60-Second Guide: Triathlon

Swimming, cycling and running - discover the answers to your beginner triathlon questions in this bite-sized read

Posted: 11 February 2008

There’s no denying it: triathlon is the sport of the moment. Statistics show more than 100,000 Brits raced the triple last year, turning out at 400 different UK events.

Single-sport athletes looking for their next fitness challenge, those fending off injury and time on the bench, exercise first-timers looking to shed excess pounds once and for all – more and more people are succumbing to the tri fever currently sweeping the nation.

Going For Goals

The UK tri season runs from April to October, and events vary significantly in terms of length and location. Don’t fancy swimming in the choppy, open seas? Then start with a pool-based time trial. Worried your bike-handling skills won’t hold up on hills? No problem, choose a pancake-flat course.

Most events fall into one of three racing distances (see below), though some fixtures also offer a super-sprint (shorter than sprint) or middle-distance (between Olympic and Ironman) option.

Triathlon Race Distances
Sprint 750m swim, 20K bike ride, 5K run
Olympic 1.5K swim, 40K bike ride, 10K run
Ironman 3.8K swim, 180K bike ride, 42K run (marathon)

Between each leg is a stage known as transition, giving you time to prepare for the next discipline (for example, removing your wetsuit or parking your bike). Don’t relax too much though – every minute you spend in transition will be included in your official finish time.

If you’re just starting out, a sprint event can be ideal for finding your feet, but don’t rule out the possibility of toeing the line at an Ironman after as little as nine months hard training. Just look to our resident tri team, the Pirate Ship of Fools, for proof.

Scrimp, Save or Splurge?

Hang on a minute, won’t you need to remortgage to fund this new pursuit? Actually, no. Set yourself a reasonable budget and you’ll soon discover it’s easier than you think to make cost-effective kit choices.

First things first, a basic suit, cap and goggles are essential for the swim leg. Of course, if you’re planning to race in open water, you’ll also need a wetsuit. This needn’t set you back a small fortune - most major triathlon shops (such as triandrun or TriUK) offer a suit rental service with the option to purchase further down the line, ideal for triathlon first-timers.

Next, head to your local bike shop and get fitted for a set of wheels. Try not to be distracted by the look and feel of the high-end racers - a reasonably-priced road model should suffice for your first few events. Fixing up an old bike can save a few pounds too, but make sure it’s road-worthy before climbing in the saddle. Helmets are also compulsory - look for an officially-recognised safety certificate first and foremost, suave aerodynamic styling second.

A good pair of running shoes (and a sports bra for the ladies) should be the final items on your must-have kit list.

Of course, if you're coming to the sport from scratch, you might want to consider opting for a triathlon 'start-up' package. Most triathlon retailers offer special deals which include a wetsuit, bike, helmet, running shoes - as well as other race day essentials - for as little as £500. Try TriUK or Total Fitness for starters.

Variety is the spice of life

How you choose to structure your training week will depend on your current fitness levels and sporting background, as well as work and family commitments. Here are five handy tips to bear in mind before taking the plunge:

  1. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. Most triathletes admit to favouring one sport over the others but unless you put the hours in across all three disciplines, you’ll struggle on race day.

  2. Build up slowly. If you’re coming straight from the couch, then start by training just three times a week. Those who already possess a solid base fitness level can afford to clock up more frequent sessions, but remember your body will still need time to adapt to new training demands.

  3. Rid yourself of the myth that cutting back on your favourite sport will have a negative impact on your performance. Time spent pursuing different disciplines can actually improve your success in a particular sport.

  4. Don’t underestimate the importance of rest days. True, high levels of cross-training will lessen your risk of injury, but working too hard across three different sports can still lead to overtraining and exhaustion.

  5. Back-to-back workouts – known as brick sessions – can be hugely beneficial in the latter stages of your training, not only in terms of preparing your muscles for race-day but also for practising the logistics of transition.

