What triathlon training programme is right for me?

Embarking on your first triathlon is a serious undertaking, and following a proper triathlon training plan is essential.

You’re competing in three disciplines, and whilst there is some crossover in aerobic capacity, they all use different muscle groups and require specific skills, so you have to balance time spent across all three sports, plus fit in time for recovery and additional skills like Brick training, practicing getting in and out of a wet suit and open water sighting. So a triathlon training plan is as much an organisational tool as a training programme.

freestyle breathing
freestyle breathing

 

It takes a good understanding of your current fitness and skill level, good time management and organisation, coupled with some awareness fo different training techniques and styles in order to complete an effective triathlon training plan, so be realistic about your abilities and ambitions before you start.

If you are going for a full Ironman getting a coach is a good investment, and for the more committed athletes at all distances, you really need to consider joining your local club, as this will give you access to facilities, coaches and support that will help you improve much faster and more cost-effectively than on your own.

If you are going it alone, however, there are a huge range of free and paid triathlon training plans available online that can be highly recommended, but you need to know how to decide on the right one. Do you know the difference between TSS and CSS? What’s an easy vs steady run pace?

The following pages will take you through some of the key steps in the training programme from pre-training to taper, what makes up a good training programme for the three disciplines, what does all the jargon mean and where can I get hold of good plans?

Understanding your pace is essential both in triathlon training plans and racing. Going too fast during a run will lead to injury, which will ruin your plan and could mean you can’t race at all. Pacing on race day is essential especially for long races as the rate of energy usage is disproportionately higher at faster speeds, which can leave you empty well before the end of the race.

Recovery is essential. Triathlon training plans work on the basis that you perform an activity that stresses your body in some way, then during recovery, your body adapts to the stress. Without recovery you are not allowing your body to achieve this adaptation, so you won’t get fitter, only more fatigued.

Most of the triathlon training plans assume that you have a minimum level of fitness and skill in each discipline before you start, so if you have no current experience in one or more of the disciplines, click here for preliminary training options.

Triathlon training plan time commitment

Triathlon training time commitment is not to be taken lightly. A general rule of thumb is that you need to do at least two sessions per event per week to be ready for a triathlon, so you need to take this into account when choosing your event. Thankfully, depending on the length of the race, many of these sessions can be short and can be built into your day to day routine, with many people incorporating their daily commute into their training regime.

training mix

Four things to consider when assessing triathlon training time commitment

What is my current level of fitness?

If you are already an experienced runner, cyclist or swimmer, chances are you have a strong aerobic baseline hence your main focus is going to be to build specific competencies and muscle groups relevant to the other sports. However, if this is your first race, and you don’t have a strong aerobic base, you might want to consider a beginners training program like the couch to 5k or Swim-a-mile programmes which will help you develop both the endurance and specific skills required for these events. 

How much time do I have until the race

The standard rule of thumb is that your training load shouldn’t increase by more than 10% each week if you want to avoid injury or illness if you are running 5k consistently, then, accounting for a taper you probably need 10-11 weeks to build up to an Olympic distance race. And probably more if you factor in rest weeks for optimum preparation.

How much time can I give?

Most training place call for 2-3 sessions per week per event and the length of a session will obviously be affected by the distance of each leg. Can you afford to commit an hour of exercise per session 6 times a week with your current lifestyle? If not, the events above sprint may be difficult. However, the sorting distance would be ideal as most sessions are 30 mins or less.

Am I a sprinter or an endurance runner?

This tends to impact the short races but is worth mentioning. Triathlons are a group of events run sequentially, and, whilst the other events impact on your pace it’s only a matter of small differences, so if you run a 30min 5k, chances are your time in the triathlon run isn’t going to be that much different. so, if you prefer slower, endurance events, you might prefer the longer distances.

