What Are The Rules Of Triathlon?

what are the rules of triathlon

A triathlon combines a swimming, cycling, and running section into one race. The goal is to complete all sections as fast as you can in order to do better in the race. Although this seems pretty simple and straightforward, there are a lot more intricacies to completing a triathlon. There are unique rules and details to the sport that are important to understand before competing in a race. 

Race Format

A triathlon always goes in the order of swimming, cycling, and then running. This is due to safety concerns since the most problems usually occur during the swimming section of the race so triathletes begin with this before they get tired from other events.

Before the race begins though there are some important things to take care of. All triathletes will need to set up their transition stations for between the different sports. Each athlete will have a number and their spot will correspond to that number. This spot will include the athlete’s bike, a towel, shoes, and any other clothing the triathlete wishes to wear.

There will also be a pre-race meeting where the race’s organizers will share any information on potential road/trail hazards or other instructions. In some races athletes are also allowed to go in the water and swim around before the race.

After these things, the race will begin. If it’s a larger race, the athletes will be released into the water in different waves. The athletes will run into the water after a gun is fired for their specific wave. They will then complete the swimming section, move on to the biking portion, and finally cross the finish line once they complete the running trail. 

Race Types and Lengths

Triathlon Race Types and Lengths

There are four different types of races that vary in length. The first and easiest of the types of races is the Sprint. The exact lengths may be different for competitions but the max length is usually a 750 meter swim, 20k bike ride, and 5k run. The next is an Olympic or International race which is a 1500 meter swim, 40k bike ride, and 10k run.

The next two races are extremely difficult. A half Ironman race, or a 70.3 triathlon, is made up of a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride, and a half marathon or 13.1 mile run. The final race type is a full Ironman. This includes a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a full marathon of 26.2 miles.

Each competition course will be unique to the specific competition. Some may have dirt paths or trails and some might go on roads. The different terrains can add challenges depending on how flat or hilly the course is. 

Equipment Rules

There are some specific rules triathletes must follow during the race in order to avoid time penalties or being disqualified. A lot of the rules are related to the gear in the competition. At all times athletes must wear their number and have it visible during the race or face a time penalty. They are not allowed to wear headphones at any point throughout the race.

In the swimming section, it’s mandatory to wear a wetsuit if the water is below 60.8 degrees fahrenheit and it’s not allowed to wear a wetsuit if it’s over 84 degrees fahrenheit or above. Failure to follow these rules will result in disqualification. As for biking, it’s mandatory to wear an approved and untampered helmet and a chin strap at all times throughout the cycling segment.

Transition Zones

A lot of other rules relate to the transition zones. Every athlete must put their equipment in their designated spot or face a time penalty. They also have to walk or run in the transition areas and will face a penalty if they ride. Additionally, throughout the race, athletes are not allowed to dispose of any trash in any place outside of an established disposal area.

Cycling Rules

he other rules of the competition relate more to the cycling part of the race. Triathletes have to stay in the right lane and three bike lengths behind the cycler in front of them. The only time they can break this rule is if they decide to pass the cycler in front of them. In this case they can move into the left zone and will have 15 seconds to pass the cycler in front.


Although breaking some of the above rules results in disqualification, most will result in a time penalty. The first offense ranges from a 1 minute penalty to a 6 minute penalty depending on if it’s a Sprint or Ironman race. For a second offense, the range is 2 to 12 minutes. If there’s a third offense, it is a disqualification for all race types. 


Can you rest during the swim portion of a triathlon?

If a swimmer gets tired or needs to take a break for some reason they can. If the water is shallow enough, they can touch the bottom and stand. If it’s deeper water, triathletes can grab onto a kayak or buoy or any other floating device. The only stipulation is that they can’t move forward while holding onto anything. If while swimming, the athlete feels like they are in danger, they can pump their arm in the air and someone will help them.

Is it mandatory to wear a wetsuit between 60.8 degrees and 84 degrees fahrenheit?

In waters that are between 60.8 and 78 degrees fahrenheit the athlete has the option to wear a wetsuit if they want. If the temperature is between 78 and 84 degrees fahrenheit an athlete may still wear one but they may not be eligible for awards or placement in the competition. In USA triathlons the wetsuit cannot be more than 5 millimeters thick. In races outside of USA official triathlons the rules regarding temperature and wetsuits may be different. 

Do athletes wear their swimsuit throughout the whole race?

Some athletes will wear a swimsuit throughout the whole race in order to save time throughout the competition. However, this is not as comfortable for the running or biking portions depending on the material worn. For this reason, as the races get longer, athletes are more likely to change for each segment since a few seconds means less for a longer competition. In these instances, triathletes will change at each transition period.

Is there a required type of bike for a triathlon?

A triathlete can use whatever bike they want during the race as long as it fits the official regulations. According to Team USA, it cannot have any accessory that purposely reduces wind resistance. The bike also cannot exceed 2 meters in length or 75 centimeters in width. Also, the middle of the chain wheel axle must be at least 25 centimeters from the ground. Most beginners choose to use a road, mountain, or hybrid bike while more seasoned triathletes will get a specific triathlon bike.