What is XTERRA? Your guide to off-road triathlon – Triathlete

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If the idea of ​​a mind-blowing triathlon on the open roads isn’t quite enough for you, look no further than off-road triathlons. This race format takes the traditional combination of swimming, mountain biking and dirt running – and yes, it’s as fun as it sounds.

With XTERRA races and other all-terrain triathlons growing in popularity, it’s easier than ever to pull off your next adventure race. Just be sure to plan your post-race shower.

What is Off-Road Triathlon and XTERRA Races?

In 1996, a group of self-proclaimed sadists created the Aquaterra race in Maui, Hawaii. Consisting of a choppy open water swim, a hilly mountain bike run, and a grueling run, Aquaterra was a hardcore version of your typical smooth-surface triathlon. Aquaterra quickly became the XTERRA series, a collection of all-terrain triathlons around the world.

RELATED: The Crazy Story of How XTERRA Began

Today, off-road triathlons are more than the XTERRA series and they aren’t as daunting. Almost all of the swims are in waters that are gentler than Maui’s crashing waves and feel like normal open water lapping.

The first difference between a regular triathlon and an off-road triathlon is on the bike. Instead of rolling hills on pavement, the bike leg is on mountains and trails. Depending on where you live, there can be a huge difference in the type of bike course.

“If you live in the northeast, the courses will be more winding and winding with dirt. But if you live in the southeast, there will be more rocks and loose sand, says Suzie Snyder, four-time U.S. National XTERRA Champion and U.S. Off-Road Triathlon Athlete of the Year. To the west, you’ll find a smoother ride over the mountains, with less punchy climbs and big acceleration than on the east coast.

The second difference between the traditional tri and the XTERRA comes from the run. Instead of smooth tarmac designed for speed, off-road triathlons are trail races that reward strength and balance. It can mean rocks, gravel, or tree branches cascading up mountains or hills.

(Photo: Jesse Peters/XTERRA)

What are typical XTERRA/off-road distances?

Most off-road races will have full, short distances. But keep in mind that the bike and run stages will take longer than your typical pavement run due to the hilly terrain.

Full course Of short time
Bathing 1.5K 800m
Bike 30K 20K
To run 11K 5K

RELATED: What you need to know about each triathlon distance

What equipment do I need for an off-road triathlon?

The gear list for off-road is basically similar to what you’ll need for a traditional tri (check out the list here). However, everything that comes into contact with the ground in a traditional road triathlon must be changed for an off-road triathlon. That means bikes and shoes designed for playing in the dirt.

Mountain bike

No drop bars are allowed, meaning flat bar mountain bikes are the weapon of choice. No aerobars are allowed during off-road races (aerobing down a twisty descent won’t end well). During XTERRA races and other off-road triathlons, the use of a gravel bike is also not advised, as they will not be able to handle rough terrain and tight turns.


When it comes to tire choice on the bike, the bigger the better. Two-time XTERRA World Champion and two-time 70.3 champion Bradley Weiss recommends running on a 2.4-inch mountain bike tire. Bringing tire pressure to a very low 16 or 18 PSI will help with tight turns and bumpy descents.


If you are comfortable with quick engagement and removal, mountain bike pedals and shoes will give you more power and cornering. But if you’re not used to mountain bike pedals, flat pedals and shoes will work just fine.

Running shoes

Weiss went to each race with a few different pairs of shoes. He would bring regular carbon shoes, lightweight trail shoes with a special tread pattern for technical courses, and cross-country running shoes with large spikes for better grip.

RELATED: Ask a Gear Guru: What’s the Best Shoe for Each Type of Trail?

How is training for an off-road triathlon different from a traditional tri?

Start with a general basic phase to get in shape. Once you’ve completed a solid month of basic training, Weiss said it’s good to follow a modified Olympic distance triathlon program for off-road racing because the distances are similar. For an age group, this means a few intensity sessions per week and a long run.

Both Snyder and Weiss recommended supplemental strength sessions to help athletes navigate steep hills. Single-leg lunges, squats, and step-ups are all leg exercises that triathletes can do at home using body weight. Balancing on one leg for a minute can work the small muscles in your foot and ankles, which will help provide stability for rocky trail runs. “You use a lot more small muscles from your feet to your hips and your core,” Snyder said. “You need more strength and stability because of the uneven surfaces.”

RELATED: Bodybuilding for triathletes

When it gets closer to your run, add more intensity than a typical Olympic shot. “In a road triathlon, you want to sit at an effort equal to the heart rate or power threshold and not exceed. Off-road you can’t because of the steep hills,” Snyder said. “Off-road, you need to be able to climb up and over the threshold in short bursts, then recover quickly on the descents.” Snyder says the classic workout of 40-second repetitive sprints followed by 20-second recovery is the perfect aerobic workout that will train the body for the race ahead.

Another classic Weiss workout is “over-rev” bike workouts to build strength on the bike. This means putting your bike in a large ring and riding at 40 or 50 rpm for 3 sets of 30 minutes to build leg strength.

What is an XTERRA Triathlon?  It involves a swim bike and an off-road race
(Photo: XTERRA)

Off-road triathlon skills to practice

Flying around tight corners and descending gravelly descents require their own bike handling skills. And keep in mind that your heart will shoot out of your chest and your legs will burn with lactic acid after crashing the mountain climb. To practice technical descents while tired, Weiss recommends repetitive repetitions of 3 to 5 minute climbs and descending directly from the mountain. Your body and mind will get used to navigating the twisty descents while exhausted.

For those who want a level of bike handling proficiency that classic cycling drills like setting up a slalom course with cones, doing wheelies and bottle scoops can give an added edge. But riding gravel and mountain bike trails should be enough practice for most races. XTERRA courses and off-road triathlons aren’t as strenuous as most mountain bike races, and they’re designed for your everyday rider.

RELATED: Mountain biking for beginners: here’s where to start

If you want to keep your ankles in one piece, Snyder suggests modifying your running stride to survive rocky trails.

“Being comfortable with higher turnover and moving your feet faster with shorter strides can help you adapt to the track,” Snyder said. Keep your front foot under your body so you have a strong center of gravity. To build ankle strength, Snyder suggests standing on one foot and closing your eyes. Are you falling? “If you fall easily, you need to practice. Once you’ve mastered that, switch to a pillow and then a balance board to build stabilization muscles,” Snyder said.

How do I find an off-road triathlon near me?

A good place to find upcoming off-road events is at american triathlon website (filter by trail,) or the TriFind Race Directory.

XTERRA has a series of races around the world that can be found in their website. For the first time, the XTERRA World Championships are taking place this year in Italy instead of its typical Hawaii location.

Since 2011, the ITU has organized the Triathlon Cross World Championships. Spain has hosted the most races and won the most gold medals. Notable past champions include Flora Duffy, Melanie McQuaid and Ruben Ruzafa.

Reminder: Flora Duffy’s first victory at the XTERRA Worlds

USA Triathlon also hosts a national championship. This year, the American Gravel and Off-Road Championships were held in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

And for gravel-obsessed triathletes, USA Triathlon has created a series of eight gravel triathlon races in 2022.

Always up for the challenge? The best part about all-terrain triathlons is that it’s an adventure. You can throw away your watch and your times because every course is different. Instead, you can enjoy the dirt and smile on your face.

Calvin W. Soper