Most triathletes pick a sprint triathlon as their first race. These are short races, typically a 500-meter swim, 15-to 20-mile bike ride, and a 5K run. They get a taste for the sport by doing this, and then want to take it to the next level.
To take it to the next level, here are some ideas how to set up or change training as a beginner triathlete, or as an athlete who comes with specific experience in one sport, This could mean training for an Olympic-distance race (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run), or for a half Ironman (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run).
Before planning training, athletes should think about the overall impact on schedule. Training for longer-distance races typically means many days will be filled with two workouts. This is a big time commitment, especially for those with families and full-time jobs. As a general rule, I usually tell athletes who want to get into longer distance racing to plan at least three workouts per sport each week; and often more, especially for their weaker disciplines.
Be ready for the time commitment and other changes that come with it.
For many, the first triathlon is mostly about finishing and having fun. As athletes plan to take racing to the next level, expectations will probably be higher. There will be certain time or pace goals, and this often requires changes in training, such as the following.
For example, athletes who come from a running background will work on strength for swimming and cycling and spend disproportionally more time training for these sports. Improving weaker disciplines will most likely bring the most overall gains.
A group can be motivating and push an athlete to a new level. Athletes also often feel more committed if they show up to a group training rather than training by themselves. For example, T3 Austin has great triathlon training for beginner and advanced athletes.
If an athlete plans his or her own training, here are some guidelines to help achieve the next level.
A “healthy combination” of both is what is needed. As training volume increases, it’s important to make sure the intensity of harder workouts does not drop significantly. Otherwise, the athlete won’t get the quality in workouts, and just doing longer and slower efforts will not prepare an athlete well for races.
For example, this can be one intensity workout (tempo effort, speed work) per sport, and one long distance effort per sport. Those key workouts are the “pillars of the training week,” which shouldn’t be missed. Then, add easy to moderate workouts. These are still needed to enhance overall fitness, but these are the workouts with which an athlete can be more flexible (adjusting duration, or moving them around, depending on other commitments).
Change between high volume training weeks and easier weeks, and between weeks or phases with intensity focus and recovery week. If every week looks similar in training structure, the body will quickly adapt and reach a plateau, and athletes will not make any more performance gains.
It can be a lot more challenging to swim in open water than in a pool. Practice makes a big difference, and I have often seen that a fitter swimmer will exit the water behind a slower swimmer who is more experienced in open water.
This will increase confidence in the ability to handle the distance. The only exception to this is the Ironman run (full marathon): when done as a a training effort, this length typically involves too long of a recovery period. Intensities for longer interval sets should also build up to race effort or slightly faster.
But don’t combine these distance and interval builds: Do not train for the full race distance at race intensity. Save this effort for race day.
There are a few fairly simple upgrades that can increase speed, but, ultimately, it is the “engine” that has the biggest impact on race performance. I usually find that those athletes who spend more time and focus on the actual training will outperform other athletes who research the latest and most aerodynamic gadgets and constantly make changes to setups and equipment. There is a tendency for beginners to believe that they must upgrade their equipment to become faster, but this is not true. Upgrade fitness first, and then look at equipment updates if necessary.