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All the Unspoken Rules of Swim-Bike-Run Etiquette

Do you have to share a lane in the pool? What should you do when passing someone on the bike? Use these tips to navigate the unspoken rules of how to behave in common training and racing scenarios.

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When you start out in triathlon, there’s a lot to think about: the gear you’ll need, the best routes for riding and running, how to manage all the logistics, and convincing yourself that no, you actually really do enjoy waking up at 4 in the morning to swim before work. On top of all of that, triathletes have to navigate the unspoken rules of how to behave in the sport. New triathletes (and, let’s be real, plenty of seasoned ones too) are often unsure about the etiquette of sharing a lane, passing someone while riding, or taking up space in the transition area on race day. These “rules” aren’t about shaming people who may not know them (after all, they are unspoken), but instead it’s about all agreeing to a set of principles so we can create an environment where everyone can stay safe and have fun.

Swim-Bike-Run Etiquette

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At the pool

Two swimmers demonstrate how to split a lane in the pool.
(Photo: Getty Images)

Check the pool schedule before heading to swim. If there’s something else going on—a youth swim team practice or water aerobics—the pool may be closed for lap swimming. If you’re asked to vacate the pool for these classes, don’t complain or belittle those using the pool. They have the time blocked off on the schedule and their workouts are just as important as yours.

Know where to swim. Some pools and Masters swim groups designate certain lanes for slower, intermediate, and faster swimmers. There are also some pools who have rules about which lanes are for using swim tools (like kickboards) or certain strokes (like backstroke). If you’re new to a pool or a swim group, ask the lifeguard or coach if this system is in place, and if so, where you should swim.

When possible, choose an empty lane. If all the lanes have at least one swimmer, sit or crouch at the end of the lane until the swimmer comes to the wall. Ask if you can jump in, and if they say yes, would they prefer to split the lane (ie., each person takes a side of the lane and stays on that side, most common with two people in a lane) or circle swim (ie., all swimmers stay to the right as they swim in a loop within the lane, used when there are three or more in a lane). Don’t assume splitting or circle-swimming; always clarify before getting into the lane. [It’s good to know that not all super serious swimmers want to spend time stopping at the wall and talking about this. If the person swimming in the lane is in the middle of a set or workout when you want to get in, they might just nod, thumbs up, or gesture to note which they prefer. It’s nothing personal.]

When circle swimming, wait at least 5 seconds between swimmers (ideally, 10 or more seconds). If the swimmer behind you taps you on the foot, stop at the wall to let them pass, and give them at least five seconds before pushing off. (If you are the one doing the passing, don’t swim on their ankles! Hang back until you get to the wall, then make your pass.)

If you are repeatedly catching up to the swimmers in your lane, ask your lane mates if you can lead off or move to a faster lane (at Masters swim, talk with the coach about which lane would be best for you).

RELATED: Choosing the Right Masters Swim Lane

During rest intervals, stay to the side or the corner, not the middle of the wall. This allows other swimmers to continue their sets unobstructed.

Don’t use swim tools that belong to other swimmers. Even when a pool provides kickboards, pull buoys, fins, or paddles for swimmers, if that gear is placed at the end of an occupied lane, it should be assumed that swimmer is using it. Get your own set from the communal storage (and put it away when you’re done) or bring your personal equipment to use.

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On a ride

Ride in the same direction as traffic, using the bike lane (when provided). If no bike lane is present, you should ride on the road. Sidewalks are typically designated for pedestrians only; check your local bike laws. On a shared-use bike path, follow posted directions for bikes and pedestrians.

If you’re riding on the road, depending on your local laws, you are typically allowed to use the full lane, but it is considered courteous to traffic to stay to the right side of the lane or in the shoulder (if there is a big enough shoulder) to allow others to pass on your left. Likewise, depending on the road, you may need to ride single-file. Follow local bike laws and be considerate of others.

RELATED: Why We Bike With (Not Against) Traffic

When approaching another rider from behind, loudly say “on your left” before you pass. Be mindful that they may not hear you. Look over your shoulder for cars or other cyclists who may be coming from behind, then move to the left to make your pass. Give the other rider(s) at least three feet of space when passing (more if possible). Always pass on the left, never come up on a rider you don’t know on the inside or to the right of them.

Even if you’re riding alone, check behind you before blowing a snot rocket, spitting out a mouth full of water, or other bodily functions that may land on a rider downstream.

Only draft off another rider when A) you know them, and B) you have their permission. Don’t draft off random strangers who happen to be on the same route as you.

