January 15th, 2010
10:23 AM ET

What is a triathlon??

By Laura Cozik
Athletic Director, CNN Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge
CEO, Team Lipstick Triathlon

For most, triathlon is a lifestyle. And for first-timers, it’s one of the most amazing things you’ll ever accomplish. There are four common race distances known as the “sprint,” the “olympic,” the “half iron,” and the “iron.” Each race includes a swim, a bike, a run, plus two transitions, and each race doubles the distance of the last, but for the swim, which has a smaller increase. See below for distances in MILES (and kilometers)…

• Sprint – .5 swim, 12 bike, 3 run (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run)
• Olympic – 1 swim, 25 bike, 6 run (1.5km swim, 40km bike, 10km run)
• Half Iron – 1.2 swim, 56 bike, 13 run (1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21.09km run)
• Iron – 2.4 swim, 112 bike, 26 run (3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42.2km run)

The most common of these distances are the sprint and the olympic, mostly because they are achievable for all ages and athletic abilities. They don’t require quite the commitment level that training for a half iron or iron distance would. So you can work full time, have a family, AND be a triathlete!! As a matter of fact, your family can do it with you as the youngest age-groupers are just 7-8 years old, and the oldest are 85+. Don’t be surprised when someone twice your age passes you on the run!

Part of living the lifestyle of triathlon is being fit and active, but it doesn’t require hours and hours of training every day. For instance, a person who just purchased a bike and is just learning to swim could complete a sprint distance triathlon with just 12 weeks of training, 4-5 hours per week. With smart and structured training, anyone can do it. And with a fun, positive experience, you will be hooked as triathlon becomes a lifestyle. The training process that is involved with triathlon, along with participation and completion of the race, will be one of the most rewarding things you may ever do in your life, not just physically, but mentally, spiritually and socially. Just ask anyone who has done a triathlon and he or she will tell you the same thing.

They’re like potato chips…I dare you to do just one!!

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. Franky, Land of Lincoln

    Since you dared me, I will then do in. You just called me out, OMG! 🙂

    I will look for one in my city or look for those high-tech races and go do one and I will. I'm in the best shape since who knows, I'm already raising the level on my workouts, etc.

    I can do it and when the time comes right, I will do one. Plus, I actually do like running and got me some ankle weights because I raise the level. Swimming though? Yes, yes I can swim but not much into it. Is alright and is actually a heck of a workout, is good for you. But running is my thang.

    January 15, 2010 at 15:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Garren

    I have wanted to try one of these – but I am reluctant because I don't understand how the "set up" process works. For example – when do put your bike in the staging area? The night before? Morning of? Are the logistics clearly communicated?

    January 15, 2010 at 20:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kathleen

      Gary I would find some one at a local health club or even at a local store ( there are ads posted sometime). You can find a training partner or some one who has done one before. I did one and my boyfriend who has done many helped me get ready. Alot the the research i did was online though, i learned alot in blogs.

      November 9, 2010 at 17:53 | Report abuse |
  3. Jann

    Last summer, at age 55, I decided to do a sprint triathlon. I had not run 3 continuous miles since I was 40, which was when I had done my first (and only) sprint triathlon. I ended up doing 2 sprint races. I am hooked. As they say about races, "You live THROUGH the first one, and then you live FOR the next one!" The most amazing change for me is that I now see my workouts as being an "intentional" part of my day. For me, it's been a triathlon transformation!

    January 16, 2010 at 06:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. charles brodsky

    Triathlon has the potential to be a life changing experience. i got into triathlon about five years ago and never looked back. For me the team oriented nature of a single participant sport makes it unlike any other activity or lifestyle sport. Triathlete's are generally high achievers who morph those great skill sets that makes them achieve into the sport which makes the level of competition high....if that's what you seek. If your in it like me, which is to participate as opposed to race, then its one of the greatest way to stay in shape, hang with your friends, make new ones and travel to the greatest cities and places in the world.

    January 16, 2010 at 11:40 | Report abuse | Reply
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    January 16, 2010 at 15:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Bonnie Schmidt

    Is the training schedule and suggested eating program posted somewhere? I am 53 and need to get in shape – thought this would be a good challenge and a motivator for me.

    January 16, 2010 at 18:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. cindy dale

    I'm with Bonnie, is there ia a good websiteor training blog for those of us couch potatoes? Thanks,

    January 17, 2010 at 18:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cookie

      Try the beginnertriathlete.com. They have great 'from the couch to the sprint' plans that lay out your work outs day by day. I used it and it got me to finish a sprint triathlon without any pain within 5 months. And now...I'm hooked.

