Training for a Triathlon – Where to Start

Ever heard of the Hawaii Ironman triathlon?

Did you know an Australian female took our first place at this year’s event only just last week?

The Hawaii ironman is one of the toughest events on the planet.  Athletes swim 3.8km, cycle 180km and then finish the event by running 42.2km (a full marathon).  All of this completed in the searing heat and lava field flats of Kona, Hawaii.

This magnificent test of human endurance catches the attention of many athletes and enthusiasts around the globe luring people of all ages to the big island to compete or watch.  Now chances are you are not one of those people, but you may have seen a triathlon in the past and perhaps been inquisitive about what it would take to participate in a small event yourself.

Today we are going to look at where to start when training for a triathlon. As a multi-discipline sport, training for all three legs can seem overwhelming and many beginners can feel uncertain on how to go about getting started. The swim is usually the most dreaded element of a triathlon for most people. A triathlon event is often in open water, such as a river, lake or the sea, where there is nowhere to put your feet down and take a breather.  For people who are uncomfortable with swimming this is usually enough to deter them from thinking any further about the idea of entering an event.  If you can make it to the end of a 50m pool swimming and back again with no more than a brief stop then your swimming is good enough to participate in an entry level triathlon.

There are typically 5 main distances that triathlons are raced over:

  • Fun (250m swim / 10km bike / 2km run)
  • Sprint (500m swim / 20km bike / 5km run)
  • Olympic (1.5km swim / 40km bike / 10km run)
  • Long course (2km swim / 90km bike / 20km run)
  • Ironman (3.8km swim / 180km bike / 42km run)

If you are a self-motivated individual you have everything you need to get started training for a fun or sprint distance triathlon.  So what’s involved?

To compete in a triathlon there are three basic steps…

  • Check you have the equipment required (bike, running shoes, swimming gear)
  • Register yourself for a race (press that “register here” button)
  • Start training!

Depending on your level of fitness you should approach your training steadily.  I would recommend you give yourself 8-12 weeks to prepare for your first event.  Here is a basic plan you can start doing right now.

The focus of this plan is to have one rest day per week, and train at least once every other day.  Depending on your level of fitness and progression you could do up to 9 sessions a week if you want.  Keep it fun, and mix it up.  Your only objective is to include at least two sessions of each discipline each week.  Here are nine sessions to take your pick from.

Swim sessions
2x pool swims (possibly with a swim squad)

1x open water swim – beach, dam, lake (only choose this if you have already done two pool sessions, they offer you the most training value). 

Bike sessions
1x shorter ride with a few efforts or intervals of several minutes at 85-95%

1x longer ride (approx. 10-20% more than the race distance)

1x tempo ride with a constant speed (approx. 70% of your race distance)

Run sessions
1x longer, slower run (building up to the race distance and possibly 10-20% more)

1x interval run with a few little efforts at 85-95% of your maximum effort

1x strength or tempo run.  This simply means running at pace you can maintain for a distance two thirds that of your race distance.

As the race draws closer, include a small 10 minute run after your long ride.  This will help you get used to the feeling of jelly legs you will experience in the race.  When your confidence improves you might like to train with others or with an organized group.  Training is much easier when you’re not alone and triathlon training groups are usually a lot of fun and very supportive.

The key is to enjoy the experience.  Don’t stress too much about the details when you are starting out.  Follow the basic guide above, work at maintaining consistency and build up the amount of training you do as you feel your body getting stronger.

One more tip: Talk about your triathlon aspirations with your family and friends.  They’re going to be the ones supporting you on those mornings you don’t want to train, and on the all important race day.  Involving them will only allow them to enjoy the journey with you.

Go for it!