13 Triathlon Training Tips With a Basic Plan To Get Yourself Across the Finish Line

Photo: Stocksy / Cara Dolan
Looking for ways to take your fitness to a whole new level? Or, perhaps, you’re hoping for motivation to reinstate your active ways. Whatever the case may be, triathlons are a great way to stretch your boundaries—both mental and physical. Before immediately diving into a triathlon training plan, however, it helps to know the different types of triathlons, when to train, how to train, and more. With that in mind, ahead you’ll uncover a mix of beginner triathlon training tips, as well as pointers that competitors of all fitness levels can benefit from.

Experts In This Article
  • Angie Krueger, Angie Krueger is an Orangetheory Coach and ACSM Certified Personal Trainer who has completed one Ironman and 24 marathons.
  • Jessica Rangel, Jessica Rangel is an NASM certified personal trainer and an Endurance Coach at Life Time.
  • Taren Gesell, Taren Gesell, or Triathlon Taren, is the CEO of My Mottiv, a training app for endurance races.

Different Types of Triathlons

There are four main types of triathlons: Sprint, Olympic, Half-Ironman, and Ironman. Each of the races are broken down as follows:

  • Sprint: 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike, and 5-kilometer run
  • Olympic: 1500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike, and 10-kilometer run
  • Half-Ironman: 1.2-mile (1900-meter) swim, 56-mile (90-kilometer) bike, and 13.1-mile (21.1-kilometer) half marathon run.
  • Ironman: 2.4-mile (3800-meter) swim, 112-mile (180-kilometer) bike, and 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometer) full marathon run

On average, triathlon expert Taren Gesell, aka Triathlon Taren, who is the CEO of My Mottiv, a training app for endurance races, says that a sprint takes an hour and a half, an Olympic triathlon takes two hours and 45 minutes, a Half-Ironman takes six hours and 30 minutes, and an Ironman takes 13 hours.

Although those are the average finishing times for each race, NASM certified personal trainer Jessica Rangel, who is an Endurance Coach at Life Time, which owns the New York City Triathlon and Chicago Triathlon, says that most half and full-distance triathlons have overall race cutoff times to ensure athlete safety. “There are also specific cutoffs for each aspect of the triathlon,” she adds.

While these four endurance events generally take place outside, indoor triathlons, like Orangetheory’s Dri-Tri, also exist. According to Rangel, indoor triathlons are typically held during the off-season.

“For first timers, these are opportunities to ‘try a tri,’” she says. “Little equipment is required other than clothing and shoes. In general, a timed (10-minute) swim starts off an indoor triathlon, followed by a timed (30-minute) indoor stationary cycle, and concludes with a timed (20-minute) indoor (treadmill) run.” While these triathlons are notably shorter than their outdoor counterparts, Rangel says that experienced triathletes still find these events challenging.

For even more of a challenge, Rangel points out that off-road triathlons are gaining popularity. “Due to the nature of an off-road bike course and trail run, these events generally range between sprint and Olympic distances,” she says.

Of these five types of triathlons, Rangel says that spring and Olympic distances are the most popular options for beginner, intermediate, and advanced athletes alike.

How To Know if You’re Ready for a Triathlon

The first step of triathlon training is being honest with yourself and determining if you’re truly ready for the event. While training will obviously help you get closer to your goal, Gesell says that you’re ready to begin a legit triathlon training plan if you can swim 400 meters or yards, continuously, without feeling challenged, bike continuously for 60 minutes, and run continuously for 30 minutes.

Depending on how closely you align with those numbers will give you an idea of which type of triathlon is best for you. If you fall right around those numbers, Orangetheory Coach and ACSM CPT Angie Krueger, who has completed one Ironman and 24 marathons, says that a Sprint will be your best bet. If you can swim, bike, and run significantly farther and longer than those distances and times, you may want to consider one of the longer races to truly challenge yourself.

When To Start Training for a Triathlon

It’s subjective. “When to start training for a triathlon depends on many factors, including your current fitness status, your training age, the type of triathlon you are competing in, your schedule, your preferences, and more,” Krueger admits. “However, training with a program will help set you up for success to ensure your peak performance aligns with the event date.”

