Applied physiology of triathlon

Sports Med. 1995 Apr;19(4):251-67. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199519040-00003.


The triathlon is a 3-event endurance sport in which athletes compete sequentially in swimming, cycling and running. The primary determinant of success is the ability to sustain a high rate of energy expenditure for prolonged periods of time. Exercise training-induced physiological adaptations in virtually all systems of the body allow the athlete to accomplish this. Aerobic capacity (measured as maximal oxygen uptake, VO2max), economy of motion (submaximal VO2) and fractional utilisation of maximal capacity (%VO2max) reflect the integrated responses of these physiological adaptations. Numerous studies have reported relatively high mean VO2max values for various groups of triathletes that are comparable to those reported for athletes in single-event endurance sports and clearly above those reported for untrained individuals. In shorter distance triathlons and in studies using recreational (rather than elite) triathletes, VO2max is related to performance in the corresponding event of the triathlon (e.g. tethered swimming VO2max with swim time). In longer events and with more elite triathletes, VO2max correlates less well with performance. The physiological adaptations that correspond to and facilitate improved VO2max occur centrally in the cardiovascular system, centred on increased maximal cardiac output, and peripherally in the metabolic systems, centred around increased arterio-venous O2 (a-v O2) difference. While a high VO2max in individuals is clearly of importance to triathlon performance, energy output must be sustained for long periods of time, making economy of motion also very important. Studies suggests that competitive swimmers have better swimming economy than triathletes. However, since many triathletes have previously been competitive swimmers this finding is questionable. The finding suggests that triathletes from nonswimming backgrounds would benefit from improving swimming technique rather than concentrating training workouts solely on distance. In cycling and running, comparison studies have not been done. Economy of motion in swimming, cycling and running have all been found to be correlated with comparable event performance. Training to improve swimming economy can be done without prior exercise, but training to improve swimming economy can be done without prior exercise, but training to improve cycling and running economy should take the multimode nature of a triathlon into consideration. That is, swimming should precede cycling economy training, and cycling should precede running economy training. Cardiovascular, metabolic and neuromuscular adaptations are the main physiological correlates of improved movement economy. Since exercise-induced stress on most physiological systems is based on relative, rather than absolute, exercise intensity, training and racing intensities are frequently quantified as a percentage of maximal capacity of %VO2max.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Bicycling / physiology*
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology
  • Physical Endurance / physiology*
  • Running / physiology*
  • Swimming / physiology*