How To Train For A Triathlon
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Master all three elements with this guide to getting triathlon training right.
Marathons? Everyone in the office has done one. Tough Mudder? They don’t even give you a timing chip. For anyone in search of a serious test, a triathlon is your go-to. It won’t just test your endurance and fortitude – it’ll force you to learn new skills and confront weaknesses.
“Triathlon, out of all the sports I have tried, is a huge learning experience, especially the amount you learn between your first and second races,” says Toby Garbett, a two-time world champion British rower and a competitive triathlete. “This is one of the things that makes it so appealing – there’s lots to learn and so much improvement to be made.”
You’ll find Garbett’s tips for completing an Olympic-distance triathlon below, but if you’re completely new to triathlons a shorter sprint distance event is the natural place to start, even if you’re already a fairly confident swimmer, cyclist and runner. Getting used to multi-discipline events is as much about the challenge of switching sports as the individual effort of each, and starting with a sprint distance will help build expertise in that area. Sprint-distance triathlons are half the length of an Olympic event, and involve a 750m swim, 20km on the bike and a 5K run.
To nail your first sprint triathlon, follow this advice from Phil Paterson of coaching company RG Active, the official training partner of the AJ Bell London Triathlon.
Sprint Triathlon Training Tips
Training plan tips
Everyone is different and the kind of training volume you can handle will depend on your exercise background and how active you are currently. It’s important to stay within your limits during the first two weeks of training to establish a routine.
Establish a baseline for each discipline. Try to do the full distance in each discipline and record how long it takes you. Use this as a rough estimate and add a little more distance to each training session. Once you feel comfortable with your technique, then think about improving your speed. This should be a gradual process – don’t overdo it because this could lead to injury.
If this is your first triathlon, start training around six months before the event. Schedule in four hours a week to start with, and work up gradually to six to eight hours as your fitness improves and you build up the distances. Spread out your sessions to avoid overworking muscles and don’t ramp up the distance before your body is ready – both will put you at risk of injury.
Do at least one session of each discipline per week as well as one strength and conditioning session.
Once a month include a lower-volume week to give your body time to recover. For example, do 30-40% less than you did the previous week, then build up again the following week.
Take your training outdoors. Although the gym is a great place to build your fitness and is especially appealing when the weather is bad, you really need to get outside and experience running and cycling on different terrains. Weather is an important factor too – you need to learn how to tackle wind and rain, particularly on the bike where you’ll be required to brake and corner.
Another key area not being used when training indoors are the stabilising muscles in your hips and core, which are essential for efficient running and pedalling. Not only can weaker stabilising muscles slow you down through inefficiency, they can also lead to a greater risk of injury.
What a typical training week should look like
Training weeks will vary depending on the time of year, access to facilities and people's work schedules, but here’s an example, ranging from four to six hours. Defining sessions by time rather than distance allows people to go at their own speed and it can change throughout the programme. Complete beginners can start with much less than this and increase their training time as the programme progresses.
Monday: Swim – technique and endurance (45min)
Tuesday: Run – endurance (20-45min)
Wednesday: Swim – speed work (30min), plus strength work in the gym (45min)
- Thursday: Bike – turbo trainer or exercise bike intervals (30-45min)
Saturday: Bike – outdoors endurance ride, with hills, and practising gears and riding position (45-90min)
- Sunday: Fortnightly brick session – bike (35-45min) and run (15 min)
An extra swim session is always recommended, since this is often where many can make the most improvement to fitness and confidence. Once your swimming is up to speed, focus any extra time on different disciplines each week. For example, one week do an extra run, and the following week an extra cycle. This also allows muscles to rest so they’re not overtraining.
In summer aim to get a weekly or fortnightly open-water swim in to work on wetsuit swimming as well as your open-water skills and confidence.
Open-water swimming tips
Swimming is nearly always the biggest hurdle for newcomers to the triathlon, since it’s likely to be the one sport they’ve done the least since they were a child. And open-water swimming is very different from swimming laps in a poo – the water is significantly colder and usually very dark.
