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The Role of Duathlon in Multisport

By Tom Demerly

trail runnersThis USA Triathlon Multisport Lab article is presented by

Duathlon has largely lived in the shadow of triathlons as a multisport event. Few athletes consider duathlon a viable stand-alone discipline. For most of us, duathlons are what we do when there is no place to swim or the water is too cold. One of the greatest confirmations is the inclusion of triathlon into the Olympics without a hint of considering an Olympic duathlon. Duathlons are great early and late season events, but they are thehors d’oeuvres of the multisport world with triathlon remaining the main course.

Race promoters and athletes agree that duathlon has its selling points — the primary one being no swim. While many athletes dislike the swim portion, it can sometimes be difficult to administer given multi-use lakes, weather, access to beaches and other factors surrounding the use of a body of water for a triathlon swim. The swim is the generally regarded as the toughest event in multisport to marshal, measure and administer. 

Another reason for duathlons to grow is an emerging culture of recreational athletes who want a multisport event but aren’t swimmers. Participation sports have continued their steady surge despite economic factors. Duathlon provides an even broader opportunity for bringing new athletes into the sport. Without the intimidation factor of a mass swim start and other waterborne worries athletes can get their multisport feet wet without getting their feet wet.

The “Formula 1” style duathlon with repetitions of run/bike/run is exciting for spectators and provide athletes with fast transition skills an opportunity to level the playing field with good runners and cyclists without multisport experience. While some duathlon race promoters and duathlon specialist athletes prefer to view their sport as an event on its own- not a second cousin to triathlon- the reality is: The broader appeal of triathlon means duathlon defaults to being a multisport alternative for new athletes, during the offseason or in lieu of a viable swim venue.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Coors Light Duathlon Series seemed like a promising event series to fuel the growth of duathlons. The races were generally 5k/30k/5k. Chicago, home of one of the largest triathlons in the world, became the largest Coors Light venue with more than 2,000 participants. ESPN covered the event with Olympic marathon runner Frank Shorter acting as commentator. The event series had momentum but lost traction to ultra-distance triathlon in the mid 1990s and at the turn of the century.

What will the future of duathlon be? USAT’s vigorous promotional efforts have not only kept duathlon alive they have also helped build other multisport formats including duathlon, aquathlon, aquabike, winter triathlon and off-road triathlon. The 2011 National Duathlon Festival in Tucson/Oro Valley, Ariz., on April 30 will serve as the Elite Duathlon National Championship as well as the USA Paraduathlon National Championship. 

With USAT’s support of championship events and strong numbers of local events around the U.S. sanctioned by USAT duathlon remains a viable multisport that may be poised for another growth spurt. Huge running events like Race for the Cure combined with increased participation in charitable cycling events may provide the participant population for a new surge in duathlons. With a strong legacy in duathlon going back to the days when the sport was called “biathlon” and confused with the skiing/shooting Olympic event, duathlon is poised to grow not only as an adjunct to triathlons but as a standalone sport.

Ready to try a duathlon? These tips may help:

trisports logoThis article is the fourth in a six-part series leading up to USA Triathlon's Duathlon National Championship, brought to you by is the presenting sponsor of the USAT Duathlon National Championship slated for April 30 in Tucson, Ariz.