The 8 Biggest Triathlon Myths … Busted!

Post written by Susan Lacke.

As a triathlete, I’m always interested to hear how others perceive the sport. Judging by the reactions of most people, there are more reasons not to do triathlon than there are compelling arguments to give the sport the old college try.

The “facts” I’ve heard about triathlons, however, are mostly untrue. From simple misunderstandings about the distances involved to exaggerated claims about the safety of the swim, there are a lot of triathlon myths out there. Here are the eight most common misconceptions about the sport I’ve heard, along with why you shouldn’t let such pish-posh stop you from becoming a triathlete.

Myth #1: Triathlons are longer than marathons.

 “I heard about those triathlons … they start really early in the morning and are still running at midnight!”

When people think “triathlon,” they sometimes think “Ironman,” a long-course triathlon that consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2 mile run. Though Ironman is one kind of triathlon, it’s not the only triathlon. There are multiple distances in the sport:

 

Swim Bike Run
Sprint 500-750 meters 12-14 miles 3.1 miles
Olympic 1500 meters 25 miles 6.2 miles
Half Iron 1900 meters 56 miles 13.1 miles
Full Iron 3800 meters 112 miles 26.2 miles

 

There are also super-sprint triathlons, where distances vary greatly, but are usually a 250-400 meter swim, 10 mile bike, and 2 mile run. Ultra distance triathlons, such as Ultraman, can be double or even triple the Full Iron distance. XTERRA triathlons are off-road triathlons (swim, mountain biking and trail running) that come in varying distances. The LeadmanTri Race Series offers up 125 and 250 kilometers of swim-bike-run.

In other words, not all triathlons are Ironman. A sprint triathlon, on average, will take about 10-15 minutes of swimming, 40-60 minutes of cycling, and 20-30 minutes of running. That doesn’t sound so bad, now does it?

Myth #2: Triathlon is expensive.

“Yeah, I looked into triathlon, but it’s so expensive! A new bike alone would set me back 5,000 dollars!”

If you’re looking at 5,000-dollar bikes before you even do your first triathlon, you’re either very rich or very bold.

You don’t need an expensive bike. You don’t even need a new bike — that mountain bike collecting dust in your garage should suffice just fine. In fact, I would encourage you not to buy a triathlon bike until you’ve got at least one triathlon under your belt. If you like it, then shop for a new bike — but even then, you don’t have to drop exorbitant sums of money.

Aside from a bike, you’ll need very little in the way of gear:

  • Something to wear while training/racing (a pair of bike or tri shorts plus a shirt is enough)
  • Swim goggles
  • A bike helmet
  • Running shoes

Really. That’s all. There are other optional items and add-ons, but you can count all the items you’ll absolutely need for a triathlon on one hand.

Myth #3: Swimming is deadly.

“People die in those triathlon swims, you know … I heard you are more likely to die in a triathlon swim than you are in a marathon.”

In response to what seemed like an increase in deaths during triathlon events, the sport’s governing body (USA Triathlon) appointed a team of medical professionals and race directors to analyze the safety of the sport and claims made by a 2010 study that triathlons were twice as deadly as marathons.

With an overall rate of one death per 76,000 participants, the USAT study deemed triathlon’s fatality rate to be similar to the fatality rate of United States marathons (1 in 75,000). The causes of death are assumed to be the same for marathons and triathlons – sudden cardiac death from an underlying heart condition.

The bottom line is this: Regardless of sport, always get regular checkups with your physician and gradually build up your training load to handle the demands of the sport. For triathlons, practice open water swims before race day so you are adequately prepared. On race day, warm up properly and stop if you feel out of sorts.

Myth #4: Triathletes are conceited tools.

“They walk around in their spandex, like they’re all that and a bag of chips.”

All triathletes are jerks, just like all vegans are preachy, all women are bad drivers, and all men know how to fix a car – right? Riiiight.

Stereotypes suck, man. Sure, I may be a little bit biased, but I happen to like most triathletes. They’re my friends. Yeah, there are a few triathletes out there who are jerks, but they’re certainly not representative of the entire sport. Most of us are just trying to have a good time.

