Outdoors

An Intro to Cross Triathlon

You like mountain biking and perhaps you enjoy trail running. Maybe you’re ready for a new adventure or something to spice up your cycling and /or running routine. Off-road or Cross Triathlon might be for you!

Unlike traditional triathlon races that involve an open water swim (in a lake, river, or the ocean), a road bike, and a run, cross triathlon keeps the open water swim and moves the bike and run off-road for an epic mountain bike and trail run adventure.

Off-road triathlon races vary widely from race to race, depending on terrain, location, and race distance. Technical trails and greater elevation gain and loss make some races more demanding than others.

Most off-road triathlon races offer “sport” or “age group” categories for people of all skill levels and experience. The distances for off-road triathlons vary widely depending on terrain and the specific race and category. The short sport category races typically keep the distances around 500 meters swim, 15-kilometer (9.3 miles) bike, and a 5-kilometer (3.1 mile) trail run.

Jennifer Horstmann racing at an XTERRA triathlon.

XTERRA Triathlon is the most recognized off-road triathlon series, hosting more than 100 races worldwide, including 50 in the XTERRA America Tour. There are other off-road triathlon events that are equally well run, including ITU Cross Triathlons, TreX Cross Triathlons, Winter Triathlon, and others.

If you’re not quite ready to commit to a full off-road triathlon, many races also have a duathlon category (run-bike-run). Or you can grab two buddies and put together a relay team, with each person doing just one leg of the triathlon.

Whether you’re looking for a race in a small town or large city, there is a location for you and every race offers its own unique “flavor”. The XTERRA Lory race in Colorado has a slip-n-slide finish. The former XTERRA East Championship in Virginia boasts a legendary heckling section along the course, complete with “beer hand ups” (parts of the course where beer is offered to competitors).

Some cross triathlons brag about their spread of finish-line food and beverages. Other events are practically full-blown festivals with live music, food, and other events like kayak or stand up paddle-board races.

But, it’s not just the fun racing, amazing venues, or breathtaking views that make off-road triathlon exciting; it’s the community. Whether you sign up for your local short course race or travel to the world championships in Maui, the atmosphere and the people make this up-and-coming sport spectacular. The races are laid-back, very family friendly, and welcoming to people of all ages and skill levels.

What You Need to Get Started

Are you ready to sign up for your first off-road triathlon? Here are the basics you’ll need for your first race:

  • Swim goggles and cap: Many races will give you a colored cap that designates your race category, but it’s best to bring your own cap just in case. Any kind of goggles will do (snorkels are generally prohibited).
  • Wetsuit: This is very race-specific. If the water is below a certain temperature, the race may require a wetsuit for safety reasons. And, if the water temperature is above a certain point, the race may ban wetsuits to keep athletes from overheating. It’s best to check the race rules and ask a race representative any questions. For your first triathlon, if the race recommends a wetsuit, consider renting one rather than purchasing. This will reduce cost and give you the opportunity to try one and see if you like it.
  • Mountain bike: any mountain bike will do! Be sure to do a quick tune-up before your race to avoid any mechanical troubles.
  • Trail running shoes: make sure you have trail running shoes that will give you good traction and keep your feet comfortable.
  • Tri Suit: Tri suits are made of moisture-wicking fabrics that are quick-dry to keep your body cooler and reduce the risk of uncomfortable chafing. Tri-suits definitely offer a comfort and convenience factor but are not a necessary investment. Many people opt to wear a bathing suit for the swim then put cycling shorts on over their bathing suit for the bike portion and switch to running shorts for the run leg.

Now you’re ready to choose your first cross triathlon race! But be careful, you’ll likely fall in love with this great sport and its enthusiastic community.


Have you done a cross triathlon? What is your favorite race or your best advice for anyone getting started?

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