Training for Your First Triathlon
You’ve been thinking about doing a triathlon for a while and finally committed and signed up for an event. Cue the overwhelm… Or maybe you haven’t committed yet because you don’t know where to start. You can do it! Here is how to get started.
It can seem like a lot to tackle, especially if you don’t have a background in swimming, cycling or running. How much do you need to train? What kind of bike do you need? What about special triathlon gear? But when we break it down to the basics, triathlon is manageable, fun, and not as intimidating as you might think. Let's get started.
Format and distance
When someone says the word triathlon, everyone seems to think “Ironman World Championships in Kona.” Sure, that may be the most widely known, thanks to the longstanding TV special featuring inspirational stories and performances, however, there are other distances and types of triathlon that are much more accessible.
The most common type of triathlon is performed as an open water swim, then cycling and running on the road. However, there is also an off-road version that combines open water swimming, mountain biking and trail running. For both road and off-road events, actual distances sometimes vary based on the location, but most typical triathlons are described in terms of their distance.
Many people use this as an introduction to the sport, but it also provides a great speed challenge for those who want to race it very fast. It includes a half-mile swim (750m), a 12.4-mile bike (20km), and a 3.1-mile run (5km) for a very manageable total distance of 16-ish miles or 25.75km.
Also known as standard distance, and this distance is what is contested at the Olympics. It includes a 0.93-mile swim (1500m), a 24.8-mile bike (40km), and a 6.2-mile run (10km) for a total of 31.93 miles, or 51.5km.
A step up in distance for those looking to challenge their endurance, but not spend their entire life training for it. It combines a 1.2-mile swim (1.9km), a 56-mile bike (90km) and a 13.1-mile run (21km) for a total of 70.3 miles or 112.9km.
Possibly the most well known version of triathlon, which most people aspire to complete, rather than race. This 140-mile race includes a 2.4 mile-swim (3.8km), 112 miles of cycling (180km) and a marathon, which is 26.2 miles (42.2km).
Most off-road triathlons are either sprint or Olympic distance, with a slightly shorter cycling leg because mountain biking is slower than road cycling, although the time on the bike usually comes out to be pretty similar. If you’re really looking for a challenge, there are some half- and full-distance off-road tris out there, but I recommend getting some experience first!
So what to do? If you have a mountain biking background, you’d likely prefer an off-road triathlon. If you’ve done some road cycling or running, an on-road tri will suit you best. In either case, I would recommend a sprint distance event as your introduction to the sport. It will provide enough of a challenge because it’s something new, but not so much that it’s overwhelming or requires investing a lot of time and money.
How you train for this new challenge could make or break your enjoyment of the experience. Come into it prepared and you’re likely to love it. Depending on your background, you may need more training in one particular discipline than another, so keep that in mind when you’re planning your event.
Look for one that gives you about 12 weeks to train, or maybe more if you’re completely new to all three disciplines. If you’re highly experienced in one, you may be able to get away with less. Lucky for you, we have a 12 week plan ready to go!
If you’re able to find a local race, that’s also ideal, as it gives you the opportunity to train on the course before race day. This will ease some of the unknowns and help you feel more confident.
Now how exactly do you train for three sports at once? No, you don’t need to do all three every day, but you should aim for two to three sessions of each within the week, with one of your weekly sessions being a “brick” workout. A brick is simply a combination of two sessions, either swim and bike or bike and run, done back to back with minimal rest in between. This will help you get used to the fatigue that accumulates and practice fueling and hydrating as your training sessions increase in duration. When you do your first bike-run session, the heaviness in your legs will have you quickly understand why it’s called a brick.
An example week of training is shown below to give you an idea of the time commitment required to train for your first sprint triathlon. You’re looking at a total weekly training time around 5-7 hours. As a general rule of thumb, you don’t want to increase your training time more than 10% from week to week. You should also be able to complete the full race distance of each discipline before event day.
One very common beginners’ mistake is performing every training session as fast and as hard as they can. Don’t do this! This creates fatigue and causes a plateau very quickly. A proper training plan utilizes a variety of intensities and progressive overload. However, if you don’t recover from the stress,, you don’t adapt and become faster. If you simply go fast every time you train, it will actually make you slower!
Most of your swim training can be done in the pool where you can do focused intervals and track your distance and time. This is the most important discipline to be able to complete the full race course distance prior to event day. There will be safety kayaks out on the water if you have trouble, but if a safety boat has to bring you back to shore, that’s the end of your race day.
Pool swimming also helps you develop good technique right away and will make a world of difference in the long run, so it’s best to hire a coach to teach you proper technique.. Your city’s rec center or health club may have swim instructors that you can take a lesson from. Also, you can hire me to improve your technique remotely through video analysis.
Open water swimming is a specific skill that you ought to practice before event day if possible. You’ll want to practice sighting, which means looking up for the turn buoy or other landmark that you can use as a target every 5-10 strokes to make sure you’re on course and not swimming extra distance.
Many local bike shops will host group rides that you can join to make friends with other like-minded people and learn more about the sport. Things like cycling etiquette and getting comfortable riding near other people are important.
When it comes to cycling technique, think about pedaling in complete circles. It’s actually impossible not to, because the cranks are circular, but thinking that way helps you use more of your leg muscles than just pushing down with your quads. If you’re using clipless pedals, you have the ability to not only push down on the pedals, but to also use your hamstrings to pull up, which increases efficiency and reduces muscular fatigue.
Your cycling training should include two to three sessions per week, at various intensities. One of the weekend days is typically a longer ride with a brick run immediately afterwards.
Running technique begins with a slight forward lean of the body, keeping the shoulders relaxed and down. An ideal cadence (stride frequency) is greater than 85 steps per minute in order to reduce landing force stress and improve efficiency. You should train to the point that you are able to run the full distance of the race prior to event day, however you can always stop and walk if and when it becomes necessary.
If you are an experienced runner or already capable of completing the full distance of the race, you can begin to incorporate speed work, such as track or fartlek workouts. A good track session is 4-6 x 400m (one lap) at your goal race pace with 2-3 minutes of recovery between each.
Good luck and have fun! And check out our 12-week Sprint Distance Triathlon Plan to get started today.
Suzie Snyder is a multi-time Xterra National Champion, Xterra World Champion podium finisher, and a USA Triathlon certified coach with a Master's Degree in Exercise Science. She has enjoyed coaching everyone from triathletes of all levels to tactical athletes like the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, the US Army 10th Special Forces Group and the Colorado Springs SWAT Team and K9 Units.