Triathlon: How to pick the right distance?

The most common mistake is getting too enthusiastic too soon


Participation in triathlons is at an all-time high, following unprecedented growth over the last decade, according to Team USA Triathlon. One of the risks of training for a race, however, is that you’re going to like it too much (10 Incredible Reasons You Should Train for a Triathlon).

“Everybody wants to do the hardest event in their sport but many people get too excited too soon,  Jenna Parker, former professional triathlete, 3x USLA National Champion, and a 2013 Aquaphor NYC Triathlon winner, says. “You have to start at the bottom, slowly transition and allow the body to adjust,” she adds.

Sprint Distance


This is the easiest of four races and where every triathlon enthusiast should start. No exception. “People need to enjoy the journey of the sport more and not try to reach the destination too fast,” parker says.

You will be swimming for about half a mile, biking between 12 and 15 miles, and running for about 3 miles (World’s Most Beautiful Places for Open Water Swimming).

Training for this level alone requires at least four months, Parker adds. “You can probably get away with training for one of the three disciplines once a day.” You can skip a day but then you have two do two sessions during the weekend.

Olympic Distance

Alex Mahony /

You will be swimming close to a mile, biking between 25 and 30 miles, and running between 2 and 6 miles.

Training for the olympic distance takes about five months. “You will need to work out twice a day probably four days a week,” Parker says.

You will have to have completed several sprint distances before you even sign up for an olympic event (Race Ready: 4 Tips from a Pro Triathlete)

Where you live and the season in which you’re training also plays a role. If you train at high altitude, a race at lower elevations may be too easy for you. If the case is the opposite, then you may have problems competing. You should also consider the climate and take the necessary precautions. Acclimating your body during training is important if the location of the race is usually very humid and warm.  

Half Ironman

Vanessa Belfiore /

“I struggled with my nutrition when transitioned from olympic to Half Ironman,” Parker says. “My body wasn’t used to consuming so many calories.” (Nutrition Tips from a Pro Triathlete)

No wonder you need them – the swimming distance is 1.2 miles, biking is 56 miles and running is 13.1 miles.

People who want to do this race really have to consider their lives because they’re going to have to make a serious commitment, Parker adds. “Look at how many hours a week you can spend training.” The regimen will include 3-4 hours of biking four days week, two workouts a day every day, running five days a week, and swimming 4-5 times a week.


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Ironman is a serious challenge. You will have to swim for 2.4 miles, bike for 112 miles, and run 26.2 miles (that’s half a marathon). (The World's 15 Best Half Marathons)

“Training for it is like a full time job,” Parker says. “It can take a toll on your family life.” So give yourself more time to prepare so you don’t become a “zombie” that just sleeps, eats, trains and rests, she adds.  

You need two years between a half and a full Ironman, according to Parker. “Stop and smell the roses along the way. Wouldn’t you rather be really prepared?”

More readings: 

How to Prepare for Open Water Swimming

Spring Training Tips for Beginner Triathletes

Your First Triathlon: What Nobody Tells You