It's a very slow process - two steps forward, one step back - but I'm inching in the right direction. - Rob Reiner

June 09, 2011

Triathlon 101 Terminology

I know for many of you this is nothing new, but I also know I have a lot of bloggers that follow me that are runners vs. triathletes and after a few questions about cycling I thought I would give you some basic information and terms from the triathlon world.

Disclaimer:  I am in no way a subject matter expert.  I am just starting my second season as a triathlete.  I still have a lot to learn.  The whole gearing thing on the bike is still pretty much a mystery to me, but I’m improving.  Hopefully this provides you some of the basics so when you read these on blogs you know what people are talking about.

Common Terms:

Brick – A brick is a workout that contains 2 of the 3 sports in order.  Traditionally a brick is the bike to the run, but some people also call a swim to bike a brick workout.  Rumor has it the term brick was used because that’s how your legs feel when transitioning from the bike to the run – like a couple of bricks.

Transition – The period of time it takes you to move from one sport to the next.  Referred to as T1 and T2 – T1 is the swim to bike transition, and T2 is the bike to run.  It is important to be fast during your transitions because this time is counted in your total race time, so if you have a 15 minute transition you add 15 minutes to your total race.  Most people spend a minute or two in transition, the pros can do it in seconds.

Cadence – I’m sure most of you know this term from running, but in cycling it’s the number of revolutions (one complete pedaling circle) you make per minute.  People have different theories on the ideal cadence, but a generally accepted rule of thumb is to have a cadence between 80 to 100.  You should try to keep your cadence consistent, even when doing hill workouts.  This is difficult for me.  You can purchase a cadence sensor that attaches to your bike and monitors this for you.  I have the one that goes with my Garmin.

Drafting – This can be done when cycling or swimming.  When cycling you ride closely behind another rider to reduce the wind resistance so it requires less effort to cycle.  Drafting is generally not allowed in most triathlons and can potentially cause disqualification from a race, but is common to see among cyclists that will draft in a pack and alternate the lead cyclist so they all get the benefit.  You can also do this in swimming by swimming closely behind a faster swimmer.  This is legal in most triathlons but is generally considered unsportsman like behavior.

Granny Gear – Slang term for the smallest chainwheel on a triple crank set. Some people call their lowest gear their “Granny Gear” but it actually specifically refers to just the smallest chainwheel on a crankset with more than two chainwheels. I do not have a third chainwheel on my bike so I really don’t have a granny gear.

Clipless Pedals If you missed my early post that describes these in more detail – click here.  Clipless pedals are oddly named because you are actually “clipped” into the bike.  Before clipless pedals cyclist used toe clips (cages).  Many cyclists still use these.  The term clipless refers to the lack of toe clips.  Clipless pedals are more efficient than toe clips and are preferred by most cyclists.  And I am told, after I stop falling over everytime I use them that I will love them.

Trainer – If you hear people talking about doing workouts on their trainer.  They are talking about a piece of equipment that you can set your bike up on to work out on your own bike.  It is much better than using a stationary bike if you have to be indoors.  It allows you to change gears, etc just like on the road, but you can also do things on the trainer that you can’t do on the road like stationary one legged – “leg cranks” – where you cycle with only one leg at a time to build leg strength.

Your bike wheel goes up against this for resistence and your front wheel is free.

Triathlon Distances

Sprint/Super Sprint -   Sprint or Super Sprint races can vary by distance by you will generally hear anything less than an Olympic distance race referred to as a sprint.  They are typically a 500 – 750 meter swim, a 12 to 16 mile bike, and a 3.1 mile run (5K).

Olympic Distance – Also referred to as the “standard” distance.  It consists of a .9 mile swim, a 25 mile bike and a 6.2 mile run (10K).

Half –Ironman – Often referred to as HIM.  It consists of a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and a 13.1 mile run (half-marathon).  This is the distance I hope to do in the future.

Ironman – The ultimate Triathlon distance, most famous is the Kona race in Hawaii.  It consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 (full marathon). 

If I’ve left out any other common, popular terms, feel free to leave them in the comments section.  Thanks, hope this helped!


  1. Great post! You are very thorough on your explanations!

  2. great info!!! i always feel like i need to explain what i mean when i write "i rode my trainer". some people think im being a little xrated haha!

  3. Great post!

    I have to say though, it's the first time I heard that it's considered unsportsmanlike to draft on the swim. I'd always been told it's good strategy and completely legal. My swim coach actually does a bunch of drafting drills to help train us to do it.

  4. Good post with good explanations for the layman. "Aerobars" might be another to include. And if anyone wants a full rundown then there's this 5-part series.

  5. T1 - transition #1. Where you go to switch from swim to bike.
    T2 - transition #2. Where you go to switch from bike to run.
    T3 - transition #3. Where you go to switch from run to massage or food. This term is not as well-knwn as T1 and T2, but is equally as important.

    Neapolitan tan - that happens when you wear 2-3 different length bike jerseys or combination tri jersey and bike jersey on separate rides and wind up with a progressive tan up your arms and shoulders. Like the shade gradation of Neapolitan ice cream.

  6. Fantastic post. Thanks Michael.

  7. Awesome! Thanks for sharing. I'm trying to get into the triathlon world (trying as in just thinking about it right now). It's good to know the terminology

  8. Wonderful post. I am interested in completing a triathalon in the future so I really appreciate the detailed information. Thank you!

  9. LOL @ BDD's comment. Why? Because my early season bike training used race-cut and club-cut jerseys. By April I was already showing off my neopolitan arm tan.

  10. awesome post! I'm basically purely a runner, so a lot of these terms are somewhat new to me!

    And I didn't know it was unsportsmanlike to draft behind someone in the swim portion of a triathlon...seems like I would definitely try to do that if possible, I bet it would save a lot of energy doing that, haha

  11. I always assumed Brick meant (B)ike + (R)un = ICK!!!!
    LOL! That's how my legs feel!

  12. - Not to correct BDD but T3 is the medical tent. A bad place to be.

    - Drafting while swimming is a skill that should be practiced and encouraged. I don't know of anyone who frowns on it or considers it unsportsmanlike. My mantra on every swim is "find feet."

    - Brick describes what I look like while swimming.

  13. Wow I just learned a lot. I kept wondering what bricks are.

  14. Thanks for this! My friend Amy ( is doing a sprint tri on Saturday, so I've been wondering what some of these terms mean!

  15. THIS.IS.GREAT. Thanks!

    I have been totally mystified by clipless pedals because I knew they clipped in and that made no sense so I thought the cages were the clipless ones. Okay.

    The same cadence going up a hill as on a flat. Huh? Really? Wow? No, come on. What do you really shoot for?

  16. Thanks for the info. As a runner I was surprised that I did know a lot of these already. And as for Granny Gear - it's not exclusively for cyclists. I often sometimes slip into granny gear when I'm running up a long steep hill - but I guess at that point it's no longer called running.

  17. I didn't know about the Granny Gear! Learn something new everyday!

  18. Ooo, thank you for this post! I am interested in tri-ing someday, but there's so much information out there to sift through. Very helpful.

  19. draft, draft, draft in the water if you can. Just be careful b/c you may think you are conserving energy when all you are doing is going slow b/c the person you are behind is slower than you would normally be.

    Let's not forget LT for lactate threshold, aero wheels, aero helmet, trislide, foggle, 5mm and 3mm for wetsuits... goodness we have our own language.