How to Avoid the Most Common Penalties in Triathlon Racing

By Allie Burdick | April 16, 2018, 4:43 p.m. (ET)

USA Triathlon Official

Have you ever found yourself staring at a penalty time next to your name on a results page after a triathlon race thinking, what rule did I violate? You’re not alone. In addition to all the equipment required in our sport, you also need to know a laundry list of rules. Some of the most common penalties are the simplest — like not clipping that helmet strap before you leave transition — which is why they can be easily overlooked. Before your next race, use this quick guide to the USA Triathlon rule book and avoid any race day surprises!

The Most Common Penalties

Helmet: Make sure it’s approved by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and then wear it at all times for the bike portion meaning before, during and after, or risk disqualification.

Chin Straps: Clip it or be penalized (in transition) or disqualified (on the course). Just make it part of your routine until it becomes an automatic part of transition.

Outside Assistance: Absolutely no outside assistance including help with flat tires, wetsuits, fuel, accessories or anything else. The penalty time varies but whatever it is, you don’t want it!

“I once threw my sunglasses at my coach coming out of the bike transition because I didn’t want them on the run and forgot to take them off,” commented one athlete, “and I didn’t understand why she stepped back and purposely didn’t catch them until she told me afterward about the rule!”

Transition Area: Be respectful to other athletes and don’t touch their equipment. Be sure your equipment is in the correct spot with the bike wheel down on the assigned space. Always return your bike to the upright position on the bar, plug the ends of your handlebars and never bring glass into the transition area ... for obvious reasons. The penalty varies for violating one or more of these rules.

Drafting: Keep at least three bike lengths of clear space between you and the cyclist in front of you. If you move into the zone, you must pass within 15 seconds. Keep to the right-hand side of the lane of travel unless passing and allow yourself to be passed by keeping to the right side if another cyclist is attempting to pass you. Once passed, you must immediately exit the draft zone from the rear, before attempting to pass again. The penalties vary here so be careful.

“Some guys don’t like to be passed by women,” recalled one female triathlete. “I didn’t realize that once you start to pass, you have to follow through within those 15 seconds because if you drop back, you’ll be penalized. It made for some tough surges on my part when passing some of the more stubborn guys!”

Course: Stay on course and don’t even think about cutting it. You would only be cheating yourself and chances are, you will be seen, caught and humiliated with a disqualification. Also, don’t cross those solid yellow lines for any reason and obey all traffic laws.

Steena Cirves got a penalty at IRONMAN Wisconsin in 2016, and confessed it was her fault. “I rode alongside my spouse for a few minutes to tell him I was having stomach troubles and they got me! It wasn't a busy/crowded area of the course, I didn't have the intention on blocking anyone, but I know it's the rules and I messed up!”

Littering (including water bottles): You may not discard any wrappers from fuel or anything else while on the bike or run portion. If you accidentally drop your water bottle on the course, you had better circle back and pick it up or be penalized.

“I was penalized for discarding property,” recalled Moira Easton Horan. “When the motorcycle came up next to me and the official told me, I was in shock — I didn’t even know that my gel flask had flown off the bike a ways back when we went over some rough road. And I needed the nutrition! I asked exactly where so I could go back for it and she just shrugged her shoulders at me.”

Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Foul, harsh, argumentative or abusive language or any other unsportsmanlike conduct directed at anyone involved in the race including officials, volunteers, spectators or fellow athletes is ridiculous behavior and will result in a disqualification.

Headphones: Leave anything you can listen to music on in your car or at home because it’s not allowed. Headphones, headsets, iPods, MP3 players or personal audio devices of any kind are not permitted and carry a time penalty.

Race Numbers: This is a biggie! You need to wear your race number at all times during the run portion — facing out and clearly visible — without any altering, cutting or folding. Race numbers may never be transferred to another athlete and doing so at best will result in a disqualification and at worst may earn you a one-year suspension from USA Triathlon.

Melissa Christensen was not disqualified, but she talked about how at one race she forgot to bring her bib on the run. “They did not make me go back and get it. However, at that same race, different year, I had my number in my hand and didn’t get it fastened before leaving T2 so they made me stop and fasten it before I could continue.”

Wetsuits: If the water temperature on race day is up to and including 78 degrees Fahrenheit, wetsuits will be permitted for all age-group participants. If the water temperature is above 78 degrees Fahrenheit but less than 84 degrees, age-group participants may wear a wetsuit but will not be eligible for prizes or awards if they do so.

Abandonment: As much as you may want to leave something behind in the transition area after the race, everything you brought in (including trash) must be brought out. Penalties vary for violations.

Three Strikes And …

As you may imagine, the penalties become greater the more you violate the same rules. Below is a list of penalties by race distance and what happens to serial offenders:

Distance                      First Offense               Second Third

Sprint                          2 minutes                    4 minutes        Disqualification

Intermediate               2 minutes                    4 minutes        Disqualification

Long                            4 minutes                    8 minutes        Disqualification

Ultra                            6 minutes                    12 minutes      Disqualification

For the full USA Triathlon Competitive Rulebook, visit

Allie Burdick is an ACE certified personal trainer and fitness instructor. She has been running and competing her entire life and was recently part of Team USA in duathlon and will be competing at the 2016 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships. Her writing has appeared in Runner's World, Women's Running and ESPNW. She blogs about triathlon and marathon training at

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.