For the best results, she says that when you decide to commit to the race—and pay the registration fee—that is the day your training should begin (that is, if you’ve not already begun). “Depending on your conditioning and the length of the race, the more you can prepare your mind and body, the better your body will respond and adapt come race day,” she says.

Still, if you’re looking for hard numbers, Rangel says that novice athletes generally require three to six months of training to prepare for a sprint triathlon, while experienced triathletes can get away with one to two months.

“For long distance events, all athletes will require a longer training period, anywhere from six to twelve months,” she says. “The body not only needs to acclimate to the additional stress placed on it during training, but also needs to rest and recover in between training, and attempting to race too soon can lead to injury.”

How To Plan Your Training for a Triathlon

Since triathlons incorporate swimming, biking, and running, your training in the months before your race should include all of the above. Additionally, adding at least two days per week of resistance training is essential for success. “Incorporating resistance training can help you maintain strength, minimize lean mass lost during high volume training periods, and may lower your risk of injury,” says Krueger.

Just as important as focusing on conditioning, prioritizing rest and recovery, as well as sleep, is a must during triathlon training.

“A properly designed triathlon training plan has a balance of hard workouts to build your fitness, longer workouts to build your endurance, and easy workouts to help you recover,” Gesell says. No matter the capabilities of the athlete, he recommends the following weekly training schedule break down:

  • MONDAY: Easy ride or swim of 30 to 60 minutes to recover from the weekend and prepare for the next several days
  • TUESDAY: Intense run session of 30 to 60 minutes featuring intervals ranging from 30 seconds to six minutes
  • WEDNESDAY: Main swim ranging from 45 minutes for a sprint triathlon-focused athlete to 90 minutes for an Ironman-focused athlete. 30-minutes strength workout in the afternoon
  • THURSDAY: Intense bike session of 30 to 60 minutes featuring intervals ranging from 30 seconds to six minutes. If possible, perform a short run of five to 15 minutes after biking
  • FRIDAY: Easy ride or swim of 30 to 60 minutes to recover from the previous three days and prepare for the weekend
  • SATURDAY: Long, low-intensity bike building up to longer than the distance of the bike in your chosen race. Follow the bike with a run immediately afterwards
  • SUNDAY: Long, low-intensity run building up to longer than the distance of the run in your chosen race—unless the race is an Ironman, in which case you will cap the distance of this long run at 30 kilometer

“Of course, this [triathlon training plan] is extremely basic,” Gesell admits. “However, the outline above can be used for beginner athletes all the way up to advanced athletes, and even works for sprint triathlons through to Ironman triathlons.”

While one-size-fits-all training programs work wonders for some athletes, Rangel says that many athletes find better success using a coach. “A personalized coach, like what Life Time offers within its athletic country clubs, will set up a periodized training schedule where the athlete will have a daily plan to follow,” she explains. “A coach can, and should, adapt to changes in the athlete’s training as they progress.”

Triathlon Race Day Tips

Now that you know the different types of triathlon, when to begin triathlon training, and how to hone in on your strength and endurance, let’s talk about race day itself. According to the experts we spoke with, walking into race day with a few key tips in mind can be very helpful. They are as follows:

1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

Staying hydrated while working from home can sometimes feel like a challenge, so just imagine how difficult it can be during a long-winded race. “While it is nearly impossible to stay fully hydrated during an endurance event, an athlete should make sure to consume enough water and electrolytes in the days leading up to the event to not start it at a deficit,” Rangel says. “A good rule of thumb is to observe your urine—if it is clear you are hydrated; if it’s colorful, you’re not.”

2. Don’t neglect your nutrition

While developing a triathlon-friendly diet in the months ahead of your race can drastically improve your success in competing, race-day nutrition is important, too. “Nutrition for the race should not be ignored,” Gesell says. “Try to consume one large bottle of electrolyte drink and 50 to 80 grams of carbs per hour throughout the bike and the run.”

To ensure that you’re eating enough, check out the Omni Calculator, which helps determine how many calories you’ll need to adequately fuel yourself in the weeks and months leading up to race day.

