A triathlon can be daunting. The three distance races of swim, bike, and run utilize different energy systems and muscle activation patterns. Each requires unique physical and mental skills to reach the finish line.
Triathlon training is also about tradeoffs.
It would be nice if bike fitness easily translated into the water, or running ability made you a great bike rider. In some ways, fitness does translate. But each discipline requires dedication. A proper training schedule should be specific to triathlon demands.
A triathlon training plan focusing on specificity of the swim, bike, run, and all transition areas will optimize race day performance. And don’t forget about nutrition and sleep; these are considered the fourth triathlon disciplines. Both in and out of season, make sure you hit all of the basics.
Training for a Tri isn’t Negotiable
Finding new challenges and setting goals helps push performance limits. If you’re an athlete who has traditionally stuck to one sport, training for your first triathlon may be just what you need to spice up your training schedule. It may also light a new competitive flame.
Triathlon training can stimulate your body in new ways and work new energy systems. It’s like rigorous cross training. Triathlon-specific fitness can improve overall health, may translate to reduced injury in other sports and perhaps weight loss, if that’s a goal.
Triathlon 101: the Various Triathlon Distances
Before developing a training schedule, the first step is to decide which triathlon distance you’ll conquer for your next or first triathlon. This will influence your workouts and overall training time.
Sprint Distance Triathlon
Swim - 750 meters (¾ mile)
Bike - 20k (12.4 miles)
Run - 5k (3.1 miles)
Standard or Olympic Distance Triathlon
Swim - 1.5k (.93 miles)
Bike - 40k (24.8 miles)
Run - 10k (6.2 miles)
Swim - 1.9k (1.2 miles)
Bike - 90k (55.9 miles)
Run - 21.9k (13.6 miles)
Swim - 3.9k (2.4 miles)
Bike - 180k (112 miles)
Run - 42k (26.2 miles)
Which Distance is Right for You?
There are a few things to consider when choosing your race distance.
The first: time. How much of your schedule can you dedicate to training? Most programs include two workouts per day, several days per week. You’ll likely need to dedicate 10 - 12 hours or more to training each week. Naturally, a longer race (half-Ironman or full Ironman) will require more time in the pool, on your road bike, or laced into your running shoes pounding pavement. Most people don’t have the luxury of being a pro-athlete with unlimited training time. The average Joe isn’t training for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.
Training environment is another consideration. Will you be able to practice open water swims in a nearby lake, or is a pool your only option? Trails and roadways conducive to long runs and rides may dictate training quality and safety.
The most obvious consideration is experience.
Many new triathletes want to attack the biggest race their first time out, but this could spell disaster.
A long history of athletics or endurance sport may allow you to seamlessly finish your first race without much trouble, but it may not. It’s important to learn to enjoy the journey of the sport as much as the destination.
Dividing the Training Pie
You have three sports to train for, and only so many hours. How much should you dedicate to training for each discipline? Tradeoffs dictate that, by choosing to spend more time in one activity, you must lower the amount of time spent in another. Swimming, biking, and running can be thought of as three slices of the giant training pie.
The relationship between triathlon training and performance is specific.
irectly predicts performance in that race leg. More swim training means a stronger swim portion. This makes sense physiologically because the same muscles, motions, and pace we train are the same muscles, motions, and pace with which we compete.
Generally, you should do the same number of swims, bike rides, and runs each week. In total, aim for two workouts per week for each discipline. An easy formula for this plan follows a single swim-bike-run-swim-bike-run each day. This also includes one day per week to be used for recovery.
While on the topic of rest, plan your training program so you never have back-to-back hard workouts (e.g. interval training on Monday and a hill workout on Tuesday).
If you’ve assessed your strengths and determined you may need a little more swim, run, or bike work, an additional third session of a specific discipline can be added per week. This might come in the form of a “brick workout” (discussed later) or a day where you complete two workouts (a double).
Volume and Intensity
Early research on elite endurance athletes found they gained the most fitness when completing approximately 80% or more of their training at low intensity (below lactate threshold) and the remaining 20% at moderate or high intensity.
Applying this rule to your training is simple. Create a schedule where 80% of your training volume (in time) is at a low intensity. What is a low intensity, exactly? Generally, low intensity is regarded as anywhere between 45% - 80% of your predicted heart rate max.
