Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A triathlon is an athletic event made up of three contests (from the Greek). In contemporary usage, the name triathlon is mostly applied to a combination of swimming, cycling and running, in that order.
In most modern triathlons, these events are placed back-to-back in immediate sequence and a competitor's official time includes the time required to "transition" between the individual legs of the race, including any time necessary for changing clothes and shoes. As a result, proficiency in swimming, running, and cycling alone is not sufficient to guarantee a triathlete a competitive time: trained triathletes have learned to race each stage in a way that preserves their energy and endurance for subsequent stages.
This form of triathlon was first held by the San Diego Track Club in 1974, and was a run-bike-swim event. In most modern events, the three stages are held in the opposite order, primarily for safety reasons.
The first major triathlon event, the Ironman Triathlon, was organized in 1978 and held in Hawaii. Today, a number of Ironman events are held around the world, and the original course in Kona, Hawaii, serves as the unofficial world championships for Iron-distance racers.
The International Triathlon Union (ITU) was founded in 1989. ITU has never officially approved of the Ironman Triathlon on Hawaii, so there is no official world championship on the Iron-distance. This has been the subject of some controversy.
Since its founding in 1974, triathlon has grown significantly and now includes thousands of races with hundreds of thousands of competitors each year.
Types of triathlon
There are a number of standard triathlon race distances, including
- Sprint Distance Triathlon: 750 meters swim (500m is also very common) / 20 km bike / 5 km run (as people tend to shift away from the ironman=triathlons thinking this is increasingly called a "short course" triathlon)
- Olympic Distance Triathlon: 1.5 km swim / 40 km bike / 10 km run (Also called "international distance", "standard course" or "short course")
- Half-Ironman Triathlon: 1.9 km (1.2 mile) swim / 90 km (56 mile) bike / 21 km (13.1 mile) run (Also called a "Tinman")
- Long Distance Triathlon: 4 km (2.5 mile) swim / 120 km (75 mile) bike / 30 km (18.6 mile) run
- Ironman Triathlon: 3.8 km (2.4 mile) swim / 180 km (112 mile) bike / 42 km (26.2 mile) run
Though there can be some variation in race distances, particularly among short triathlons, most triathlons conform to one of these five standards.
- Equilateral Triathlon: A triathlon, proposed by Wainer and De Veaux (1994), in which each leg would take an approximately equal time. For example, their "Olympic" triathlon, run as a relay, should take three world-record holders each about 28 minutes per leg: 2.7 km swim / 22.4 km bike / 10 km run.
Winter variants of triathlon, raced in snow-covered conditions, can include (in order):
- Cross country skiing, mountain biking and running.
- Cross country skiing, outdoor-ice speed skating and running.
Recent decades have seen the development of a wide variety of so-called "multisport" events, of which triathlon is now considered only one major type.
How a triathlon works
In a typical triathlon, racers arrive at the venue about an hour before the race is to begin, to set up their "transition area". Here they will generally have a rack to hold their bicycle and a small area of ground space for shoes, clothing, etc. In some races, the bicycle stage does not finish in the same place it begins, and athletes will set up two transition areas, one for the swim to bike transition, and one for the bike to run transition.
Racers are generally categorized into separate professional and amateur groups; amateurs are often referred to as "age groupers" who form the great majority of triathletes. One feature that has helped to boost the popularity of such a complex time-intensive sport is the opportunity to compete against others of one's own gender and age group. The age groups are typically set at between 5 and ten year intervals.
There is usually (as in most marathons) a lower age limit (typically 18) for the longer triathlons (all of the 5 events listed above) but many shorter races have been organised to allow children and teens to compete in triathlon.
After transitions are set up, the athletes don their swim gear and head to the beach for the race start. (Most triathlon swim stages are held in open water, either in a lake or ocean). Depending on the type and size of the race, either all the athletes will enter the water at a single signal ("mass start", traditional in Iron-distance races), or in waves spaced every few minutes, usually by age group (wave starts are more common in shorter races where a large number of amateur athletes are competing).
The swim leg usually proceeds around a series of marked buoys and exits the water near the transition area. Racers run out of the water and attempt to change from their swim gear into cycling gear as rapidly as possible. In some of the earliest races, tents were provided for changing clothes. In the modern day, however, competition and pressure for time has led to the development of specialized triathlon clothing that is adequate for both swimming and cycling, meaning many racers' transition consists of little more than removing goggles and pulling on a pair of cycling shoes. (And in some cases, racers leave shoes attached to their bicycle pedals and put them on while riding.)