      August 10, 2010 at 15:14 | Report abuse |
  8. Kathy

    @Garren - it is hard to picture, I know. I was interested but couldn't quite picture it, plus the swimming to me was foreign - biking sure, running, yeah, but swimming...that I'd never done much. Then a friend asked me to do the bike leg in a triathlon relay team. I really enjoyed it, and once I saw how it all worked, saw that teh swim part wasn't too crazy looking and the water wasn't too cold (Jersey Shore, September) I was determined to do the whole thing the next year. Didn't make it that year - other issues –but this year I did two.
    So either jump in - find one and try it, triathletes are friendly folks! Or else find one and go watch it this spring, or whenever the season starts by you, so you'll feel comfortable with it, as well as inspired.

    As to how it works: usually you set up your bike and the rest of your gear - towel, shoes, helmet, towel, everything else - in a secure transition area, the morning of the event. (I have heard of events where the setup is the night before.) You line up to swim at your appointed time - most races go off in waves, a group starting the swim every three, or five, or ten minutes or so - swim your swim, run back to your bike, gear up, roll off and ride, roll back into the transition area, and run your run leg, - and grin triumphantly, no matter your time, as you pass the finish line.

    January 18, 2010 at 01:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Bonnie Schmidt

    To Cindy and anyone else – here is a website I found for a trainnig schedule for beginners: http://www.aarp.org/health/fitness/sports/triathlon_training_beginner.html?print=yes

    I would still like to see the training schedule and diet Dr. Gupta and CNN have put together for the potential triathletes they chose so we can follow along.

    January 18, 2010 at 12:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Swim Coach Finder

    Thanks for the article. We triathletes love it when CNN does stories on triathlons.

    January 21, 2010 at 20:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Jason Brown

    I've been a triathlete for going on 5 years now, and love it. Every year presents a new challenge. I was very nervous before my first sprint tri, but after you've competed in a few it becomes a part of your lifestyle. A great site I used to get basic triathlon information is http://www.beginnertriathlete.com. There's a great number of articles ranging from how to train, what a transition is, to how important nutrition is on a daily basis. The forum is a great place to ask beginner questions. We were all new to triathlons at one point.

    January 27, 2010 at 15:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. TJ

    Sounds like so much fun! I would like to find one locally and compete

    February 2, 2010 at 18:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. C.K.

    I did my first triathlon last summer at the age of 45 – what a rush ! Can't wait to do another one (or two) this summer. Great website for beginners is beginnertriathlete.com. It was hugely helpful. Good luck !

    February 11, 2010 at 13:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. SAT

    Just started training for my first sprint triathlon at the beginning of this year. The site I've been using for training info and tracking is:


    They have several training schedules based on your level and goal. You can track your training, look for races, find support groups and mentors and a ton of other information. The other option is to search for Triathlon training groups in your area via the Internet or Meetup.

    March 5, 2010 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Dan in Boston

    Great to see the interest in triathlons!! Just beware that it becomes addictive...I started with sprint distance and am now training for my first Ironman. Training can be up to 20+ hours a week but it is so worth it!!

    March 10, 2010 at 13:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Donny in NYC

    If you’re new to triathlon it can be daunting, even scary at times. There’s so much to train for! Those people who are just beginning triathlon training and have never tried this sport before must follow a few basic steps to lessen the risk of injury. The best advice is to start slow and aim for about 16 weeks of training before your first Sprint Triathlon.

    August 3, 2010 at 22:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Zach

    The best thing you can outside of the actual triathlon is registering. In my mind until you register there is no commitment to train and no commitment to finish. As far as finishing, at least for you first one, I honestly believe if you can run a 5k you finish (a sprint). As long as you know how to swim you can always just roll on your back make it through the swim portion, the bike is a cake walk on anything with two wheels, and then just stride it out. Go look to any other triathletes out there. I've done two already this month and will be doing two more to end the month (Ludington MI and Chicago IL)!

    August 18, 2010 at 11:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Kim

    As a triathlon coach, I have worked with many new triathletes. One of the biggest hurdles that my athletes have is trying something outside of their comfort level. Many of them are very successful in their lines of work, but are "timid" to try something they might not immediately succeed at. To new triathletes, I recommend that you seek out a club or coach in your area. These people will be willing to help you avoid any pitfalls or hang-ups you might have. I also have some very helpful articles and videos posted on my website designed specifically for newbie triathletes. http://dreambelievetri.com/ But most importantly, get out there and try it! You'll get hooked and look back in a few years in amazement at what you've accomplished.

    September 29, 2010 at 10:53 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.