Don't know the difference between aquathlon and swimrun? Chances are you've heard of triathlon, but these days multi sport is way more than just the typical swim - bike - run format. We explore some of the newer multi sports as well as the classics that are enjoying a revival.
Let's start with the most popular multi-sport du jour. The Brownlee brothers' performance at the 2012 London Olympics has been followed by a rise in popularity of triathletes like Lucy Charles who are supported by global brands such as Red Bull and are growing a notable fan-base thanks to Instagram. This has led to triathlon becoming more popular than ever and the trend shows no signs of stopping just yet.
Swimming, cycling, running
Distance Swim Bike Run Super Sprint 400 m
Sprint 750 m
Olympic (Standard) 1.5 km
Ironman 70.3 (Half Ironman) 1.9 km
ITU-Middle Distance 3.0 km
Ironman 140.6 (Full Ironman) 3.9 km
ITU-Long Distance 4.0 km
How it works
Triathlon follows a simple swim - bike - run format with transition areas between each discipline. As a triathlete, you will start with the swim which can either be indoors in a swimming pool or outdoors in open water. Open water swims are more popular for most triathlons although some races aimed at beginners will feature a shorter pool swim.
Once you've completed your swim, you run to a transition area where you take off your wetsuit (if you wore one) and change into your bike shoes. You then head off out on your bike for the bike section.
Once finished on the bike, you come back to transition to rack your bike, put on your running shoes, and head off out for the run.
Different triathlon races offer a variety of different course types, from open roads to closed circuits and open water swims in the sea, ocean, rivers, or lakes. If you're really into this sport, you may end up investing in a specialist triathlon bike and all sorts of other specialist kit. For more detailed information about triathlon racing, read our triathlon guide.
As all triathlon races are governed by the ITU (International Triathlon Union), all triathlon races will be fairly uniform and as a racer you will have to stick to rigid guidelines and rules. You will also find the distances always stick closely to those outlined, although some races may have slightly longer or shorter distances due to course design; it will always be within 10% of the prescribed limit though.
For those looking for something a little more rugged, cross triathlon takes triathlon off-road and into the wilderness.
Open water swimming, mountain biking, trail running
Typically a 1km swim, 20-30km mountain bike, and 6-10km trail run but distances can vary from race to race.
How it works
Cross triathlon follows the same format as traditional triathlon but it is all done 'off-road'. The swim is always does in open water such as in a lake or in the ocean, the bike is done on a mountain bike, and the run is a trail run. The idea first started in Hawaii, the spiritual home of triathlon, and has since established itself as a major multi sport with the Xterra Championships being the Holy Grail for cross triathletes.
The courses tend to be much more technical and rugged than that of traditional triathlon and the cycle stage requires more care and skill rather than pure speed. Due to the fact that the bike stage could involve severe hills and navigating trees, rocks and other hazards, comparing times between different races can be tricky and unreliable.
Duathlon is triathlon's close relative, simply eliminating the swim from the popular multi sport racing format. Perfect for those who can't or don't want to swim but also popular among triathletes in the winter season, duathlon can be a very competitive and fast sport.
Super sprint distance - 2.5km run, 10km bike, 2.5km run
Sprint distance - 5km run, 20km bike, 2.5km run
Standard (Olympic) distance - 10km run, 40km bike, 5km run
Middle distance - 10km run, 60km bike, 10km run
Long distance - 10km run, 150km bike, 30km run
How it works
A duathlon follows a run - bike - run format, eliminating the swim from standard triathlon format. Due to the fact most athletes' strongest disciplines are the bike and run sections, duathlon can be extremely competitive and fast.
Duathlon follows the same format as triathlon in that there is a transition between each discipline. You will start with your first run before heading to the transition area to grab your bike and helmet and head out on the bike section. Once that's done, you head back to transition to change into your running shoes and sprint off for your final run.
Duathlon is a very popular sport among triathletes during the winter season when swimming – especially in open water – is impractical. Many triathletes will stay fit and keep their racing strategy strong by competing in autumn and winter duathlon races. Duathlon is also perfect for anyone interested in doing multi sport but who can't or doesn't want to swim. Also, for people looking to dip their toe into multi sport (metaphorically speaking) but who aren't ready to commit to swimming lessons, wetsuits, and the complexities of triathlon just yet.