Plan your remaining training sessions at moderate or high intensity. These will be your interval workouts, tempo sessions, and hill work. One high-intensity swim, bike ride, and run per week is the general framework. High-intensity training occurs at a heart rate from 80% - 100% of your predicted heart rate max.
Spending time logging miles in each discipline is crucial to develop proper endurance needed for the triathlon. Practice swimming, biking, and running at paces and tempos you’ll experience on race day.
It may be useful to research the race course to determine layout and elevation changes. Find out whether you’ll be racing an open water or ocean swim. This can help to guide specific training sessions.
The swim portion is the most physically-technical part of the triathlon.
Good swimming should look almost effortless and relaxed. Swimming better isn’t just a matter of moving your arms harder or faster–efficiency is important.
You can build efficiency in two ways. The first involves swimming a set distance (say 25m) with a lower number of strokes in the same amount of time. Swim five sets of 25 meters each, and lower your stroke count by 1 - 2 for each repetition. This will improve the distance you can travel with each stroke.
To improve tempo, swim a set distance in the same amount of strokes, but decrease time on each repetition. This means you’ll be taking strokes more frequently.
Focus on long, clean strokes rather than choppy harsh ones.
Other Swim Training Tips
- If your race is open water, be sure that you practice a few open water swims before race day. Your local pool won’t mimic an ocean swim
- Practice sighting: swimming off course or getting lost during an open water swim can spell disaster for your race. Sighting is the ability to pick your head up enough while swimming to ensure you’re heading in a straight line to the buoy or other landmark. You can practice this in the pool
- Find a triathlon coach or join a team. Since swimming is so technical, learning from someone more experienced may have benefits
- Go the distance: it’s recommended to practice swimming the complete distance you’ll be racing
- Purchase and practice getting out of your bathing suit and swim cap. You don’t want to lose valuable race time struggling with this
The bike discipline of the triathlon is where you’ll spend the most amount of race time, and is also where you can potentially make up the most ground lost. Cycle training is crucial because many triathletes under perform on the run due to residual fatigue during the bike.
Power is the cyclist’s most crucial asset. More power on your road bike means you can ride faster over any race distance. Workouts to build power should be included in your cycling plan, and hill sessions are a great way to increase power. Hill workouts become extremely important if your race course contains significant elevation changes, long climbs, and steep inclines.
To hill train, start by finding a hill with about 1,000 feet of climbing. Each week, try to increase the distance climbed on this route while maintaining the same cadence and effort. If you have a power meter, trying to maintain power on climbs while increasing distance is a way to gauge fitness improvements.
Another variation of hill sessions are high-intensity uphill sprints. Sprint uphill for 60 - 90 seconds, followed by a ride back down for recovery. Repeat this 8 -12 times per workout.
Bike–Lactate Threshold Work
Your lactate threshold is the highest intensity you can sustain for around 60 minutes. At or above this intensity, the body starts to accumulate lactate, signaling a reliance on anaerobic energy production systems.
Exercise above this threshold can’t be sustained for long, so working to increase your threshold is crucial.
Lactate threshold is the best predictor of race performance for many cycling events.
LT workouts are typically done as longer intervals. Find a long flat road where you won’t have to slow down or stop often. Try doing 3 - 4 ten-minute intervals at your lactate threshold pace. Increase time as you progressively get fitter or add more intervals.
Other Bike Training Tips
Unlike swimming and running, biking involves more technical equipment. Consider a few of training tips help optimize your time in the saddle.
- Learn to change a flat: nothing ruins a great bike ride like a flat tire. Even worse, this could happen during your big race. Invest in a patch kit and a spare tube just in case disaster strikes while out on the road
- Get fitted: a proper bike fit is critical to maximize comfort and efficiency in the saddle, and even boosts performance by increasing power and optimizing aerodynamics
- Consider indoor training: any bike can be hooked up to an indoor trainer. This will prevent days lost due to training if you can’t make it outdoors
Run–the Long Run
Endurance runs form the base of triathlon run training; they're key to developing a powerful heart, increasing muscle capillaries for oxygen delivery, building robust mitochondria, and strengthening running-specific muscles.
Long runs build fatigue resistance and confidence, both crucial to perform well on race day. A general recommendation for triathletes: long runs should equate to about 35% of your total weekly running volume. If you train 4 - 6 hours per week, this would mean a long run of 1.5 - 2 hours or more.