The cycling stage proceeds around a marked course and finished back at the transition area, where racers rack their bicycle and change quickly into running shoes before heading out for the final stage. The run finishes at a finish line also usually near the start and transition.
Rules of triathlon
Traditionally, triathlon is an individual sport: each athlete is competing against the course and the clock for the best time. As such, athletes are not allowed to receive assistance from anyone else inside or outside the race, with the exception of race-sanctioned aid volunteers who distribute food and water on the course. This also means that team tactics, such as drafting, a cycling tactic in which several riders cluster closely to reduce the air resistance of the group, are not allowed.
This has begun to change with the introduction of triathlon into the Olympic Games. Many Olympic-distance races including the Olympics themselves and ITU World Cup events now allow drafting during the cycling stage. Although this change sparked extensive debate among the triathlon community, it is now gaining acceptance among the community and in any case appears to be here to stay.
Triathlons are timed in sections: 1) from the start of the swim to the beginning of the first transition; 2) from the beginning of the first transition to the end of the second transition; 3) and finally at the end of the run, at which time the triathlon is completed. Results are usually posted on official websites and will show for each triathlete his/her swim time; cycle time (with transitions) included; run time; and total time. Very long races may also post transition times separately.
Other rules of triathlon vary from race to race and generally involve descriptions of allowable equipment (such as wetsuits, which are allowed in the swimming stage of some races), and prohibitions against interference between athletes.
The world of professional triathlon is primarily split into three circuits:
- The "short course", or Olympic-distance competitive circuit, run by the International Triathlon Union (ITU), which includes the ITU World Cup series and ITU World Championships. In 2004, the ITU World Cup included over 75 different events.
- The "long course", or "Ironman" circuit, run by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), which culminates each year with the Hawaii Ironman World Championship. These races are not recognized as "official" by the ITU, but are unquestionably the best-known series of races in the sport.
- The XTerra off-road triathlon championship series.
In addition, the ITU has a Long Distance Triathlon series, with races slightly shorter (except for the swim) than the Ironman standard. This circuit is a new addition, with four annual events as of 2005. Many of the same athletes compete in Ironman and ITU Long Distance races.
The term Ironman Triathlon is a trademark of the World Triathlon Corporation and refers to the series of races organised by the WTC. Races of this distance which are not organised by the WTC are commonly referred to as Iron Distance Triathlon.
Triathlon and fitness
Triathletes tend to be extraordinarily fit, and many amateur athletes choose triathlon specifically for its fitness benefits. Because all three events are endurance sports, nearly all of triathlon training is cardiovascular exercise. In addition, since triathletes must train for three different disciplines, they tend to have more balanced whole-body muscular development than pure cyclists or runners, whose training emphasizes only a subset of their musculature.
Specialization of swimming, cycling and running in triathlon
Each of the elements of triathlon is a little different from if those sports were encountered alone. While amateur triathletes who also compete in individual swimming, cycling or running races generally apply the same techniques and philosophy to triathlon, seasoned triathletes and professionals have specialized techniques for each discipline that improve their race as a whole.
Triathletes will use their legs less vigourously and more carefully than other swimmers, husbanding their energy for the cycle and run to follow. Many triathletes use altered swim strokes to compensate for turbulent, aerated water and to conserve energy for a long swim. In addition, the majority of triathlons involve open-water (outdoor) swim stages, rather than pools with lane markers. As a result, triathletes in the swim stage must jockey for position, and can gain some advantage by drafting, following a competitor closely to gain an advantage by swimming in their slipstream. Triathletes will often use "dolphin kicking" and diving to make headway outward against waves and body surfing to use a wave's energy for a bit of speed at the end of the swim stage. Also, open-water swims necessitate "spotting", raising one's head to look for landmarks or buoys which mark the course. A modified stroke allows the athlete to lift her head above water to spot without interrupting the swim or wasting energy.
Because open water swim areas are often cold, specialized triathlon wetsuits have been developed. In addition to warmth, wetsuits add buoyancy and smoothness, both of which increase swimming speed. Wetsuits are legal in many events regardless of water temperature, and are sometimes required. More information about triathlon wetsuits is available in the triathlon equipment article.
