The Sport of Triathlon

Triathlon is a continuous endurance activity comprised of three of the world’s more popular participation sports: swimming, cycling, and running. Participants first swim a set distance in a lake, ocean or a pool, then bike a set distance and finish with a run. The time between each activity – called the “transition” – is also timed as part of the race, creating a continuous contest. Introduced in the early 1970’s in California, the sport traces its roots to the Hawaiian Ironman™ Triathlon held each year in Kona, Hawaii. The Ironman is a rigorous endurance test consisting of a 4 km swim, 180 km bike, and a marathon run (42.2 km).

The sport has changed a great deal since the 1970’s. Today, there are over six million athletes participating worldwide, an international federation, almost 100 national federations, and events held in a wide range of distances.

 The Olympic triathlon is contested over a 1.5 km swim, 40 km bike, and 10 km run. Triathlon is also on the agendas of the Commonwealth, Pan-American, and Goodwill Games. The International Triathlon Union (ITU) holds an annual Triathlon World Championship and Long Distance Triathlon World Championship.

In Canada, triathlons covering all distances are staged across the nation — from grassroots charity events to international caliber races. In fact, in 1992 Canada hosted the World Championships in Muskoka, ON, while Drummondville, QC, Whistler, BC, and Corner Brook, NF have each hosted World Cup events. The annual Ironman™ Canada triathlon held in Penticton, BC, attracts 2,000 athletes each year and is one of the most renowned long-distance races in the world. Triathlon Canada sanctions an annual Canadian Triathlon Championship that is the premier triathlon in Canada. It is estimated that nearly 50,000 Canadians compete in a triathlon each year.

Benefits of Triathlon

Triathlon is not just a sport, it’s a way of life. Training and a healthy lifestyle become part of a triathlete’s everyday routine and this usually connects them socially with like-minded people.

It is the responsibility of everyone in triathlon to ensure that all participants, whether they are competitors, officials, coaches, or administrators, conduct themselves in a dignified and professional manner that reflects the true spirit of the sport.  The sport of triathlon offers the opportunity for all athletes to develop physically, emotionally, and socially by fostering attributes such as:

  • healthy living habits
  • proper nutrition
  • adequate rest
  • physical activity
  • friends
  • social support
  • comradeship
  • positive self image
  • self-confidence
  • sportsmanship
  • improved health
  • competitiveness
  • self reliance
  • self improvement
  • achievement

Philosophy of Triathlon

Triathlon emphasizes respect for all people.

 The goal of triathlon is finishing the event.  When athletes finish they turn around and cheer the next competitor to the line.  Although triathlon is competitive it fosters mutual respect through a lifestyle focus and commitment to training .  In multisport events, everyone who makes the effort to reach the finish line is a winner.  People from different countries, cultures, and regions compete together and learn to honour all fellow athletes.

It’s the people in triathlon that make the sport unique and fun.

There are people from aged five to over 80 years in triathlon events.  Participants  enjoy the challenge of testing their skills, endurance, and mental toughness.  It is a perfect family sport.

The triathlon family of events is inclusive.

 Anyone can participate in a multisport event.  Any type of equipment is acceptable, as long as it is safe.  For example, many children, youth, and novice adults use mountain bikes or commuting bikes for the cycle component.  There are categories for AWAD competitors (Athletes With A Disability) and age groups up to 80+.  Below is a list of common event distances in Triathlon for adults (top table) and youth up to 19 years (bottom table).

Triathlon Distances

Triathlon offers something for everyone, whether athletes are trying their first Multisport event or embarking on their tenth year of Iron distance racing.

Kids of Steel® (KOS) Distances

Note—these distances denote MAXIMUMS in each age group.  Athletes may complete events that are shorter than the distances listed, but may not exceed these distances in competition.

*Ages are listed as of December 31 of the current race season.

*Athletes 18-19 years may race Olympic distance races.


KOS Ages (as of Dec 31st) Swim Bike Run
7 & Up 50 m 1.5 km 500 m
8 – 9 years 100 m 5 km 1 km
10 – 11 years 200 m 5 km 2 km
12 – 13 years 300 m 10 km 3 km
14 – 15 years 500 m 10 km 4 km
16 – 19* years 750 m 20 km 5 km


Adult Swim Bike Run
Super-Sprint 375 m 10 km 2.5 km
Sprint 750 m 20 km 5 km
1,500 m 40 km 10 km
Half-Iron 2,000 m 90 km 21km
Long Distance 3,000 m 120 km 30 km
Iron 3,800 m 180 km 42.2 km


Race Categories and Groups

The triathlon family of events has something to offer everyone. Athletes, referred to as triathletes, can be people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. Triathlon has categories for athletes aged five to beyond 90, for Athletes With A Disability (AWAD), and for recreational or elite competitors.  In triathlon there are two distinct areas of competition: Elite and Age-group.

Elite competition

Elite athletes are selected by national triathlon federations to represent their country at elite competitions, such as World Championships, World Cups, Continental Championships and ITU World Ranking Points Events.

Elite competition is characterized by “draft legal” cycling.  This means competitors may ride directly behind or beside other competitors during the cycle component of the event.   In age group competition there is no draft legal cycling.

Elite competition has three categories:

  • Elite Men & Women (Open Competition)
  • Under 23 Elite Men & Women
  • Junior Elite Men & Women (16-19 yrs)

The Elite & Under 23 Elite categories race the standard Olympic distance, while Junior Category Elite Athletes race the sprint distance.

Age group competition

This form of competition enables competitors to compete at their individual level and against people of the same age.   In age group competition, participants primarily compete for the love of the sport and also to challenge themselves while enjoying the thrill of participation and competition.

Age group competition is “non-drafting,” meaning that competitors,  must maintain a specified distance from other participants during the cycle component unless they are overtaking.

(See rules for more details on ‘drafting’)

Age group competition is conducted in five-year age groupings, usually beginning at  the 16 – 19 junior category.  For example:

  • 20 -24 years
  • 25 -29 years
  • 30-34 years … and so on through to 90 -95 if there are competitors!

With small events or events in developing areas or countries, age groupings may cover ten years, such as 20 -29, 30 -39 and so on.   Generally, age group competitors compete for prizes, while award money is offered in the elite categories.

Triathlon Events

There are four main events in the triathlon family: Triathlon, Duathlon, Aquathlon, and Winter Triathlon.


  • Triathlon is an activity that combines swimming, cycling, and running in one event.
  • The three sports are performed consecutively (one after the other) with no breaks.
  • The portion of a triathlon where athletes change from one sport to the next is called a TRANSITION.  It is often called the 4th leg of Triathlon.


    • Duathlon is an activity that combines running and cycling in one event.
    • The event has three segments.
    • Run – Bike – Run
    • Duathlons provide an excellent option for people who are unable to swim, or who do not enjoy the water.


    • Aquathlon is an activity that combines swimming and running in one event.
    • The event has three segments.
    • Run-Swim-Run
    • There is one exception to this order.  If the swim requires a wetsuit, then the event is changed to a Swim-Run.
    • Aquathlons are an excellent introduction to the sport of Triathlon, particularly for junior athletes.   They are generally very safe and can be easily organized with competitors requiring very little equipment.

    Winter Triathlon

    • Winter Triathlon is an activity that combines running, mountain biking, and XC (cross country) skiing.
    • These events are ideal for countries that have colder climates and long winters.
    • Winter Triathlons also offer a perfect opportunity for athletes to cross train and maintain fitness during the winter.
    • Winter triathlons can be easy to set up as well.  Snow can be used to create bike racks, and both the run and XC ski routes can be loop courses.