Transition practice while training for a triathlon

How To Train For A Triathlon

Training for a triathlon can be a challenging venture when you consider that there are three sports requiring your attention. A triathlon consists of a swim, a bike and a run in that order. The roots of triathlon can be traced back to the early 1970’s when the San Diego Track Club started looking for ways to help athletes gain fitness without always running. Since then, the sport has grown at a tremendous rate and participation is truly global. The International Triathlon Union (ITU) is the governing body and was responsible for triathlon gaining Olympic status in 2000. Ironman Corporation has a massive foothold in the sport with events worldwide and huge participation numbers.

There are two primary distances covered in triathlon. The first is the Olympic or Standard distance, which comprises a 1500m swim, 40km bike and a 10km run. The second is the Ironman distance, which comprises a 3.8km swim, 180km bike and a 42km run. Outside of these distances there are dozens of other events from short sprint distance events to Ultraman events that cover multiple Ironman length races over several days.

Training for a triathlon requires some planning so you can arrive at the start line feeling fit and ready. Not only will you need to work on three different sports but you will also need to rehearse transitions and have a nutrition plan if the race exceeds one hour. In triathlon, a transition is what happens when you move between sports. Transition 1 or T1 refers to moving from swim to bike. Transition 2 refers to moving from bike to run. Here are the most important things you need to do and consider if you are going to train for a triathlon.

Jeremy and Louise running in Whistler, BC
Two runners training for a triathlon

Pick An Event- Know Your Timeline

The first and perhaps most important thing you need to do if you are going to train for a triathlon is to actually pick an event to train for. If you are a beginner, consider starting with a local event. There are many small events that don’t fit under the ITU or Ironman banner that are excellent options when you are new to the sport. Picking an event close to home will keep your costs down and decrease the risk of something going awry when you travel. Local events are often shorter than the Standard and Ironman distance events, which is also advisable if you are just getting started.

If you are more advanced and looking for a bigger challenge you can dive into some larger events under the ITU or Ironman banner. These events typically have participant numbers in the thousands and are more expensive but they are also a great deal of fun. Athletes will travel all over the world to race in these bigger events and you can qualify for World Championship events in the professional and age group categories.

The important thing is to identify the event you want to train for so you have a firm date in place. Knowing the timeline you have to prepare is crucial. It is advisable to have at least 12 weeks to train for a triathlon if it is a shorter event like a sprint distance or a Standard or Olympic distance. If you are planning to prepare for something longer like an Ironman or Half Ironman (70.3) event you should consider a longer timeline of at least 16 weeks. When you train for an Ironman event you should really plan to be committed for a full year. An Ironman is a significant undertaking and should not be taken lightly. It is not necessary to train specifically for an Ironman for a full year but you should be on a triathlon training program for about a year and look to really focus on the Ironman distance about 12-16 weeks out of the event. The length of time you will need to specifically focus on the Ironman distance really depends on your level of experience in both triathlon in general and in any of the given sports. If you are considering this path you should really invest some time and energy into learning how to train for an Ironman specifically.

Having a firm date in place allows you to work backwards. The closer you are to your goal triathlon event, the more specific your training should be for that particular event. The further you are from your goal triathlon event, the less specific and more general the training can be. As you move further out from the event you also have the opportunity to work on some of your weaker areas, work on the technical aspects of the three sports and incorporate some strength training. You can also incorporate cross training with sports like mountain biking and cross country skiing.

Swimmers getting ready for the swim at Challenge Penticton Triathlon
Challenge Penticton Swim

Equipment

Equipment is a significant part of the equation when you are preparing to train for a triathlon. There are three sports to consider and each sport requires the right equipment.

Swim

Let’s first consider the swim portion. You will definitely need a swim suit and ideally one that is suitable for training. Baggy shorts are not a great choice because they will slow you down in the water and more importantly, they will affect your body position. There are more than enough great options out there for swim training suits so definitely visit your local swim retailer or hop online and you will find the right thing.

