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How to train for a triathlon

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Written by Adam Bailey
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Are you ready to challenge your physical fitness and mental fortitude? A triathlon presents you with the ultimate demand on your body and your mind.

If you’re new to triathlon, you’re probably wondering how you train, eat and prepare for your first race. To cross the finish line and achieve your goal, you’ll need some basic guidance.

This post attempts to unpack the types of triathlons and the training requirements for each discipline.

What is a triathlon?

If we think about the most demanding sports, triathlon is surely close to the top of that list. A triathlon is a multi-discipline endurance sport featuring three disciplines: a swim, run, and cycle, in that order across various distances.  The three disciplines roll into each other seamlessly during the event, with no rest between the swim, ride, and run.

Triathlon originated in France in the early 1920s, where locals called the event “Les Trois Sports,” which translates to “three sports.” While the French were the first to develop the sport, most athletes consider 1974, the triathlon’s turning point. The “Mission Bay Triathlon,” hosted in San Diego and saw 46 participants.

The popularity of triathlon grew rapidly, and by 1982, the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, saw 600 athletes at the starting line. The same event saw c. 2,200 triathletes complete the event in 2019. As an aside, the Kona Ironman is now so popular that only those who qualify and are then invited by race organised to compete can race.

However, by far, the catalyst for fast-tracking the popularity and adoption of triathlon came in 2000, when it was an official event at the Sydney Olympics.


Triathlon distances

Swimming, biking and running – these three disciplines are the backbone of the triathlon, and athletes must be equally proficient in all three sports.

The physical and mental demand of a triathlon on the body and mind isn’t for everyone. Training for the event requires all three in your program, and that’s challenging for the fittest of athletes. Equally, on the flip side, it keeps your training varied and interesting.

Each of the individual disciplines of triathlon, have their own categories of races across different distances, e.g., for running there are 5ks, 10ks, half marathons, marathons etc. The same can be said for triathlon itself. There are different categories of triathlons, for different ages and experiences across different distances and there are hundreds of internationally acclaimed triathlon events hosted around the globe each year, for the different categories of triathlon.

Here are some of the types of triathlons and the typical distances they cover.

Ironman/ Full

The first Ironman on the Hawaiian island of Oahu consisted of the following distances, and they are still the benchmark today.

  • 2.4mile (3.9km) swim.
  • 112mile (180.2km) cycle.
  • 26.2mile (42.2km) run.

There are longer Iron ultra-triathlons known as double, triple, quad, quintuple, deca, and double-deca Iron ultra-triathlons. The double-deca iron ultra-triathlon consists of 20 ironman distance races over 20 days, or a mind-blowing 48-mile swim, 2,240-mile cycle, and 524-mile run.

Half Ironman (Ironman 70.3)/ Middle

This race is suitable for athletes working towards competing in an Ironman triathlon. Ironman 70.3 is trademarked and signifies the total distance covered in the race (70.3 miles). It consists of the following distances, which are exactly half that of an Ironman triathlon.

  • 1.2-mile (1.9km) swim.
  • 56-mile (90km) cycle.
  • 13.1-mile (21.1km) run.


Olympic Triathlon

The Sydney Olympics, at which triathlon was first featured, set the following distances:

  • 0.93-mile (1.5km) swim.
  • 24.8-mile (40km) cycle.
  • 6.2-mile (10km) run.

These distances remain the distances for Olympic triathlons. This distance is most seen on the big stage, being used as the benchmark for competitions at both the Olympics and World Triathlon Championship Series.

Sprint Triathlon

This event is half of the Olympic distance. While it’s a shorter distance, the pace is brutal.

  • 0.5-mile (750m) swim.
  • 12.4-mile (20km) cycle.
  • 3.1-mile (5km) run.

Super Sprint Triathlon

It’s a great entry-level event for beginners.

  • 400m swim.
  • 6.2-mile (10km) cycle.
  • 1.6-mile (2.5km) run.

Triathlon training

Triathlon can be a sport for everyone. There are triathlons for children, novices through to elite competitors. Generally speaking, however, if you want to compete in triathlon events, you’re going to have to be proficient in running, cycling, and swimming. If you can’t swim, or the last time you got on a bike was with training wheels when you were a kid, it’s not the sport for you.