New to triathlon training plans

If you are new to any of the triathlon sports or have not exercised for a while it’s worth investing time in developing skills through couch to 5k or swim a mile plans before you embark on your first triathlon training plan. This will help you build the skills needed to swim, run or cycle properly and build a sild base of fitness before you commit to 6 sessions per week.

This will mean you need to start your training earlier but will help you later in your preparations and there is a wide range of programmes available and as they are generally designed to get people into a new sport they are designed to be simple, fun and easy to follow.

Swim a mile plans

Swimming is an excellent spot for all levels and ages because it’s low impact and promotes mobility across a wide range of muscle groups, so it’s heavily promoted by national sporting and health organisations.

Your local pool or national body will have details of specific plans or training in your area, but if not, then here’s a link to a few great plans aimed at getting you from 0-1600m or 1k. You may also decide to cut this short if your chosen triathlon plan has a base of 400m for example.

The key thing for beginners is to focus on the form of the stroke so look for a plan that includes drills if you are not taking on a coach. Remember, practice makes permanent, not perfect, so errors that are in your stroke will just get worse unless corrected and can lead to injury as the training load increases.

Speedo do a comprehensive swim fitness programme suitable for all levels which can be found here

This is the classic swim a mile beginner programme by Ruth Kazez that is simple and easy to follow. Click Here

Swim Ireland run a very popular and successful annual Swim a mile programme, and you can get free training plans as part of this, here. Don’t worry about not being in Ireland, you can still enjoy the online resources.

Cycling

Cycling plans are a little more difficult to come by, as the assumption is we can all cycle and many cyclists are just using their bike for commuting, so have a basic level of understanding. Most plans you find are aimed at cycling 100Mile races and triathlons or assume that you are using a static trainer.

 

You need to get out on the road on a bike, getting the key skills of cornering, pedal cadence and gear selection ( not to mention braking) is vital.

Red Bull have a beginners(ish) programme, here, but it starts at 30minutes

British Cycling has a range of plans but you need to register. Their Sofa to 50k plan can be found here

Some of the cycling magazines have good beginners plans. They do assume some knowledge, like training zones, but this is easy to pick up and will be needed for the main triathlon training, Cycling Weekly and Average Joes. Cancer research and the NSPCC also do plans for people doing charity BIke rides.

Running couch to 5k plans

A slow steady build up to running is key to avoiding injury, with no more than a 10% increase in mileage each week recommended, and as many triathlon training plans start off with a 5k base, you need to build up in advance.

 

It’s worth starting with a mix of running and walking until you get your muscles and joints used to the impact and movement involved, and this is the basis for the couch to 5k programmes. It makes sense to think of these as plans that get you to do the distance but just make you faster as you do less walking and more running over the programme.

The classic Couch to 5K plan is now available as a paid app, here, but there is a wide range of alternatives available on the internet, eg. At C25k, who have a range of different languages, the UK’s NHS version

Structure of a triathlon training plan

There are two key approaches to training for events. One assumes that you have decided to pick an event and are looking to train specifically for that, and the other assumes that you are building a year-long training plan to compete in either for a specific event or season.

Neither is right or wrong, they are just designed for different types of people and requirements, but the one-off plans are more suitable for the first timer.

One-off

A one-off training plan will be aimed at a specific distance in a given time frame and will assume a level of base fitness. These are the most common forms of training plans and will break the week down into specific activities on given days that balance the disciplines evenly. Most Magazines and sites will have their versions, as will some of the main tech providers like Garmin and Trainerroad if you are a user.

Training Peaks and Strava also run these programmes but they tend to be paid, but can also be more advanced or allow dynamic adjustments based on performance.

Online calendar based plans like Garmin’s are ideal because you can move sessions around to suit your needs. There is nothing more annoying than having a swimming session on a day when the pool is closed for swimming lessons! Some will also publish the calendar so that you can link it to your outlook or Google calendar which helps with organisation and motivation.

Season plan.

A season-long plan has three key phases. A taper phase may also be added if you are training for a long event, which you really shouldn’t skip.