As for the spandex thing — it’s more for function than fashion. Skin-tight clothing creates less drag in the water, on the bike, and while running, making for a faster, more comfortable experience. Trust me — as soon as the race is over, most of us are in a pair of sweatpants or a baggy jacket. We’ve got muffin tops we want to cover, too, you know.

Myth #5: You have to do gross things in triathlon.

“Is it true you can’t stop to pee while riding your bike? Like, you have to piss on yourself? Gross.”

Dude. No. Just…no.

Myth #6: Triathlon training takes a lot of time – it’s practically a second job!

“I’d have to train for three sports? Running alone takes up too much of my time!”

The time investment for running or triathlon is actually quite comparable. In fact, training for a sprint triathlon can actually take less time than training for a full or half marathon. Most people can train for a sprint triathlon in 5 hours a week.

Triathlon training doesn’t involve practicing all three disciplines every single day. In fact, most training days  only spend time on one discipline — swimming for 30 minutes, for example, or riding your bike for an hour.

Myth #7: You must be super-fit to do a triathlon.

“I could never do a triathlon. I am not good at [insert discipline of choice here].” 

You really don’t have to have an innate ability to swim, bike, and run to do a triathlon. Heaven knows I certainly didn’t have a traditional athletic background before I dove head-first (literally) into triathlon. However, all of these things are possible if you’re willing to work.

There’s a joke about triathlon that implies that most triathletes go from being really good at one discipline to really mediocre at three disciplines. It’s kind of true — after all, it’s rare that people are skilled at swimming and cycling and running. We’ve all got our weaknesses to counterpoint our strengths.

Triathlon is one sport, not three. It’s not about how good you are at running or how bad you are at swimming — it’s how well you string all three together during the course of your race. You can be the world’s fastest runner, but that doesn’t mean much if you toast your legs by going out too hard on the bike. You could also be the last person out of the water in the swim, but come back to win it all during the run.

Besides, most people will tell you they’re not in triathlon to race and win — just like with running, for most people, it’s about challenging yourself and feeling that satisfaction of crossing the finish line.

Myth #8: It’s hard to get started in the sport.

“I wouldn’t even know where to begin!”

It can be overwhelming to figure out how to start training for a triathlon. The advice I always give new triathletes is to swallow their pride and ask for help.

If you don’t know how to swim, sign up for a private lesson. You aren’t the first adult to ask for swim lessons, and you won’t be the last.

If you’re not sure how to adjust the seat of your bike or change a tire, ask your local bike shop when their next bike maintenance clinic will be — many of them offer these lessons for free!

If you’re scared of open water or riding on the road, ask a local triathlon club when they hold group workouts. Even if you’re not a member, they’ll likely welcome you to join in on the fun.

You’ll be surprised at how easy it is — and how many other triathletes had the exact same questions as you when they first got started! There’s a wealth of information and support out there for new triathletes — you just have to ask for it.

About the Author: Susan Lacke, No Meat Athlete’s Resident Triathlete, is an Ironman triathlete known more for racing in a Wonder Woman swimsuit than for her athletic prowess. She is the author of the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap.

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Comments

  1. That was me nearly all of them. I was a slightly overweight 57year old that had just started to run. I couldn’t swim and I hadn’t ridden a bike in 20 years.
    My friends were doing Tri’s so I thought I would like to do it as well.
    First thing find a swim coach and we started in a pool at a hotel 10 M long and I couldn’t swim 1 length, then I bought a bike but no clip less pedals for me to freaked out for that.
    Kept running the 5 K I was ok with that.
    I trained all winter and spring and did my first Tri in 2011 won my age and have done 2 every year since and won my age each time. pays to be old not much competition.
    I now swim 1800-2000 M per week run 30+ K per week and Spin once a week until we can get outside then 40-50K per week on the bike.
    Best friends and times with Tri people.

    • LOL! Loved your remark about it pays to be old – not too much competition. Thanks for that as I’m 55 and want to begin running. You’ve motivated me to give it a whirl. I’m impressed with what you’ve accomplished.

