Training for a triathlon means training for three sports at once. And since we don’t have 21 training days in a week, we need to be especially well organized with our time management. Here we’ll discuss a tested triathlon-for-beginners training strategy that will make the best use of your time and efforts.
In a typical triathlon, competitors spend about 50% of their time cycling, 30% of their time running, and 20% of their time swimming.
One effective approach is to do a roughly equal number of training sessions per sport each week, but to keep the total training time for each sport to the above ratios. This means your average cycling session will be longer than your average running session, which will be longer than your average swimming session.
For example, your longest ride might be one hour, while your longest run would be 40 minutes, and your longest swim 30 minutes.
A key to success is scheduling your training sessions so that you can be recovering from one sport while training for another.
There are many, many other approaches. If you adopt a fully-designed program or hire a coach, you’ll get good guidance on alternatives.
You’ll probably need 8 to 12 weeks of systematic training to prepare for your first triathlon, depending on your starting fitness level. This is assuming a short event like a “Sprint” (750-meter swim, 20K bike, 5K run), or “Super Sprint” (400-meter swim, 10K bike, 2.5K run).
Ideally start with five training sessions per week, with your two rest days separated (for example, on Monday and Friday:
Two swim workouts
One bike workout
One run workout
One combination workout
One swim workout
One bike workout
One run workout
Two combination workouts
As you progress, add more combination workouts. Typically, many people struggle with the swim, and if that’s you, you’ll need to dedicate more time to this discipline until you gain confidence. Eventually, you’ll be able to focus on overall aerobic fitness instead of learning the basics.
Swimming is about technique, which means that most beginning triathletes would benefit from some instruction or coaching. If you’re new to swimming you won’t figure it out on your own. Waves inherent to open-water swimming, and the turbulence and jostling from the mass start, conspire to make the swim stage even more challenging.
In the beginning focus on technique and comfort in the water. Move on to training for speed and endurance. Then develop your skills by doing some group training sessions in open water.
A typical training session might include 5 sets of 25 meters in a pool in the freestyle stroke. Rest after each set. Emphasize good technique over speed.
Rest, and then aim for swimming for 50–100 meters without a break. Complete 1–2 sets depending on your fitness level.
In the beginning, gradually increase your endurance on the bike by riding at a steady-state within your aerobic training zone (70 to 80% maximum heart rate). Increase your distance gradually until you’re comfortable riding 150% the race distance.
You then need to build speed. This is done through interval workouts once a week, during which you’ll ride at a high intensity (90 to100% maximum heart rate) for 1 to 5 minutes followed by a low-intensity partial recovery (typically 1 to 2 minutes). You’ll do anywhere from five to a dozen high-intensity intervals after a solid warmup. Consult with coaching resources, and experiment to find what interval structure produces the best results for you. The science on this topic has not been settled.
As the race approaches, you’ll want to add tempo workouts. These are steady-state rides at a high intensity, typically 85% or more of your maximum heart rate. Go as fast as you can sustain as if you’re racing. Tempo workouts can last from 10 minutes up to the full length of the race.
If you’re a runner, you may assume that the running stage will be straightforward. However, you’ll have to adapt your body to the unique demands of running after you’ve already been racing on the bike and in the water. Prepare for your legs to feel very different!
Plan to do most of your workouts as combination workouts, following cycling or swimming.
If you’re not a runner, you’ll have to adapt your body to running. Go slowly. Alternate running and walking in the beginning, gradually shortening the walks and lengthening the runs. Concentrate on a smooth and efficient gate, not on speed.
When you can comfortably run the whole race distance. Start working on speed. Use the same interval and tempo strategy that you use on the bike.
When training for your first race, your emphasis should be on giving your body time to adapt. Finishing your first triathlon injury-free is a worthy goal; you’ll have many more opportunities to work toward competitive times and longer events.
Running puts the greatest stresses on your joints and skeleton. If you land on your heels, the most stress is on your knees, hips, and back; if you land on your forefoot, the most stress is on your foot itself. Your body needs time to strengthen itself so that it can endure these stresses. We also recommend you seek coaching and also technique articles. It may also take some experimenting to find your most efficient, stress-free gait.
Cycling puts high stresses on your knees and also exposes you to the risk of traumatic injury. Practice safe riding skills, and never give in to the temptation to ride with your head down.
For all sports: warm-up gently, for at least ten minutes, before moving on to any high-intensity training.
Consider this article a brief introduction to a topic worthy of a long book. We hope you’ll find it helpful as you set off on the path toward your first triathlon. And we hope you enjoy the journey, and that you stay safe and injury-free.