Triathlon Basics: Rules Made Simple

Like any sport, triathlon is governed by a number of rules. Penalties can range from having to stop in a penalty box or having time added to your overall finish, to disqualification. Unfortunately, there isn’t one governing body for all triathlon, so rules can vary race to race. Be sure to check your race’s website to find out what they might be.

There are a few basic rules which tend to show up in triathlons. Here’s a simple overview of the rules to know before you compete in your first tri.


Whether or not you can wear a wetsuit depends on your race and the water temperature. For races governed by the USAT, wetsuits must be less than 5mm thick and may be worn in water up to and including a temperature of 78 degrees. If the water is between 78 and 84 degrees, you are allowed to wear a wetsuit but will not be eligible for any prizes. In Ironman competitions, 5mm thick is still the rule, but the temperature limitations are up to and including 76.1 degrees, or between 76.1 and 83.8 degrees without eligibility for prizes.

Bike Helmet

Bike helmets must be approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and must be worn with your chin strap fastened at all times when handling the bike (whether mounted or not!). To be safe, remember to put your helmet on and fasten the chin strap before you unrack your bike. After completing the bike course, unfasten your helmet after you’ve put your bike back on the rack. By the way, this rule pertains to the entire race day- if you ride your bike from the car to transition, or back, you have to have your helmet on and fastened or you can be disqualified from the race!

Mount/Dismount Line

As if you didn’t have enough to worry about, now there’s a go/no go line? Yes, there is. Don’t worry, it will be clearly marked with signs and volunteers pointing and yelling “mount here!.” Run your bike across that line, stop, and mount up. If you’re a little unsure about your mounting prowess, especially under pressure, keep to the right and you won’t be run over. Same is true when you ride back- there will be a line you cross, at which point you can stop and dismount. Volunteers will be waving at you and telling you where to stop. Cross that line, stop, dismount and get on with your run.


Drafting is a tricky rule. In non-draft legal races, this means that when on your bike, you must be more than 7 meters (22.9 feet) behind another person’s bike. What does 7 meters look like? It’s about 3 bike lengths between the back wheel of one bike and the front wheel of yours. When you’re on the bike course, you cannot enter the drafting zone of a cyclist in front of you unless you are passing. If you are passing, then you have 15 seconds to pass that competitor. If you are passed on the course and the cyclist drops in front of you, it is your responsibility to slow back out of their draft zone. Penalties include time added to your overall finish or having to stop in a time penalty box.

Sound scary? Don’t worry. In small races, following the rules out on the course is really more of an honor system. These races don’t have the resources to have a referee out on the course, so you’ll rarely even see a ref. Still, a rule is a rule, so do your best to comply!

No Headphones

My least favorite rule!!! For safety reasons, you’re not allowed to use headphones out on the course. That means no music during your bike or run. Leave them in your gear bag after your pre-race warmup.

Stay on Course

Seems simple enough, but you would be surprised at how many people are disqualified because they went off course! Things can become confusing, especially if your race has two races of different distances happening on the same course at the same time. While there should be signs posted along the route and volunteers at critical turns, it is your responsibility to know the course. So make sure you study it ahead of time and know if you need to make any extra loops or deviations from the other race distance’s course.
Have a question about the rules? Send me an email at and ask! If I don’t know the answer, I will find out. I’m happy to look like an idiot so that you don’t have to.

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