Triathlon vs Cross Triathlon
You’ve heard of triathlon. But what about cross triathlon? We explain the differences between the two events so you can choose the one that’s right for you.
The world of triathlon has never been more accessible or diverse, with new categories emerging to cater for all abilities and interests. And for those who like their training on the wild side – or seasoned triathletes looking for an alternative challenge – the flourishing sport of cross triathlon could be just the thing to take your fitness to the next level.
While traditional triathlons involve swimming in open water followed by cycling and running on flat surfaces such as tarmacked roads, a cross triathlon (also known as off-road triathlon or X-tri), features open water swimming, then mountain biking and trail running across rough, hilly terrain and various obstacles. Naturally, different equipment is needed to take part - you’ll require a mountain bike and trail running shoes for starters – and you’ll also need a whole new skill set and training approach. But whichever type of triathlon you choose, you’ll still reap the physical and mental rewards from exercising across three sporting disciplines.
Location, location, location
Traditional triathlon venues are specifically chosen so that competitors can ride and run on safe, even roads - literally levelling out the playing field. But cross triathlons are designed to take you away from pedestrian pathways and onto the beaten track, guiding you through forests and riverbeds, up and down hills, and over natural or man-man hurdles such as rocks and logs.
You’ll enjoy the benefits and views of training in the great outdoors doing either type of triathlon. But while plodding along on the flat can get a bit repetitive, every cross triathlon provides an exciting new adventure as you experience stunning scenic trails and the full unpredictability of Mother Nature.
A range of off-road courses varying in technicality are available to suit different abilities, but beginners to triathlon should consider sticking to the safety and familiarity of running and cycling on the flat until they’ve built up enough experience of open water swimming and transitioning between disciplines to avoid feeling overwhelmed from learning so many new and different techniques.
Going the distance
One of the best things about traditional triathlon is that there is a distance to suit absolutely everyone, including the total beginner and professional athlete. While a Standard (Olympic) distance consists of a 1500m swim, 40km bike and 10km run, newbies can get involved with a Sprint distance of a 750m swim, 20km bike and 5km run, or an even shorter Super Sprint distance (400m/10km/2.5km). At the other end of the scale, you’ll find Middle and Long distance races including a half-IRONMAN (1.9km/90km/21km) and IRONMAN (3.8km/180km/42km), with the latter widely considered as one of the toughest one-day sporting events in the world.
A cross triathlon typically includes a 1km open water swim, a 20-30km mountain bike, and a 6-10km trail run. Because of the high degree of technicality involved in the mountain bike leg, the distance for the bike portion of an off-road triathlon is much less relevant than for a road triathlon, especially as courses can include tough mountain climbs and steep descents. You’ll find it hard to predict your finish time based on the distance of an off-road course as your speed will be greatly reduced on the bike and run legs compared to the speeds you can usually achieve on the road. For this reason, an off-road course of a similar distance to a road course can take many more hours to complete, and you’ll need to adjust your fuel accordingly.
Athletes seeking their next challenge will also be pleased to hear that, just as triathlon has its IRONMAN competitions, cross triathlon has XTERRA: a private off-road series of races (including an XTERRA European tour plus other world tours), that concludes with a championship each year in Maui.
Training for any kind of triathlon requires a big commitment but mixing up your workouts across three disciplines always helps to keep motivation levels high and training plans fresh. It goes without saying that training for a traditional triathlon works every muscle in the body, including your heart and cardiovascular system, so it’s perhaps unfair to judge if one type of triathlon is better for your fitness than the other as both provide a full-body workout.
However, because cross triathlon takes you over uneven terrain, your body will be forced out of its comfort zone and pushed to new limits. Trail running challenges your balance, stability, strength, flexibility and heartrate like nothing else, working your muscles even harder as you fight to stay upright while jumping over rocks, zig-zagging through trees, powering up mountains and hurtling down the other side as fast as you can.
From a racing and training perspective, the bike leg of an off-road triathlon is the most significantly different stage when compared to its counterpart in traditional triathlon. While road cycling is all about speed, endurance and aerodynamics, mountain biking requires a far higher degree of technical skill: it’s all about learning when to peddle, when to coast, when to break and when to sit or stand so you can save enough energy for the running leg ahead. But putting in time on a mountain bike will ultimately improve your handling skills to make you a more confident rider, so it’s win-win in the end.
When deciding whether to give cross triathlon a go, the main thing you should consider is your accessibility to MTB and running trails. Training for a triathlon is hard enough when you have access to roads and pavements outside your front door. Not being able to practice your technical ability for cross triathlon could literally be your downfall. Unless you have easy access to trails, you’ll find a lot of your training sessions will still be on the road, and your weekends will be used to hit the trails and work on your technical skills.