If you can complete all three disciplines, you’ll focus on improving your fitness with your training. Most people can go from a good fitness level to triathlete status in as little as six to eight weeks of dedicated training.

If you’re completely unfit, then you might need three to four months to get in shape for your first race. The best triathletes work on improving their technique in each of the three disciplines involved in the event. Hiring a specialist trainer to support your training, adjust your form and style and help enhance your performance is a good idea if you’re weak in one area, but also arguably a necessity, if you want to go for the bigger half ironman and ironman events.

Sure, some people manage to finish without the assistance of a team in their corner. However, many of these athletes are missing out on their full potential and performance at the event. Hiring a team helps you progress and improve on the weak points in your game.

Triathlon camps bring teams of specialist together, working with participants for a few days or weeks of training. You have workshops on form and performance in each discipline and recovery and nutrition classes throughout the camp. Triathlete camps allow you to compare your training performance with other competitors in a fun environment. You’re all there to learn from the coaches and one another. When you attend a triathlon camp, you’ll see a notable difference on race day (details of some of the most popular US camps are set out at the end of this post).

Joining a triathlon club is another important way to accelerate your training and knowledge of the sport, improve your skill and develop a greater fitness, as well as offering that team support. The British Triathlon Federation has a list of registered triathlon clubs in the UK and has a wealth of information to help you to find the right club and information about the sport generally.

Let’s look at a strategy to getting you to your first race.

Beginner triathlon training

When you start a race, your goal isn’t to win it. Sure, it would be nice, but let’s get real here for a second. Unless you’re a fitness beast, you’re probably not going to place on the podium. The goal with your first race experience is simple – to finish.

You’ll find it surprising how many athletes don’t make it the full distance, even with the right race preparation. Injuries pop up out of nowhere, people gas themselves out early and quit, and many more just can’t handle the pressure of competition.

It’s your training that sees you through your race. Speak to the top athletes in the sport, and you’ll find that they have two things in common – loads of experience and a team that helps them through their training camp for the race.

As a beginner, you might have zero experience, but you can build a team around you. A trainer, nutritionist, chiropractor, and massage therapist are all critical components of your “team.” These individuals help you improve your performance on the road and in the water, and you’ll keep improving with every race.

Learn to listen to your body. Recovery is important, and if you don’t get full recovery between workouts, you put yourself at risk of injury. If you don’t feel good, don’t train. However, it’s important to note there’s a significant difference between not feeling like you want to work out and pushing through a little fatigue or laziness.

As a beginner, it’s important to choose the right type of triathlon event for your fitness level. How much time you have to dedicate to your training also plays a significant role in the style of triathlon you choose. Let’s go through the different types of training required for each event.

Sprint triathlon training

If you want to try a sprint triathlon, you’ll need to be in pretty good shape before you start your training camp.

Athletes need to be injury-free and in good health before undertaking training for this triathlon event. The short distance increases your explosive output during the event, and cardio fitness along with power are both important for placing well on race day.

The qualifying criteria for starting training for a sprint triathlon are as follows.

  • You need to be able to swim at least 100-yards non-stop without taking any strain.
  • You need to run for 10 minutes without getting out of breath.
  • You need to cycle for 20 minutes without getting fatigued.

Sprint triathlons require you to train five days a week for 60 to 90-minutes a session. Include the time it takes to get to the gym, change, and leave; you could be looking at two to three hours of training time five days a week.

Most people that value fitness and want to chase their goals can find the time to accommodate this amount of training in their daily schedule. In addition, a lot of gyms host these events, and it’s a great way to test your mettle against other athletes in your local gym community. So, the sprint triathlon is a great jump-off point for beginners that already enjoy going to the gym regularly.

Starting with anything more than a sprint triathlon requires more time dedicated to training. Consider your own personal circumstances and first assess whether you can commit to the training necessary – training for a half ironman for example, may take up to 4-hours of training a day, six days a week.

Let’s look at the different training demands for Olympic, half ironman, and ironman races.

Olympic distance triathlon training

The training for Olympic distance should include 20% to 25% of your time in the pool, 40% to 50% on the bike, and 20% to 25% running. That’s around the same ratio as you can expect on race day, and training with this structure prepares you for the demands of the event.