If you are doing a triathlon in open water, chances are you will need a wetsuit. Wetsuits are legal when the water temperature dips below a certain point. Different race organizations have different rules around the temperature cut off so you will want to make sure you know the rules for the triathlon you are training for. The wetsuit cut off for professional athletes is often different than it is for age group competitors so you will also want to make sure you are reading the set of rules that applies to you. A good wetsuit is an important equipment purchase for safety and for speed. When the water temperature is low you want to make sure you are staying warm enough. When you get cold, you burn more energy trying to stay warm so a wetsuit will save you energy. Wetsuits are also faster than non wetsuits for most people. Wetsuits are very buoyant and as such, your body will sit in the water in a more favorable position. Ideally you are able to try a wetsuit on before you purchase it so you know that the size is right. Most wetsuit companies will have sizing charts that do a good job as well so if you are ordering online you should be able to get close. Wetsuits come in many different styles and price ranges and most of the bigger companies will have something that suits your budget. It is incredibly important to put the wetsuit on properly so you are not fighting the suit.

Goggles are an important equipment purchase for swimming. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to see especially in open water. You should be able to purchase a good pair of goggles from the same place that you buy a wetsuit or swimsuit. Like the wetsuit, it’s important to try the goggles on if possible so you can find a pair that fits your face properly. As an aside, a very minor purchase you will need to make is a good swim cap particularly if you have long hair. The triathlon you are training for will likely provide you with a swim cap on race day. Often they use different swim cap colours to designate different waves or ages of athletes.

Kylie Acford doing Pull Technique in an indoor pool with lane markers. Her left arm is coming out of the water and moving forwards as her head tilts to the left to get a breathe of air.

A swimsuit, wetsuit and goggles are the most essential swim related purchases when considering the swim portion of the triathlon. If you know for sure that the triathlon you are training for will be a non wetsuit swim then of course, the wetsuit is not essential but make absolute certain so you are not left unprepared on race day.

Bike

The bike portion of a triathlon will definitely stretch your wallet the most when it comes to equipment purchases. If you are a true beginner doing a very short sprint type triathlon do not feel the need to go out and purchase a bike worth thousands of dollars. Many people will simply use the bike they’ve got (road bike, mountain bike or any kind of bike) to get from start to finish because they are in it for the experience. However, if you are diving into the sport of triathlon with both feet and plan to make a long term commitment to both racing and training you may want to consider purchasing a bike and all the necessary equipment so the journey is more enjoyable. There are several essential pieces of equipment you will need in order to train for a triathlon.

The first is a good bike. This can be of the road or triathlon variety and most bike shops in bigger population centres will have something that suits your needs. It is recommended to purchase a triathlon specific bike if you are planning on doing longer events like Ironman or Ironman 70.3 events. If you do not have a good bike shop in your area there are plenty of online outfits that will have what you need. You can also check around with your local bike or triathlon club for used bikes.

The second and equally important piece of equipment you will need to train for a triathlon is a good helmet. Make sure to have it fitted properly so it does the job it is intended to do which is protect your head in the case of a crash. Along with a proper helmet, you should have a good pair of eye glasses to protect your eyes from the sun but also for safety reasons. If debris or insects fly into your eye during a ride this can be very dangerous. A good pair of glasses will ensure that you protect your vision when riding.

Pedals and shoes are an important equipment purchase. Specifically, it is advisable to purchase proper road bike or triathlon shoes and clip in pedals so you can transfer all that hard work into forward momentum efficiently.

Bike specific clothing is important if you are planning on doing a great deal of riding. It will be form fitting and far more comfortable than baggy shorts and shirts. Biking shorts have a chamois that gives you extra padding for comfort. The jersey part of a bike outfit will contain pockets so you can store nutrition.

Tying the bike equipment list together, if you are diving in deep with your triathlon training make sure you have your bike fit and set up properly for you. Comfort is essential on the bike as it is the sport you will likely spend the most time on. Comfort is the top priority and performance or power transfer and aerodynamics coming in a close second.

Steph Corker riding in Ironman Canada 2014
Biking at Ironman Canada

Run

Running is perhaps the least equipment intensive part of triathlon but it is still very important to purchase a shoe that works for you. The best advice is to visit a running shoe store so they can have a look at your feet and your running gait and recommend the best fit. Running shoes can vary dramatically in design. Different shoes are built for different shapes and sizes of foot and athlete.

tara gill on the run at vancouver triathlon
Running To The Finish

How Much Training Is Required?

