What Is The Order Of Triathlons? Hardest Part And Why Start With The Swim!

In this post, we’ll learn about the order of events in triathlon and why it is the way it is.

There is a lot of variation in types of triathlons and the respective distances for each section, but the order of disciplines is standardized across all skill levels.

So what is the order of triathlon disciplines? The triathlon race goes in the following order: swim, cycle, run. In between each event you have a transition period where athletes change into the appropriate gear, known as T1 (in between the swim and the cycle) and T2 (between the cycle and the run).

But why is triathlon ordered this way? The first modern triathlon – back in San Diego in September 1974 – actually had athletes do run-cycle-swim. It wasn’t until the first IronMan Triathlon in Hawaii in 1978 that the swim-cycle-run pattern was established. (Source)

Aside from it being established tradition, that order starts to make sense when you take a few things into consideration.

Why Is The Swim First In Triathlons?

Triathlon is a grueling endurance event with potentially thousands of athletes competing. Safety is therefore paramount. For this reason, it is best to swim first. Any athlete competing in a triathlon runs the risk of fatigue and exhaustion, and in open water that could prove deadly – they run the risk of muscle cramping, exhaustion, and drowning.

To reduce risk, organizers opt for the rolling start. Check out our article on What Is Rolling Start And Self-Seeding In Triathlon?

There are also practical reasons. As mentioned, a speedy transition between events is crucial. Athletes are therefore likely to have a much easier time taking a wetsuit off than putting one on.

Some of the rules governing the other sections also bolster the swim-cycle-run pattern. As explained in our article Why Is Bike Drafting Illegal In Triathlons? And How You Can Still Draft, the practice of ‘drafting’ (where a cyclist rides closely behind a competitor to reduce wind resistance) is often illegal.

Were the cycling to go first, it would be very difficult to avoid this, with everyone bunched up together at the start.

For more details, check out Why Does Triathlon Start With Swimming? How Risky Is It!

What Is The Hardest Part Of A Triathlon?

While every athlete is different, the swim is often regarded as the most daunting of the three sections. Open-water swimming can be a real challenge, more so when swimming alongside hundreds or thousands of other people. For this reason, along with enhancing the safety of the event, the start is often staggered, with competitors starting in waves. Check out What Is Rolling Start And Self-Seeding In Triathlon?

Swimming is also highly dependent on good technique, making it harder to master than the other two disciplines. Also check out How Fast Do Olympic Swimmers Swim? Men VS Women Vs Average Swimmers

Athletes do at least have the option of choosing their swim stroke. The International Triathlon Union (ITU) has no rules about which stroke swimmers have to use during the race. Check out Do You Have To Swim Freestyle In Triathlons? Better Alternatives!

While swimming is perceived to be the hardest discipline in triathlon, it really only applies to the average people who are usually weak swimmers.

In other words, not everyone is average, and strong swimmers will perhaps find the bike section to be the toughest discipline. For more on this topic, check out our take on What Is The Hardest Parts Of Any Triathlon? Here Is The Most Important Thing To Do !

How Long Is Each Part Of A Triathlon?

As mentioned before, triathlons vary in distance depending on the level. In Olympic or Classic Triathlon races, the swim is 1500m (0.95 miles); the ride is 40km (24.8 miles), and the run is 10km (6.2 miles).

That means the swim is only about 3% of the distance of the race, while the ride takes up a huge 77%, with the run the remaining 20%. Read How Long Is The Swim Portion Of A Triathlon? Number of Swimming Lessons You Need

How Long Does A Triathlon Take?

This may vary depending on your age, gender, and level of experience. There are also other variables at play, such as wind speed on race day, and the choppiness of the water. According to Olympics.com, athletes competing at the absolute top level may hope to finish the race in about 1 hour and 45 minutes (for the male event) or just under two hours (for the female) (Source).

For the non-professional top-groupers in an Olympic Triathlon, you might hope to complete the race in about 2 to 3 hours, with about 30 – 50 minutes on the swim, and the cycle and the run taking about an hour each. For more detail, check out What Are Triathlon Races Cutoff Time? Whatโ€™s a Good Finish Time!

So far we’ve talked about the traditional Triathlon order and the times and distances you can expect. But what are some of the other rules you need to be aware of?

Can You Do a Triathlon Shirtless?

The speed at which you can transition between events will be largely determined by what you’re wearing, so wearing less will surely cut down on your time, right? Unfortunately, that’s not allowed.

The ITU and USA Triathlon have certain rules about clothing. For the swim section, there are rules about the use of wet suits (required in temperatures under 14 degrees Celsius/57 degrees Fahrenheit and forbidden above 20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit for professional triathletes category, and it’s a bit leaner on age groups ).

For the cycle and run events, competing while shirtless may be grounds for disqualification, as ITU rules prohibit running “with a bare torso”.

While there may be race-specific rules, you should assume that the normal rules apply, and plan your race and transitions accordingly. Check out this post for more advice on what to wear: What To And Not To Wear Under A Triathlon Wetsuit? Compatible Triathlon Suits

Can You Walk During A Triathlon?

You might be relieved to hear that, according to ITU rules, walking is allowed during the run section. Crawling, however, is not – defined by the ITU as “bringing three or more limbs in contact with the ground, either together or in sequence, to enable forward propulsion.

You should also bear in mind that race events may have cut-off times within which you have to complete each section. So, while you are allowed to walk, you can’t take all day about it. check out What Are Triathlon Races Cutoff Time?

Can You Listen To Music During A Triathlon?

For safety reasons, triathlons forbid using headphones, so no music is allowed. This means that if you’re training for your first triathlon and are used to having music blaring, you should anticipate having to go without during race day.

Carrying cellphones is also generally prohibited, but this is another rule that may be race-specific. Check out this post for details Are Earphones Allowed In Triathlons? Why not and Better Alternatives!


I’ve mainly discussed the traditional swim-cycle-run pattern of modern triathlons.

There do exist non-standard deviations but, generally, it is the most common race type around the world. For the other rules, it’s always best to go by the book, and if you are unsure, check with the race organizer’s guide ahead of time.

Bonus read : Can You Be Muscular and A Triathlete? Is Triathlon The Ultimate Fitness Workout!


An extreme triathlete who have competed in dozens of triathlons including IronMans and Extreme triathlons.

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