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By the Numbers: Who Makes A Good Pro Triathlete?

A first-of-its-kind study compiles all the ingredients needed to succeed at an elite level. But there’s still that intangible “it factor” that’s harder to quantify.


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It’s the declaration many triathletes make on group rides or in post-race beer tents: “If I had all the time in the world to train, I bet I could be a pro, too.” Almost certainly, swapping out the responsibilities of a traditional 9-to-5 for a daily focus on swim-bike-run could make just about anyone faster. The oft-repeated “10,000-hour rule,” popularized by Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers in 2008, suggests almost anyone can achieve mastery of a skill with 10,000 hours of focused, well-taught, intensive practice.

But even 10,000 hours is unlikely to turn the Average Joe into Jan Frodeno. Time spent training is only one ingredient of pro-level talent. So what are the other ingredients?

That’s what researchers at the University of Vigo in Pontevedra, Spain set out to discover. By conducting a meta-analysis of over 80 studies on elite female and male triathletes, lead researcher Alba Cuba-Dorado and colleagues were able to build profiles of those most likely to succeed in high-performance triathlon.

The study, published in the January 2022 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, was presented as a way to help coaches and national federations identify athletes with the best potential for success at the elite level.

“Most talent identification battery tests really lack in prediction capacity for later performance,” Cuba-Dorado said. “What we really need to know is how to design the best talent identification test. And in order to do that, we first need to understand the characteristics of elite triathletes.”

By identifying specific traits of the most successful elite short-course triathletes today—think Olympians and World Champions—Cuba-Dorado’s team was able to build profiles of the ideal male and female elite triathletes. In an aggregator, the perfect triathlete might have the legs of Javier Gomez and VO2 max of Kristian Blummenfelt; the stroke rate of Lucy Charles-Barclay and shoe size of Katie Zaferes (and yes, they studied shoe size—more on that below). Of course, there is no one “perfect” specimen in triathlon (we’ll let you argue about this on Twitter), but the results of this study could help coaches and national federations identify emerging triathletes who check as many of the boxes as possible.

“What we did was collect the information available in the scientific triathlon literature regarding different aspects that can have an impact on triathlon performance,” Cuba-Dorado said. “To make it easier for coaches and triathlon readers, we have grouped this information into several sections, like anthropometric profile, physiological profile, biomechanical and neuromuscular factors, and psychosocial profiles. We did decide to exclude performance-limiting factors such as injuries, or everything that encompasses training processes, since they must be studied by themselves in greater depth.”

There were several surprises in analyzing the data, but the biggest one, according to Cuba-Dorada, was not what they discovered but what they didn’t: “One of the things that is most striking is the scarce research on women triathletes with respect to men.”

So what are the unique characteristics of high-level short-course triathletes? Here’s what the science says.

Photo: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

Characteristics of elite triathletes: A summary

From Cuba-Dorada et. al, 2022:

Age

Younger is not always faster. Though there are certain advantages to youth—a faster metabolism, the ability to bounce back from hard workouts quickly, and a greater willingness to take risks—there’s a reason one doesn’t see too many 21 year-olds on the top step of the Olympic podium. With age comes wisdom and experience, which are both important factors in training and racing intelligently. Based on an analysis of when athletes peak in their elite racing careers, Cuba-Dorado and colleagues concluded, “it seems that approximately 30 is the age at which performance is optimized.”

Another factor in the age equation is not the year you were born, but the month you were born. Most Olympic triathletes are born in the first half of the year (32% in the first quarter, 30% in the second, 21% in the third, and 17% in the fourth), and an overwhelming majority of Olympic medalists in triathlon were born in the first quarter. An athlete born in January has a significant advantage over one born in December of the same year, simply by virtue of having almost a full year of extra development. A year may not sound like a lot to an adult, but younger athletes develop quickly, and an adolescent triathlete at the older end of an age group will have more physical advantages (and therefore get more attention and resources) than someone born 11 months later. Even that slight advantage can set the stage for an athlete to gain a leg up from a young age.

Body Type

Many age-group athletes pursue a so-called “elite” body type in triathlon, believing a lower weight or body fat percentage will make them faster. Cuba-Dorada’s study found this wasn’t the case: “There are no anthropometric characteristics directly related to success,” they wrote. “The triathlete’s profile does not seem to be defined by height or weight (i.e., there are great female triathletes under 160cm in height or male Olympic champions weighing in at 80kg).”

The surprising factor that might matter more? Wingspan and shoe size. Long arms make for faster swimmers, and long legs allow athletes to cover more ground in cycling and running. Ditto for big hands and feet: measurements of elite triathletes showed an average hand size of 19.7 centimeters and foot size of 43.3 centimeters in male triathletes; in females, the average hand size was 18.2 centimeters and shoe size 38.3 centimeters. This “can especially influence swimming,” concluded the study authors.

Biomechanical Factors

Body type may not matter much, but body movement does. In observing a professional triathlete versus an age-group athlete, there are often stark differences in the way the two bodies move. Coaches and physiologists have long asserted that technique is king, and Cuba-Dorada’s study found plenty of evidence confirming this notion.