The training required for a triathlon depends on several factors. Race length, level of experience and your goals all contribute to the time commitment you will need to make.

Triathlon events range from sprint distance, which take roughly 60-90 minutes up to Ironman, which can take as long as 17 hours. As the distance increases you will need to commit more time to training, however athletes do experience success at the Ironman distance with as little as 10-15 hours per week in some cases.

For any of the distances, having three exposures to each sport (swim, bike and run) per week is ideal for beginner to intermediate level athletes. This ads up to a total of nine exposures per week. If you have an off day in the week this leaves six days to fit in nine exposures. It’s important to consider that triathlon is one sport made up of three separate sports. As such at least one of your workouts can be a bike to run combo thus taking care of two of the weekly workouts in one training session. For time management purposes it is advisable to have two to three training sessions on your weekend days in order to minimize the stress of getting everything done during a busy work week. If you are training for a short event your training sessions can be as long as an hour during the week and you can do slightly longer sessions on the weekend when you have more time.

If you are training for a longer event like an Ironman and your work days provide time challenges you can still manage on 60-90 minutes per day during the week but your longer weekend training sessions will need to increase in length in order to mimic what you will experience on race day. As you get closer to your goal event the training should reflect what will actually happen in the race. Specificity as you get closer to the event is very important. There should be at least one workout in the week that is like a dress rehearsal. Typically this happens as a bike to run combo on the weekends.

If three exposures in each sport is not possible, two per sport will also get the job done or you can lean more on the sports that you need the most work on or feel the least comfortable with. You can also prioritize different sports at different times of the year. The important thing to consider is that frequent exposures to something you are trying to learn will accelerate your learning more rapidly than infrequent exposures.

Your level of experience is an important consideration when training for a triathlon. If you are a true beginner it may be better to start off with less exposures to each sport simply so your body has the time and space to adapt. If you do too much at once you may risk injury because your body will not be used to the training load. As you gain more experience and your body gets stronger and fitter, you can incorporate more training into the program.

Professional triathletes will often train each sport every day in order to maximize their frequency and exposure to the three different sports. They do include off days and lighter training days as well in order to balance the stress of training with recovery. For most people this is an unrealistic commitment but aiming for three times per week per sport will help you improve.

Group swim in a pool
Swim Training

What Type Of Training Is Required?

The type of training you will need to do depends on several factors. The first is the type of event you are getting ready for. In your preparation you should do workouts that reflect what you will need to do at that event. If you are doing a sprint distance triathlon you should include workouts that give you the confidence that you can do the distances and if you have a goal time in mind you should do workouts where you practice the pace you would like to go.

The second factor, when considering what type of training is required, is the length of time to the triathlon event you are training for. The closer you get to the event the more specific your training should be for that event. The further you are from the event, the less specific the training can be and the more you can focus on different aspects of the triathlon. For example, you may want to focus on your weaknesses or different energy systems. If you live in a country with a true winter, you may even want to include some cross training like cross country skiing or snowshoeing.

Training programs should be a simple process that allow you to be consistent. For most people this means a structured week that balances the primary energy systems that are important for triathlon. Even if your event is a “sprint” triathlon, it is still an aerobic sport. Sprint triathlons still take an hour or more for most people. One of the most effective approaches is to implement a balanced program that has some intensity in all three sports and some longer duration training sessions in each sport. Higher intensity workouts take longer to recover from so consider leaving at least one day in between your higher intensity run and your higher intensity bike workouts.

A team of runners takes a turn on the road coming down a hill.
Running In The Hills

Be Progressive

One of the most important things you should do when you are preparing for a triathlon is to make sure your training is progressive. This means not doing too much at once. Your body needs bouts of training stress and then space to recover from the training so it can get stronger. If you do too much at once or too much too quickly you risk injury and potentially burn out. It is important to have a training plan that gradually increases your volume/mileage over time with frequent recovery both during the week and over the course of your triathlon training.

