Why Is the Swim so Short in Triathlon? How To Deal With It!

A triathlon consists of three distinct segments (plus transitions), but not all parts of the race are equal. Regardless of how long the full race is, the swim will always be the shortest leg of the event. So why is the swim so short in triathlon?

The general consensus seems to be because that’s what triathletes want. Many triathletes come into the sport with a background in cycling or running, so the swim is the least comfortable of the three.

It’s also arguably the most dangerous portion of the race, especially depending on the conditions. Many athletes practice primarily in a pool which doesn’t have the same variables as open water swimming (temperature, waves), not to mention other swimmers kicking up water.

Also, find out if you Can Rest During A Triathlon Swim? Why It May Save Your Life!

We’ll look into why the swim is so short and how you can best prepare for the first part of your race.

How Far Is the Swimming Portion of A Triathlon?

The swimming portion of a triathlon will also be the shortest leg of the race, but the distances vary depending on the length of the triathlon itself. Triathlons come in a variety of styles, but the six most common are: Ironman, half Ironman, World Triathlon/ITU Long Course, Olympic, sprint, and super sprint. There are also super league and arena games triathlons, but those are less common.

Finally, relay and team triathlons are generally in the sprint or Olympic distances. Those include races that are done by a team: either one person completes a single portion of the race or each team member completes a full (mini) triathlon before passing the baton to their teammate. For more on this, check out our post “What Is Triathlon Mixed Relay? Traditional VS Mixed Relay!

To get a better idea of the different swim distances, here’s a helpful chart:

DistanceSwimBikeRunTotal Distance
Super Sprint400m10km2.5km17.7km
World Triathlon2km80km20km102km
Half Ironman1.9km (1.2mi)90km (50mi)21.1km (13.1mi)113km (70.3mi)
Ironman3.8km (2.4mi)180km (112mi)42.2km (26.2mi)226km (140.6mi)
Triathlon Distances

In theory, a triathlon can be any assortment of distances as long as it follows the general structure of swim, bike, run. The bike will generally be the longest portion of the race with the swim being the shortest and the run falling somewhere in the middle. While races may vary, most will try to stick to one of the defined distances (like Olympic or sprint) to maintain consistency.

For more on triathlon distance, we highly recommend that you check out our Triathlon Distances & Average Timings Analysis (Infographic); Pick Your Right Fight !

What Is the Shortest Triathlon Swim Distance?

The super sprint has the shortest swim distance at only 400 meters. For context, that would be 8 lengths of an Olympic size (50 meters) pool. Technically, there could be triathlons with even shorter swimming distances, especially small local races or kid-specific events. Generally speaking, though, most races will be at least 400 meters.

For more on this, check out What is A Mini-Triathlon? Distances, Nutrition, and Preparation required

The longest triathlon is the Ironman which consists of a 3.8-kilometer swim portion. That translates to 3,800 meters or 76 lengths of a standard Olympic size pool. It takes an average of around 1 hour and 16 minutes for athletes to complete the swim portion of an Ironman triathlon.

What Is a Good Swimming Pace for A Triathlon?

An easy, steady pace of 100 meters in 2 minutes is generally considered a good pace to aim for. For context, the world record for a 100-meter swim race is just under 47 seconds. However, like with all portions of the triathlon, the goal is usually endurance, not a full-on sprint, so be sure to pick a pace that you can maintain for the duration of the distance.

You can increase your overall time by incorporating interval training into your plan, but if you’re just starting out, it’s more important to focus on overall comfort in the water. You’ll want to make sure you’ll be safe during the swim portion, even if it takes a bit longer. It’s also only the first part of the race, so you don’t want to completely wear yourself out on the front end.

Keep in mind that most races will have cut-off times. These can be cut-off times for both the full race and for individual segments. For example, the cut-off time for an Ironman swim segment is two hours and twenty minutes. For more on this, check out our post What Are Triathlon Races Cutoff Time? What’s a Good Finish Time!

How Often Do Triathletes Swim?

Triathletes should plan to swim a minimum of two times per week, but it ultimately depends on the race you’re training for and your swimming abilities. Newer swimmers or triathletes who struggle with the swim portion can benefit from more time in the water, even up to four times a week if time allows (Source).

While the swim is the shortest part of the race, that doesn’t mean it should get the least amount of training time. Shorter triathlons may only require training two days per week, while longer triathlons should have a minimum of three days per week.

It’s always best to follow a specific training plan created by an expert in order to create a well-rounded regimen. If you are brand new to swimming, you should consider signing up for an adult swimming lesson or class.

This will teach you the correct techniques and the coach can provide immediate feedback so you don’t fall into bad habits. YouTube has a variety of videos on perfecting swimming form, but nothing beats having someone help you in real-time.

It can also help to have realistic expectations for the swim portion of your race. Some triathletes will do just enough training to feel strong in the swimming portion but not worry about being the first out of the water. Instead, they’ll focus their efforts on improving what they’re already good at. This can be a greater return on investment, especially for those who don’t have a background in swimming.

Also, find out How Many Hours Do Triathletes Typically Train? Factors & Must-Know Tips

Things to Consider

The swim may be the shortest part of the triathlon, but that does not make it the easiest section. In fact, many triathletes find it to be the most difficult and daunting segment of the race. The more you train in the water, the more comfortable and strong you’ll feel once race day comes around.

And always make sure to add in some open water swimming sessions to get a better understanding of what to expect.

If your triathlon allows for wet suits, you should also make sure to try swimming with it on to make sure it’s comfortable and to see how it feels.

Aprill Emig

Based out of Duluth, MN Aprill loves to write about the outdoors, education, and all forms of adventure. You can find her mountain biking, running, or playing roller derby.

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