The ABC's of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games Triathlon

For the first time ever, both the women’s and men’s Olympic triathlon events will be broadcasted live. You can check out the action for the men on August 18th at 10a.m. ET on USA Network, while the women’s race will be contested on August 20th at 10a.m. ET on NBC. Both races can also be streamed live online at For those who know little about triathlon and/or only have experience in long distance racing (Ironman, 70.3), I created a list of tips and terms that I hope will help you better understand and enhance your Olympic triathlon viewing experience. :)

A – Aero bars. Unlike triathlons that are non-drafting, to ensure the safety of all the athletes, only clip-on aero bars are allowed on the road bikes during the Olympic triathlon. Clip-on aero bars must have a solid bridge and not exceed the foremost line of the brake levers. Because athletes are so limited in their extension on these types of aero bars, they are becoming less used in competition. Keep an eye on the athletes’ bikes…most won’t have aero bars.

B – Breakaway. When a small group of riders or an individual successfully opens up a time gap ahead of the peloton (main group). With such a hilly bike course in the Rio triathlon, it is likely that some breakaways will form on the bike to try and “break” the stronger runners in the field.

C – Circuit race. All International Triathlon Union Olympic distance races are contested as circuit races, making the race more spectator-friendly. The Olympic triathlon in Rio will consist of: 1 lap for the swim, 8 laps for the bike, and 4 laps for the run.

D – Domestique. An athlete who sacrifices their own race to specifically work for a teammate(s). Their main job is on the swim and bike – to try and protect their teammate as much as possible and control or counter any moves in the 40 kilometer bike portion of the race. Once they get to the run, their job is done as they have hopefully helped their teammate exit T2 (transition #2) in a good position. Domestiques have been used in past Olympics to help countries secure a on the lookout for them in Rio.

E – Energy gels. Even though this is considered a shorter distance race (~2 hours), nutrition is still of the utmost importance. Some athletes will have energy gels such as Power Gel, GU, Hammer Gel, Clif, etc. taped to their bike to allow for easy access during the cycling portion of the race. Others may choose to get their nutrition solely from their drink mixes (placed in their water bottles).

F – FTP (Functional Threshold Power). The ability to sustain the highest possible power output over a 45-60 minute period. Watch for the announcers to chat or guesstimate what the athlete’s FTP is during the bike portion of the race.

G – Goggles. Protective eyewear with side shields worn during the swim. The main job of goggles is to protect the athletes from water leaking in, dust, wind, glare, etc.

H – Heart rate. Athletes keep an eye on both heart rate and power during the race to measure their output and know that they are staying within their zones that they’ve practiced training in.

I – ITU (International Triathlon Union). The international governing body for the multi-sport disciplines of triathlon, duathlon, aquathlon, and other variations of the sport. Outside of the Olympics, the Olympic triathletes compete in mostly ITU sanctioned events.

J – Junk miles. To get to this stage of the game, all of the athletes have followed carefully formulated training programs and worked with a coach to ensure that each training session has a purpose…these athletes just say no to junk miles!

K – Kilometers. The Olympic distance race is measured in kilometers, with distances consisting of: a 1.5 kilometer swim, 40 kilometer bike, and 10 kilometer run.

L – Legal to draft or draft legal. The Olympic triathlon features a draft-legal bike leg, which means that athletes are allowed to bike in a pack and work together. Riding in a pack reduces the impact of the wind on the riders and allows riders to save energy. This also places an importance on having good bike handling skills!

M – Mental game. A lot of physical training is done in preparation for the games, no doubt. However, the mental game also plays a huge part in the overall plan of most athletes. Positive self-talk and having positive mantras to say during the race help an athlete to stay calm and deal with whatever obstacles/challenges may be thrown their way.

N – Neoprene cap. A cap placed under the racing cap if water temperatures are cooler. Sometimes athletes also use a neoprene cap solely in race warm ups to help stay warm.

O – Olympic Games triathlon. This is the fifth time that the triathlon will be contested in the Olympics. Olympic triathlon made its debut in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics.

P – Penalties. During the race, you may notice athletes having to stop and serve a time penalty in the “penalty box.” Common penalties include: a false start on the swim, unsportsmanlike/dangerous conduct(which could result in disqualification),improperly racking the bike in transition #2 (T2), and not placing cap/goggles/wetsuit, bike helmet in the appropriate box in the transition area.

Q – Questions. The Olympic courses are very technical, and athletes often have a lot of questions heading into the race. Luckily, they will get their chance to inquire about any concerns to the race director/race officials in an athlete briefing which is held the day before the race.

R – Road bikes. Because of the draft-legal/ ITU style of racing for the bike portion and the athletes being in such close proximity, only road bikes are allowed in these types of races.

S –Six. The number of athletes representing the United States in the Olympic triathlon (3 men, 3 women).

T – Transition area. This is a marked area where the athletes will store all of their equipment and do a quick change from swim to bike and bike to run. Unlike most age group races, athletes will have their own rack, with their name, race number, and country’s flag on it. They will rack their bike (with their cycling shoes clipped in already) and position their helmet, sunglasses, and running shoes in a way that’s quick and easy to get in and out of the transition area.

U – USA Triathlon. USA Triathlon (USAT) serves as the national governing body for triathlon, duathlon, aquathlon, and winter triathlon in the United States.

V – VO2 max. A measure of the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use. This is another metric commonly referenced during a triathlon.

W – Wetsuit. If the water temperatures are below 20 degrees Celsius, wetsuits (suits made of a material similar to rubber) will be allowed for the triathlon in Rio. Besides providing warmth, wetsuits help the athlete’s buoyancy in the water. Note: air temperatures can sometimes also factor into the official decision of whether or not to make the race wetsuit legal.

X – X-tra credit. Ok, I admit this one was a bit of a stretch… But, here’s some extra credit info for you: the first Olympic champions in the sport of triathlon were Simon Whitfield (Canada) and Brigitte McMahon (Switzerland) in the 2000 Olympic Games.

Y – Yankz. A company that offers a type of elastic shoe lacing system that makes it easy for an athlete to get their feet into the shoes, and tighten the laces very quickly. Every second in transition counts, so be on the lookout in Rio for the athletes to have various brands of shoe laces that are quick and easy to tighten.

Z – Zero: The chance of you NOT getting hooked on this sport after watching/competing.

Hope everyone enjoys watching the races. Oh, and most importantly, best of luck to our Team USA! Go Greg, Ben, Joe, Gwen, Katie, and Sarah!


Ken S. said…
I've consulted this a few times watching the triathlon, great resource, thanks!
Amanda said…
Hi Ken,
So sorry for the delayed response! I'm glad this article was helpful for you!

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