When people ask how "long" a triathlon is, the word "long" usually means one of two things: distance or time. In this post, we'll discuss both aspects for the commonly found race categories: Sprint Triathlon, Olympic Triathlon, Half-Ironman, and Ironman Triathlon.
It's important to note that while triathlon distances for the different categories of races are relatively fixed, the associated times vary dramatically based on factors such as fitness (obviously), terrain, and conditions (wind, heat, etc.). I've tried to give representative times for each of the categories below, but it's important to remember that your time may vary considerably depending on these factors.
SPRINT TRIATHLON DISTANCES
|Swim||300-900 meters (325-1000 yards)||3-20 minutes|
|Bike||8-25 km (5-15 miles)||20-60 minutes|
|Run||3-5 km (1.75-3.1 miles)||15-40 minutes|
Sprint-distance triathlons are the shortest versions and are a fantastic way for beginners to try out the sport. The word "sprint" is a bit misleading, since most courses require 1-2 hours to complete (don't know about you, but I can't exactly "sprint" for an hour, but "trudge triathlon" doesn't sound as glamorous). There's no set standard for the sprint distance, so there's actually a huge amount of variability in the associated distances and times from race to race. This is great because it lets you choose the challenge level according to your individual goals.
OLYMPIC TRIATHLON DISTANCES
|Swim||1500 meters (0.93 miles or 1650 yards)||15-30 minutes|
|Bike||40 km (24.9 miles)||1-2 hours|
|Run||10 km (6.2 miles)||40-80 minutes|
Olympic-distance triathlons get their name because they are the internationally-recognized distance contested at the Olympic Games (makes sense, right?). Olympic-distances races are a great step up once you've gotten a few races under you belt.
HALF-IRONMAN TRIATHLON DISTANCES
|Swim||1.9 km (1.2 miles)||30-60 minutes|
|Bike||90 km (56 miles)||2.5-4 hours|
|Run||21 km (13.1 miles)||1.5-3 hours|
Half-Ironman (sometimes called half-iron distance or 70.3 races) are exactly half the distance of the full Ironman events. But don't be fooled - There's nothing half-measured about tackling a half marathon after swimming 1.2 miles and biking 56 miles! Half-Ironman races require some serious training.
IRONMAN TRIATHLON DISTANCES
|Swim||3.9 km (2.4 miles)||1-2 hours|
|Bike||180 km (112 miles)||5-9 hours|
|Run||42 km (26.2 miles)||3.5-6 hours|
Ironman distance races (sometimes called iron-distance or long-course triathlons) are the most famous triathlons, and for many people, completing an Ironman race is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Successfully completing an Ironman race requires a huge amount of dedication, not only on race day, but during the months or years of preparation leading up to the race. Most Ironman races have a mandatory 17 hour time cutoff.
SOME ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS...
While the majority of triathlons fall approximately into the "bins" shown above, there are a lot of races that don't. There's nothing wrong with these other race distances - they're just different. Remember, the times listed above are simply generic representative times for average races. You should resist the temptation to project your times in one race onto another race, even if they're the same distance. Even comparing times for the same course from year to year can be tricky because race-day conditions have such a big impact on speed.
If you're doing a race for the first time and want to get an idea of how long it might take to complete the course, most races make previous years' results available online. You can browse through past years' finishing times to get an idea of where you might fit in performance-wise.