3. Prioritize sleep

Sleep is always important but especially when preparing for a big race. “The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults strive for seven to nine hours of sleep each night,” Krueger points out. “According to a recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a one-size-fits-all sleep approach may not maximize health and performance in athletes. Rather, the study suggests that sleep extension may improve athlete performance and reduce stress levels. While more research is needed, getting some extra hours of sleep during race week may ease anxiety leading up to race day and allow you to rest easy the night before, knowing you have ‘banked’ plenty of sleep.”

4. Wear SPF

You should wear sunscreen every day, but since triathlons are outdoors, you’ll want to ensure you apply plenty of SPF prior to your race. “And make sure to put sunblock on in transition,” Rangel says, noting that transitions are denoted by T1 and T2. “While you can (and should) apply sunblock before the swim, make sure to not apply it to your face as it can make your goggles too slippery. However, in both T1 and T2, an athlete should be prepared to (re)apply sunblock. Not only will you avoid more strange tan lines, but more importantly, your skin will thank you.”

5. Never, ever try anything new on race day

This includes clothing, gear, skincare, food, and drinks. “If you have not practiced with it before, you should not try it on race day,” Rangel says, noting to work your new items into practice before making them race-day mainstays.

6. Swim off to the side

The swimming portion is often thought to be the most challenging aspect of a triathlon. “To make the swim easier either go way off to the side of the swim start, or wait five seconds after the gun goes off,” Gesell suggests. “Both of these techniques will allow you to avoid the chaos of the main swim pack.”

7. Go with the flow during the swim

Another way to better navigate to the swim portion is to not fight the current. “Allow yourself to roll with the waves instead of fighting them,” Krueger says. “It will help relax you and calm your mind, essentially allowing your heart rate not to go into overdrive.”

8. Prepare for poor conditions

While sudden weather can affect all aspects of a triathlon, it can make swimming even more challenging. With that in mind, Krueger points out that, even if your race isn’t in the ocean, water can become choppy. “This may present a mental block or fear,” she says, noting to prepare for it in the event that the worst case scenario arises.

9. Wear your race chip on the left ankle

Something you might not think about when preparing for your triathlon is how your gear may collide with your race chip. With that in mind, while the race chip can be worn on either foot, Rangel points out that bike chains are on the right side. “While the clip and band should not slip, just to be on the safe side, keep it on your left ankle and out of the way of any bike components,” she recommends.

10. Use the right kind of bike—or a pair of clip-on aerobars

Moving on to the bike, Gesell says that typical form can be the biggest speed and performance inhibitor. “On the bike, 80 to 85 percent of the aerodynamic drag you have to push through the air is caused by your body,” he explains. “To reduce this drag you can get a triathlon bike with aerobars that allow you to tuck into a narrow position and slice through the wind, or you can get a pair of clip on aerobars for whatever bike you have.”

11. Practice your bike-to-run transition

Another challenge of competing in a triathlon? Learning to maneuver your bodily movements from biking to running. “One of the hardest moments that any first time triathlete will encounter during their race will be the moment they jump off the bike and start running,” Gesell says. “This requires a very quick reroute of blood flow from your bike muscles to your running muscles. Performing at least six to 12 workouts prior to the race where you start running immediately after a bike is critical.”

12. Be prepared to change your flat tire

Remember: Preparing for the worst case scenario can help ensure success. With that in mind, Rangel says to go into your race knowing how to change a flat tire. “While this thought may scare some, at least be prepared in the event of a flat on the course,” she says. “You should at minimum carry two tubes, CO2 cartridges/air pumps, two tire levers, and possibly an allen wrench.”

Not sure how to actually do the work? YouTube is a great resource. “Many local bike shops host free Flat Tire Repair workshops,” Rangel adds. “While we all hope to not have a flat (especially on race day), if you arrive at your race prepared, then in the event of an emergency (if you are unable to change your tire yourself), at least you will have the tools for race support (if allowed) to help you get back on the road.”

13. Enjoy the race

Most importantly, have fun! “All of your hard work and training might not change the outcome and regardless of the outcome, your participation in the race is something to celebrate,” Krueger says. “Enjoy the scenery, the people, and take it all in. You are about to be a triathlete!”

Another way to get more enjoyment out of your race? Maintain your expectations. “I recommend first time triathletes set the goal of their first race to be simply finishing the race,” Gesell says.

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