At some point in your triathlon adventure, it may be before your first race or it could be after you have dipped your toe into the sport, you will ask ‘What is an average or good time for a triathlon’? Unfortunately, it is an unwittingly complex question. For instance, what distance of triathlon, what type of course, and more importantly a good time for who?
We have flagged the factors to consider when contemplating ‘What is a good time for a triathlon?’, and have provided examples of average times and targets across all the classic distances of triathlon for the best athletes in the sport, competitive age-groupers, and beginners.
Table of contents
Super Sprint times
This is the shortest classic combination of distances for a triathlon, and is a great place to start if you are new to the sport. This distance is rarely raced by elite triathletes, but similar length events can be included in triathlon relays and in Super League Triathlon.
Depending on your athletic background and preparation, a good target is around or below an hour. This will be achievable for many with suitable training. For example, ignoring transitions, that could equate to: a 400m swim in under 10 minutes (2 minutes 30 seconds per 100m); completing the bike at a speed of around 20k an hour, so in 30 minutes; and, running at a pace above 7.5k an hour, which would mean completing the run in under 20 minutes.
Sprint Distance times
A sprint distance triathlon is a significant step up from a super sprint. However, it can be an appealing option due to the distances being attainable for most with a relatively limited training time commitment, the event itself not taking up your whole day, and still offering the chance to be raced at full tilt if that is your aim.
Elite athletes racing in the WCTS can complete a sprint distance substantially under 60 minutes – as mentioned, the draft-legal format undoubtedly contributes to the rapid speeds. For example, at the 2020 Hamburg Wasser World Triathlon Vincent Luis won in a time of 49:13 (08:27;24:36; 14:38), whilst Georgia Taylor-Brown completed the course in 54:16 (09:08; 26:38; and 16:43).
The majority of age-group races are non-drafting. In such races many serious amateurs will have time-trial/triathlon specific bikes which are designed to help them cut through air using the least amount of energy as possible. This can go some way to helping age-groupers still achieve finishing times that are at times mind-boggling.
It is not unheard of for top-end age-groupers to dip under the hour for a sprint distance triathlon, and in some age-group categories you may well need to do so if you want to win a national title – in any event, serious kudos. To do so broadly means a swim of close to 10 minutes (so circa, 1 minute and 20 seconds per 100m), completing the bike in close 30 minutes (meaning averaging around 40k an hour), and then storming around the run course well above 15k an hour pace (so, far quicker than 20 minutes).
To achieve a super-fast time over a sprint distance, even if you are an accomplished biker and/or runner, you need to be a strong swimmer.
Realistically, you are doing extremely well if you manage to complete a sprint distance triathlon anywhere near 1 hour and 15 minutes.
In fact, aiming to go below one and a half hours means you are setting yourself up for a good time that is likely to place you well up the leaders’ board. For example, completing the race in below 90 minutes is achievable with splits similar to the following: 750m swim in under 23 minutes; 20k bike in a time between 40 and 45 minutes; and a 5k run in 25 minutes.
Olympic and Standard times
The Standard or Olympic distance triathlon is the format and length of race that you will have seen triathletes such as Alistair Brownlee, Gwen Jorgenson, Kristian Blummenfelt, and Flora Duffy, race over to win Olympic Gold.
As with the sprint distance, comparing yourself to an Olympic athlete does you a disservice. In fact, the longer the bike-leg the greater the advantage from drafting. Having said that, the times achieved by elite racers are quite something:
At the Tokyo Olympics, Flora Duffy took gold in 01:55:36 (18:32; 01:02:49; and 33:00) and Kristian Blummenfelt won the men’s event 01:45:04 (18:04;56:19; and 29:34). The times are even more impressive considering the terrible weather that will have drastically impacted their confidence when on the bike.
A top-level age-grouper may break the two-hour barrier for an Olympic distance race. This is seriously impressive, and will likely mean they have swum below 20 minutes for the 1500m swim, biked strongly to go under the hour for a the 40k bike leg (for a strong time-triallist, this is achievable, but impressive nonetheless), and then managed to run a 10k on tired legs in under 40 minutes (most likely in around 35 minutes).
Realistically, most age-groupers have one discipline that is weaker. In a non-drafting race, to achieve a fast time will require a strong bike ride (it is the longest discipline in distance and time taken, and is where the most time can be made), and backed up with a solid run.