“The technical mastery of each discipline will determine the overall performance in the triathlon,” the study authors wrote. “Likewise, movement efficiency is highly related to performance in any of the three disciplines.”

In swimming, elite males were found to have a mean stroke rate (arm cycles per minute) of 37.9 and stroke length (meters advanced per stroke) of 1.91 meters; no data was available for females.

In cycling, power and pedaling cadence were examined. Researchers found the mean total power numbers in WTS (World Triathlon) racing to be 230 watts and 252 watts for women and men, respectively, with a decline in power as the race progresses. However, there is data to indicate that mean power may not predict success as much as the ability to carry out “short, explosive moments”—in elite triathletes, a mean variation of 71% in power, with peaks of more than 600 watts, were noted. Though data is not as extensive for cycling cadence, it seems males average 95rpm and females, 88rpm. (At this time, it’s not fully understood why there is such a significant difference between sexes on this measurement.)

RELATED: An Expert Look Inside Blummenfelt’s Gold-Medal Winning Bike File

For running, the characteristics most associated with success: “greater stride length, lower frequency, greater distance between the vertical projection of the hip and the hell at the strike, together with a larger angle in the extension of the knee of the supporting leg with respect to the toes…”

VO2Max and VT2

Maximum oxygen consumption, or VO2max, is often cited as a measure of physical fitness—the higher the score, the better the cardiac system has adapted to the demands of training. In treadmill and cycle ergometer tests, the mean VO2max score was 67.3, through the study authors noted a scarcity of data on women means “these values should be considered with caution.”) A greater pool of data was available for male triathletes, revealing an average VO2max score of 72.9.

Ventilatory threshold 2, or VT2, is the point where lactate increases with intense efforts. The closer an athlete’s VT2 score is to their VO2max, the more likely they will be able to maintain high-intensity efforts over time. For elite women, VT2 scores of over 80 % of VO2max were noted (though as with VO2max, data on this population is scarce); elite men averaged between 81 and 87 % of VO2max.

RELATED: 6 Swim, Bike and Run Workouts to Boost Your VO2 Max

Competition Strategy

Being first out of the water is a good place to be, but it’s not a guarantee of a podium finish. Cuba-Dorado’s analysis shows an athlete’s position in the race at T1 has a low correlation with their overall finishing place. The race seems to really begin on the cycling leg, where the data show a significant decrease in pace per lap (indicating that the best competition strategy is to start slow and finish faster). The opposite occurs on the run: the most successful elite triathletes have the ability to adopt an “aggressive racing strategy…with a high speed at the beginning of the segment that is gradually reduced and influenced by high levels of motivation and the presence of rivals.”

RELATED: Build Your Race Strategy Around Your Strengths

Mental Health

“There are many triathletes who, despite having great physical qualities, are not capable of reaching the elite level due to mental issues,” remarked the study authors. This may explain why 64% of elite females and 60% of elite males report seeing a psychotherapist. Though psychological and social factors in triathlon are a new (albeit rapidly-expanding) field of study, one thing is clear: mental health matters.

RELATED: Mental Health Used to Be Taboo in Endurance Sports. These Researchers Are Changing That

Photo: Tommy Zaferes/Triathlon.org

Using the Data to Actually ID Great Triathletes

Though Cuba-Dorado’s study is the first to provide a comprehensive list for the characteristics of elite triathletes, it shouldn’t be used as the be-all, end-all for talent recruitment. Just as flour, butter, and sugar don’t make cookies without a mixer and an oven, a triathlete who possesses many of the traits above can’t reach the highest levels of triathlon without a bit of outside help.

That’s where development programs come in. “Talent identification kind of implies that we go out there like we’re fishing, trying to find whatever fits the idea of what ‘good’ triathletes should be,” said Joe Maloy, development manager at USA Triathlon (USAT). “But the truth is, we could find the 10 best triathletes in the country, but we’d just be guessing as to which one would go on to have success.”

USAT has a history of success with its talent identification, developing NCAA swimmers and runners into world-class triathletes: Olympic gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen, Olympians Katie Zaferes and Morgan Pearson, and short-course star Matt McElroy are all products of USAT’s development program. But for every Gwen Jorgensen, there are dozens more athletes who have the ingredients of elite triathletes, but simply can’t hack it at a higher level. Maloy said there are several intangibles that come into play beyond physical attributes, such as mindset and life circumstances. You can teach a triathlete all about technique, but it matters little if they lack the motivation to carry it out on race day.

That’s why Maloy, along with USAT development colleagues Tommy Zaferes and Lindsey Jerdonek, begin their talent identification process with education. By providing potential high-performance recruits with benchmarks to strive for, instead of traits to check off, the athlete takes an active role in their own development. “Because everything in our sport is measured, we have a lot of data,” Maloy said. “We know what a good swim time is, we know what power-to-weight ratio people should be going for, we know what run times look like on the bike. But instead of telling athletes they must hit these numbers to be a high-performance triathlete, we just educate them on what they should be shooting for. When we present athletes with our benchmarks (below), some think Oh, that’s way too fast. The ones who progress to the upper echelons of the sport look at these timetables and think I’m not there yet, but I think I could get there.