High-intensity speed work should occur at 80% - 100% of your maximal HR or V02 max.
Generally, a 2:1 or 1:1 work to rest ratio for intervals is recommended. This might take the form of two minutes at high intensity followed by one minute jog recovery, repeated eight times. Feel free to experiment with different types of intervals and mold them to your race distance.
The Brick: Your Best Friend and Worst Enemy
The triathlon is not three separate sports, but a single sport combining three interconnected events. The back-to-back-to-back nature of triathlons means you’ll need to practice the transitions and simulate the fatigue you’ll experience on race day. Brick workouts are race day dress rehearsals.
The brick is a specialized workout typically combining either a swim/bike or a bike/run into a single session.
In each, the first activity is followed immediately by the next with little to no recovery time.
Brick workouts allow the body to adapt to specifics of swim/bike and bike/run transitions. There are biomechanical and physiological differences among all events that will make transitioning uncomfortable if not practiced. Brick sessions allow you to practice making seamless transitions and minimize your performance drop from one event to the next.
Sample Brick Workouts
A simple brick workout might include a 500 meter swim in a pool, followed immediately by an easy bike ride of around 45 - 60 minutes. As you adapt to the transition, you can increase length and intensity of the swim and the bike ride.
For a bike/run brick workout, the same format can be applied. A 45 - 60-minute bike ride followed by a 30-minute run can get you into the rhythm of using different muscles and movements during this transition.
Outside of brick workouts, practice your swim-to-bike and bike-to-run transitions. Rehearse getting out of your wet suit and swim cap, getting onto the bike and then, unclipping your cycling shoes and lacing up your running shoes. This will make sure things go as smooth as possible on race day.
When to Brick, and How Long to Go
Most triathletes should aim to complete one brick workout every 3 - 4 weeks. Keep the intensity of the swim, bike, and run the same as that of other workouts. If you had a moderate intensity swim or bike planned for a particular day, do a brick workout with both events at moderate intensity.
For duration, if you’re training for a sprint triathlon or Olympic distance triathlon, this workout should be 50% - 100% of race distance. For half-Ironman and full Ironman triathlons, 25% - 50% of race distance is recommended for a brick workout.
Fuel for the Work Required: Triathlon Nutrition
High-volume training means you’ll be tearing through energy stores. This requires you fuel properly and strategically.
What you eat before a workout plays two roles. The first is ensuring that you’re able to maximize energy production needed for high-quality workouts and attain the greatest training adaptations. The second is the opportunity to practice race day nutrition strategies.
The practice of training with reduced fuel availability, termed “training low,” is a recent strategy used by endurance athletes. It involves doing 30% - 50% of your training sessions with reduced carbohydrate availability.
Manipulate carbohydrate availability on a session-by-session basis with intensity and duration in mind. Train low sessions should be planned around your lower-intensity workouts.
This is because low-intensity exercise relies more on fat oxidation versus carbohydrate oxidation for energy.
Training in a “fasted” state increases free fatty acid availability and lipid oxidation which can subsequently be used during the session.
There is evidence that training low stimulates post-exercise gene expression, oxidative enzymes, glycogen storage capacity, and other molecules related to positive metabolic adaptations compared to exercising with high carbohydrate availability.
When the body is low on carbohydrates, it burns more fat and even produces ketones for fuel. Ketones are the body’s natural back up, used in an energy crisis to replace carbohydrate–typically you either have enough carbs to get by but no ketones or no carbs and then elevated ketones. It's a trade off between fuels.
Not so with exogenous ketones. After consuming exogenous ketones in the form of an exogenous ketone supplement, the body can use both carbohydrates and ketones for energy, essentially giving the body two fuel tanks to employ. The result? In a 30-minute time trial, elite cyclists rode 400m further (performing 2% - 3% better) after drinking a ketone supplement containing the ketone beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB).
Have Sufficient Fuel for High Intensity Sessions
High-intensity sessions rely more heavily on carbohydrate oxidation than low-intensity work. For these workouts, having high availability of carbohydrate is recommended in order to maximize training output and adaptation. Pre-exercise carbohydrate intake (3 - 4 hours before a workout) enhances carbohydrate availability during exercise and has been shown to improve endurance capacity.
A triathlon training plan doesn’t have to be complex. After you’ve found the right race, following some well known strategies in regards to your training and nutrition will set you up for success at any race distance.
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