Who doesn’t love the idea of a competing in a triathlon? Instead of having to stick to running, cycling, or swimming, you get to combine all three for a well-rounded and exciting training program. However, if you want to excel in your race and do the best that you’re capable of, then you need a carefully planned approach. Stick with me for the next few minutes and I’ll walk you through my beginner’s guide to training for a triathlon.
Know your distances
First things first, you need to be absolutely clear about which distances you’re going to be completing as part of your triathlon; this is to ensure that your training is specific to the demands of the event. If you train for a 10km cycle and your competition requires 180km, you’re in for a world of trouble!
Here are the 6 different types of triathlon, with distances for each section.
- Super sprint triathlon: 400m/10km/2.5km
- Sprint triathlon: 750m/20km/5km
- Standard triathlon: 1500m/40km/10km
- Middle-distance triathlon: 2.5km/80km/20k
- Long-distance triathlon: 4km/120km/30km
- Ironman triathlon: 3.8km/180km/42km
As a beginner, I strongly recommend going with one of the first three options for your first competition. This will allow you to get a feel for triathlon competition without putting too much pressure on yourself to cover huge distances.
Once you’re clear about the distances you’re going to be covering, it’s time to make an honest assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses as a competitor.
- Are you a better swimmer, cyclist, or runner?
- Are you fast at the start but tend to tire quickly?
- Or perhaps you can go forever but you’re way too slow?
The more honest you are with yourself, the better you’ll be able to design your training program and the more you’ll be able to improve ready for your race.
Design your weekly training schedule
Now that you know your strengths and weaknesses, you can start designing your training schedule around them.
Let me give you a couple of examples:
Steve is preparing for his first standard distance triathlon. He has been running for the past three years and has completed two half-marathons. However, he hasn’t done much swimming since he was a kid, and although he cycles, this tends to be more recreational.
For Steve, it’s obvious that he needs to spend most of his time focusing on swimming. Ideally he would get a swimming coach to reinforce good technique. He’s already got good levels of cardiovascular endurance, so that isn’t a huge concern. He’s an okay cyclist, but he could do with some faster rides in his training.
If Steve was training 4 times per week, I would recommend that 2 of those sessions be swimming, 1 be faster-paced cycling and 1 be his usual long-distance run.
Sarah is preparing for her first sprint triathlon. She’s an absolutely amazing swimmer, winning national medals in the freestyle 50m and 100m. However, she’s only ever done little bits of running and cycling.
For Sarah, it’s pretty clear that she won’t need much swimming practice. Her main issue is that she’s seriously lacking in endurance. Since she’s only trained for speed, she’s going to need to learn how to pace herself for up to an hour.
If Sarah was training 4 times per week, I would recommend that 2 of those sessions be cycling, 1 running and 1 swimming. All of the sessions would be done for a set time, keeping a consistent pace.
Top tip: Be realistic about the number of training sessions you can do each week; don’t just say 10 sessions because you think that’s what you need to do. Pick a number that you can do consistently every week. Remember, triathlons are awesome, but they’re not worth losing your job, your friends, or your family over! Between 3 and 6 sessions per week is usually perfect.
Design your long-term progress plan
Now that you know how you’ll be structuring your weekly training, it’s time to think bigger and create a long-term progress plan. The exact length of your plan will depend on how long you have until your triathlon. Ideally you’ll have at least 8 weeks, preferably more like 12 or 16.
The key to becoming great at any physical activity is small improvements every week. Little improvements add up to big improvements over time. The biggest and most common mistake made by beginners is trying to progress too quickly and then getting injured.
Here are some examples of what I mean by progressive improvements over time.
Building up distance:
For most beginners, building up your distance is going to be your number one concern. Here’s a rough example of how you might do that:
Week 1 – swim 300m, bike 8km, run 3km
Week 2 − swim 400m, bike 10km, run 4km
Week 3 – swim 500m, bike 13km, run 5km
Week 4 − swim 600m, bike 16km, run 6km
Week 5 − swim 700m, bike 20km, run 7km
Week 6 − swim 800m, bike 23km, run 8km
Week 7 – swim 900m, bike 27km, run 9km
Week 8 – swim 1000m, bike 30km, run 10km
Increasing speed over the same distance:
If you can already complete the distances but you want to complete them faster, here’s what your training progression might look like.
Week 1 – run 10k in 60 minutes
Week 2 – run 10k in 57 minutes
Week 3 – run 10k in 54 minutes
Week 4 − run 10k in 52 minutes
Week 5 – run 10k in 50 minutes
Week 6 – run 10k in under 50 minutes
Top tip: Remember that these are only rough examples. You are an individual with your own body and your own recovery times. Listen to your body and increase at a rate that suits you.
A final word
Alright, if you’ve stuck with my guide so far then you should have a step-by-step system for planning your triathlon training. There’s no magic pill or tip I can give you that’s going to turn you into an amazing triathlete overnight, so be prepared to put in the work.
Lastly, and most importantly, just remember to enjoy the process. Chances are that none of us is heading to the Olympics anytime soon, so relax and have some fun with it!
Have you started training yet?