The hardest part of triathlon as voted by 260 triathletes

Generally, people will tell you throughout your life that you can’t be good at everything and that’s ok! So welcome to the club of triathletes, where we chose to be good at 3 sports instead of just one 😉

But don’t worry triathletes are humans, and we all find at least one of the 3 sports more challenging than the others. To me, running is the worst part, but I was curious if others felt like me. Luckily I know plenty of triathletes (from Zwifting groups and triathlon clubs).

This is why I asked 260 amateur triathletes their opinion about the hardest part of a triathlon.

Let’s see the results

What is the hardest part of a triathlon?

The hardest part of a triathlon is the swim according to a survey of 260 triathletes. Followed very closely by the run leg. Only 13% of the triathletes questioned mentioned the bike as the hardest leg, making the bike less challenging for people during a triathlon event.

Funnily, I ran a similar survey about a year ago to find out the easiest part of a triathlon. And the answer I got was not cycling! If you are curious, just head out to this article.

Detailed survey results

In my groups of triathlete friends and acquaintances, I ran a poll to find out what is the hardest part of a triathlon event. 260 people replied and out of them 50 left comments.

The survey consisted of the question “what is the hardest part of a triathlon” followed by 3 answers (swim, bike, or run). It was a single-choice poll where participants could not add alternative answers.

People were also encouraged to leave comments to better understand the reasons behind this choice. We will focus on this aspect later in the article.

The hardest part of a triathlon results are broken down by the number of voters in the table below:

Triathlon leg
Number of votes

In summary, 117 people (45%) voted for the swim leg being the hardest while 108 (42%) voted for the run leg. Only 33 (13%) people consider the bike the hardest.

There is no clear winner between the swim and the run. Let’s analyze why.

Why is the swim considered the hardest?

Open-water swimming is frightening

Most people train all year long their swimming technique by going to the swimming pool. However, the swim leg is generally in open water during a triathlon event. And open water swimming is different to pool swimming.

Open-water swimming is scary for most at first. There are no walls near you but really what scares most people is the fact that you can’t see the bottom. This is a phenomenon referred to as the fear of the depth of water. But without going to such extremity, it is common for people to feel uncomfortable out in the water swimming. It takes a bit of time to get used to it and with little to no training in these conditions, people tend to get afraid of the swimming part of a triathlon.

Also with open water swimming, you always wonder what will happen if you get a cramp in the middle of the water, or if you feel too tired and need a break. There is no wall where you can rest. Are you actually allowed to rest during the swim leg of a triathlon? If you don’t know, I have written the answer in this article.

Why don’t these people also train in open water to get used to it? Actually, depending on where you live, it might not be possible to swim outdoors: no lake, sea, or river nearby; or these locations are prohibited for swimming. And even if you have a location nearby, the temperature might be too cold to train most months of the year.

So, open water swimming gets lots of people nervous. This leads to short breathing, and difficulty to focus on the race from the start. It feels challenging and this is why swimming is so often mentioned as the hardest.

“Swimming in a pool is so different from open water swimming. I would tell any newbie to get as much OWS practice as possible. Even after years of doing it, I still get a bit nervous!”

Testimony from the poll

Mass swim start

Triathlon mass swim start picture

The swim leg of a triathlon is also very different from training. The first hundreds of meters are actually very tough due to the mass swim start. All triathletes start in the water at the same time. This leads to situations where people swim on top of each other, where you can lose your goggles, or even get hit… It is very stressful for weaker swimmers as only the lead swimmers are able to escape fast from the pack. The others will remain in the fight for a longer time.

“I always sees my self toward the back to lessen the chance of getting swam over. Most important is to remain calm and tell yourself you’ve trained for this!”

Testimony from the poll

Person’s weakest sport

Of course, swimming was also selected by the people for whom it is their weakest sport. It makes sense as not being a confident swimmer combined with the mass start and the stress of open water swimming is really challenging.

Interestingly, the swim was selected as the easiest part of the triathlon by far when I asked the opposite question. And that’s because once you have done several triathlons and once you have an average level, you are sure to finish the swim. Maybe not with your best time, maybe far from the leaders. People tend to naturally pace themselves better in swimming and you can easily switch strokes if you need to. So the swim leg is hard and challenging, but once you get used to it, it gets easy.

What about the run?

The run is also considered the hardest part of triathlon mainly due to the run being the last part of a triathlon. Indeed, even if you are a good runner and enjoy this sport, you never know how you will feel when starting the run leg. Depending on how hard you pushed yourself on the bike, or if you got cramps when swimming, the run can become a nightmare. From jelly legs to cramps, you never know if you are going to make it.

“It’s the run for me. I nearly always go too hard on the bike and trash my legs 🤷‍♀️

Testimony from the poll

And even if your legs feel ok, the run can still be difficult if you didn’t manage your nutrition well, especially on longer triathlons. You can end up being sick, or simply having to walk because you are not feeling well. And it is quite common for the run leg to start when the weather is at the hottest, making it even more difficult.

So the run is hard because you never really know how it is going to go.

“Get those brick workouts in. My legs cramp up weird after being on the bike which makes the first mile painful and crazy frustrating!”

Testimony from the poll

Is the bike just easy then?

The bike is definitely not the hardest according to the poll. People who voted for the bike as the hardest mentioned the logistic aspect of the bike. There is the risk of crashes, flats, and mechanical issues that are out of control. Some people are worried or not confident enough that they can manage them mid-race.

“I can walk a marathon if I have to and still finish; I can breast stroke, or backstroke if I have to and still finish; the bike is where all kinds of stuff beyond my control: crash, mechanical issues, flats. And there is just so much logistics involved with the bike especially with longer courses (nutrition, hydration, etc)”

Testimony from the poll

The bike part can be easy, especially on short-distance triathlons. Even newbies at cycling will enjoy the bike leg, and the chances of mechanical issues will reduce the shorter the event. For longer triathlons, like Ironman distances where there are several hours of cycling, this is a totally different thing. And the race profile might also be a reason it is not easy.

Finally, it is easy just to overdo it on the bike and not have anything left to finish the run. So, the bike might not be the hardest part of triathlon, but it is not that easy either.

“I’d rather swim the English Channel twice then run three marathons than ride my bike with people around. People scare me.”

Testimony from the poll

So yes it comes down to personal preferences, type of event, outdoor temperature, etc. There is no definite answer to the question but it is always interesting to see the results from a panel of amateurs triathletes. Anyway, training is here to help overcome these difficulties, so you can focus on what’s difficult for you. And training consistently is probably the hardest part of triathlon!

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