Both triathlons and adventure racing are tough events and often push participants beyond their mental and physical limits, but “what sport is tougher?” Having competed and coached triathletes for 8 years and participated in adventure racing for over 5 years, I am often asked this question.
It all has to do with your definition of toughness. For adventure racing and triathlons, toughness is a combination of factors that include training requirements, physical and mental endurance, risk, and skills set.
Some of these components are shared by both sports while others are unique to each. To make the comparison equitable, I will compare an Ironman-distance race to a 12-hour adventure race.
The training miles and hours involved in Ironman training are staggering. Sixty to seventy mile bike rides are often followed by eight to ten mile runs. This mileage often adds up to six hours, or more of training a day, and this does not include pool time. In the months leading up to a race, athletes often train 6 days out of the week.
Adventure race training also includes an endurance component, but the miles and hours do not add up the same way. For the mountain bike leg, for example, 50% of the ride will be uphill and the other 50% will be downhill and rarely will you pedal on the downhill.
In essence, a four hour mountain bike ride is really two, or so hours of pedaling. Trail running for an adventure race and asphalt running during a triathlon can be identical in terms of miles and hours, but street running certainly puts more stress on the body. Lastly, kayaking and swimming are remarkably similar, even using the same muscle groups.
The Ironman, or any length triathlon for that matter, is about efficiency, sustained effort, and quick transitions. Once you get out of the water, your equipment and training are helping you maintain the fastest possible speed on the bike and run with minimal interruptions. Even food and water are taken without pause.
Adventure racing teams have to frequently stop and look at the map throughout the race, and on average have 25 to 30 checkpoints(CPs). Not only do you have to find CPs using a map, but you also have to stop and get your passport punched. The stops and transitions can add up to one to two hours of rest time.
Come race day, the Ironman does not require a particularly complicated strategy. Simply bring your bicycle, running shoes, nutrition and fitness, follow the course markers as you swim, bike, and run, and your fitness should carry you to the finish line.
On the other hand, adventure racing has no course markers, only checkpoints in the wilderness. You have to constantly think, plan and calculate.
For example, do you take your exhausted team on a steep shortcut up a mountain or sacrifice time to conserve energy and travel the long way around? Will you be able to reach a certain checkpoint and make it back before the time cutoff? These questions and many more are unique to adventure racing, and by the end of these races, you are more mentally exhausted than physically depleted.
Risk is the spice that makes a sport exciting and challenging. For the Ironman, the risk for most competitors is the open water swim. Limited visibility mixed in with rough ocean water, plus a hundred other athletes swimming around and over you can end a race soon after the start.
By definition, a 12-hour adventure race involves risk. The moment you enter the wilderness with your team, map and compass, you assume a minimum level of risk. This includes bicycles having mechanical failures, athletes getting injured, or your team, getting lost. In every cases, the sport expects you to manage these situations, recover and continue racing.
Swimming is the primary skill needed for the Ironman. Proper stroke technique, breathing, and sighting are essential to getting through this tough portion of the race. Biking and running rely more upon physical fitness, nutrition and hydration.
The 12-hour adventure race is 100% a skill-dependent sport. Map and compass skills are mandatory. Kayak skills above fitness are critical to safety, and mountain biking on skinny off-road trails is a skill far more challenging than riding on the road. And, of course, you need teamwork to ultimately find success at the finish line.
So, if you are keeping score, here are the totals.
| Physical Endurance||X|
| Mental Endurance||X|
| Skill Set||X|
The Ironman is certain more physically demanding, but ultimately the 12-hour adventure race is the tougher sport owing to the higher degrees of risk, skills and mental demands it places upon its athletes.