What is triathlon?
Triathlon is a sport that consists of swimming, cycling and running.
Actually one can also talk about a fourth discipline – the transitions between the three disciplines. The Sport invented in Hawaii in the late 1970´s, has since developed into different distances ranging from supersprint races that are over within 20 minutes to Ironman races which last more than 8 hours.
Under the umbrella of Triathlon you also find races such as Duathlon (running/cycling/running), Cross-duathlon (running/mountain bike/running), Aquathlon (running/swimming/running) and Wintertriathlon (Cross-country running /mountain bike/ skiing).
Within triathlon you distinguish between primarily 3 categories of races; short distance with drafting, short distance non-drafting and long distance which I do. Each of these will be described below.
Long distance triathlon:
This category generally consists of the following distances:
- Ironman distance (3,8km swimming/180km cycling/42,2km running)
- World Championships distance (4km swimming/120km cycling/30km running)
- ½ Ironman (1,9km swimming/90km cycling/21,1km running)
After many years on the short distance I changed over to long distance after the 2008 Olympics, and have put my complete focus on these distances – particularly Ironman. In all of these races the 10-meter-rule applies on the bike section, which means that it is illegal to ride closer than 10 meters behind the person in front of you. This means that the cycling part has great importance, since the majority of the races, in terms of time, is spent here. Traditionally on Ironman and ½ Ironman swimming has been less important, as the time differences on the swim rarely get larger than what is possible to make up on the bike and run.
However, over the last few years the importance of the swim has risen, as many strong short distance athletes (like Andreas Raelert, Dirk Bockel and myself) have joined the long distance ranks. When I won the classic Challenge Roth Iron distance race in 2010 my finish time was 7.52.36 hours, which was only 2.09 minutes behind the world record set by Luc van Lierde, Belgium back in 1997. Most races in the men’s division are won in 8-8½ hours, while most age-groupers do times between 10 and 14 hours. A time limit of 16 hours usually applies in Ironman races, with which you have to comply in order to record a finish time. This primarily serves as a safety measure because they think that people who are still on the course after 16 hours are not physically fit for such a long race. And it does, of course, require a good physical shape to do an Ironman. I would, however, claim that most people can train themselves up to doing an Ironman.
Short distance draft triathlon:
The term short distance covers all distances shorter than ½ Ironman. The most common are:
- Olympic distance (1500m swimming/40km cycling/10km running)
- Sprint distance (750m swimming/20km cycling/5km running)
An Olympic distance race is usually won in 1.45-2 hours for the men and about 10minutes longer for the women, depending on the course. Sprint takes about half the time.
Drafting means that it is legal to bike right behind another person, which again means that it becomes a very different type of race. Drafting was introduced in 1996-1997 as a requirement from the IOC for triathlon to get on the Olympic program. They thought it would make the races easier to follow for the crowds and TV viewers.
The bike leg would resemble a bike race, and the athletes would be racing closer on the run. All international short distance triathlons like Olympics, World Champs, European Champs and world cups are now of the drafting format. The fact that they are draft legal means that a good swim is a prerequisite for participating at a high level. As a male triathlete, if you are not able to break 17.30 on a 1500m swim in a 25m pool, you will find it very hard to be competitive at an international level. Usually the fastest swimmers group up in the beginning of the ride which works together to keep their lead over the rest. If you are not in that group it is difficult to work your way to the front. A lot of people, on the other hand, think that you can get away with being a weaker bike rider, and on a flat course without too many accelerations, it is true. In that case you can be lucky enough to get to sit on somebody’s wheel most of the way. Over the years there has, however, been a progression toward harder and more hilly courses, as well as many of the stronger bike riders attempting to make the bike leg harder by accelerating hard out of corners and u-turns and riding harder on the hills. In this way weaker cyclists get punished because they will have spent more energy by the time they get to the run. The run leg is usually where the final positions of the race are fought out. In most cases it will be down to the runners from the 1st group off the bike, but sometimes good runners from the 2nd or 3rd group can run themselves to a good position. As a male athlete you will have to be able to run a sub 30 minute 10km run (fresh run) to have a chance of winning an international championship or world cup. For the women it will be about 34-35minutes.
The tactics in a draft race are very different from those of a non-draft. Here you will usually have to change your tactics during the race and make quick decisions when necessary. It is a big advantage to know your competitors´ strengths, weaknesses and tactics in order to read the situation in your group, and asses what is best to do. In addition, on occasions there are unspoken alliances between some of the athletes, and there are people that you have more sympathy for than others. I, for instance, used to know who to expect help from to close a gap or to take the lead from me, if no-one else would – and I would do the same thing for them. It is seldom possible to arrange tactics before the race, though, since it never unfolds entirely according to the plan.
Many triathletes - especially among those who have been in the sport for many years and/or are bad swimmers - think that drafting has damaged the sport and pulled it away from its original form. I agree that races have changed, but at the same time I see drafting as a prerequisite for organizing fair elite triathlons. Today it would be practically impossible to marshal the 10-meter-rule on the bike if roughly 50 athletes exit the water within a minute. It would mean one long chain of athletes and would be a nightmare to marshals as well as us athletes. Every time you bike past someone he will have to drop back 10 meters immediately, and then perhaps another person passes him, and he must drop back again. Etc, etc. It would be chaos. It is fine to have non-drafting races when there are fewer participants or when there is a greater difference in the level of the participants, but not at championships or world cups. Another alternative to draft races is to have time trials like for instance we have at our Danish Sprint Champs, where the athletes start on 1-2 minute intervals and race through the course alone. I find this a fair way to conduct a triathlon, and a good variation, but it is hardly interesting to watch, plus it is extremely hard to know who is in the lead.
In addition it probably appeals more to young people to take part in triathlons where everyone starts together and they do not need to worry about keeping a certain distance to the competitor on the bike in front of them. It reminds them of bike races as they know from the TV, and which many kids enjoy doing with their friends. And it is important that the sport appeals to the young generation, so that we attract more people to our wonderful sport.
Short distance non-draft triathlon:
As is the case with long distance triathlon, there are races in which the 10-meter-rule applies.
Since they are non-drafting races you primarily race according to your own plan with regards to how fast or at what heart rate you want to go. You do not need to look at the other athletes and see what they are doing. It is you against the elements! I really enjoy this kind of racing which is specifically popular in the US. Race series like the Race to the Toyota Cup and the new Ironman 5150 series and legendary races like Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon in San Francisco have chosen not to become part of the ITU World Cup circuit in order to maintain their non-draft format.
In the spring of 2006 I won St. Anthony´s Triathlon in front of American stars Hunter Kemper and Matt Reed setting a new course record. The short distance non-draft races are usually dominated by athletes who normally race World Cups or athletes who have specialized in this format. You would think that long distance athletes with supposedly stronger bike skills would be able to do well, but they rarely bike much faster over 40km, and they lose a lot of time on the swim and run.