Triathlon cycling, with the exception of Olympic triathlon and ITU World Cup races, is very different from most professional bicycle racing because it does not allow drafting, and so racers do not cluster in a peloton. It more closely resembles time trial racing. Triathlon bicycles are generally optimized for aerodynamics, having special handlebars called "aero-bars" or "tri-bars", aerodynamic wheels or other components. Triathlon bikes use a specialized geometry including a steep seat-tube angle both to improve aerodynamics and spare muscle groups needed for running (see also Triathlon equipment). Triathletes also often cycle with a high "cadence" (pedaling speed), which serves in part to keep the muscles loose and flexible for running.
The primary distinguishing feature of running in triathlon is that it occurs after the athlete has already been exercising in two other disciplines for an extended period of time, so many muscles are already tired. The effect of switching from cycling to running can be very profound; first-time triathletes are often astonished at the bizarre sensation in their thighs a few hundred yards into the run and discover that they run at a much slower pace than they are accustomed to in training. Triathletes train for this phenomenon through transition workouts or "bricks": back-to-back workouts involving two disciplines, most commonly cycling and running.
Legendary and well-known events
Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of individual triathlons are held around the world each year. A few of races are legendary and/or favorites of the triathlon community because they have a long history, or because they have particularly grueling courses and race conditions. A few are listed here.
- Hawaii Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaii. First held in 1979, only five years after the sport of triathlon was founded. The cycling stage of the race covers more than a hundred miles over lava flats on the big island of Hawaii, where mid-day temperatures often reach over 43 C (110 F) and cross-winds sometimes blow at 90 km/h (55 m/h). The race is often challenging even to competitors with experience in other iron-distance events.
- Escape from Alcatraz, San Francisco, California. This non-standard-length race begins with a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) swim in frigid San Francisco Bay waters around Alcatraz Island, followed by an 18 mile (29 km) bicycle and 8 mile (13 km) run in the extremely hilly terrain of the San Francisco Bay area. The run includes the notorious "Sand Ladder" -- a 400-step staircase climb up a beachside cliff. In recent years, the race has included a fourth event: a one-mile (1.6 km) "warm-up" run between the swim and bike leg to reduce the incidence of hypothermia.
- Wildflower is a Half-Ironman distance race held on or near May 1st at Lake San Antonio in Southern California since 1983. Known for a particularly hilly course, it has expanded now to include three races of different lengths and is one of the largest triathlon events in the world, with 6,000 athletes attending each year.
- Life Time Fitness Triathlon. Offering the largest professional prize purse in triathlon, this event draws international triathlon talent in large numbers. Pros and amateurs alike are welcome to Minneapolis, MN in late summer to enjoy this exciting race conducted in "equalizer" format.
- Mark Allen
- Hamish Carter
- John Collins
- Jim Curl
- Bevan Docherty
- Dan Empfield
- John Howard
- Jack Johnstone
- Chris McCormack
- Scott Molina
- Dave Scott
- David Pain
- Bill Phillips
- Mike Pigg
- Bill Shanahan
- Scott Tinley
- Carl Thomas
- Tom Warren
- Simon Whitfield
- Kate Allen
- Sally Edwards
- Michellie Jones
- Bridgette McMahon
- Julie Moss
- Paula Newby-Fraser
- Sylviane Puntous
- Patricia Puntous
- Valerie Silk
- Johnstone, Jack. Triathlon: The Early History of the Sport. Retrieved March 25, 2005.
- Stefanon, Francisco. The Hawaii Ironman History Retrieved March 25, 2005.
- Tinley, Scott, & Plant, Mike. (1986). An Underground History. In Scott Tinley's Winning Triathlon, pp. 1-13. Chicago: Contemporary books, Inc. ISBN 0-80902-5116-5
- Wainer, H., & De Veaux, R. D. (1994). Resizing triathlons for fairness. Chance, 7, 20-25. from http://www.williams.edu/Mathematics/rdeveaux/papers/triath.ps
- The Triathlon Hall of Fame 
- Training programs for beginners - a good place to start off for your first triathlon.
- ITU, the International Triathlon Union
- The Wildflower Triathlons
- Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon
- XTerra off-road triathlon race series
- Sprint/Half Ironman in south Sweden A great race for all of you who come to visit Sweden!
- Transition Times Triathlon information source for individual states and countries.
- RunnersWeb.com The running and triathlon resource portal.
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