Triathlon Rules Tips

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Can I wear headphones during the race?

More Rules

There are too many triathlon rules to address in this tip book, but below are several other simple yet important rules to keep in mind. If broken, each of these rule infractions result in time penalties or disqualification.

  • The use of headphones, radios, and personal audio devices are strictly prohibited during the bike and run.
  • It is illegal to sell your race number/entry to someone else. If caught, punishment includes suspension or loss of USA Triathlon membership, plus being barred from participation in sanctioned events for up to one year.
  • Participants shall be disqualified for using any device that aids propulsion during swim, including but not limited to fins, paddles, or floating devices.
  • Handlebar ends should be firmly plugged to decrease the possibility of injury. Bar ends are routinely checked prior to entering the transition area.
  • Outside assistance from family, friends, or spectators of any kind are prohibited on the course.

What is abandonment?


When participating in USA Triathlon sanctioned events you must not leave equipment or personal gear on the race course. If seen by a race official, a violation of this rule results in a minimum time penalty of two minutes. The catch to this rule is that abandonment includes everything from cycling shoes dropped and left in the transition area, to littering out on the course. Yes, a Gu gel wrapper is considered equipment under this rule. Put food wrappers in your bike jersey and discard them at the next aid station. If a water bottle is launched from your bottle cage when you hit a bump in the road, turn around and pick it up. It is that simple. Unfortunately, not all athletes follow this rule, but it boils down to race etiquette. Keeping debris off the course not only makes racing safer for other competitors, but also prevents volunteers from having to pick up litter on the course after the event.

Besides drafting, are there other bike position violations ?

Other Bike Position Fouls

In addition to drafting, there are several additional bike position fouls that could draw a penalty from race officials. These violations are regarding blocking, position, and being overtaken. Blocking occurs when a cyclist obstructs the progress of another rider. This might happen in a failed attempt to pass another rider, which leaves you in the middle of the road and riding side by side with the rider you intended to pass. If a cyclist then rides up behind you wanting to pass both of you but cannot, you are in danger of blocking. In this instance, the main responsibility for avoiding a position foul is left up to the rider in the rear. It is best not to attempt passing another rider unless ample space is available and you are confident in your ability to successfully make the pass. Cyclists are to position themselves on the right hand side of the road, unless making a pass, which is done to the left. It is common to hear the phrase “on your left” as a rider behind you moves into your draft zone and makes the pass around you. The overtaken rider now bears the responsibility of dropping back out of the draft zone, before trying to pass again. Any violations of these rules results in a time penalty, and for repeat offenders possible disqualification could occur.

What is drafting?


The rule most carefully monitored by triathlon officials is that of drafting. Often participants draft while racing and never realize it. Competitors should not position their bikes any closer than three bike lengths behind another cyclist or a moving vehicle so as to benefit from reduced air resistance. Research has shown that drafting on the bike reduces the energy expended by 20-30%. Thus, working together with other cyclists to improve efficiency, performance, or position is prohibited and punishable by a time penalty. Race officials are continuously riding up and down the bike course on motorcycles looking for those drafting. Even those in the middle or back of the pack are not immune to drafting penalties. The "drafting zone" can be described as a rectangular area two meters wide and seven meters long surrounding each bicycle. To avoid being penalized, when you enter the drafting zone of another rider you must close the gap and overtake the rider within approximately 15 seconds. If you cannot pass the athlete in this amount of time it is best not to attempt to pass.

Where do I get on an off of my bike?

Mount/Dismount Line

The mount/dismount line is located in the transition area and indicates where you are to get on and off your bike. As you come in from the swim and transition to cycling you will walk/run your bike to the mount line. Not only is it unsafe, but it is also illegal to mount your bike before reaching this line. You should push your bike past the line a few feet before mounting, as this area is very congested. Upon returning into transition you need to dismount your bike before getting to this line. To dismount safely, slow down and be in control of your bike. Riding into transition out of control dramatically increases the likelihood of being in or causing an accident. You should practice mounting and dismounting your bike prior to the race, especially if your bike handling skill needs improvement. There is nothing more embarrassing than having a bike wreck while riding into transition.

What is the triathlon rule regarding helmets?