Aquathlon is another of triathlon's close relatives, this time eliminating the bike section from the popular multi sport format. Less equipment to worry about and perfect for those who don't like cycling, aquathlon is rising in popularity as of late.
Warm water aquathlon (water temperature above 22 degrees Celsius)
2.5km run - 1km swim - 2.5km run
Cold water aquathlon (water temperature below 22 degrees Celsius)
1km swim - 5km run
Long Course aquathlon
2km swim - 10km run
Each country, federation, and even individual race may have its own distance regulation as water temperature can vary so drastically from country to country.
How it works
Transporting a bike to a race, especially abroad, can be logistically difficult. As can organising a race with a bike section, especially if it has to be done on roads open to traffic. Eliminating the bike section of a triathlon – creating the aquathlon – became popular a few decades ago after race organisers and athletes alike realised how much simpler it would be just to have the run and swim portions of the race. Not only this, some people simply don't get on with cycling but still want to enjoy multi sport, so for them aquathlon is the perfect race.
In an aquathlon, it can be either a run - swim - run format or just a swim followed by a run. In general, aquathlon follows the longer distances while modern biathlon is shorter distances. Biathle, which is also swimming and running, is just for training purposes for those who compete in pentathlon.
For those who enjoy swimming and running but want more of a challenge or outdoor adventure, then swimrun is the choice. Put simply, swimrun is like aquathlon on steroids.
Open water swimming, trail running
Swimrun has no set distance standard and each race distance varies
How it works
There are several differences between swimrun and its close relative aquathlon. Where aquathlon is like triathlon in that there is a transition area, swimrun differs as there is no stopping in between stages; participants swim in their running shoes and run in their wetsuit.
In triathlon and aquathlon you're not allowed buoyancy aids but in swimrun you're allowed hand paddles and pull buoys because of the drag created by swimming in shoes.
Another difference is that aquathlon is just one swim and one run whereas swimrun could involve several stages, with a minimum of 2 swims and 2 runs. For example, the Breca Swimrun Buttermere is 17 alternating runs and swims.
The final difference is that an aquathlon often takes place in a pool whereas swimrun is always outdoors in open water and on rugged trails. Swimrun is usually done in pairs for safety reasons and for many is considered more of an adventure than purely a race.
Biathle (Modern Biathlon)
Biathle or Modern biathlon is a sub-sport of modern pentathlon invented to create opportunities for training the run and swim parts of pentathlon in real race conditions. It is a sport in its own right. It bears close resemblance to aquathlon which also contains swimming and running but which comes from triathlon sport.
Usually 200m and 3km run but distances can vary from race to race.
How it works
The race always features a mass start run which then goes into a transition area, much like duathlon. Participants must take off their shoes and socks (unlike in swimrun) and then move onto the swim. For the swim, athletes are allowed to use any stroke (unlike triathlon which forbids backstroke). Then comes another transition back to running and then to the finish line.
This sport is not to be confused with biathlon which is cross country skiing and rifle shooting and is a winter Olympic sport.
Aquabike is a less popular multi sport that eliminates the run from the swim - bike - run triathlon format. Races are usually undertaken as part of a full triathlon with the participants omitting the run section of the race and just receiving a result for their swim and bike.
Super sprint 400m swim, 10k bike
Sprint 750m swim, 20k bike
Standard 1500m swim, 40k bike
Middle 1.9km swim, 90km bike
Full 3.9km swim, 191km bike
Distances vary but usually follow the same distances as a triathlon with the run omitted.
How it works
Aquabike is competed in the same way as a triathlon, simply with the run eliminated. Aquabike is perfect for triathletes who may be injured and therefore cannot run or simply for anyone who likes the idea of multi sport but doesn't like running.
Quadrathlon is for those who want a little more from their multi sport experience. It is the same as triathlon but with the addition of a kayaking section.