Base

The base phase lets you build up a basic level of aerobic fitness that will form the foundation for more strenuous sessions as you get closer to your race. The sessions will tend to be easier, either shorter or performed at lower levels of intensity to build fitness and strength without the risk of injury, they may also focus on reinforcing certain skills or promoting muscle memory which will make later sessions more productive, and on training your body to use the specific aerobic energy systems to improve your aerobic endurance and performance.

Build.

The majority of the work for the season is done during the build phase, where the athlete starts to specialise and focus on the performance goals of a target event. This might be building endurance for a long race, power for a hilly race or speed for a sprint based event. The Sessions in this phase will be more intense and involve anaerobic or threshold activities which are designed to help you sustain higher power outputs over greater periods of time and promote active recovery which lets you do it time and again.

Sprints, intervals, hill repeats are a key ingredient of this phase but must be balanced with aerobic and recovery sessions.

Injury is a concern in this phase as well, so foam rolling and massage, physio sessions and flexibility exercise such as pilates may well be promoted during this phase.

Speciality or conditioning phase

During the final phase, the assumption is that you have reached the level of general fitness required to complete the event, but need to be sharp and injury free to compete. Training loads will drop off but become more focussed. The intention is to practice the kinds of mental and physical effort that will be required in the race, effectively simulating important parts of the race but at less than race levels.

For major events, this phase may include B or C races which are added as training or testing events to allow you to understand your performance prior to your A race, so you can optimise your prep and focus on your areas of weakness.

Effective Triathlon brick training

Any triathlete will tell you how important incorporating triathlon brick sessions into your training plan is but it’s only when you do the first race that you’ll understand why!

A triathlon brick session is any session where you include two or more activities in the same training session and it’s designed to get you used to the weird and potentially painful sensation caused by moving from one event to another when your muscles and nervous system just aren’t ready for it.

What is the brick

Triathlon brick sessions get their name from the heavy sensation that settles into your legs when you start the run, making you feel like your legs are made of bricks. Each of the events in triathlon use very different muscle groups, so, to increase performance and save energy your body will focus blood flow only to those muscles that you need for the specific event, and effectively switch off those it’s not using.

If you know what it’s like trying to stand up when your legs have gone to sleep, then imaging trying to run like that! When you start to run, your body will start to trigger the relevant muscles and divert blood flow to them, but this takes time, and, as you are likely to be operating at a high intensity, this puts additional pressure on your heart, causing your heart rate to jump, which can push you into your anaerobic zone.

Whilst cycling and running use the same muscles, the level of engagement differs. Cycling uses the Glutes as the main source of power, supported by the Quads and hamstrings, but in running, the majority of the power comes from the thighs, and the hamstring, in particular, is used much more.

Running also uses the calves significantly more, and this is often where you will feel the most, and this can lead to cramping early in the run leg which will have a major impact on the rest of your run.

The dizziness and wobbly legs at the end of a swim are the same mechanics, and it’ worth doing a couple of sessions where you jump out of the pol after a hard interval, just to see what it’s like and get your body used to the transition.

If you do experience the brick in a race, there is very little you can do other than running or walking through it. the main thing is to keep moving to ensure that the blood continues to flow to where it’s needed but at a slower pace, focussing on your breathing which will calm you down, get oxygen to the relevant muscles and reduce your heart rate. Once you drop to a more aerobic heart rate, you’ll find it a lot easier to get back into the run.

Training sessions.

A good brick session will focus on the transition between the two events, and, if you can repeat in a session, then that will increase the effectiveness. How you do it is entirely up to you but here are a few options.

  1. at the end of a long ride add on a 5-10 minute run. This shouldn’t be after a very strenuous ride, as that might increase fatigue and potential injury
  2. A 30-minute bike at a higher intensity followed by a 5-10 minute run
  3. 20-minute high-intensity bike followed by a 5-10 minute run, repeated two or three times.
  4. Add a cycle before a  run session. If you train at a track, cycling instead of driving will be an efficient way to add brick training into your routine.