If you want to finish well, build up to around 70% of the race distance for each leg of your training.

For example, your workout could include a structure like 0.6-miles swimming, 18-miles cycling, and 4.5-miles running.

Half Ironman training

Finding the time for training the half ironman is challenging, and you’ll need to dedicate at least two to four hours a day of your time to your training, six days a week.

The average time for beginners completing their first half ironman is around five to seven hours. So, you need to factor in bigger training sessions that emulate at least 80% of the time you’ll spend on the event in your training. Each week, you’ll pick a big training day, preferably on the weekends when you have more time.

An example of a big workout could be a 3,000-yard swim, 50-mile cycle, and a one-hour run. Another example would be a 2,000-yard swim at a half Ironman pace, then a ride with 90% of the bike time you expect on race day, and a set distance run at full race pace.

Sample Sprint triathlon training plan

This sample training plan focuses on three principles: building consistency in your training, increasing your endurance and improving your race fitness. Each new week builds on the previous week’s performance.

Training for a sprint triathlon requires a 5-day a week schedule with two rest days, and one training session per day. Typically, your training sessions will last between 60 to 90-minutes, and you’ll need to plan your recovery around that.

This sample training plan is for an eight-week period. During the first two weeks, the idea is to get used to regular training, building your consistency within all three disciplines. It’s important to keep a record to ensure you track your training and your progress.

Week 1: Build training consistency

The first three weeks are about building consistency with your training. The most important tip for the week is – Keep showing up.

  • Monday: Light 1km jog.
  • Tuesday: Swim 16×25m Pace yourself and start slowly.
  • Wednesday: Run 2km on flat terrain.
  • Thursday: Bike 3km on flat terrain, at 80 to 90 RPM.
  • Friday: Rest day.
  • Saturday: Swim 20x25m.
  • Sunday: Run 6km on flat terrain.

Week 2: Keep building training consistency

This week increases distance slightly. Remember to get your sleep and eat well. Keep showing up.

  • Monday: Rest day.
  • Tuesday: Swim 24×25m at an even pace.
  • Wednesday: Bike 3km on flat terrain at 80 to 90 RPM.
  • Thursday: Run 1km on flat terrain.
  • Friday: Day off.
  • Saturday: Swim 20x25m at an even pace.
  • Sunday: Bike 4.5km on rolling terrain at 80 to 90 RPM.

Week 3: Maintain your consistency

By the end of the second week, your body is adapting to the training stress. Give it another week, and you’ll be frothing for your workouts.

  • Monday: Rest day.
  • Tuesday: Swim 25x25m pace yourself evenly.
  • Wednesday: Run 2km on rolling terrain at mid-pace.
  • Thursday: Bike 5.5km on flat terrain at 85 to 95 RPM.
  • Friday: Rest day.
  • Saturday: Swim 30x25m, increasing pace towards the end of the swim.
  • Sunday: Run 3km on flat terrain at mid-pace.

Week 4: Increasing your endurance

Now that you’re consistent with your training, it’s time to step up a gear to improve your stamina and endurance over a longer distance.

  • Monday: Rest day.
  • Tuesday: Swim 30×25m. Start strong for the first ten laps and then taper back to an even pace for the last 20.
  • Wednesday: Run 4km on rolling terrain at mid-pace.
  • Thursday: Bike 7km on hilly terrain at 85 to 95 RPM.
  • Friday: Rest day.
  • Saturday: Swim 35x25m at an even pace.
  • Sunday: Bike 4.5km on terrain at 90 to 100 RPM.

Week 5: Keep increasing your endurance

Start organising yourself for race day. Practice getting out of your cycling shoes and into your running shoes as quickly as possible.

  • Monday: Day off.
  • Tuesday: Swim 35×25m using a fast pace as possible while pacing yourself.
  • Wednesday: Run 4km on rolling terrain at a mid to faster speed to push your comfort zone.
  • Thursday: Bike 8km on hilly terrain at 90 to 95 RPM.
  • Friday: Rest day.
  • Saturday: Swim 45x25m at a steady pace.
  • Sunday: Bike 6km on flat terrain at 90 to 100 RPM.

Week 6: Improving Your Race Fitness

The next two weeks are where you need to take yourself out of your comfort zone with your training. You’re looking to go into every training session with the goal of beating your best time.

