The term “World Record” is a tough one in triathlon given the complexity of the sport. In contrast to sports like swimming or athletics with strict distances, triathlon courses have looser regulations. Courses frequently seem to be short or long, some allow drafting on the bike and some do not. Then you have the issue of Ironman branded records versus “full-distance” records.
Given all this complexity, we attempt to break down the triathlon “world records” or “world bests” for the main four race distances. We will start with the full distance (often described as Ironman distance, or Iron distance) and work our way down through half-distance (often referred to as 70.3 distance), Olympic (officially referred to as Standard distance), and finally sprint.
Full distance (3.8K-180K-42.2K)
This one is easy. Challenge Roth is the place to be to attempt a world best at the full distance. Both the current men’s and women’s records were set there. Though it is not an Ironman branded race, it is “full distance” race.
7:35:39 by Jan Frodeno (2016) with a 45:22 swim, 4:08 bike, and 2:39 run at Challenge Roth.
8:18:13 by Chrissie Wellington (2011) with a 49:49 swim, 4:40 bike, and 2:44 run at Challenge Roth.
Ironman branded best times
At official Ironman events the fastest times were both set at Ironman Texas in 2018, where Australia’s Melissa Hauschildt went 8:31:05 and Matt Hanson went 7:39:25. Those results have not come without controversy, unfortunately. Amongst numerous issues on a day, the bike course was reportedly shortened to 110 miles (as opposed to the normal 112) and originally Ironman said it would not ratify any records. A few days later Ironman reversed that decision, which meant that Hauschildt broke Chrissie Wellington’s previous Ironman best time of 8:33:36 set at Ironman South Africa in 2011, while Hanson beat Tim Don’s record-setting time from Ironman Brazil in 2017 of 7:40:23.
Ironman World Championship records
The famed race in Kona has seen a flurry of record-setting days over the last few years. Last year Jan Frodeno went 7:51:13 on the Big Island to break Patrick Lange’s course record from the previous year of 7:52:39. The women’s record is held by Daniela Ryf, who shattered the record she set in 2016 of 8:46:46 by over 20 minutes in 2018 with her 8:26:18 finishing time.
Also easy one to figure out. Bahrain is where to go to set the half-distance world best. The race was formally a Challenge-branded event but now is an Ironman 70.3 race. The race also used to include a point-to-point bike course, which made for potential wind-assisted bike times.
3:29:04 by ITU short course racer Kristian Blummenfelt (2018) with a 21:36 swim, 1:56 bike, and 1:06 run at the Ironman 70.3 Middle East Championship in Bahrain.
3:55:50 by Helle Frederiksen (2014) with a 23:04 swim, 2:12 bike, and 1:17 run at Challenge Bahrain.
Ironman-branded best time
Since Frederiksen’s record was set when the Bahrain event was run as part of the Challenge Series, some have credited Daniela Ryf with the fastest 70.3 time on record, based on her 3:57:55 winning time at Ironman 70.3 Gdynia in 2018.
Olympic/ Standard distance (1.5K-40K -10K)
This is where it starts to get tricky. There are professional races without drafting but the majority are now draft-legal. For simplicity sake we will ignore drafting vs. non-drafting and only report the fastest times. There is also the issue of course distances. For example the 2016 Rio Olympics featured a bike course of 38.48K, not 40K.
The 1996 ITU Triathlon World Championships in Cleveland, OH is where the discussion gets a bit muddy. Both the men’s and women’s Olympic distance records were set that day on a course that most figure was short. The bike course was most likely an inaccurate distance as many of the pro men biked under 50 minutes (This would be over 48 km/h on a 40K bike course). Here are some impressions of that day in Cleveland. If we assume the 1996 ITU Cleveland race is the correct “Olympic distance”, then the “world records” set that day are:
1:39:50 by Simon Lessing of Great Britain with a 18:24 swim, 49:40 bike, and 30:36 run.
1:50:51 by Jackie Gallagher of Australia with a 21:36 swim, 54:16 bike, and 33:32 run.
For more course accurate Olympic-distance records, the current men’s record may have been set by Alistair Brownlee at the London 2012 Olympics with 1:46:25. With a swim of 17:04, bike of 59:08, and a 29:08 run (including a longer 43K bike course), this may be the closest we can get to a world record for Olympic distance. Also to be considered is the 2019 WTS Yokohama race, with Vincent Luis finishing in a super fast 1:43:21 with a 17:41 swim, 54:07 bike, and 30:21 run.
The women’s record may be 1:58:27 by Emma Snowsill at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a swim of 19:51, bike of 1:04:20, and run of 33:17. More recently at the 2019 WTS Yokohama race, Katie Zaferes raced a 1:52:12 with a 18:46 swim, 58:06 bike, and 34:07 run.
Sprint Distance (750m-20K -5K)
This is also a tough one to assess as many of the multi-loop WTS courses are slightly short (example: 2014 ITU London WTS race)
The sprint distance record may be held by Mario Mola at the 2018 ITU Edmonton WTS sprint race with a finishing time of 51:15. He swam 9:07, biked 26:24, and ran an incredible 14:25 to take the victory.
This record might be Katie Zaferes at the 2019 ITU Abu Dhabi WTS sprint race with a total time of 55:31. She swam 9:08, biked 28:55, and ran 16:09 for the win.