Practise swimming in a wetsuit. While wetsuits are great at providing extra warmth and hydrodynamics, they can feel tight and restricting at first. It’s important to work with the buoyancy of the wetsuit. The suit’s buoyancy should make everyone quicker, since you sit higher in the water and your legs don’t sink as much.
Focus on your breathing. Cold water makes people hyperventilate so focusing on your breathing will help calm you down. Also, since you cannot see your speed or heart rate in the water, there’s very little to go on in terms of your pacing, so using breathing to control your rhythm should help you swim more smoothly and quickly.
Sighting is another essential skill you’ll need to pick up, so you can see where you’re going in the water, and so is being able to take your wetsuit off quickly while on the way to your bike in T1.
Start practising early. Don’t get to a week or two before an event having never swum in open water, thinking you’ll only need one quick practice.
It’s essential to get used to swimming with others , especially since mass starts can bring a sense of dread to newbies. Truth be told, most races are pretty good at dividing people into smaller waves or seeded rolling starts, but it’s still worth getting outside your comfort zone during your training.
Switch disciplines in training
One of the biggest challenges of any multisport event is switching between disciplines. Changing the working muscles, and therefore the required blood flow to different areas of the body, can take a little getting used to. For example, switching from pedalling a bike to running can be a shock to the system, which can result in the feeling of “jelly legs”. This happens when your legs have been moving in a circular motion without impact, then switch to a more elliptical running gait with the added impact forcing blood flow to the bottom of your legs. Learning to get into your running rhythm quickly off the bike will make your whole run a lot easier and quicker.
Bike-to-run brick sessions are the best way to train for this. Depending on your location and access to suitable training areas, you can do these in a number of ways. You can either plan a bike route of between half to full race distance and then have your run kit set up ready to go as soon as you’re back from your ride, aiming to be back out and running as quickly as you can.
The other fun way is to select a short bike route of around 5km with a run route of around 1km – these can be loops or out-and-backs. Repeat bike-run-bike-run as many times as you like. Aim for a minimum of two, working up to four times through as your training progresses. You’ll either need to do this in a training group, with a coach watching your bike while you run, or enlist a willing family member to help you out. Cake is always a good bribe.
Olympic Triathlon Training Tips
Training Tips For The Swim
The most intimidating leg for many, but also the area where you’ll make the biggest time savings through technique. Commit to the crawl now – and invest in quality goggles.
The Foundations For most people, the swim is the limiting factor – but even if you can get the distance done, better efficiency in the water means you’ll save energy for the other two legs. That’s why, in the early going, technique improvements beat raw cardio prowess. “Find a group to train with, or get a few private coaching lessons,” says triathlon coach Ian Rooke. A dedicated tri coach is a better bet because tri swimming technique uses less kicking than traditional front crawl, conserving energy for the road.
Speed Up Endless lengths aren’t the answer. “To improve on your speed I would suggest not swimming any more than 400m in one go,” says Rooke. “You need to maintain good form and technique throughout the whole distance, whether it’s 100m, 200m or 1,500m. To work on speed I would suggest swimming 100m efforts using a given ‘turn-around time’ – for instance, 10x100m off 1min 50sec means you’d aim to swim 100m in around 1min 20sec, rest for 30sec, and go again when the clock hits 1min 50sec. Aim to reduce the swim time and increase rest time.”
Advanced Tactics If it’s tricky to get to the pool, top up your training and build swim-specific strength in the gym. You’ll want to work on your shoulders and core for full-body efficiency, and you can use the renegade row to build both. Get into a press-up position holding a pair of dumbbells on the floor, do a press-up, then row one weight up towards your armpit, keeping your core tight and body parallel to the floor, then the other. That’s one rep. Aim for five sets of ten.
The longest section of the race is the chunk where PBs are made or lost. Think quality not quantity in your training, and make sure you know how to change a flat.
