Sprint Distance Triathlon 101

For most individuals who begin dipping their toes in triathlon, the goal seems to always end with one word: Kona. Qualifying and competing in the Ironman World Championships is a bucket list event for many triathletes. Ironman-distance triathlons are the equivalent of completing a marathon in the world of running or a century in cycling. As the saying goes, you must first walk before you can run. With that being said, enter Sprint Triathlons. 

What is a Sprint Distance Triathlon?

Formally, a sprint distance triathlon consists of a 750m swim, a 20k bike, and a 5k run. If you look around your local scene you will find that many races will advertise varying race length distances for a “sprint” triathlon. These distances can vary from a 300m pool swim to a 30k bike, or a mile run. In short, sprint distances are much shorter and quicker cousins compared to that the famous, “Ironman” distance. 

Why Choose the Sprint Distance?

You’ve just begun your research into triathlon and what you need in order to compete. In your first search alone you may feel an overwhelming sense of, “I need what?!” Let’s break down what you actually need: 

Cost-Benefit

Triathlon is not a cheap sport. Depending upon your level of involvement, commitment, and level of racing, the costs add up quickly, and that’s just in equipment alone. Once you begin to factor in coaching or training plan costs, race registration costs, and travel, it is enough to make your head spin. For example, a typical Half-Ironman race registration fee is around $300, while a full Ironman can be upwards of $650 depending upon location. While it certainly is a bucket list event for many, not all can realistically put forth those costs. This is where Sprint Triathlons shine. 

Almost every city/town offers sprint triathlons throughout the summer and early fall season. This offers participants the opportunity to race locally, not break the bank when it comes to registration fees, and be able to race often. 

Speaking of costs, below we will break down what you will need to compete and complete a sprint triathlon. 

Equipment

Swim:

  • Goggles
  • Swimsuit or triathlon race suit
  • Cap (most likely provided by the race organizing committee)

For training, and for race day, all you need are the three items mentioned above. You’ll be able to complete all of your training necessary without having to worry about additional cost. There are other swim equipment items you could buy down the road to help increase strength, stroke efficiency, and power, but to get started stick to less is more! 

Bike:

Depending upon what you use for pedals (whether clipless, or flat pedals) this will determine if you need to invest in cycling shoes, or using your running sneakers. Whether you are using a mountain bike, road bike, or triathlon bike, all bikes are going to function for your sprint race. While other competitors may show up with the latest and greatest bike gear, don’t sweat it. Just like everything in life, there is plenty of time to make investments if you end up catching the triathlon bug. 

Run:

  • Running Shoes

Simple as that! A good pair of running shoes goes a long way. If you are cycling in your run shoes, then there are fewer items in your transition zones that can help make T2 the fastest yet! 

If you’re looking for a watch to handle all of your data in one place, the Wahoo RIVAL is unmatched. Seamlessly integrating into your triathlon training and racing, this watch can record swim, bike, and run data all in one. Less fuss, more focus. 

Time Efficient

Sprint races offer you a great opportunity to complete a triathlon without the anxiety of wondering if you can physically finish a distance like an ironman, etc. Using a sprint race for a first triathlon is a great way to maximize your training time for the race distance. Racing in sprint triathlons can be both fun and challenging, but it does not have to consume your life with copious amounts of training time, so for the time-crunched triathlete…these distances can be for you! 

Practice Makes Perfect

Using Sprint races as a stepping stone for experience is also a great way to climb the ladder in triathlon race distances. Sprint distance racing is also not a distance that is, “just for beginners.” Many professional triathletes still complete Sprint Distance racing on the world series level. These short distances demand perfect execution and leave little room for mistakes. The brief time of the event offers some of the fastest racing you’ll see, requiring huge amounts of both aerobic and anaerobic power from athletes. 

Sprint distance races also allow you to race frequently since the recovery period is less than that of an Ironman distance race. How does this help you? 

  • Become more comfortable with racing
  • Focusing on new skills in each race
  • Creating confidence through repetition
  • Discovering areas of improvement
  • Ability to work on weaknesses more often

Preparation

Training Plan

There are many different ways to train for a sprint race triathlon and while one plan may work for some, it may not work for all. You will need to find something that works not only with your body but also with your schedule. Ensuring that you have time to fit in training, work, family obligations, etc, is essential for not only time management but your health as well. (That includes your mental health!) 

Some tips to remember while you are training:

  • Ensure you are able to complete at least twice the distance of the race length

For example: if the race distance swim is 750 meters, be sure to train at least for 1500 meters. This will help build up your cardiovascular fitness as well as swim-specific strength! If you are new to swimming, knowing you can complete twice the required race distance can also help to boost your confidence heading into race day. 

This same concept applies to the bike and run portions. If the race is a 20k bike, try to throw in some 40k training distance rides. For the run: if the race is a 5k, on the weekends try to make your long run upwards of 10k! The bonus of this is that if you want to bump up in race distance…you’ll be ready to tackle an Olympic Distance triathlon in no time! 