Bikes, boats and bungees

Triathlon isn’t the only multi-sport event to be enjoying a nationwide boom at present. Both duathlons (run-bike-run) and aquathlons (swim-run) are increasingly popping up on the UK racing calendar, as are more ambitious adventure races, including sports as diverse as orienteering, kayaking and abseiling.

Still after more advice? Here are five longer reads to pore over later...
(RW+ indicates magazine subscriber only)
  • BIG Triathlon Index
    Training programmes, gear ideas, nutrition guides and race-day etiquette – everything you need to know about three-legged racing.
  • The Swim Leg RW+
    Jump in at the deep end with our lowdown on swim training.
  • The Bike Leg RW+
    Why two wheels are better than none when it comes to cross-training.
  • The Run Leg RW+
    Your running needn't suffer from adding cycling and swimming to your training schedule.
  • The Pirate Ship Of Fools
    Introducing our unofficial forum tri club.

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triathlon running, triathlon bike, triathlon swim

Discuss this article

The world of triathlon can seem like a minefield of technical terminology and jargon to the first-timer, and who better to help compile the RW Triathlon Glossary than our experienced forumites?

With your collective knowledge from hundreds of races and years of training, we'd like you to add, edit and compile all your triathlon lingo into one neat, alphabetical list. From aerobars to drafting, T1 to T2, and everything in between.

Feel free to add as many terms and definitions as you want - once we have a comprehensive list we’ll publish an article online.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Catherine RW

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 13:15

Aerobars - add on extensions to allow to "aerotuck" and thus achive higher speeds if used correctly.

                 - A nice chocolate bar that is normaly minty to taste

Pounce - likes bikes, talks in tounges and has a certian thing about carbon.

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 13:20


Posted: 11/02/2008 at 13:21

Ponce = muppet or

calling me a muppet?

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 13:33

whaddya reckon?
Posted: 11/02/2008 at 13:38


 - to push a big gear on the bike

- what comes with sausages and gravy down the pub.

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 13:39


- a state of great exhaustion caused largely by the depletion of glycogen in the muscles

- horizontal jogging 

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 13:41


- what your thighs will feel like after a long hilly ride

- how the local cantonese takeaway serves its beef, mmmmmm

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 13:42

Eccentric contraction

- the lengthening of a muscle during contraction

- the above post when you've lost your marbles.

(coat, leaving)

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 13:49

kk - how about an entry on clipless pedals

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 13:53

Brick - two or three of the individual disciplines performed one after the other in training to simulate how you will feel in a race .

Drafting - riding too close to the cyclist in front of you in a race - leading to disqualification if  seen by a race marshal.

Bento box (or any number of other similar boxes) - a rectangular box that fits on your bike's top bar usually with velcro tapes - for putting your food and other supplies in.

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 14:01

Bumblebees and Racehorses

Think like a Bumblebee, train like a Racehorse 

NASA did several studies and found out that a bumblebee can't fly, but luckily no one told the bumblebee, the bumblebee goes on believing it can fly and so it does.

A racehorse trains according to the plan that its trainer develops for it. It then doesn't go out and add uneccesary mileage as it's worried about its performance, neither does it worry or fret after a poor performance. It's nervous and excited on race day but it doesn't stand there and compare itself to the next horse and the next one. It is purposeful and it gets faster and stronger.

Think like a Bumblebee, train like a Racehorse!

(Joe Friel)

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 14:02

Gravel Munching.  The state you should be in when you finish
Posted: 11/02/2008 at 14:05


ill leave the definition to our learned captain or someone else who can write.
Posted: 11/02/2008 at 16:20

Great shout Barlos and a worthy addition to any tri/running glossary.

While I’m here, I’ve noted a list of other possible terms that could be added.

Aero helmet
Ironman distance
Olympic distance
Half Ironman distance
Tri Suit
Waves (start)

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 17:04

Waves (stop)....... else you're going to have a sore wrist.
Posted: 11/02/2008 at 17:12

He's probably already got one of them.......
Posted: 11/02/2008 at 17:20


Lordy, if we add ponce terminology this will need to be published by Collins!!!

chain whips


Don't forget the "4th discipline" (transition)

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 17:26

4th discipline is feeding
Posted: 11/02/2008 at 17:39

Aero helmet *giggles*

Who wants that one? It's a gift!