  2. Love this! I did a sprint tri a few years ago and I have no desire to do one again, but at least I “tri-ed”!

    I get some of these same myths/excuses from people when I talk about running. (just finished my first half Saturday!) The biggest one I hear is along the “you have to be superfit” one – people always say “I could never run 13 miles!”. I always answer with “I couldn’t either when I started training! That’s the point!” People don’t understand that you don’t have to be able to do the whole thing to start training – that’s the point of training! I ran my first solid mile in June 2012, and 9 months later I ran 13.1!

  3. I hear these myths all the time when I tell people I am a triathlete! And even though I dream of owning one of those fancy tri bikes, right now I am using a trek hybrid and don’t mind that I get passed by lots of fancy bikes because I catch back up to some of them on the run! And when I did my first tri I was a little intimidated by bikes that were obviously worth more than the car I drove in, but the real badass of that first race was someone who road on a old cruiser with no gears!! So yes, ANYONE can TRI regardless of the type of equipment, experience, or time commitment you have!

  4. Ooh! NMA tri roadmap! Perfect timing- a crazy tri friend has talked me into training for a sprint tri this summer. I’m really enjoying the variety in the training. Love running but it’s nice to mix it up. Plus I’ll be able to say I overcame my fear of swimming distances and clipping in!

  5. This post made me laugh, because I’ve heard all of those myths! I am one of those adults who took swim lessons in order to do a tri. It provided me with much needed confidence and I encourage everyone to suck up their pride and take lessons as an adult, totally worth it. I don’t have a fancy schmancy bike, just a cyclocross, it works just fine for me! I agree that it’s not about being the BEST at each sport, it’s about having the endurance to do all three in a row. Crossing the finish line is worth all the time and work.

  6. Jon Weisblatt says:

    I’ve never done a triathlon but many of my running buddies do the sprint tri series every summer where I live. I need to overcome my fear of the swim. You are inspiring, although my favorite idea of a tri is run 5k, eat hot fudge sundae,, hot tub for 1 hour!

  7. Fantastic article Susan….should get more people interested….now if only I hadn’t wrecked my knee joints by running long distances on hard surfaces over 40 years, I would be joining you….My new metal bionic joints are strong, but, the orthopod said if I run on them, then they are doomed to early failure and a repeat operation to fit new joints, and, the revision prosthetics will not be as strong as the originals, SO, I’m stuck with boot camp, weights, cycling and indoor rowing.
    One other thing..you forgot to mention your reward system at the end of each training session…mine is a double expresso flat white coffee and a chocolate slice…after all, I’m in calorie deficit..

  8. I did my first Tri last year and was scared to death of the swim.

  9. I’d agree with most of these, but let’s face it… Triathlon IS expensive. Yes, you can only have those 5 items and manage to train and then complete one sprint or oly length tri, but as with any activity, the more you invest your time and energy, the more you want to invest into it with other areas of your life, too. As a triathlete, you begin to want to invest into the sport in your gear, etc, as well. The farther you fall down the triathlete rabbit hole (that wonderful, awesome, fun-filled rabbit hole…), the more you see very clearly how pricey it gets. I did a happy dance in Pearl Izumi recently because I found a sleeveless cycling jersey for $35 on sale, and I won’t even get into the cost for race registration. It can add up fast!

  10. You got the sprint distance wrong. Anyhow cool article.

  11. I love the one about tri’s being expensive. I’ve heard triathletes say that the fourth discipline of triathlons is shopping. Once you get into it it can definitely be true.

    I think it’s wild that people think,. Half marathon doable, Sprint Tri impossible. Running is one of the most high impact sports you can do. If anything for the average person a triathlon is safer and more fun.

    There is no monotony of running for hours on end. Your cross training which means less injury, building more muscle, and creating better overall fitness. And finally you get to learn 3 things at once.

    Which means you get more in touch with fit inspiring people in your community. I think triathlons are a great way to get in shape.

    Thanks so much for this post.

  12. Definitely agree with #7. I’ve known many not-so-fit people who’ve successfully completed triathlons. Some walked away happy to have done one, while others have gotten hooked and have become motivated to get in far better shape in order to improve.

    You do have to be super fit to win a triathlon though 🙂

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