Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Basics of Triathlon Distances

"If God invented marathons to keep people from doing anything more stupid, the triathlon must have taken Him completely by surprise." - P Z Pearce
It's been over a month since I've done any formal teaching. Inspired by a recent conversation, I thought I'd give it a go.

In a recent phone call with my mom, the one where she told me that she was bragging to her friends about my Ironman triathlon, I listened to her recap the story. She told me how she thought it was amazing, and so did her friends, that I was able to swim 1 mile, bike 15 miles, and then run 10 miles in Ironman Lake Placid. I smiled (although she couldn't see it). I know that the vast majority of the population have heard of this triathlon thing, most don't have much of a clue to the details. Can't say as I blame them. In terms of television coverage, NBC broadcasts the World Championship coverage in December (even though the race actually happens in October). They highlight the top of the field and some of the human struggle stories that have come synonymous with the sport. Most people think that triathlon is the Ironman in Kona, Hawaii. There will be an occasional broadcast of Olympic distance events on the weekend, especially after basketball season has ended. That's the most exposure most people will ever have to the sport.

If any of you are unfamiliar with the sport, or have a friend (mommy) who is marginally cognizant, let me help you out. Triathlons generally consist of swimming, biking, and running. I say 'generally' as there are always creative race directors who will substitute one discipline for something different. For instance, they may replace the swim with a kayak leg. Or there are winter triathlons that involve cross country skiing. Since there is very little chance I will do one of those races, let's assume from here on out that triathlon means SBR.

In triathlon, there are 4 main distances called Sprint, Olympic (or Intermediate), Half-Ironman (or 70.3) and Ironman (or 140.6). Sprint distances and Olympic distances are open for a bit of interpretation by the race organizers.

General Swim Distances
Sprint= 0.25- 0.5 miles (400-800 yards)
Olympic= 0.6-1.0 miles (1000-1600 yards)
HIM= 1.2 miles (2000 yards)
IM= 2.4 miles (4000 yards)

General Bike Distances
Sprint= 12-16 miles
Olympic= 22-28 miles
HIM= 56 miles
IM= 112 miles

General Run Distances
Sprint= 2.5-3.5 miles (5k or 3.1 is the norm)
Olympic= 5-7 miles (10k or 6.2 is the norm)
HIM= 13.1 (or half marathon)
IM= 26.2 (or full marathon)

Note how there is some flexibility in the Sprint and Olympic distances. Race directors will sometimes alter the distances based on the local accommodations (convenient bike or run route distances). The flexibility is probably the reason why some of these races are called Intermediate instead of Olympic. True Olympic distance races, named for the actual Olympics soon to be held in London, have a specificity of  Swim 1.5k/ Bike 40k/ Run 10 km (that's .93/24.8/6.2 miles for those of you who don't speak k). But, once you gravitate toward the Half Ironman, the guidelines are a little more rigid. SBR of 1.2/ 56/ 13.1 miles is the standard and athletes at these distances expect those lengths. This is not to say that all HIM are these distances but race directors advertising a HIM would be in their best interests to keep it close. Same goes for the Ironman distance events at 2.4/ 112/ 26.2 miles.

I have heard another definition for the shorter distances. In this scenario, a Sprint Distance triathlon is one in which the winner of the race will finish in about an hour (making the name 'sprint' a tad bit misleading). In an Intermediate Distance triathlon, the winner will finish the race in about 2 hours. 

Please understand that these are only the most common distances. Several races have added even shorter distances. In one race that I did, there was a several distances racing concurrently. They had a Sprint and an Olympic. The also had, what they called a "Try a Tri". These races are open to anyone but designed to attract athletes that are curious or nervous about the sport. In this distance, the disciplines are greatly shortened to roughly swim 100-400 yards, bike 5-10 miles, and run 1-3 miles. I am in favor of any triathlon, especially those that encourage growth in the sport.

Need Something Longer?
There are also morons dedicated endurance athletes that do distances called double Ironman, or Ultra Ironman distances. As you could guess, DIM is 280.4 miles (take the Ironman and multiple by 2). Ultra distances are, well, insane and I'd rather not think about it too much.

So far, all of these triathlons are 'road' races. Except for the swim (duh), you can expect most of the race to happen on paved roads. Some of the triathlons will have part of the run, or all in rare occasions, on a trail. If there is a trail, it is normally a well groomed, well traveled trail. The bike portion is not ever to be expected to go off road.

Off-road Triathlons
If you are the type of athlete that enjoys getting off the road and onto the trails, then Xterra- type triathlon is for you. In Xterra triathlon, you use a mountain bike instead of a road/ triathlon bike. And you make use of your mountain bike by actually biking off road. Many times, you expect to bike on less groomed trails at speeds typically slower than road triathlon. But, the biking is more technical and may require more skill to handle the terrain. Same with the running. It is not uncommon in Xterra to run through mud and streams. Xterra athletes are not afraid to get dirty to go along with their sweat. As with road triathlon, there are different distances.

Who Can Be a Triathlete?
So there you have it. That's a brief overview of the variety of triathlons available to the masses. I am a firm believer that anyone, regardless of athletic ability, can become a successful triathlete. It only takes a desire to want to complete a race, a commitment to train, and the stamina to continue when things get frustrating. I also believe that anyone can with the same qualities above, can do any triathlon. This includes you. Do it.

P.S. To any of the veterans out there, what'd I miss?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. Now I can just forward my mom a link to this post when she asks me how far "one of those Ironmans" are again...