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The Other, Colder Triathlon

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Winter triathlon is a real sport—and it’s kind of rad.

For most triathletes, winter is a time to rest. Many scale back time spent training, and often choose to focus on a single sport, like running. But that doesn’t mean triathlon goes into hibernation. While the swim-bike-run crowd is taking a break, another triathlon season is beginning: this time, the race involves running, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing.

Winter triathlon is, in fact, a sport sanctioned by the International Triathlon Union, the same governing body that oversees swim-bike-run. The first official races were held in 1980s, but the sport didn’t really take traction until the 1990s, when it was recognized by the ITU. In 1997, the first ITU Winter Triathlon World Championship was held in Italy.

The sport has evolved during that time. “In the early years the most common format was running in a city or village, bike on road uphill to a winter resort or cross country track and cross country ski. explains ITU representative Enrique Quesada. “In 2001, the ‘all on snow’ format was introduced to make the races more compact and to have a more winter look to increase our Olympic hopes.” So far, ITU has made two unsuccessful bids for designation as an Olympic sport; they continue to push for inclusion at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.

There have also been attempts at creating other forms of winter triathlon beyond run-bike-ski. The most successful has been a Canadian interpretation of winter triathlon known as S3: snowshoe, skating, and skiing. This format, though less common than the original winter triathlon, is also recognized by the ITU.

Race distances vary—like the swim-bike-run format, winter triathlon courses have short, intermediate, long, and ultra designations. The most common distances are 5 to 9 kilometer runs, 10 to 15 kilometer mountain bike, and 8 to 12 kilometer ski. There is also a mixed relay format, with three athletes per team completing each of the three disciplines before tagging the next athlete.

Surprisingly—or perhaps not—there isn’t much overlap between summer and winter triathletes. ITU representative Eric Angstadt says this is due in part to the challenges of nordic skiing, “as the technique and demand is one of the highest in elite sport.” But mastering that sport in winter could pay off handsomely in the spring—simply look at the age-group and professional triathletes who credit their off-season gains to time on skis.

Want to give winter triathlon a whirl? Here are a few upcoming options in the United States:

Tri Flake Winter Triathlon
January 18, 2020
Anchorage, AK

Moose on The Loose Winter Triathlon
February 1, 2020
Island Park, ID

Forest Frenzy Winter Triathlon
February 15, 2019
Boulder Junction, WI

USA Winter Triathlon National Championships
March 1, 2020
Minnepolis, MN

Grab your gear and go play in the snow! Tips to get you started:
How to Tackle the Trails in Winter Conditions
Paula Findlay’s Winter Running Tips
Turn Your Running Shoes into Spiked Winter Weapons
Mountain Biking = A Triathlete’s Secret Strength Training Weapon
Why Nordic Skiing May be the Key to Your Next PR