How to train for your first triathlon
YOUR first one! So you’ve decided to take the triathlon plunge? You won’t be the only triathlete newbie in the starting area. Race participation has increased more than 300% over the last five years and continues to grow. Athletic-Minded Traveler will help you:
- pick the race distance
- gear up
- create a training plan
- & avoid mistakes
As NIKE once encouraged, “Just Do It”
“Triathlete” looks good on paper, makes for good conversation in nearly any situation, and what better way to meet likeminded people. Additionally, it is MUCH easier working off winter’s fat with a tangible motivator in mind, like the fact that you’ve told everyone you know that you are doing the race. Keep in mind that race stats are viewable by all.
By following our easy to follow training plan, you will be on your way to earning the title “triathlete.”
Triathlon comes in all shapes and sizes
Triathlon is no longer an exclusive sport for uber athletes. With the surge in the sport’s popularity, race schedules have expanded to accommodate the growing number of “newbies” looking to swim, bike and run for the first time. There are now “tris” for kids, relays, shorter distances and various divisions like “clydesdale” for those who boast a more robust weight. We recommend a “sprint” distance race for your inaugural outing; unless you are already an accomplished swimmer, runner or cyclist. Then go for the Olympic.
Race distance basics
Most often you hear athletes talking about four triathlon types:
- Sprint: There is no standard sprint distance; however generally sprint races tend to approximate a ½ mile swim, 10-20 mile bike and 5k run.
- Olympic: Olympic distance involves a 1.5 kilometer swim (just under a mile), 40 kilometer bike (approximately 25 miles) and a 10k run (6.2 miles)
- Half Ironman
- Ironman: This is the most recognized triathlon and involves a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and a marathon, 26.2 miles.
Before you start agonizing about any cold water immersion, leg burning ride, and pavement pounding run, think about what you may need for your sweat adventure. Don’t be swayed by the advertising. You don’t need to invest your retirement nest egg to complete (or train for) a triathlon. And in fact, nothing draws the ire of seasoned pros more than a first timer decked out to the hilt without the athleticism to back it up. Think low key and don’t get fancy your first time out. If triathlon turns out to be the sport for you, then consider upgrading over time.
The key equipment includes:
- Reliable running shoes (ones that you have worn for at least a month)
- Speedo (sorry guys there is no avoiding it)
- Swim goggles
- Cycle (some races even have a mountain bike division), and of course,
- Whatever other jersey type shirt you desire for the bike and run.
Also consider what the water temperature will be on race day. If you can avoid the whole wetsuit thing, it will save some hassle and cash. If it's going to be a wet day, consider using BodyGlide or some other lubricant for your feet to avoid blisters and chafing.
Set a training plan
Depending upon how in shape you are today (or out of shape), give yourself a good 3-6 months to prepare. The great thing about triathlon is that it can be a very social sport. Check out your local triathlon club. It’s an easy and fun way to start swimming, biking and running.
Training for a goal
Aside from following mom’s advice and “doing the best you can,” setting a measurable goal will keep you on track. A sub-two hour sprint race is a conservative example. While training is hardly rocket science, it does require balancing the demands of three sports.
Which of the three disciplines do you think will give you the most trouble? Other less obvious considerations are the racecourse characteristics. What do you know about it and what conditions will you likely face? Will it be hilly, technical, hot, wet? Running on a treadmill in your cozy gym may not be the best preparation for a hilly climb in 90 degree heat.
Set the training schedule & train right
Once you've registered for a race, decide how much time you realistically have to train. Then, commit to a schedule that has three key workouts each week (one swim, one bike, and one run) that are specific to the distance and intensity you're training for. For first timers, this sort of training specificity is designed to get you through your race as quickly and efficiently as possible. A sprint race is relatively short and you will likely be racing at or even above your anaerobic threshold for 2-hours. Therefore your training needs to reflect this high intensity. By training at the appropriate intensity one time per sport per week, you’ll build strength and endurance.
On you mark get set go!
The following workouts can help first timers train appropriately for a sprint race:
- Swim - Warm up - 400 meters as: 100 swim, 100 kick, 100 drill, 100 swim
- Main set - 3 to 4 x 200 meters at 85% effort on 15 to 20 sec recovery,
- 100 easy
- 4 x 25 meters sprint with 25 meters recovery plus 30 seconds,
Cool down with an easy 200 meters swim
Total: 1400 to 1600 meters
- Warm up - 15 to 20 minutes
- 4 x 2 minutes with 2 minutes recovery. Get faster on each subsequent
2-minute effort - #1 easy, #2 medium, #3 fairly hard, #4 hard.
- Main set - 6 minutes medium to fairly hard, 4 minutes fairly hard, and 2
minutes hard all with 2-minute recovery.
4 x 30 sec fast spinning with 1-minute recovery after each (these are done
in your smallest gear or with very little resistance) and you're working on
high cadence while staying smooth and seated in the saddle.
- Cool down 10 minutes easy riding.
- Warm up - 15 to 20 minutes
- Warm up 10 to 15 minutes
- Main set - 6 to 8 x 2-minutes going from easy to hard effort over the
course of the eight 2-minute efforts with 2 minutes of easy jogging after each.
- Cool down 5 to 10 minutes.
The above sessions are your key workouts, meaning that they are designed to be specific to the intensity and distance a sprint race requires. Your other sessions should include a long ride (1 to 2 hours) and run (30 to 60 minutes) to help build endurance. These additional workouts will fill in your week based on your time constraints and strengths / weaknesses.
Mixing it up
You can periodize each week by building the training volume for a week or two and then getting a rest week to recover from the hard work. Finally, make sure the week before the race is relatively easy. If you've been able to consistently perform according to a set training schedule, resting will allow you to absorb the work and help raise your performance.
Lastly consider breaking down the total times for each leg of the race and see what it's going to take to reach your overall goal. Once you know this, you'll have an idea of how fast you should be
swimming your 100's in the pool, riding, and running.
Avoiding common pitfalls
The most common factors that trip up first time triathletes: weather and travel.
Aspiring athletes residing in cold climates often lose motivation during winter’s most brutal months. We suggest creating a more flexible cross training schedule to maintain interest. Travel tends to be a killer due to the challenge of locating legit lap pools and other solid exercise facilities when away from home—which is one reason our healthy travel portal & resource exists.
Use Athletic-Minded Traveler to locate fitness focused hotels, healthy dining options, nearby retailers (such as Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s), running routes (with printable maps), lap pools, yoga studios and so much more.
Like anything worthwhile, you’ve gotta work for it. The bottom line for completing a triathlon in a respectable time is consistent training. It's not one specific workout that will enable you to achieve your goal but the week-to-week training over the course of the 12 to 16 weeks prior to the race that will get you to the finish line in under 2-hours.
And keep in mind: No training you do in the final week prior to your race will positively impact your fitness—in fact, it might be detrimental. Therefore, “when in doubt, leave it out.”
If you are in search of more training advice, take a look at our Blog archives to the right. Training Tips offers a lot.