Triathlon 101: History, Types, and Tips for Beginners

Athletes of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds share a common trait: they are always looking for the next challenge. This search for something new has led many athletes to compete in a triathlon. The back-to-back combination of swimming, cycling, and running is a test of both physical endurance and mental fortitude. And it’s not just the athletic accomplishment that gets people hooked on triathlons! The triathlon community is surprisingly welcoming and friendly – even to amateurs – and races are often weekend-long events held in beautiful locations. 

Whether you’re a couch potato in need of some motivation or an experienced athlete looking to push your limits, participating in a triathlon may be what you are looking for. 

What is Triathlon?


A triathlon is a modern endurance sport – for all ages and abilities. It is a multisport race that involves three continuous and sequential endurance races: swimming, cycling, and running. 

The roots of the triathlon date back to the 1920s in France when a race called ‘Les trois sports’ (literally, the three sports) challenged competitors to swim across the channel Marne, ride a bike for 12km, and run for 3km. The American triathlon has a more recent history. 

The modern triathlon got its start in Southern California when the first Mission Bay Triathlon was held on the 25th of September 1974 in San Diego. On that day, about 50 people competed in a race that involved a 500-yard swim, a 5-mile bike ride, and a 6-mile run. 

Over time, triathlons slowly began to become more popular as other locations hosted their own events. However, things really took off in 1978 when three popular endurance events in Hawaii were combined to create the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon.  

The Ironman, as it has become popularly known, was based on the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.4 miles), the Oahu Bike Race (112 miles), and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles). The first Ironman featured 15 competitors and only 12 were able to finish the race. 

ABC’s Wide World of Sports started broadcasting the Ironman in 1982. By 2006, the event drew almost 3,000 competitors. 


In 1989, the triathlon achieved Olympic status (the fastest any sport has done so). It made its debut at the Sydney Olympics in Australia in 2000. The Olympic triathlon involves a 1.5km (0.93-mile) swim, a 40km (24.8-mile) bike ride, and a 10km (6.2-mile) run. 

Not up for a Olympic or Ironman triathlon? Don’t worry!

Triathlons come in varying lengths and distances. For beginners, sprint triathlons involve of a half-mile swim, a 15-mile bike ride, and a 3-mile run. 

Also, some event organizers have come up with different triathlon variations to appear to a wider range of athletes. For instance, ‘aquathons’ feature swimming and running; while ‘duathlons’ get rid of the swimming portion in favor of a run-bike-run race. Some events held in mountainous areas might even feature races involving a combination of training running, cross-country skiing, and mountain biking. 

Types of Triathlons

There are several types of triathlons that appeal to different abilities and fitness levels. There are 4 common types of triathlons, and the distances covered get longer as you advance from one to the next. 

  • Sprint Triathlon

The Sprint Triathlon is great for beginners. Sprint races involve a 750m (0.46-mile) swim, a 20km (12.5-mile) bike, and a 5km (3.1 mile) run. Many triathletes start with a Sprint Triathlon and are quickly hooked on the tri lifestyle. If that happens to you, you may want to move on to the next distance, but you can also just stick to sprints. You can work towards a specific goal like improving your time, or finishing in the top 3 of your age group! 

  • Olympic Triathlon

Interested in a longer race? Look for an Olympic Triathlon – also known as ‘short course’, ‘standard course’ or ‘international distance’. The distances in an Olympic Triathlon are double that of a Sprint Triathlon. It involves a 1.5km (0.93-mile) swim, a 40km (25-mile) bike, and a 10km (6.2-mile) run. Fun Fact: Although races covering this distance has been done since the 1970s, triathlon only became a recognized Olympic sport at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia! 

  • Half Triathlon

Also known as the ‘Half Ironman’, the Half Triathlon involves a 1.9km (1.2-mile) swim, a 90km (56-mike) bike, and a 21.1km (13.1-mile) run. 

  • Full Triathlon

Also known as the ‘Ironman Triathlon’, the Full Triathlon involves a 3.8km (2.4-mile) swim, a 180.2km (112-mile) bike, and a full marathon of 42.2km (26.2-mile) run. It is widely considered as one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world. Most Ironman events have a limited time of 16 or 17 hours to complete the race, depending on the course.