The Foundations At least one of your sessions a week should be a long-distance, low-intensity effort done at a comfortable, controlled pace. Work according to perceived endurance, not a heart rate monitor: your breathing rate should be relatively low, and you should feel like you’d be able to hold a conversation throughout the session. Your legs should start to feel less fresh, and then a bit tired – that’s the sweet spot where you know you’re putting in quality kilometres.
Speed Up To improve your performance on flat courses, work on high gear intervals (or “big gear” as cyclists often call it). Do six sets of eight minutes in a big gear with two-minute spinning recoveries. Use a threshold effort, where you build to a burning in the legs then back off a little.
Advanced Tactics “If you have access to an indoor trainer – otherwise known as a turbo trainer – these are great bits of kit to help improve cycling fitness,” says Rooke. “Try to make your training race specific by holding a pace for a given amount of time, rest, then repeat for a number of sets.” To improve your ability to hit hills and recover, do 12/3s, where you alternate 12 minutes at race-pace intensity with three minutes at a higher pace. Build up to a 45-minute set for an Olympic-distance tri.
You’re nearly there but even for veteran runners, the final burst can be tough on bike-ravaged legs. Here’s how to finish strong and put in a time you can be proud of
The Foundations First you’ll need to make sure you can cover the distance. If you’re new to running, increase your training volume gradually, and don’t increase it every week because your joints and tissues need time to adapt to the new stresses they’re under. Aim to do one long effort, building up in distance each week, alongside one faster-paced but shorter session and one “brick” effort (see below). Start the speed sessions by doing fartlek – just speeding up and slowing down according to your own internal sense of pace – before you start playing with intervals.
Speed Up “The best way to improve speed is to go to a running track and do efforts ranging from 400m up to 1,200m,” says Rooke. “Use a similar method as with the swim – say, aiming for a 90-second 400m with 30 seconds of rest, then going again. Alternatively just give yourself the same rest each time no matter how fast your effort.” For a triathlon-pace race, a 2:1 or 3:1 work-to-rest ratio can be one of the most beneficial. Keep the total distance of each session relatively consistent so you aren’t overtraining.
Advanced Tactics Visualisation can work, but make sure you’re not picturing too easy a race. In multiple studies, psychological research indicates that the more time people spend fantasising about desired outcomes – everything from passing school exams to losing weight – the less effort they put into actually achieving them.
If you’re picturing a perfect, hassle-free race you’re more likely to fall apart, or at least slow down, when adversity strikes. Instead, use an effect known as “bracing”. Expect your race to be hard, and mentally rehearse how you’ll feel and what you’ll do if things go wrong. Prepare for the worst and take responsibility for your race.
Brick sessions - two disciplines back to back – are key part of your training, so do them properly
Start Easy You’ll take time to adjust, so don’t push too hard too soon. “Start with a gentle five-minute jog after coming off the bike,” says Garbett. “Once you’re used to how this feels, increase time, distance and intensity gradually so you avoid injury.”
Talk Yourself In “Once you complete a session in one discipline, it’s easy to feel you’ve done some good training and talk yourself out of the next bit,” says Garbett. Resist by going through mental cues as you come off the bike: say, “quick feet” or “loose shoulders”.
Do A Multi-Brick Help your body adjust to different disciplines by giving it a few chances. Do a 30-minute bike warm-up, then alternate between ten minutes’ cycling and ten minutes’ running three or four times. Finish with a warm-down on the bike.
Add Jumps In a University of Queensland study, triathletes improved their running mechanics with plyometrics. Once or twice a week, warm up with a ten-minute jog or bike spin, then do up to five sets of five box jumps. Aim for quality, not quantity.
Mimic The Course In the final weeks before the race, simulate the course as closely as you can during your brick sessions. If you’re going to hit a big hill 1km into the run but you’ve trained solely on the flat, you’ll struggle on the day.
Written by Joel Snape for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.