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When most people think of triathlon, they think of an individual pursuit. But what if you’re more into team sports? A new multisport event, the triathlon mixed relay, is exactly that.
Originally introduced by the International Triathlon Union (now World Triathlon) in 2009 in Des Moines, Iowa, and contested by pros at World Triathlon events, mixed team relay captured more widespread attention with its Olympic debut in Tokyo last summer. Great Britain won the gold medal, the United States claimed silver, and France bronze in a competitive, thrilling race. More importantly, the exciting format got people around the world talking about triathlon. Who knew our sport could be so much fun? (Triathletes did, of course—we’ve been trying to tell everyone this for years.)
By popular demand, the riveting mixed-relay format became a new event in the age-group ranks. At this weekend’s World Triathlon Sprint & Relay Championships in Montreal, a mixed team relay will be contested at the age group world championship level for the first time.
In a sport that’s so often dominated by long, solo, non-draft racing, how does mixed team relay actually work? How does one go about finding teammates or a race, and what exactly is the best strategy? Here’s everything you need to know about triathlon mixed relay.
Triathlon mixed relay: The teams
Unlike a traditional triathlon relay, where one team member competes the swim, hands off to another for the bike, then another for the run for a combined team time, a mixed team relay consists of four triathletes per team—normally two men and two women—who each complete a draft-legal super-sprint triathlon in succession. Each member will swim, bike, and run, then hand off to the next person. At the Tokyo Olympics, teams went in a female-male-female-male order. Since then, this has been changed to a male-female-male-female format at all World Triathlon events through the 2024 Olympic Games in order to alternate order every Olympiad, with major age-group competitions following suit.
Athletes each complete their individual swim-bike-run prior to tagging off (via hand slap) to their next teammate, who runs into the water to begin his or her leg.
How far is a triathlon mixed relay?
Individual distances for triathlon mixed relay races are short. In Montreal, for example, the race will be contested as a 300m swim, 5K (3.1 mile) bike, and 1.5K (.9 mile) run, which falls within the normal ranges of a 250-300m swim, 5-8K bike, and 1-2K run. In all, each athlete should expect about 20 minutes of racing. This shorter distance, coupled with the team support and camaraderie, makes mixed relay a great event for beginner triathletes, triathlon teams and clubs, or families who want to share a race-day experience.
What gear do I need for a triathlon mixed relay?
The gear for a triathlon mixed relay is the same as a sprint triathlon. Each individual on the team will need:
- One outfit to wear in all three disciplines (swim, bike, and run). This can be a swimsuit, tri kit, or even quick-drying shorts with a tech tee.
- Wetsuit (optional)
- Swim goggles
- Bike helmet
- Sunglasses (optional, but recommended)
- Bike shoes (if not cycling in running shoes)
- Running shoes
- A road bike
Why a road bike? Triathlon mixed relay races are draft-legal, which means no tri bikes are allowed. (It also means you’ll probably want to brush up on your bike-handling skills before the race, to get comfortable with riding in a pack).
Where can I enter a triathlon mixed relay race?
Unlike triathlon relays with three athletes (which are common at many short- and long-course events around the country), mixed team relays are harder to come across. The format was contested by age groupers in the U.S. at the USA Triathlon Multisport National Championships in Irvine, Texas last April. This event is slated to return in April 2023, and will again include both age-group triathlon and duathlon mixed relay championships. As mixed team relay grows in popularity, chances are more race opportunities will pop up. For example, at the Best in the West Triathlon Festival in September 2022, a mixed team relay event will be offered. More races plan to offer the format in 2023 and beyond. The best way to get triathlon mixed relay added to your favorite local race is to contact your race director and ask.
How do I find triathlon mixed relay teammates?
That depends, in part, on your competition goals. If you’re looking for a fun way to bond with your buddies, then go ahead and form that team with any fellow club members, friends, or family of all ages! If you’re looking to crack into awards or world championship qualifications, more considerations come into play. Naturally, athletes who focus on short-course racing will fare better at this format than their long-course, endurance-based counterparts. Additionally, excellent bike-handling skills are a must, as part of the dynamic of mixed relay is leveraging the draft-legal format on the bike.
You’ll also want to consider the makeup of your team as it pertains to the rules of your event. At the USAT Multisport National Championships rankings were determined based upon cumulative added age of team members and teams needed to be two men and two women to be eligible for awards. In order to earn a Mixed Relay World Championships slot (for Hamburg in 2023, as Montreal slots were allotted to athletes from the cancelled 2021 Bermuda event and top finishers at the draft-legal national championships in Tempe last fall), full teams (two male, two female) with all finishers in the same ten-year age span (i.e., 20-29, 30-39, etc.) were given top priority. After that, mixed relay athletes competing with teammates outside of their age span were considered based upon individual times, followed by age group draft-legal sprint competitors.
What if you want to join a team, but aren’t sure where to find teammates? Thankfully, USAT allowed athletes to indicate interest in joining a team while registering for the Multisport Festival, and placed age-groupers on teams with other interested athletes.
Triathlon mixed relay strategy: Determine the order of racers
How does a team best decide order based upon individual strengths? Because of the various disciplines and draft-legal format, the answer becomes more nuanced than with a typical track or swimming relay. At professional draft-legal Olympic distance races, the swim is the best predictor of overall performance, while the bike is the best predictor at the sprint distance. In elite mixed team relay, cycling has been found to be both the longest leg and most important predictor of both individual and overall team times, while swimming played a larger role in determining top placing teams than running, as position early on is important to overall finishing position.
The significant time and energy savings that accompany drafting during swimming and biking increases the importance of placing athletes who are skilled and strong in drafting situations in the first two legs of the race, when top teams are most likely to use tactics to form packs and break away. Start off with your strong swimmers and athletes who are comfortable biking in packs and able to cover any moves. Conversely, later in the race, gaps are more likely to form. So your third and fourth racers should be athletes stronger or more comfortable in a time trial format, capable of pacing well, and have the ability to chase or pull away becomes more important. Finally, consider finishing with a strong runner who thrives laying it all on the line once on foot.
How to practice for a triathlon mixed relay
There’s no requirement to train with your triathlon mixed relay teammates before the race, but it sure can help. If you’re teamed with fellow local athletes, consider setting up a short course and going through a mock race. Practice skills crucial to super sprint racing in a relay format, such as running into the water and dolphin-diving, speedy transitions, mounts and dismounts, and cornering on the bike. Athletes inexperienced with racing road bikes in draft-legal formats would also benefit from joining local group rides in order to learn how to ride in a group, in order to work on safety, practice handling skills, and gain experience with tactics. Crit races may also be specific to the skills needed to succeed at draft-legal bike legs. No matter what, be sure to include a good amount of intensity and speed work in training-group workouts with teammates can be great motivation for this, as well.
RELATED: Think Drafting is Easy? You Try It
If you do end up paired with strangers on race day, embrace the unknown and have fun with it. But at the very least, be sure to at least meet your teammates ahead of time, and be sure that you’ll be able to recognize them in full race kits on race day during the heat of the battle. If you’re able, take a few minutes to discuss each teammate’s strengths before the race to determine the best order of racing. Be open-minded and flexible; after all, if you signed up for a random pairing by the race, you probably got into this for fun. Roll with it.
As an exciting, spectator-friendly, fast-paced, dynamic race format, mixed team relays are sure to continue to expand in popularity and reach. So if you’re interested, practice on that road bike, sharpen up that top-end speed, and find a few like-minded friends for some race day fun!