Swim

Depending upon your background and experience, the swim can be one of the more daunting parts of the triathlon. If possible, try to get as much experience swimming in open water as you can. This can help not only build confidence but also helps in building swim-specific strength since there are no walls to stop on like in a pool. 

If you can’t get access to open water, don’t sweat it! Plenty of triathletes don’t have open water access. Some tips for practicing open water swimming in the pool:

  • Head-Up Freestyle: practice swimming freestyle with your head up and out of the water. This is a standard drill for lifeguards that is also applicable to open water. 
  • Sighting: Every few strokes pick your head up out of the water and practice your “sighting.” (Pretend there is a large buoy in the pool!)
  • Open Water Turns: when practicing, make a few of your sessions include flip turning before the wall, which means: do not touch the wall! Use your strength in your upper body and a good kick to get momentum going again! 

Bike

Typically the bike tends to be many athletes’ favorite part of the triathlon! Developing strength on the bike will not only help improve your cycling leg but in fact, helps your run leg too! The stronger your legs are for cycling, the less fatigue they will be when you begin the run. Some tips for your training:

  • Race Pace Efforts: Be sure to include some race-specific efforts in your training. This can include a session of 5×5 minutes at threshold effort. 5-minute recovery in between. This can help you dial in your RPE (rate of perceived exertion). 
  • Above Race Pace Efforts: While it is important to dial in what your race effort should feel like, be sure to throw in efforts that are well above race pace. This means getting into more anaerobic or VO2 max type of efforts. These types of efforts will help to increase your aerobic ceiling! Can also help to make race pace feel much more manageable.
  • Keep Your Easy Days Easy: It can be tempting to head out on a ride and keep pressing harder into the pedals because more is more…right? Wrong! Be sure that not every ride you do (or swim/run) is not hard! There are times to go hard (your workouts), and there are times to go easy. Recovery is where the true training gains are made! 
  • Cadence Drills: Focus on form and cadence drills to help with your pedaling efficiency. Keeping a high cadence on the bike will help translate to fresher legs for the run! 

Run

Running and running off the bike are two very different skill sets. If you have never run off of a hard bike, now is your chance to practice. Running off the bike, or as called in triathlon “brick” workouts is a key session in any training plan. Developing the feel for running on tired legs, and the stamina for sustaining speed is a key skill in triathlon. Tips for run training:

  • Brick Sessions: Plan a key session where you perform a hard bike workout into a run off the bike. The run itself does not need to be at intensity. First get used to running easy off of tired legs, then begin to build some short intensity. 
  • Run Specific Session: Don’t forget to still include a run-specific session in your triathlon training. Though you are running off the bike in the race, not every training run session needs to be off the bike. It is important to do quality run work on fresh legs! 
  • Keep the Cadence Up: Running with a high turnover rate (strides per minute) is a great skill to work on. When dismounting from the bike, your legs will be used to pedaling at a higher cadence, which can help the legs feel a *bit* fresher for the run! Continue keeping the cadence up as you head out onto the run. Cadence for running isn’t solely driven by moving your legs faster…don’t forget your arm swing is a critical component! 

Transitions

Transitions are a crucial part to any triathlon, and especially sprint distance racing. Since these events are short and fast this is a great time to work on making your transitions as smooth and fast as possible! Tips:

  • Set-Up Practice Simulations: Find a place where you can work on simulating both T1 (transition from swim to bike) and T2 (bike to run).
  • Bike Mounts: If you’re looking to work on a jump mount (jumping onto your bike with your cycling shoes already clipped in) be sure to practice prior. While some of you may be naturals, others will take a few tries to master the perfect land! 

Looking for some additional tips on transitions? Check out Triathlon Transition Perfected for more information! 

Not sure where to begin when it comes to a training plan? Check out Wahoo’s SYSTM Training Plans where they offer coaching and training for all distances in triathlons. 

Race Day Planning

When it comes time for race day, be sure to know the “lay of the land.” If you are going the day before to pick up your race day packet, use this time to understand where each event is taking place. Look to see where the transition is, and where the organizers have marked out the swim in,  bike in/exit, and the run exit. Becoming familiar with where everything is can help to drastically reduce race day nerves as this leaves little room for guesswork. 

It is also important to leave plenty of time in the morning for your transition setup and warm-up. Most races begin early in the morning, this means a very early wake-up time. Don’t wait until the last minute to arrive on-site and be in a rush to set up your transition area. This is where mistakes can be made, and you won’t know that until you are mid-race looking for your run shoes! Give yourself ample time to get to the race site, set up your transition zone, get in a good warm-up, and then head to the start line. 

Sprint distance triathlons offer a wonderful opportunity for triathletes of any level to compete. The sprint distance is not only for first-time triathletes, it is for veterans too. The shorter distance offers plenty of opportunities for new athletes and veterans alike to test their skills and enjoy the fun of racing. See you on the start line! 

Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training. While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships and World Cups on both the road and track.
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