Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

What is the history of triathlons?


Alois Knabl of Austria emerges from the swim leg during the Youth Men's Triathlon on day two of the Youth Olympics.
Alois Knabl of Austria emerges from the swim leg during the Youth Men's Triathlon on day two of the Youth Olympics.
Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Training for and competing in a triathlon is the ultimate way to reach excellent physical condition, and to challenge yourself to become a better all-around athlete and competitor. In a triathlon, participants compete in three back-to-back endurance events: swimming, biking and running. Athletes compete to complete each of the three parts with the best overall time.

Although it's a tremendously popular sporting event today, the triathlon is a relatively new concept, and the first triathlons only had a handful of participants. Today, a quarter of a million people in the United States compete in triathlons each year [source: U.S. Triathlon].

Since the triathlon's birth in the 1970s, the popularity of the sport has grown exponentially. In August 1989, only 700 triathletes from 40 national teams competed in the world triathlon championships in France. In contrast, in 2006, USA Triathlon had 75,000 members; and in 2007, membership grew to 100,000 triathletes. In the United States, between 200,000 and 250,000 athletes compete in triathlons each year [source: U.S. Triathlon]. Today, the fastest women complete the race in about nine hours, while the fastest men finish in a little more than eight hours [source: Beginner Triathlete].

A 1.5K (0.9-mile) swim, 40K (24.8 miles) bike ride and 10K (6.2-mile) run is the international standard for triathlons, and this standard is used at world championships and at the Olympics. But other variations of the triathlon have been developed during the sport's relatively short history. For example, in the 1980s, the short distance triathlon was invented, which is half the distance of the international triathlon standard.

Those who want to participate in a triathlon can choose from many events. But the world's die-hard triathletes typically have their eyes set on the Ironman, which is one of the most exclusive triathlon competitions.

Before we dig into the Ironman, we'll delve into the triathlon's beginnings on the next page.


More to Explore