, which is traditionally the longest. Since aquathlons are limited to running and swimming, the event can be contained in a relatively small location like a lake and nearby woodland trail [source: USA Triathlon].


One of the more famous aquathlons is the Alcatraz Challenge Aquathlon in California's San Francisco Bay. The original Alcatraz Challenge, first run in 1983, was a triathlon based on the Ironman in Hawaii. Racers would swim from the infamous Alcatraz rock to the shore, bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, then run the 7-mile (11.2-kilometer) Dipsea trail twice [source: Alcatraz Challenge]. The current race format has been shortened to an aquathlon, in which racers brave the cold, choppy waters (with or without wetsuits), then run across the Golden Gate to the finish.

If you like swimming and cycling, but your knees can't take the running, then get ready for the aquabike, which we'll talk about on the next page.



According to USA Triathlon, one of the fastest-growing age groups for competitive triathlon is 40 to 44 years old. The sport has proven to be a powerful draw for older athletes looking to challenge themselves and stay in top shape. That said, all those years of training and racing take their toll, often resulting in chronic knee, hip and other joint injuries.

In 2005, USA Triathlon began a pilot program to introduce an alternative triathlon discipline known as the aquabike, which removes the final running portion of the race. The aquabike format proved hugely popular with young and old athletes who wanted to experience the unique challenge of a multi-sport endurance race without the relentless pounding of a 13.1-mile (21-kilometer) run. In 2008, USA Triathlon sanctioned 60 such races across the country, with more in the works [source: USA Triathlon].


What's great about the aquabike format is that it can easily be incorporated into a traditional triathlon course. Since the swimming and cycling portions are the first two legs of a traditional triathlon, aquabike participants simply stop before the final running portion. In sanctioned races, awards are given for top finishers.

If you can't take the heat of a traditional triathlon, then you'll like the next non-traditional discipline: the winter triathlon.


Winter Triathlon

Winter triathletes trudge through the snow during the winter triathlon at the 2009 Winter Games NZ in Wanaka, New Zealand.
Hannah Johnston/Getty Images

A winter triathlon is a grueling endurance challenge consisting of running on snow-packed trails, mountain-biking down ski trails and cross-country skiing. Winter triathlons have been sanctioned by the International Triathlon Union (ITU) since 1997 and more and more American races are being held in the Rocky Mountain region every year [source: USA Triathlon].

Winter triathlons require more specialized equipment than a traditional triathlon. For starters, it's difficult to run in the snow with normal running shoes, so many winter triathlon racers wear cross-country cleats or customize their shoes with one-eighth-inch (3.2-millimeter) metal spikes. Mountain biking on snow is a whole different animal, requiring special tires that are slightly deflated in order to give more traction. Cross-country skiing not only requires specialized equipment, but significant training in what many believe is the most physically demanding sport in the world.


The lengths of existing winter triathlon courses vary greatly, but the standard distances are 5 to 9 kilometers (3.1 to 5.6 miles) for the running portion, 10 to 15 kilometers (6.2 to 9.3 miles) for the bike ride, followed by a 8 to12-kilometer (6.2 to 7.5-mile) cross-country ski. A recent addition to competitive winter triathlons is a relay race in which teams of three participants each run shorter courses. The race usually involves a 2-kilometer (1.24-mile) run, a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) bike and a 3-km (1.9-mile) ski. The ITU holds international championship races every year and is lobbying hard to get the winter triathlon included in upcoming winter Olympic games [source: USA Triathlon].

Off-Road Triathlons

There's nothing quite like running on a woodland trail. The unpredictability of the terrain sharpens your senses as you leap over roots and puddles and zig-zag through tree branches and fallen logs. The same is true for open-water swimming and mountain biking. There is a raw excitement -- and undeniable sense of danger -- that you can't get from paved roads and chlorinated swimming pools.

With the side-by-side growth of triathlon and outdoor adventure sports, it was only a matter of time before the two worlds collided. In 1996 on the island of Maui, outdoor enthusiasts and endurance racers got together for the first Aquaterra triathlon consisting of an open-water swim, mountain bike ride and trail run. The popularity of that first race resulted in the creation of a whole new breed of competitive off-road racing called XTERRA [source: XTERRA Planet].


The standard XTERRA format is a 1.5-kilometer (0.9-mile) open-water swim, 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) mountain bike ride and an 11-kilometer (6.8-mile) trail run. The laid-back sport has grown into a highly competitive global network of championship races and rankings. There are more than 50 sanctioned races held in the US every year and the International Triathlon Union held the first World Off-Road Championship in 2008.

We're also seeing some creative variations on the off-road format to accommodate more and more outdoor disciplines. One example is the Fever River Triathlon in Illinois, which consists of a six-mile (9.65-kilometer)canoe race, 17-mile (27.4-kilometer)mountain bike section followed by a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile)trail run [source: Fever River Triathlon].


Ultraman Triathlons

Triathlons are tough, but some triathlons are tougher than others.
Mark Wieland/Getty Images

Triathlons are relentless by nature. That triple threat of endurance sports is designed to push the body to its limits. In the past, the ultimate example of hardcore competitive triathlons was the Ironman. The first Ironman was held in Hawaii in 1978, when a pair of California triathletes convinced some friends to participate in a race that combined the 2.4-mile (3.86-kilometer) Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the 112-mile (180-kilometer) Round Oahu bike course and the full 26.2-mile (42.1-kilometer) Honolulu Marathon [source:]. The Ironman format, once believed to be the most grueling endurance race imaginable, has since been replicated around the world.