Swimming, cycling, kayaking, running
Sprint Distance Middle Distance Long Distance Swim 750 m 1.5 km 4 km Cycle 20 km 40 km 100 km Kayak 4 km 8 km 20 km Run 5 km 10 km 21 km
How it works
For a quadrathlon race, the individual disciplines can be done in any order however it usually follows a swim - bike - kayak - run format. Quadrathlon generally follows the same rules and format of a triathlon but with the addition of a kayaking element.
Other Multi Sport Races
Sundried is a triathlon specialist and so our passion is for multi sport races related to triathlon. Of course, there are many other types of multi sport such as pentathlon, heptathlon etc but those are track and field sports rather than related to our speciality.
Once you’re comfortable in the water and swimming further and easier than before, the next challenge is to get quicker! Either because you want to beat your friends, set personal bests, finish further up the results, or potentially even qualify for age group teams.
There are three keys to getting faster at swimming:
- Reducing frontal resistance to the water
- Pulling/kicking with purpose
- Not rushing your stroke
Reducing your resistance to the water
This will mean that you can move faster and further with the same level of effort and this is a real foundation to strong and fast swimming. If you are able to focus on good posture in the water – i.e. looking down, lengthening your spine and engaging your core, then you’ll be in a really good place.
A simple trick to focus this is to streamline when you push off the wall every time. This is not cheating – a comment that I get from many athletes! This is a skill that will help you travel faster and with better form, improving the quality of your swims. Imagine it like a squat jump. When you push off the wall, if possible, squeeze your ears between your biceps with your hands together above your head. If shoulder mobility doesn’t allow this, just keep your arms in front of you but still aiming to tuck your chin down toward your chest.
All this will help lengthen your spine and keep your head in the right position – it’s your reset point every length. Finally, when you push off, you will automatically engage your core – meaning that your first few strokes will be among your best ever. Your challenge is then to try and maintain that as far down each length as you can!
Pulling and kicking with purpose
With resistance reduced, you can look to engage with the water more rather than moving your arms and legs just for the sake of moving them. Kick drills can teach you to kick smoothly rather than panic splashing your legs around. You can kick streamlined (see above), on your front or on your back, or do side kick to work on body roll – in any case, make sure that your legs are pushing against the water.
With your arms, you can do sculling drills to get used to feeling pressure of the water against your hands and forearms – and transferring this into doing your full stroke. Swimming with fists can have the same effect. Whatever drills you end up doing, mix them into doing full stroke so that you can feel where the drill is trying to work on in your stroke. Focus on each kick or pull having some purpose rather than trying to just do things for the sake of doing them!
Not rushing your stroke
Finally, with regards to swimming faster I like to think of the phrase "less haste, more speed". If you look at the top athletes in most sports – Jonny Wilkinson or Dan Carter in rugby, Messi or Ronaldo in football, rowers Heather Stanning and Helen Glover, swimmer Katie Ledecky etc – they never look like they are rushing, even though they are doing things at incredibly high speed.
Some of this comes down to the fact that they are very well practised. On top of this though, they know that they have all the time that they need to undertake the skills that they are doing. There is no rush. In the case of Glover & Stanning, or Katie Ledecky, their stroke rates are incredibly high – but they don’t look like they are rushing things. Again, think about connecting with the water and pushing – rather than just trying to throw your arms and legs around aimlessly to go quicker. Effort does not necessarily equal speed!
About the author: John Wood is a triathlete, triathlon coach, and Sundried ambassador.
Swimming, cycling, and running will inevitably take up most of your time as a triathlete, but hitting the gym and doing strength training is just as important. We chat with two professional triathletes to get the low down on how they strength train to improve their performance and get the most out of their training.
Matt Leeman - professional triathlete
Matt doesn't do strength training in the typical sense. Instead of hitting the gym and lifting weights, he uses natural factors like hills to help him improve his strength and increase his muscular endurance.
Triathlete strength training
Strength training is a big component of any sport, the common definition of strength is "the ability to exert a force against a resistance". Each sport has different demands and hence requires different classifications of strength, triathlon predominantly requires strength endurance - the ability to express force many times over.
