So, you’ve decided to train for a triathlon. Good for you! Completing your first triathlon is a major fitness accomplishment and is something to be very proud of.
The good news is that, with a sensible training program and the right basic equipment, even a relatively unfit novice should be able to complete a sprint or Olympic distance triathlon with just a few months of preparation.
While it’s beyond the scope of this guide to provide you with a detailed training schedule to follow, we can give you the broad strokes so that you know what you need to do to get ready for your first triathlon.
Swimming – Triathlon Training for Beginners
Essential equipment: swimsuit, goggles, swim hat, wetsuit (if doing an outdoor swim), kickboard, pull buoy.
Swimming is arguably the most technical discipline in triathlon.
Unless you have a background in water sports, you may have never swum anywhere close to the distance you are training for. You may not even be a technically proficient swimmer.
Because of this, most beginner triathletes will benefit from swimming lessons and should include technique work in every swim training session.
Triathlon is hard enough without wasting energy by swimming inefficiently.
While the rules of triathlon do not stipulate which stroke you should use, front crawl, also known as freestyle, is your best choice. It is the fastest and most efficient stroke you can use.
You could use breaststroke or even backstroke, but you’ll waste a whole lot of energy if you do. Instead, make mastering freestyle your main swim training goal.
Aim to hit the pool 2-3 times per week, preferably on non-consecutive days. Start each swim with an easy warm-up that includes drills to improve your stroke. Good options include arms only, legs only, and catch-ups.
As far as your swimming workouts go, resist the temptation to just dive in and plod up and down the pool. Instead, focus more on interval training.
With interval training, you break your workout into shorter, more manageable chunks. This is very useful when you need to practice your technique as well as improve your swimming fitness.
For example, if you try and swim half-a-mile, you might complete the distance, but your stroke will probably fall apart midway through your workout.
This will not only make your workout harder than it needs to be, but it also reinforces your already improper technique.
But, if you break that half-mile down into eight 100-meter intervals, you should find that you can concentrate and maintain your technique more easily.
In addition, because you are swimming relatively short distances at a time, your average speed will be higher. This all translates to a much more productive workout.
You still need to include longer, continuous swims in your schedule, but only to give you the confidence that you can complete the distance you are training for.
Gradually increase the length of your longest swim so that, a couple of weeks before your race, you know you can cover the required distance relatively comfortably.
Also, if you are training for an open water swim, make sure you do at least a few workouts in a similar body of water.
You need to become accustomed to the differences between pool and sea/lake/river swimming. For example, when swimming in open water, maintaining a straight line is much harder.
Cycling – Triathlon Training for Beginners
Essential equipment: bicycle, cycling shorts, jersey, shoes, helmet, sunglasses, gloves, waterproof jacket, water bottle, and repair kit.
Cycling is the most expensive part of triathlon, both in terms of financial cost and workout time.
Heading out on your bike invariably means clocking up at least an hour of training, and more often closer to two.
You’ll also have to contend with things like bad weather and other road users. In the winter, you may also have to face training in the dark.
Because of this, a lot of triathletes have to make do with just one or two bike rides per week, doing their longest or even only ride during the weekend.
That might sound like too little cycling, but it isn’t.
There are several things you can do to develop your cycling fitness without actually riding your bike, such as hitting the gym and working on your running fitness.
Before you set off on your first cycling training session, make sure that your bike is set up correctly.
That means adjusting saddle height, saddle angle, and handlebar height. While aerodynamics is a factor, you should put your focus on comfort and safety.
Low handlebars and aerobars might increase speed but, if you finish the bike stage of your race feeling knotted and sore, you’ll lose any time gained when it’s time to run.
As cycling is usually the longest part of any triathlon, when you do ride your bike, your main focus should be the length of your training session.
Get used to spending time on your bike. This will develop local muscular endurance, aerobic fitness, and also help you develop proper pedaling technique.
Pedaling technique? Yes! There is more to riding a bike than stomping down mindlessly on the pedals. Instead, each pedal stroke should consist of four different but seamlessly blended phases:
- Push forward
- Push down
- Pull back
- Pull up
This is a lot to think about and takes some practice to master, but you’ll have plenty of time on your lengthy bike rides.
If you can only ride once a week, work on increasing your mileage until you can comfortably ride the distance you are training for.
If you want to ride further, limit yourself to about 10-20% over that distance.
Riding further will not do much for your cycling fitness. Instead, once you know you’ve got the distance cracked, focus on riding faster.
If you can ride more than once per week, make those additional training sessions short and sharp.
Use these rides as speed work and an opportunity to practice your pedaling technique.
Short time trials, such as ten miles, are ideal for mid-week bike training. A workout on a stationary bike can also be useful.
Running – Triathlon Training for Beginners
Essential equipment: running shoes, socks, shorts or tights, singlet or t-shirt, sweatshirt or similar, waterproof jacket, sun hat, sunglasses.
Running should be the cornerstone of your triathlon training. It is the most accessible of the three disciplines and will also have the most significant impact on your fitness.
As your running performance improves, so too will your swimming and cycling. Running is also less weather and equipment dependent.
Most beginner triathletes should try and run three times a week, preferably on non-consecutive days.
Because running is also the highest impact and therefore the most biomechanically stressful of the three triathlon disciplines, it is crucial that you make every run count.
This means no “junk miles” – the common term for just going out and plodding without purpose.
Instead, you should do:
- One short, fast run per week
- One hill or interval run per week
- One long, slower-paced run per week
This will keep your training varied and interesting, and also help increase your fitness more effectively than running at the same speed for the same distance week after week.
Putting it all together
As mentioned at the outset, we can’t provide you with a detailed training plan within the confines of this short article. However, we can give you a template for how your training week could look.
Throughout your training, gradually increase the length and intensity of your workouts to improve your fitness. Use the 10% rule to avoid doing too much too soon.
This means never increasing the length of any one workout, or your weekly workout volume, by more than 10%.
For example, if your longest run is four miles, and you run nine miles per week, your next longest run should be 4.4 miles, and your weekly total no more than 9.9 miles.
This simple progression will ensure you continue to get fitter but are less likely to suffer overuse injuries.
*Brick session – cycle immediately followed by a run.
Running after cycling takes some getting used to so, as you get closer to your event, it is essential to practice this skill. And yes, it’s perfectly normal for your legs to feel like they are made of stone!
Training your first triathlon can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to take over your life! In fact, with no more about six hours of training per week, you should have no problem completing a sprint or even an Olympic distance event.
You probably won’t set any records on your first time out, but that shouldn’t be your goal. Save record-setting for your next event!