In group ride settings, clarify the rules of the group before rolling out. Is this a no-drop ride, and if so, who is the “sweep,” or the rider who stays back with slower riders? How often will you rotate the leader? Does this rotation happen in clockwise or counterclockwise fashion? Is it okay to skip a turn out front if you don’t feel like you can hold the pace? What hand signals or call-outs do you use to point out road hazards, slowing, and stopping? Common calls to know include: “Car up” (meaning a car ahead), “car back” (meaning a car coming up behind), likewise for other obstacles (eg., “rider up”), and “stopping” or “slowing” (meaning you’re slowing down or stopping for the riders behind you).

Remember that on a group ride, you are moving as one organism. Do not ride in your aerobars when in a group. Stay upright with your hands over your brakes, which will allow you to respond quickly and safely to the movements of other riders.

“Half-wheeling,” or riding with your front wheel overlapping with the rear wheel of the cyclist in front of you, is extremely dangerous. When riding behind another cyclist, stay behind their rear wheel. You can stay directly behind them or move slightly to the side to see the road ahead; either is fine, so long as your wheels do not have the potential to touch.

Never touch another cyclist without their consent. Even if they look like they’re struggling and could use a push, don’t reach out unless they have specifically asked for it. (This is most common with men “helping” women who have not asked for it, but applies to all cyclists.)

Don’t litter. Stash your spent gels and CO2 cartridges in your jersey pocket until you can find an appropriate trash receptacle.

Pull off to the side when stopping. Don’t stop in the road or in the middle of a bike path, whether it’s just because you’re at the top of a hill, waiting for friends, or need a break.

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While running

(Photo: Getty Images)

You’re probably not going to be the only person using the sidewalk or the trail during your run. Be courteous to others, especially when passing. As with cycling, saying “on your left” well before passing alerts the person in front of you to your presence. (Also, be aware that the person may not hear you, so give a wide berth.)

On trails, people going uphill generally yield to people going downhill (who have gravity on their side and may have a harder time moving or stopping), and runners should yield to trail users who are larger or faster than them (such as mountain bikers or horses). Depending on how wide the trail is, this does not always mean you have to stop. On wider, popular trails, mountain bikers and runners often pass each other while slowing and moving to the side. The safest option with horses, however, is always stopping and moving off the trail so as not to spook the horse, unless the rider tells you it’s OK to continue past.

RELATED: Etiquette Rules of Trail Running

When running with a partner or a group, go over the game plan before setting out. How far will you run? What’s the pace, and who is responsible for setting it? Will there be any pickups or intervals?

Groups should run no more than two abreast at a time—this allows for others to pass safely.

You may have learned to tune out the jingling of your keys in your running belt, or the sloshing of your hydration bladder, but others haven’t. In a group setting, be conscious of repetitive noises and take steps to minimize those sounds.

Avoid half-stepping, or running slightly ahead of your running buddy. Save that behavior for race day, when it counts, and instead use this side-by-side training time for swapping training tips, gossip, or some good-natured smack talk.

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Race day

A nervous triathlete looks for his spot in transition at Ironman Barcelona. Triathletes often worry about their gear leading up to the race.
(Photo: Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Fortunately, most of the race rules aren’t unwritten, they’re written down—very clearly. The biggest unwritten rule, though, is to remember this isn’t just your race; everyone else is here to race too. Don’t cut in line. Don’t push your way to the front. If you have to seed yourself in the swim start or corral, be honest with yourself.

Give yourself plenty of time to get into transition and set up before the race begins. This isn’t just for you, but for those around you in transition, who like to get a lay of the land (which includes your gear) before the race begins.

Transition areas can sometimes be tight. Make your transition setup as small and unobtrusive as possible to allow for the athletes on either side of you to fit their gear in as well. Remove your extra clothes and bags from your transition spot and set them out of the way or give them to a friend or family member.

RELATED: The Golden Rules of the Transition Area

There are port-a-potties in transition areas and on the course. Use them. Yes, even if there’s a line. Yes, even if you really, really, really have to go. The locals don’t appreciate people in spandex fertilizing their gardens, and the race volunteers didn’t sign up to step in puddles of urine in the change tent. Seriously, don’t be gross. This also goes for public nudity.

Speaking of the volunteers: Thank the volunteers, loudly and enthusiastically. They gave up a perfectly good Saturday to hand you a cup of water or slather sunscreen on your neck, and that deserves some appreciation.