Although I personally do not lift weights, which are commonly associated with strength training, I do triathlon-specific strength training, adapting the training of the disciplines to a strength based way of training.
There are swim specific tools that can be utilised to enhance swimming strength, the main ones I use are the pull buoy, hand paddles, and band. The muscles used in swimming are predominantly the lats (side of the back) and triceps. The pull buoy enables swimming with less kicking to maintain the body position so that the upper body can be worked more. The hand paddles create a larger surface area to increase the resistance of a stroke. The band is used to take leg kicking out of the equation and rather get propulsion from the overall movement of the body and core muscles.
The majority of the time in a triathlon is spent on the bike so having good bike strength is essential for putting together a good race, both directly, making you ride faster, and indirectly, the less the bike takes out of you, the more you’ll have left for the run. The two things that can be utilised for bike strength are the bike's gears and hills.
By doing specific intervals ‘over-gearing’ i.e. using a bigger gear than you would usually use to train your leg muscles to produce a greater force so that when we are racing we are working at a lower percentage of our overall capacity. Hills obviously give a great stimulus for developing strength, ensuring you ride on different terrain is important for developing a well rounded strong athlete.
The main ways in which I train my running strength is using hills and mixed surface terrain. I will often do a specific hill repeat session where one specific hill is targeted and run up multiple times. The beauty of hills is that it prevents you from over-striding and promotes glute engagement, which improves our ability to utilise the bigger muscles in the legs such as glutes and quads that handle fatigue better than the smaller muscles of the leg, which is very important in an endurance sport.
Claire Steels - World Champion duathlete
Claire tells us about her three favourite strength training exercises and why they are well suited to an endurance athlete.
Bulgarian Split Squat
This exercise is great for running and cycling power but also glute, hip and core stability. Unilateral exercises like the Bulgarian split squat are fantastic for developing the individual leg strength required for sports such as running and cycling, where each leg is required to produce power independently.
TRX Mountain Climbers
This exercise requires core stability and control whilst moving each leg independently. This replicates the physiological control that is required in a duathlon as a strong core is essential for efficient running and cycling.
This is a fantastic exercise for developing power through the posterior chain along the back of the body. It challenges the strength of the whole body but primarily the glutes and hamstrings. It is also a fantastic exercise for testing the cardiovascular system while also trying to produce power making it yet another great exercise for duathletes.
Georgia is a Welsh competitive swimmer who made her debut in the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and went on to represent Great Britain in the 2012 Olympic Games. She speaks to Sundried about training, racing, and everything in between.
Have you always been into sport? How did you first get into swimming?
I have always been sporty. At school, I participated in all different sports and my favourites were netball, gymnastics, swimming, and surf lifesaving.
Did you know you wanted to strive for Olympic standard from an early age?
I think that going to the Olympics was always a dream of mine and I’ve always been so competitive, but I tried to keep my goals realistic and attainable, so initially my goal was to reach national level, then continue to move the goalpost once I reached each target.
What does a typical training week look like for you?
Most weeks I swim ten times completing roughly 40km each week. I also do two or three weights sessions to improve my strength, a core session and a Pilates session. Within the week I will also have a check-up with the physio and a massage to try and keep niggles away.
Do you follow a specific diet? If so, what/when do you eat?
With the amount that I train, I can have a bit of freedom with what I eat because I need to consume plenty of calories. But I do try to eat mostly healthy options predominantly high protein and lots of salads and vegetables. The amount of carbs that I eat depends on the kind of session I have coming up later that day and how much energy I need.
How did it feel competing in the Olympics?
I was so lucky to compete at the London Olympics and be supported by the home crowd. It’s one of the only races that I can remember being able to hear the crowd cheering while I was still underwater! Becoming an Olympian is something I always aspired to achieve, and the whole experience of a multi sport event representing GB is awesome. However, I’m always my toughest critic, and so far I’m yet to perform as well as I would like at the Olympics, so I still have plenty to motivate me in training every day.
What has been the highlight of your swimming career so far?