If you are in a gym, this is obviously easier, but doing sessions on a trainer or the open road are fine, just make sure you have all your kit ready and that your bike is left in a safe place when you are running.

It’s also a good time to practice taking your helmet off before the run because you’ll be surprised how often people forget!

Triathlon Training Zones

Effective pacing is key to proper injury-free training and optimum performance on your first race so, before you start, it’s worth understanding your baseline triathlon training zones and which method is right for you at least for the run and swim. Cycling pacing tends to be more power related, which is more difficult to measure without proper sensors.

Approaches

If you have a training plan already, chances are it will use specific triathlon training zones for setting effort for individual sessions, mixing high and low-intensity activity to optimise the balance between performance improvement, avoiding fatigue led injury and ensure you are training both your cardiovascular and muscular-skeletal systems. These approaches fall into three main categories and may require additional equipment to monitor.

  1. HR related
  2. Pace related
  3. Perceived effort related

HR related

The use of Heart rate as a measure of effort makes total sense, as it is the most obvious sign that your body is working hard, can be personalised to you, and is affected by your health and fitness. On the downside, it does require a monitor to track effectively, and as a lagging indicator which takes some time to react to the effort, it’s not suited to short and variable intervals.

HR-based pacing involves splitting the range of heart rates between resting ( your heart rate when asleep or relaxed) and your maximum heart rate ( generally calculated as a function of age) into Zones, or by working back from maximum heart rate.

The body has two distinct mechanisms for burning fuel, aerobic and anaerobic ( with or without oxygen). As the muscles work harder they require more and more oxygen, and the body compensates by breathing harder and increasing blood flow. At the extremes, however, the body s not able to provide sufficient oxygen to the muscles, so more and more of the fuel is burned without oxygen ( anaerobically), which is more inefficient.

This doesn’t happen at a specific point, but progressively, meaning more and more of the energy comes from anaerobic mechanisms as the heart rate increases and the amount of lactate increases in the blood.

The Zones used in a heart rate system approximate this progression, so, an easy zone will be predominantly aerobic and efficient training at this level helps you improve your endurance without risking muscle damage. This is long slow running or relaxed swimming.

To prepare yourself for race conditions and improve speed you need to push a bit harder though, and training in zones equivalent to 75%-90% of max heart rate which will help you perform at high speeds and tempos and, most importantly, help your body deal with increasing levels of lactic acid in the blood, which are a byproduct of anaerobic exercise. This builds strength in the muscles which will help you cope with hills and sustain higher speeds.

Different coaches and equipment manufacturers use different definitions of zones, so just make sure you know what HR or zone you should be in.

Countfit has a great article that goes into more detail on the science behind Heart rate zones, so if you want to dig a little further, click here.

Runners World has a good beginners resource if you want to find out more, here

Timing based.

HR-based systems make sense because they are tied to the performance of your body and let you adjust for your condition on a given day, but they are reactive and it takes practice to get into the right zone. They are also not helpful if you are chasing a specific time.

The alternative is pace or time-based systems, which define effort based on how fast you are going relative to a personal baseline, which may be a previous race or your VO2 max.

Pace works well for triathlon training zones as it works across all three sports. If you are running or swimming it’s fairly easy to measure your speed and adjust to a specific pace, meaning these systems are much less reactive than Heart rates, making the simple to implement. HR training is not possible for Swimming in any case, as any HR monitors for use underwater tend to store the data locally, meaning you only see your performance after the event.

There are a number of calculators and options available to set your target paces and the main ones are for running, Jack Daniels, Runners World, Greg McMillan.They all do pretty much the same thing. The McMillan one is good because it allows you to go further if you wish and buy training plans for specific events.

