Mini Triathlon or Olympic Distance?
If you are coming to the triathlon with a history of strong athletic competition, and especially if you are a good swimmer, you may be a good candidate for an Olympic-distance triathlon, also known as a standard triathlon. Many skilled athletes look to the triathlon as a challenge worth meeting, and the best of them can actually earn a living as triathlon professionals. Imagine putting that occupation on your resume.
It's a whole different situation if you are not a seasoned athlete or if you are very inexperienced in one of the disciplines, especially swimming. In that case, you should start with baby steps. That usually means a competition with shorter distances.
Do not be turned off by triathlons that are organized primarily or solely for beginners, often called “newbies” by veteran triathletes. If you are a beginner, that's the kind of race you should look for.
Before the triathlon became part of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, the “standard” triathlon format was known as the international distance. Now it is known as the Olympic distance. No doubt the addition of the triathlon to the Olympic Games is at least partly responsible for the surge in interest in multisports events.
Sprint to Success
An Olympic-distance triathlon will always be the same: swim of 1.5 kilometers (.93 miles), 40K bike ride (24.8 miles), and a 10K run (6.2 miles). The Ironman Triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2- mile run. If you are a beginner, don't even think about the Ironman or its cousin, the Half Ironman, at this point.
A “sprint” triathlon does not meant participants have to go all out in the race. It's just the triathlon world's way of indicating a race with comparatively short distances.
By contrast, the so-called “sprint distance” is not standardized and can feature a swim as short as 300 yards, but more and more organizers of sprint triathlons are choosing a half mile (750 meters) for the swim, 12 miles (20K) for the bicycle ride, and a 5K (3.1 miles) run. These distances are doable for just about anyone with 10 to 12 weeks to train and the will to devote to it. These are the races first-time triathletes should target.
The Swim's the Thing
As you begin planning for your first triathlon and reviewing the various races in your area, focus on the length of the swim. For most new triathletes, the swim competition will be the most difficult segment. The shorter the swim portion of the race, the greater the chance that your first venture into this new world will be a positive experience.
A good way to determine whether you can handle a half-mile swim in a triathlon is to test yourself in a pool. Visit your health club and see if you can swim without stopping for 20 to 30 minutes. If you can do it or come close, you are on your way.
It is important to keep in mind that no matter how well your swim training went in the pool, when you start the race you will find yourself in an entirely different environment as you compete for space in the water and try to avoid other swimmers.
The key point is this: if you get in trouble in the cycling or run portion of the race, you can stop and deal with your problem, walking for a stretch or coasting on your bike. In fact, if you have problems in the third phase (running), you can walk in if you must. You will do what you must to avoid having to quit.
Once you're in the water, however, your options for dealing with trouble are severely limited. That's not to say that triathlon organizers don't take safety precautions. They do. The umbrella organization — USA Triathlon — is very safety oriented, and no one can participate in a triathlon without the requisite insurance. Even considering how committed to safety everyone will be, if you have difficulty in the swim and have to be pulled out of the water into a boat by one of the course monitors, your race is over.