Most people start doing triathlon through short distance events like sprint or Olympic distance. The natural progression (unless you’re like our MX Endurance coach Jenna Seefried, who started with ironman) is to then move up in distance for increasing challenge and achievement.
But when you think about it, short distance triathlons when raced all out are truly challenging. They still hurt, just in different ways.
Sprint vs. Olympic vs. Half vs. Full
Sprint triathlons usually consist of a 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike, and 5-kilometer run. They’re about half the distance of an Olympic distance (or standard distance). Half ironmans are 1.7/90/21, half the distance of a full ironman. Supersprint triathlons (like the ones done in Super League Triathlon races) are even shorter than sprint tris.
But even if the distances covered in a sprint triathlon are far shorter than those in an ironman, it’s still primarily endurance you rely on rather than, say, the explosive fast-twitch efforts needed in a 100-meter dash on the track or 50 meters in a pool.
This is why most people start out short and build their endurance until they can eventually tackle the longer races. But those who have raced primarily ironman for a few years can find themselves laid out after they do a backyard sprint triathlon. And as anyone who watches World Triathlon and Super League Triathlon can attest, even the elites are spent after those super short distances. So what’s going on?
If you’ve ever followed training plans for ironman and half-ironman you’ll have noticed a lot of emphasis on training in Zone 2 (aerobic) with occasional taps up into Zone 3 (tempo). That’s because these events are raced at a lower intensity to manage energy consumption so you make it to the finish line many hours after you start.
For sprint and Olympic, you run out of road fast. The elites race these distances in Zone 4 (threshold) and 5 (VO2max) to launch themselves into contention for the win.
What this means for your body: higher amounts of pain for a short time in the short distances, versus a duller/subtler pain over a long period of time for longer distances.
After a sprint you’ll probably have some muscle soreness and burning lungs but in a few days’ time you’re ready to go again – versus after an ironman where you need to take a lot more recovery time. (So if you're someone who likes racing often, sprint and Olympic is where it's at.)
Obviously you can always slow down if your goal is just to finish, but if you’re trying to clinch one of the top spots in your age group (or even overall!) you’ll find that going fast in a sprint is quite taxing and a worthy challenge.
Don’t underestimate the short distance triathlons; race them hard and you’ll make yourself proud.
(Header photo from Super League Triathlon.)