Breaking the three-hour barrier is a great target for many amateur triathletes (arguably akin to breaking 4 -4.5 hours for a marathon). However, once you’ve achieved a finishing time beginning with a two, before you know it, you’ll be aiming to stop the clock below 2.30.
To put the times in perspective: a popular target is completing the 1.5k swim in 30 minutes (2 mins per 100m), for some this will be aspirational, for others this will be achievable but will require regular swim training; depending on the bike course, completing the 40k bike ride in under 90 minutes is a realistic target for those that are confident on the bike, requiring an average speed of around 16 miles an hour; and, subject to your running capacity, especially having already been racing for two hours, you can bring it home by completing a 10k in an hour.
Middle-distance / 70.3 IRONMAN
A large number of triathletes bypass the shorter distances and jump straight in with a middle-distance triathlon, often in preparation for a full iron-distance race.
One reason for the popularity of middle-distance races is that the swim is only 400m longer than an Olympic distance race, whilst the bike and run are around double. For weaker swimmers, 70.3 racing can be a great leveller.
The longer the race, the greater the variables, and the wider spread of what can be considered a ‘good time’.
Pro-level racing has leaped forward over the middle-distance. For example, 5 years ago a men’s race could be won with a 1.15 half-marathon, and a run time of 1.11 would really stand out. Nowadays, generally, if you can’t run 21k in under 1.15 you won’t be anywhere near the podium. Equally, in the women’s events a run-time of 90 mins was respectable, now athletes such as Lucy Charles-Barclay go below 1.20.
It is difficult to give a narrow ballpark finishing time for the pros, since variations in the weather and course can make a substantial difference. Generally, the best of the elite men finish between 3.35 and 4 hours, and the leading women will complete the course in below 4 hours 30 minutes.
The 2021 Ironman 70.3 World Championships were particularly quick and saw some great performances, none more so than Lucy Charles Barclay. LCB finished in 4:00:19 (24:35; 2:14:58; and 1:18:47), besting the competition by over eight minutes. Whilst Norwegian Gustav Iden took the men’s title in 3:37:12. Interestingly, whereas LCB lead from gun to tape, Gustav raced through the field having come out of the water in 15th. He won by close to four minutes with a run-time of 1:11:32.
For mere mortals (that is, the rest of us), anything below six hours is highly commendable. However, if you are looking to win your age-group and be at the pointy end of the overall age-group standings you are going to need to be aiming for 5 hours and below (the winners of large domestic age-groups can often put the following race together: a sub 30-min swim; two hours and 30 mins bike; and dipping below 90 mins for the half-marathon).
Due to the relative amount of cycling and running, you can achieve a stellar finishing time even if you are a comparatively weak swimmer.
To put a six hour mid-distance race in perspective: swimming at a pace of two minutes per 100m, you get out of the water in 38 minutes, allowing for a tough swim this gives you a 45 minute swim; 90k is a substantial ride for anyone and, realistically, unless you are a very strong cyclist the bike will take you around three hours (a speed of just below 20mph), or more likely nearer three hours 30 minutes (16 miles an hour); and, although two hours is a common target for people entering a standalone half marathon, trying to do so having been sat on a bike for 56 miles is a different challenge.
Having said the above, it is very common, and you won’t be alone, if finishing in a time of eight hours.
Importantly, different races have different cut-off times, that is times by when you have to complete each discipline and the overall race. For example, Ironman 70.3 races often require that: the swim must be completed within 1 hour and 10 minutes; you are to finish the bike leg within 5 hours and 30 minutes of racing (namely, since your swim start); and, you must complete your whole race within 8 hours and 30 mins.
IRONMAN / Full-distance times
For many, completing an iron-distance race is their ultimate triathlon goal. It is a great achievement to complete a race that consists of a 3.8k swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a full marathon. However, what is a good time for an Ironman?
More so than any other distance, the race conditions and terrain can make a huge difference. Kona, Hawaii, is a great example. The heat and humidity of Kona, and that is without considering the wind, mean that many athletes find their finishing time in Kona is substantially slower than elsewhere.