Note: You may hear people refer to both the Half and Full Triathlons as ‘Half Ironman’ or ‘Ironman’ triathlons. However, keep in mind that ‘Ironman’ is a brand, and official Ironman races are organized by the World Triathlon Corporation. There are many other Half and Full Triathlons offered throughout the world, and completing any race at those distances is a great accomplishment, whether ‘Ironman’ is in the name or not! 

Triathlon Philippines


Frank Lacson is widely acknowledged as the Father of Philippine triathlon. Pinoy triathletes call him ‘The Legend’. Finisher of over 140 triathlons, he is considered to be the very first Filipino triathlete.

Back in 1982 when he was working as a fitness instructor in Los Angeles, California, he saw a Sports Illustrated article about the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii that had tri legend, Dave Scott, on it. “Well, I could do this too,” Frank recalled. He was only running for cardio back then, but the magazine feature inspired him to do his first triathlon. 

In 1991, when he migrated back home, triathlon events in the Philippines was just starting to be organized. And when several local newbie triathletes and sports enthusiasts successfully convinced corporate sponsors to be involved in the events, Frank got to join most of them too – even if the races would only be held twice or thrice a year.

By 1992, Franck had won the inaugural Philippine Triathlon National Championships. Shortly after that, he became a member of the Philippine National team and stayed on the team for 5 years. His best result was during the 5th Asian Triathlon Championships where he accomplished his personal best with an Olympic distance time of 2:07.

Being a health and fitness advocate, Frank is very happy that Filipinos has started to really get into triathlons. He says, “The Philippines is host to the biggest triathlon event in Asia, and it has come a long long, way from the early years when triathlons were considered a success when a hundred people showed up.”

Triathlon Association of the Philippines. The Triathlon Association of the Philippines is the national governing body for triathlon in the country. It is accredited by the International Triathlon Union – the governing body for the sport of Triathlon in the world. The association is also a member of the Asian Triathlon Confederation. The Asian Triathlon Confederation gave the Triathlon Association of the Philippines a ‘developed status’ in its 2014 and 2015 evaluation of its members in the areas of coaches’ development, technical officials, and athletes development.


On February 2018, The Triathlon Association of the Philippines was awarded as the National Sports Association of the year in the Philippine Sportswriters Association Annual Awards, citing their gold medal finishes in Men’s and Women’s Triathlon events during the 2017 Southeast Asian Games held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

Triathlon Training: Tips for Beginners

Preparing for your first triathlon? Here are some tips for beginners.

  • Maintain a practical triathlon training schedule. Don’t try to fit your entire life into a training schedule; instead, build a training schedule that fits your life. Be realistic about how much time you can spend training, instead of setting yourself up for failure by trying to maintain an unsustainable training schedule.
  • Concentrate on improving your triathlon performance, not equipment. Today, there are so many high-end equipment that you can buy and its easy to want the best of everything. However, as a beginner, you should place more value on solid gear – ones that are durable and reliable. You don’t need to buy the most expensive equipment out there. Also, as a beginner, you should concentrate more on improving your triathlon performance, not equipment. 
  • Prioritize key workouts first. When you have several workouts scheduled for one day, it’s best to complete the more important or difficult workout first when you’re fresh. If you save your key workout for after you’ve already done an endurance workout that same day, you’ll be less likely to be able to maintain the proper intensity to complete your important workout successfully. Make sure you understand the purpose behind every workout – that way, you can prioritize your workouts accordingly. 
  • Practice your transitions and practice organizing your transition area. Practice your transitions – go through the process of taking off your wetsuit and getting into cycling gear, then changing into your running gear. Also, spend time figuring out how you’re going to set up your transition area so on the actual race day – in the middle of the race – you are efficient and quick. Quick tip: Make sure that you only include the absolute essentials in your transition area – a cluttered space will cause unnecessary stress and ultimately slow you down. 

The Bottom Line

A triathlon is a modern endurance sport – for all ages and abilities. It is a multisport race that involves three continuous and sequential endurance races: swimming, cycling, and running. There are 4 main types: Sprint Triathlon, Olympic Triathlon, Half Triathlon, and Full Triathlon.

If you’re new to triathlon, choose one that suits your current abilities and fitness level. Once you get the hang of it, you can challenge yourself and participate in the more difficult races later on. 


Good luck! 




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