Maloy compares this mindset to building a ladder. Some see only the top rung, focusing on how high the ladder is instead of the many rungs along the way to reach the heights. That’s where the next phase of development comes in: Creating an optimal environment for the athlete to grow. To build a high-performance triathlete is to speak their language, whatever it is. The coach-athlete relationship is a critical component of success, as is the training environment. Placing athletes in a position to thrive might mean providing USAT recruits with the resources to train at the USA Olympic Training Center in Colorado or with Project Podium in Arizona. USAT also uses personality profiles, such as the Clifton Strengths Assessment (most often used in workplace settings), to best adapt their coaching to fit each individual athlete.

“We need to know what makes each individual athlete tick. How do they process information? How do they respond to what they hear from me?” Maloy said. “The coach-athlete relationship is crucial to progression in any sport, so how do we make that better? With these athletes, we have committed fully to their progression in triathlon, but it starts with us meeting the athlete where they’re at, not trying to make them fit into a box we’ve created.”

Julia Vandenoever Photo: Julia Vandenoever

So what makes a “good” triathlete?

Though there are common physical and psychological characteristics of high-performing triathletes, the reality is that it’s almost impossible to predict exactly which young triathletes will become the Olympic gold medalists of tomorrow. Theoretically, every person could improve their performance with time and training, but some people will have an easier time than others, simply because they have certain physical and mental attributes. From there, they need the right environment to develop those attributes even further.

“It’s like if you tried to plant a seed in Antarctica,” Maloy said. “It might not grow. So as a national federation, we can either go out and find those perfect physical specimens, or you can build something that makes them want to come to you. We can’t guarantee a person with all the right traits will thrive [in high-performance triathlon]. But what we can do is build something that offers them the opportunity to realize their potential in sport, and to build habits that will make them lifelong competitors and achievers.”

Benchmarks: Elite Women

Swim

LCM/YDS

World Leading Internationally Ranked Nationally Competitive Olympic Development Potential
50 Free 27.5/23.5 29/25 30.5/26.5 34/31
100 Free 59/51 1:04/56 1:08/1:00 1:13/1:06
200 Free 2:08/1:52 2:18/2:02 2:26/2:10 2:40/2:25
400/500 Free 4:36/4:57 4:56/5:17 5:12/5:33 5:40/6:00
800/1000 Free 9:15/10:14 9:55/10:40 10:14/10:58 11:40/12:30
1500/1650 Free 16:50/17:02 17:30/17:42 18:00/18/12 22:00/22:20

Bike

World Leading Internationally Ranked Nationally Competitive Olympic Development Potential
5 min 5W/KG 5.2W/KG 5.0W/KG 4.5W/KG
20 min 5.0W/KG 4.5W/KG 4.2W/KG 3.7W/KG
60 min 4.7W/KG 4.2W/KG 4.0W/KG 3.5W/KG

Run

World Leading Internationally Ranked Nationally Competitive Olympic Development Potential
200 29 30.5 31.5 33
400 1:03 1:08 1:10 1:17
800 2:10 2:20 2:25 2:40
1500 4:20 4:40 4:50 5:20
Mile 4:35 4:45 5:05 5:35
5K 15:50 16:10 16:30 18:05
10K 33:00 33:45 34:30 37:20

Benchmarks: Elite Men

Swim

LCM/YDS

World Leading Internationally Ranked Nationally Competitive Olympic Development Potential
50 Free 26/22 27.5/23.5 28.5/25 31/28
100 Free 55/47 58/50 100/53 1:10/1:03
200 Free 1:55/1:39 2:03/1:47 2:08/1:52 2:30/2:14
400/500 Free 4:08/4:30 4:20/4:42 4:30/4:52 5:10/5:32
800/1000 Free 8:30/9:20 8:50/9:40 9:05/9:55 10:40/11:35
1500/1650 Free 16:05/15:25 16:30/15:50 16:55/16:15 20:00/19:20

Bike

World Leading Internationally Ranked Nationally Competitive Olympic Development Potential
5 min 5.8W/KG 5.5W/KG 5.2W/KG 4.6W/KG
20 min 5.3W/KG 5.0W/KG 4.7W/KG 4.0W/KG
60 min 5.1W/KG 4.8W/KG 4.5W/KG 3.7W/KG

Run

World Leading Internationally Ranked Nationally Competitive Olympic Development Potential
200 25.5 26.5 28 31
400 55 59 1:03 1:07
800 1:55 2:03 2:11 2:20
1500 3:50 4:00 4:10 4:33
Mile 4:05 4:15 4:25 4:55
5K 13:45 14:20 15:00 16:55
10K 28:45 30:00 31:15 34:30