Sample Training Weeks

Here are several examples of training weeks that can work for a broad range of triathlon events from sprint distance to Ironman distance. These training week outlines are designed for individuals with regular work hours and family commitments during the weekdays and weekends that provide more time for training. These basic weeks can be scaled up if you have more time in the day. For example, you may want to do a training session in the morning and then one after work on some days thus almost doubling the time you spend doing the three sports. Navigating the subtleties of a training program takes some experience and is often best advised by a coach.

As the race length increases, the length of the longer training sessions should increase to reflect the time and distance that you will experience on race day. It is highly recommended that if you are going to do an Ironman or Ironman 70.3 event you incorporate at least three of each sport per week into your training plan.

Training Week With Two Exposures Per Sport Per Week

Monday

  • Swim- recovery with a technical focus up to 60 minutes

Tuesday

  • Run- higher intensity or hill repeats total run up to 60 minutes

Wednesday

  • Swim- shorter intervals with a technical focus total swim up to 60 minutes

Thursday

  • Bike- higher intensity or hill repeats total ride up to 60 minutes

Friday

  • Off/Recovery

Saturday

  • Bike- endurance ride building up to 90 minutes
  • Run- off the bike up to 15 minutes (practice transition from bike to run)

Sunday

  • Run- endurance up to 90 minutes

Training Week With Three Exposures Per Sport Per Week

Monday

  • Swim- recovery with a technical focus up to 60 minutes

Tuesday

  • Run- higher intensity or hill repeats total run up to 60 minutes

Wednesday

  • Swim- shorter intervals with a technical focus total swim up to 60 minutes

Thursday

  • Bike- higher intensity or hill repeats total ride up to 60 minutes

Friday

  • Off/Recovery

Saturday

  • Bike- endurance ride building up to 90 minutes
  • Run- off the bike up to 15 minutes (practice transition from bike to run)
  • Swim- endurance ideally open water practice swimming the race distance

Sunday

  • Run- endurance up to 90 minutes
  • Bike- recovery up to 60 minutes

Transitions

Transition practice while training for a triathlon
Practicing Transitions

The transition is one of the most fun and unique aspects of triathlon. Transitions are important to practice when you are training for a triathlon so you can be calm and efficient when event takes place.

Transition 1 (T1)

The first transition happens when you move from swimming to biking. It is not always easy to practice this transition particularly if your swim workouts happen in a pool. However, you can practice these with greater ease during your open water swimming sessions. This may be as simple as running out of the water after your swim and taking your wetsuit off with speed and efficiency. If you can leave your bike in a safe place you can have it set up with your helmet and practice getting on the bike after you have removed your wetsuit. Putting on your helmet and glasses is a skill unto itself and can be practiced anywhere, anytime. It can be astonishingly difficult to buckle up a helmet when you are out of breath or if the conditions are cold. It is vitally important to remember that you must have your helmet on and fastened whenever you have your bike in hand. If you don’t have your helmet on or it is unbuckled and you have your bike in hand you may receive a penalty or disqualification. Do not touch your bike until your helmet is on and buckled and do not take your helmet off until your bike is in the bike rack in transition. Another crucial aspect of the first transition is getting your shoes on. At the professional level they will leave their shoes clipped into their bike pedals and start riding before they put their shoes on. If you are a beginner it is highly advisable (and often required) that you put your shoes on before attempting to get on your bike. Similar to the helmet, your shoes might have buckles or other fastening devices that require practice and may be tricky with high exertion levels or cold conditions.

Transition 2 (T2)

The second transition is the one people typically practice the most when they are training for a triathlon. The second transition happens when you move from the bike portion to the run portion of the triathlon. This is mostly due to how uncomfortable it can feel to run after you have been biking. During the bike we are in a bent over position and when we stand up it can feel quite uncomfortable at first. Your legs can also feel quite fatigued after the bike portion and it can take some time before they start to feel normal. It is very important to practice the second transition not only for speed and proficiency but also so you know what that feeling is like and learn that you will usually feel better after about 5-10 minutes of running. As noted above, it is incredibly important to rack your bike before unbuckling and removing your helmet. Putting your running shoes on in the second transition can take some practice as well. Athletes will often use elastic laces or laces with toggles to speed up the process. It can be challenging and frustrating to do up your shoe laces in the heat of a race.