For swimming, there are two versions which are similar but calculated in different ways, so check what your plan uses if relevant. The first, and probably most common is the Critical Swim speed ( CSS), which is the pace that you should be able to sustain for 1500m t your current level of fitness and development. Swim Smooth has a good calculator and more information on how this works and what it means in training.

RPE – Rated or relative Perceived effort

Some plans use the RPE scale which is designed to train you to judge your pace or exertion without external measures like Heart rate or pace. The idea is sound and lets you adjust your workload and pace based on how you feel on the day, so if you feel good, perhaps you can push yourself a bit harder, but if you’re tired, maybe you should dial it back.

The problem with this system, especially with beginners is in how you assess your performance objectively. If you’re naturally hard on yourself you will have a tendency to push yourself hard, which won’t improve performance because it will risk injury.

Ultimately, the right method for you will be based on equipment, preference and which training programme works for you, and most training plans will be available in.

Triathlon fueling strategies

As part of an endurance event, a proper triathlon fueling strategy is important, as you want to ensure that your body has enough energy to finish the event at race pace, but you need to balance energy input with digestive comfort to be at your best, so do you really need gels?

Why do you need to fuel?

In order to move, our muscles need energy, which they get from either from glycogen stored in the muscles or glucose in the bloodstream. For predominantly aerobic exercise, the body breaks down carbohydrates, fat or protein to produce blood glucose for fuel and unused glucose is stored either as glycogen or fat. This requires oxygen.

As the intensity increases, the demand for energy grows faster than the body’s ability to absorb oxygen, leading to an increase in anaerobic conversion, increasing the use of glucose and glycogen stored in the muscles, because the body cannot convert carbs fast enough to provide the required levels of glucose.

As glycogen store is depleted, the body looks for other energy stores to use up, initially glycogen stored in the liver, but then moving on to fat reserves and finally to protein stored in muscle fibres, which obviously leads to damage to the muscles in question so needs to be avoided.

Race intensities tend to involve higher proportions of anaerobic exercise so you will be dependent upon your body’s stored energy, either blood glucose or muscle glycogen.

So, you can go a certain distance based just on the fuel stored in your leg muscles, but after this point, you need to add fuel from outside in order to avoid slowing down considerably as your reserve run out.

How far you can go on the energy stored in those muscles will depend on a number of factors including the extent to which you carb load and rest before the race ( hence the taper is important), how fit and efficient you are in burning the glycogen, how fast you are and how well you pace your race.

The rule of thumb for runners is that we can store up to 2 hours of fuel at marathon pace, 90 minutes at half marathon pace and around an hour at 10k pace. Below this level, you don’t really need to fuel.

If we assume that the energy usage of a sprint distance triathlon is equivalent to a 10k run, then this would suggest that you need to refuel for a sprint triathlon. How much depends on the person and the pace, and you need to try your fuelling out in training before the race.

Triathlon fueling

Triathlon fueling is a complex process, and pro’s will spend time analysing the energy requirements of each stage of the race. But there is a simple way which will get you close.

Research by Clark, Tobin and Ellis published in the Journal of American Dietetic Association in 1992 found that an endurance athlete needed 1-1.5g of Carbs per KG or body weight per hour. So a 75Kg athlete taking 90 minutes to complete a triathlon will use 168g of carbs in the race. If we assume that, as the first 60 minutes of exercise is covered by the fuel in the muscles at the start, then the athlete is carrying 112g and needs to find a further 56g of carbs to have enough fuel to finish the race at race pace.

However, there is a limit to how fast the body can absorb the carbs into the system and a delay in how quickly this is converted into energy the body can use. The maximum intake is 60g per hour, and let assume that it takes 20 minutes to kick in.

So any gel we take in the last 20 minutes of the race is probably not going to have any effect on race performance, so we need to start fuelling 80minutes  before the end of the race, and spread the fuel over this period.

This would suggest that the athlete consumes a 30g carb gel once they mount the bike and another one 10 minutes before the end of the bike to ensure that they have enough energy for a 90-minute race.

Next - The Swim leg