Triathlon Distances Explored…Sprint vs Long Course


There is an experience that I think is common to triathletes.  When someone from outside the sport finds out that you compete in triathlon, they inevitably ask, “oh, triathlon.  Have you done the one in Hawaii?”  The answer for a great any athletes (myself included) is ‘no’.  The person posing the question then becomes confused and you get to explain that there are other distances outside of the Ironman, the qualification process for Kona, etc.  It can be a little awkward at times but begs the question, “do distances besides Ironman matter?”

I’ve explored this question through competition this year.  With my travel schedule picking up and my daughter beginning to participate in triathlon, long course races have been removed from the calendar.  Instead, I’ve done a handful of sprint relays with my father in law (I swim and run while he bikes), trail runs, and sprint triathlons.  I will finish the season with no full distance (read: 140.6) and only one “half (read: 70.3).  Does that mean I’ve taken the year off and am no longer considered a triathlete?

Part of that question is complex because it deals with identity.  The label “triathlete” can become an ingrained part of an individual’s identity with varying effects.  For some, it makes them work a bit harder, even away from sport.  The existential influence of being a triathlete might also serve to reinforce healthy dietary and exercise habits through social pressure.  Conversely, it could become such a part of a person’s identity that if an injury or life gets in the way of being a “triathlete” that they struggle mentally with a sort of identity crisis.

Having said this, I tend to see myself as an athlete in general, not just a triathlete.  Likewise, being ready to face life’s challenges or do any kind of race I want on a moment’s notice is enough external motivation to keep me training and always looking for new challenges.  Enter sprint distance triathlons.

A sprint event is normally a 400-800 meter swim, 20 km (roughly 12 miles) bike and a 5km (3.1 mile) run.  The distances involved are a fraction of those involved in an iron distance event.  How hard could it be?  The answer is simple: as hard as you want to make it.

The sprint distance is an interesting beast in that it serves as the most commonly participated in distance for rookie athletes as well as one of the toughest for racers to get right.  The challenge is that a sprint is about pure speed.  Can you set your  mind and body on the redline and keep it there for an hour?  On paper, that doesn’t seem so tough.  In practice however, it is nowhere near easy.  Doing a sprint triathlon competitively is not a simple task.  You have to swim your arms off, bike your legs off and run your lungs out.  I’ve actually had stars dancing in front of my eyes when I crossed the line at the last few events I participated in.  My average HR was less than ten beats off my max.  Put another way, a sprint is one solid hour of pure suffering.  The more you can endure, the faster you can go.

When looking at a sprint from this perspective, I submit that it is not less challenging than a long course event.  Rather, it is a different type of challenge.  Long course is all about pacing while short course is about speed.  There is pacing involved in short course and speed involved in long course but not in the same manner.  You want to be as close to your max sustainable pace in a short course race versus sustaining a consistent pace for several hours.  Your HR is lower on average as is your power output in a long course race.

The mentality involved is slightly different as well.  Rather than just suffering through a short burst of pain you have a long, steady drip.  There is also more chance for error in a long course event compared to a sprint.  Over-bike a sprint and you have a 5k to shuffle through.  Over-bike a 70.3 or full iron distance event and you’ll be shuffling along for hours.

The point of all this is that you should pick an event that is right for you.  If you really want to go fast and don’t want to spend all day racing, sprint and Olympic distance events might be a better option.  Conversely, if you have the time to train and race for longer distances, half and full iron distance events could be more satisfying.  Either way, do what you enjoy doing and if you need help, T3 coaching is always here!

-Andrew Sidwell, Adult and High Performance Coach, T3Multisports

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