As if the Ironman somehow wasn't challenging enough, enter the Ultraman. This three-day, 515-kilometer (320-mile) endurance challenge --limited to an invitation-only field of 35 participants -- consists of the following extreme stages:


  • Stage One: A 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) open-water swim, followed by a 145-kilometer (90.1-mile) mountain bike ride climbing a total of 2.3 kilometers (1.4 miles).
  • Stage Two: A 276-kilometer (171-mile) bike ride climbing a total of 2.6 kilometers (1.6 miles).
  • Stage Three: An 84-kilometer (52.1-mile) double (yes, double!) marathon

[source: Ultraman Live]

The goal of the Ultraman isn't to come in first, but simply to finish. Each stage of the race must be completed in 12 hours or less, or else the racer is disqualified. To ensure the safety of all participants, each racer must be accompanied by a two-member support team at all times.


Equilateral Triathlon

Equilateral triathlons only exist in theory. The idea is to create a perfectly balanced race in which all three legs require roughly the same amount of time to complete. The argument for the creation of an equilateral triathlon is that the traditional triathlon format gives unfair advantage to runners and cyclists, while shortchanging strong swimmers.

In traditional triathlons, the running and cycling legs of the race are considerably longer than the swimming leg. In an Olympic triathlon, for example, the distance of the cycling leg makes up 78 percent of the total race and running takes up 19 percent, leaving only 2.9 percent for swimming [source: De Veaux]. In an Ironman triathlon, the discrepancies are even greater, with a running portion that is 48 times the length of the swim.


The proposal, formerly made by Richard D. De Veaux and Howard Wainer in a scholarly paper called "Resizing Triathlons for Fairness," is to make all three legs of the race take approximately two hours. The world record for a marathon is 2:06:50. World-class swimmers maintaining a brisk pace of 1:03.5 per 100 meters could conceivably swim 12,000 meters (about 7.5 miles) in around two hours [source: De Veaux].

Instead of a traditional triathlon with distance proportions (swimming:cycling:running) of 1:11:48, an equilateral race would be 1:3.5:8 [source: De Veaux]. The current Olympic distances are 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) for the swim portion, 10 kilometers (3.1 miles) for the run and 40 kilometers (24.9 miles) for the bike ride. The proposed distances for an equilateral Olympic triathlon are 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles) for the swimming portion, 10 kilometers for the run and 22.4 kilometers (13.9 miles) for the cycling. In this format, the swim is nearly doubled and the cycling portion is almost cut in half.


Formula One Triathlon

As the sport of triathlon grows, so does the innovation within the sport.
Darren England/Getty Images

The beautiful thing about non-traditional triathlons is that race organizers are free to design innovative swim/bike/run combinations that best suit their community. In a Formula One triathlon, the race is divided up into multiple legs -- as many as six or eight -- in different swim/bike/run combinations. Formula One races are also called "super sprints" because they combine several short, fast legs instead of the longer endurance challenges of a traditional triathlon.

The Kure Beach Double Sprint, now in its 14th year, is a great example of a formula one-style triathlon. The Kure Beach is a "down-and-back" race between the ocean and the town hall of Kure Beach, N.C. Participants start with a 375-meter (0.2-mile) open-water swim, then get into their running gear for a 1.5-mile (0.9-kilometer) run, then hop on their bikes for a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) bike ride to the town hall. It's called a "double sprint," because the racers turn right back around and run the course in reverse: biking, running and finishing with the same open-water swim.


Some race organizers have decided to completely turn tradition on its head and run a reverse triathlon. More on that in the next section.

Reverse Triathlon

The name says it all. In a reverse triathlon, racers start off in their running shoes, then hop on their bikes and finish in the water. You might think, what's the big deal with changing the order? The order of a traditional triathlon swim/bike/run is based on two things: safety issues and smooth transitions.

All race organizers want to keep their participants safe. Triathlons are grueling tests of endurance, but they shouldn't put anyone's life at stake. The idea behind swimming first is that the open water poses the greatest threat to an exhausted athlete. If the swimming portion were last, then it would increase the chance of a racer cramping up or collapsing with exhaustion in the water and possibly drowning.


Secondly, in competitive triathlons, the transitions between swimming, biking and running are key to maintaining a good time. If you stumble to change your shoes or slip out of your wet suit, you might lose precious seconds from a record-breaking pace. The logic of swimming first is that you can take off a wet suit quicker than you can put one on. That allows for a smoother transition to the bike stage.

For both of these reasons, reverse triathlons are generally shorter "sprint"-style races that are held in warm climates where wet suits aren't necessary. The Whole Foods Pasadena Triathlon, for example, is a reverse triathlon that is held in and around the famous Rose Bowl in California. Participants start with a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) run around the Rose Bowl (one loop), transition to a 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) bike ride around the bowl (three loops) and finish with three laps in the Rose Bowl Aquatics pool (150 meters or about 500 feet).

For lots more information about triathlons and endurance sports, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles


  • Alcatraz Challenge. "History of the Event" (Aug. 3, 2010)
  • De Veaux, Richard D. and Wainer, Howard. "Resizing Triathlons for Fairness" (Aug. 3, 2010)
  • Fever River Adventure Triathlon. "Fever River Triathlon Course" (Aug. 4, 2010)
  • International Triathlon Union. "Origin of Triathlon" (Aug. 5, 2010)
  • "Frequently Asked Questions" (Aug. 3, 2010)
  • Ultraman Live. "2010 Ultraman FAQ" (Aug. 4, 2010)
  • USA Triathlon. "Aquabike" (Aug. 3, 2010)
  • USA Triathlon. "Aquathlon" (Aug. 3, 2010)
  • USA Triathlon. "Duathlon" (Aug. 3, 2010)
  • USA Triathlon. "Triathlon Participation, Growth Trends and Demographics." July 2010. (Aug. 4, 2010)
  • USA Triathlon. "Winter Triathlon" (Aug. 4, 2010)
  • XTERRA. "About XTERRA" (Aug. 3, 2010)