For pro male athletes, breaking 8 hours is still seen as a great achievement, and often a necessity if you want to win. That remains the case, despite the: upcoming SUB7 challenge, Jan Frodeno’s epic 7:51:13 at Kona in 2019, and the ridiculous time of Kristian Blummenfelt in Cozumel in 2021 (7:21:11!).
Retired Brit Chrissie Wellington holds the women’s iron-distance World-record, set at Challenge Roth in 2011. Her time of 8:18:13 was, and remains, staggering. It is even more impressive when you consider the advances in aerodynamics that have been made in the last decade, and the record still remains!
Daniella Ryf and Lucy Charles-Barclay have been dominating long-course racing in recent years, both consistently going below 9 hours. However, as the name suggests, the SUB8 project is looking to push the limits of female iron-distance racing.
Similar to the middle-distance races, full-distance races will have cut-offs (for each discipline and the overall finishing time), broadly these are double those imposed on middle-distance races (for example, an overall cut-off of 17 hours).
Top age-groupers aspire to go below 9 hours and 30 minutes, and this is continuing to drop with aerodynamic advances on the bike and carbon shoes for the run.
If winning the race isn’t your target, anything around 13 hours is very respectable, but will require substantial training – simply, 13 hours is a long day! To breakdown a 13 hour iron-distance race, most triathletes would look for splits similar to and within: a 90 to 100 minute swim; a 6.5 to 7 hour bike ride; and, a 4.5 to 5 hour run/walk to finish. As mentioned above, depending on the course, substantial gains can be made on the bike-leg, giving you more leeway on the run.
Anyone breaking 11 hours deserves kudos, and will have undoubtedly dedicated a lot of time to training, tech, and nutrition. Well done!
Factors impacting triathlon times
Unlike running events, where there are some established and commonly acknowledged good-times (for example, a good club-runner breaking 3 hours for a marathon), a good time for triathlon is not quite as easy to pin-point. To help you set realistic goals, we have detailed some of the issues that can skew what is considered a good time for a triathlon:
Drafting or non-drafting
Triathlons can be broadly split into two, those that allow drafting on the bike and those that do not [Link to Jargon Buster]. In short, events that allow drafting on the bike will be faster. On the bike you will use less energy to ride at the same speed or faster, and you are also likely to run faster due to having fresher legs.
We mention the above to provide some perspective when comparing what constitutes a good time for a certain race distance, especially if you are curious to compare your athletic prowess to that of the sport’s best athletes. For example, the majority of pro or elite short-course triathlons (that is distances up to and including the Olympic/standard distance) are draft legal – therefore, when watching triathlon at the Olympics or a WCTS event, the bike leg is faster and the elite athletes are also able to run even quicker off the bike.
Open water vs. pool swim
The other big difference between triathlons is whether or not the swim is in a pool or open water. Open water brings a whole other factor to race times. One, depending on the temperature, you may be able to wear a wetsuit which (if you are comfortable using one, some people find their shoulders tire quickly) will help you glide through the water. Also, a mass start gives you the opportunity to draft other swimmers, saving energy (similar to drafting on the bike), and swim quicker.
However, open water swimming also throws up navigation and sighting challenges, clashes with other swimmers, and swim distance measurement variations!
Triathlon is a non-stop race. You need to seamlessly transition from swim to bike (T1), and from bike to run (T2).
That means your overall race time starts when your swim commences and stops only when you cross the finishing line. Although many events will give you time splits for the three main disciplines, your overall finishing time includes transitions. [similar to a para in 10 things you need to know before your first triathlon]
Therefore, importantly, from the perspective of comparing race times, the length and size of transitions vary from race to race – the same race may have a different set up the following year, and even the comparative size of transition can vary for different competitors at the same event (due to an individual’s racking position compared to the entries and exits).
It might sound silly, but there are occasions when a race is not quite the distance it claims to be.
When you consider that prestigious and popular running events are sometimes incorrectly measured (for example, the Manchester marathon in the UK was found to be 380m too short from 2013 to 2015, affecting over 24,000 athletes), it is no surprise that triathlons are sometimes guilty of not being true to the distances claimed.
For example, if you find yourself running your fastest ever ‘10k’ (or running a time putting you in the bracket to represent your country on the track at the next Olympics) at the end of an Olympic distance triathlon, before celebrating your new found talent, you might want to double check the actual run distance.