Helmet Rules

USA Triathlon has strict rules regarding the use of helmets. Helmets are to be worn with chin straps buckled whenever you are on your bike before, during, and after a sanctioned event. You can receive a penalty or even be disqualified before the race starts for not wearing a helmet or buckling the chinstrap. As you can imagine this is a major liability and a safety issue for USA Triathlon. An example of when this rule might be violated is upon arriving at a race site you decide to ride your bike into the transition area. When cycling into the transition you must be wearing a helmet with the chinstrap buckled. Also, be sure to buckle your chin strap prior to mounting your bike as you begin the cycling leg of your triathlon.

Will I need to follow traffic laws during the bike portion of a triathlon?

Obeying Traffic Laws

During the cycling leg of a triathlon, participants should follow all traffic laws while on the bike course. This means cyclists should ride on the far right hand side of the road and should never cross the yellow line in the middle of on the road. Any violation of this rule results in disqualification or time penalty as determined by the race official. Also, be particularly careful near intersections and while making turns on the course. Most races are well organized with police and/or volunteers controlling vehicular traffic by monitoring dangerous corners and intersections. Do not take this for granted. Always look both ways when coming to an intersection, and if there is no traffic control come to a complete stop at traffic lights or stop signs. It only takes one mistake to end your triathlon career, so please be careful out there.

What are the rules about wetsuits?

Wetsuit Use

USA Triathlon has rules governing wetsuit use during triathlon swimming. This rule states that you can wear a wetsuit when the water temperature is 78 degrees Fahrenheit or below. If the water temperatures are greater than 78 degrees but less than 84 degrees, competitors may wear a wetsuit but are not eligible to receive awards. Wetsuits are strictly prohibited when water temperatures exceed 84 degrees.

If your upcoming event is ‘wetsuit legal' be sure to borrow one from a friend or rent one at your local triathlon shop. Those planning to pursue triathlon more seriously should consider purchasing one. The major advantages of wearing a wetsuit include warmth and buoyancy. The buoyancy effect of a wetsuit is particularly beneficial for poor swimmers who are usually very nervous about completing the swim portion of the race.

What strokes are permissible in triathlon swimming?

Swim Rules

Beginners are often uncertain about the rules surrounding a triathlon swim. Essentially, any swim stroke is permissible. Obviously, the front crawl is the most efficient swim stroke but you may sidestroke, backstroke, or dog paddle if necessary to finish the swim. It is o.k. to tread water or float if desired. Also, you can make contact with the bottom so it is legal to walk out as far as you would like before commencing to swim. You may grab inanimate objects to rest, but gaining forward progress from such objects will result in a penalty or disqualification. In case of an emergency, similar to the rule described above, a swimmer who gets into trouble can receive assistance from a race official without being disqualified so long as forward progress is not made. Simply put, you may hold onto a boat manned by an official without the risk of disqualification, just don't ask to be pulled around the swim course!

How is the swim portion of a triathlon organized?

Wave Starts

Unlike the Ironman mass swim starts seen on television, USA Triathlon sanctioned events begin in "waves." Typically, these waves are based on age group and depending on the size of the race, there may be more than one age group per wave. Below is an example of how a wave start may be organized.

Wave Time Age Group Color Swim Cap

#1 6:15 Women 30-39

#2 6:25 Women - All Others Yellow

#3 6:30 Men 25-29 / 55+ Light Blue

#4 6:35 Men 50-54 Royal Blue

#5 6:40 Men 30-34 Day-Glow Green

#6 6:45 Men 30-34 Red

#7 6:50 Men 35-39 Purple

#8 6:55 Men 35-39 Orange

#9 7:00 Men 40-44 Yellow

#10 7:10 Men 45-49 Royal Blue

#11 7:15 Men 15-24 / Relays Red

When you enter a race make sure you know your age group start time. USA Triathlon rules state that participants must start in and with the appropriate wave or group. One consequence of violating this rule is disqualification. Another possibility is that the officials allow you to start between waves or with the next age group. However, your official time begins with the start of your wave. In the example above, if you are a male in the 25-29 age group and you miss your 6:30 am start by two minutes, then you are already two minutes behind competitors in your wave. In a triathlon, the clock waits for no one!

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