So far I think I have two highlights. First was winning the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and being able to sing the Welsh national anthem and hearing so many people in the crowd sing along too. The second highlight is winning the European championships and breaking the European record in the 50m backstroke. It was a goal that I was hoping to achieve for around the past four years, so when I finally did it I was ecstatic.
What has been your toughest setback and how did you overcome it?
The hardest part about elite sport is dealing with injury or illness and trying to manage your body well in order to overcome the problem and bounce back stronger. It’s also hard to deal with the fact that you can only control your own performance and sometimes even when you give your best it’s still not enough to win. However, having disappointing performances is an important motivator.
What advice would you give to other women looking to get into competitive sport?
As cliche as it sounds, finding a sport that you enjoy is definitely the most important thing. There are so many options out there, and there is no point forcing your body to do something that you hate all the time. The amazing feeling you get from training and pushing yourself is so hard to replicate, and the feeling that you get when you achieve your personal goal or target after dedicating your time and energy in to something is irreplaceable.
If you feel like you're working harder than ever but not seeing any changes or improvements, you've hit a plateau. Follow our tips to find out why you might have stopped progressing and how to break through it.
What is the meaning of hit a plateau?
When you 'hit a plateau' it means you have stopped progressing. In weight loss terms, this means you have stopped losing weight and are sitting at a constant. In training terms, this means you have stopped improving on your times or weights.
There are lots of reasons why you might hit a plateau, but the worst thing you can do is let it affect you negatively. If you have been trying to lose weight for some time and you stop seeing results, this can be a trigger to ruin your progress by giving up. However, it's important to remember how far you've come and stay strong.
If you've hit a plateau in your training, this means it's time to mix things up and take your training up a gear. Again, there may be several reasons why you have hit a plateau, so just take some time to re-evaluate and always remember your goals.
How do you break a weight loss plateau?
If you've ever tried to lose weight, you'll know that the first few pounds will come off relatively easy, but then weight loss gets harder. Famously, it's the last few pounds that just won't budge and you might find your weight stagnant for quite some time. One of the main reasons we find ourselves at a weight loss plateau is because we don't adapt and change our diet and lifestyle as we lose the weight.
If your starting weight was quite high, all you would need to do is eat a little less and exercise a little more each day and you would lose weight. People with a higher body fat percentage will burn more calories than a slimmer person because their body has to work harder. As you lose the weight and get fitter, the same diet and exercise routine that you were doing before will not be as effective.
The best way to break through a weight loss plateau, therefore, is to adapt and change your diet and workout routine. You will need to increase your calorie expenditure and mix up your training to shock the system. Your body is very good and adapting to stress and so if you continually do the same workout and eat the same food, soon your body will become used to that and stop changing.
Try doing a high intensity workout like this 5 minute punch bag workout which will shock your body into burning more calories. It's also important to workout your full body, so try this full body circuit workout for fat loss. It's also important not to neglect your core, so have a go at this flat stomach abs workout for real results.
What do you do when you hit a fitness plateau?
If you have stopped seeing results at the gym, it is time to mix up your workout routine. If you have a specifical goal, like running a marathon or completing an Ironman, it's best to follow a set training plan. If you have just been winging it until now, find a training plan that works best for you and your goals.
If you are trying to get stronger, there are lots of ways you can break through a plateau and increase the amount you can lift.
Firstly, make sure you are doing accessory lifts. If your goal is to get a PB on the squat, deadlift, or bench press, you won't get there just by doing that lift. Accessory exercises are lifts that complement one of the big lifts by working the supporting and stabilising muscles which will improve your form and help you increase the amount of weight you can lift. For bench press, make sure you're doing dumbbell flyes and press ups. For deadlifts, do plenty of bent over row and lat pull down. For squats, do lunges and single legged leg press.
If you are trying to get faster at running, there are lots of things you can do to improve. For more in depth information, read our article on how to get faster at running.
The bottom line is that you need to make sure you are not stuck in a rut. If you have hit a plateau, it's probably because you have become too comfortable in your routine and need to mix it up. Make sure that you do not give up when you stop seeing results, as it will be the best results that come after you break through the plateau.