Should You Train With A Group?

Groups are an excellent way to improve your triathlon skills and have a great deal of fun. If you are a social person and your schedule allows for it, searching for a group in your community is a great place to start if you are planning to train for a triathlon

Athletes getting out of the water with big smiles, in a lake with a mountain and snow in the background!
Open Water Swimming With Friends

Consider Hiring A Coach

Hiring a coach is a great idea not matter what level you are competing at. Coaches will have the expertise and experience to help guide the process and structure a training plan that works with your life schedule. A good coach will also help you make smart decisions along the way and be able to help you navigate things like injury and sickness.

What About Strength Training?

Strength training is an important thing to include in your triathlon training plan if you have the time. Most athletes, with full time jobs and families, find the balance of three sports challenging enough and as such have little room left for additional training sessions. However, if you do have time then by all means, incorporating a strength training plan is a great addition and will make you stronger. If you do not have time we recommend that you add on a few simple core and hip stability exercises at the end of one of your other workouts. You only need 15-20 minutes to make a difference.

Close up of a woman doing plank at her gym on the mat.

What Should I Eat?

Nutrition during your triathlon really only becomes an important factor when considering events longer than one hour. Typically the human body can store enough glycogen in the muscles to last 1-2hrs depending on your level of intensity. If you are training for an Ironman triathlon you should definitely be taking a deep dive into your nutrition strategy for the event itself. When considering your nutrition strategy you need to consider water and sodium intake as much as carbohydrate intake. There are literally hundreds of products on the market for endurance sports and wading through all of them can be challenging. The races will often be sponsored by a particular product and that can be a useful start. If you plan on using the nutrition provided by the event then it’s worth purchasing what will be on the course so you can make sure you like it and your body is used to it. Like anything, a simple approach is usually the best.

In terms of what to eat day to day, your nutrition should be well balanced with an emphasis on natural whole foods. The timing of your nutrition intake after strenuous workouts is important as well. You should first and foremost focus on replacing lost carbohydrate stores as well as water and then follow that with good fats and proteins.

Nutrition

Should I Get Tested?

Physiological testing is another thing you might want to include in your triathlon training. There are many testing protocols available. Some are better than others and some are more accessible than others. Testing becomes more relevant as your level and commitment increase. The heart rate and wattage numbers you can gain from testing can be incredibly valuable when structuring your training and understanding what effort you should be going in a race. Managing your effort becomes particularly important in longer duration events like Ironman or Ironman 70.3 events.

Other Considerations

There are several other important factors to consider when you are training for a triathlon. The first are the conditions that you need to prepare for. If your race will likely be in hot conditions you should definitely be including workouts that challenge your ability to cope in the heat and help you acclimate to the heat. There are several important things you can do to have a successful race in hot conditions and you should also practice these strategies during your training.

Another consideration is whether you will need a wetsuit or not. If you will likely require a wetsuit for the swim portion then you should definitely spend time swimming in your wetsuit prior to the event. If you are a beginner it is very important to learn how to put your wetsuit on properly.

Consistency is everything. It is far better to have a training program that allows you to be consistent week in and week out with less volume than an overly enthusiastic program that is hit and miss. Smaller amounts frequently will do more for you than larger amounts very infrequently. The body and the brain love repetition and muscle memory is ingrained when we can repeat activities with frequency. If you only have 30-60 minutes per day that is fine, just make them count and be consistent and you will improve.

Technique is very important in all three sports. Even if you are doing a workout that is lower intensity you should always be mindful of your technique. The more we can repeat an activity well, the more efficient we will become at that activity.

The sport of triathlon can seem overwhelming because there are three sports we need to get ready for. The best approach if you are going to train for a triathlon is to keep it simple. Having an understanding of the big picture and all the moving parts is important but ultimately it comes down to doing the training with a high level of consistency. Following a simple plan that addresses all three sports and doing it frequently is better than getting lost and consumed by tons of data and complex ideas about training. To get from the start to the finish you need to swim, bike and run. Keep it simple, enjoy the process and have fun!

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