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 17:40

I thought the 4th discipline was shopping?

or was it drinking?

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 18:55

I thought the 4th discipline was shopping?

or was it drinking?

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 18:55

Over here the fourth discipline is sha**ing. At the Rotovegas tri in NZ you get extra kudos for completing the fourth leg and even more kudos for the fifth (sh*g, swim, bike, run, sh*g).

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 19:11

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 19:13

BAR END SHIFTERS- a style of gear changer which allows gear changing whilst aero.  Removing ANY control whatsover you have of the carbon....

SANDBAGGING - claiming not be training at all whilst training like hell.  As demonstrated by me during any conversation with my boss about traithlon.  Roll on race day.

TRISUIT - A legged lycra suit which enhances any fat on your body and then magnifies it, tenfold.

TRISWIM SUIT - An obsence swimming costume which rides up at the front and back bottoms simulaneously.

ORCA - Manufacturers of clothing where you have to have at least 2 sizes bigger than your normal dress size.

 PLANET X -  A silly place to ask for when you are lost in Doncaster.

SUPPORTER - Any one who shouts anything near transition.

ELITE MAN - A 25-35 ish man who can run barefoot in transition climb on his bike and slide his feet into his bike shoes and pedal off into the sunset.

MAN - A 30 - 55 ish man who can run barefoot in transition climb on his bike, slide one foot into his bike shoes and take out a large section of the crash barrier and a few supporters during the following crash.

NEWBIE - someone who guesses their swim time as 4 minutes for 400m,

PRO - anyone with toilet paper in their hoodie pocket.

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 20:02

Hollywood wrote an excellent FAQ some time ago, its hosted on the Fetch site at the moment.


With his permission it would be useful resource for newbies.

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 20:25

Coach Barlos = ALL KNOWING DIETY OF TRI COACHES (lessor coaches can only dream of walking in his shadow)

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 20:28

clipless pedals:

devices used to attach you to your bike so that you break its fall when you hit the deck continually

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 20:41

burger boy

2 Triaferletes for the price of one

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 20:43

So Meldy, how do you manage to resist my on Saturday, I bet it was quite a struggle
Posted: 11/02/2008 at 21:00

It was and I had to give myself a talking too

But I resisted Plum as well you will be pleased to know

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 21:04

my what?
Posted: 11/02/2008 at 21:04

its Barlos talk for 'me'
Posted: 11/02/2008 at 21:07

lol at Plum, was he harrassing FS?  I didnt really get time to butt into that conversation I was busy lol.. 

I do seem to remember I came slightly close to getting a slap..

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 21:08

and you trod on MY BOOTS
Posted: 11/02/2008 at 21:11


I'd agree except you claimed the 4th discipline was either drinking or shopping. It's neither. It's road painting, surely?

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 21:12

Tour de France Bike drug cabinet

Improve Transition Times with an ejector sadle

Shave minutes off your bike time with this aero haircut
Posted: 11/02/2008 at 21:12


something you will be signing up for within a nano second of clicking on the Tri tab at the top of the page

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 21:15

PMSL @ aero haircut!
Posted: 11/02/2008 at 21:18

I've been asked for definitions too (gulp).... hopefully one of the rightfully crowned ponces will bale me (a classic numpty) out of the poo when I post wrong definitions.....

triples - a crankset with three chain rings, the smallest of which is called the "granny ring"
compacts - a crankset with 2 chain rings and generally allowing a closer ration of gears - all of which leads to a lighter drive chain assembly
cassettes - the cluster of gear cogs at the back of the bike
chain whips - a special tool that grips the cassette while you undo the locking ring on the cassette

Please could the bike ponces correct my work if any of the above is wrong!!  thanks  

I think we've already got a few definitions on the 4th discipline

Posted: 11/02/2008 at 21:23

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