While it’s impossible to set new PRs every session, it’s important to try as hard as possible to raise the benchmark on your performance. Getting enough sleep and food is critical to fuel the body for your next workout.

  • Monday: Rest day.
  • Tuesday: Swim 1,000m non-stop at a steady, mid-pace.
  • Wednesday: Run 3.5km on a rolling terrain, add 2-minute intervals where you push yourself as hard as you can.
  • Thursday: Bike 6km on rolling terrain at 90 to 95 RPM.
  • Friday: Rest day.
  • Saturday: Swim 50x25m at a mid-pace.
  • Sunday: Bike 4km on flat terrain at 90 to 100 RPM.

Week 7: Pushing your boundaries

By now, you’re feeling super fit. Keep pushing your boundaries.

  • Monday: Rest day.
  • Tuesday: Swim 500m at a mid-pace.
  • Wednesday: Run 3.5km on rolling terrain at a mid to fast pace.
  • Thursday: Bike 6km on rolling to hilly terrain at 90 to 95 RPM.
  • Friday: Rest day.
  • Saturday: Swim 50x25m as fast a pace as possible.
  • Sunday: Bike 3km at 100 to 105 RPM.

Week 8: Race week is here

With race day a week away, the hard training is over. It’s time to dial back and let your nervous system recover and reset before the big day. Take it easy with your workouts and remember to keep your nutrition on point.

  • Monday: Rest day.
  • Tuesday: Swim 200m at an even pace, don’t push hard.
  • Wednesday: Run 2km on flat terrain.
  • Thursday: Bike 3km on rolling terrain at 90 to 95 RPM.
  • Friday: Day off.
  • Saturday: Bike 1.5km at 90 to 95 RPM.
  • Sunday: It’s time to race!

Understanding intensity and pace in triathlon training

This training structure is very basic, and it’s easy to adjust the distances to suit your fitness and endurance levels. The key is to keep progressing throughout the training, peaking your performance in week seven.

By scaling back in week eight, you prime your nervous system for the demands of race day. As a result, you get faster finishing times and a better experience with the race while reducing your chances of getting injured during the competition.

Each week, you’ll be increasing your distance, and that’s critically important. However, you also need to improve your cardio capacity and your explosive strength, along with your endurance.

Intensity is the key to improving both of these aspects of your training. Using intervals and varying your pace in your workout can bring amazing results in your fitness. For instance, when you’re going for your Wednesday run in week 4, start with 1km of regular pace running to warm up. Then pick a distance of 200m, say between two phone poles, and sprint that distance. Slow down to your normal pace until you recover, and then sprint again. Rinse and repeat the process for the rest of the run.

You’ll find high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to be the most demanding form of exercise. You can apply HIIT principles to your swims and rides as well. HIIT helps to build that extra bit of power you need to surge over the finish line.

The pace is another important aspect of your training. During your longer swims, pace yourself at different speeds, get your heart rate up, and bring it back down. It’s kind of the same principle as intensity but more geared towards the entire training session.

For instance, you can start on a slow pace for 2-minutes, increase to a mid-pace stride for 5-minutes, then a fast run for 2-minutes, and a cool-down period of 1-minute, for a total run time of 10-minutes.

The importance of nutrition and recovery for triathletes

When you start an eight or twelve-week training camp, you’re going to place tremendous strain on your body. While most beginners focus on their performance in the gym, they should also pay close attention to their recovery.

Recovery is the time it takes your body, primarily your muscular and nervous system, to recover from the effects of exercise-induced stress. After a few weeks of intense training, your body will start to feel run down if you’re not eating properly and getting enough rest.

Food and sleep are critical to your recovery time. Make sure you consult with a nutritionist to understand the different nutritional values of your food and how you can eat for performance. A chiropractor and massage therapist can help you reset the nervous system and work stress out of your muscles – and they are also invaluable in recovering from injuries.

Athletes that don’t put the time into understanding nutrition and recovery end up paying the price on race day with an injury.

How CBD can help you with your triathlon performance

Cannabidiol (CBD) is showing tremendous promise as a way for triathletes to boost their recovery. Exercise-induced stress is simply a form of inflammation and the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD fast-track recovery time between training sessions.

Some athletes are calling CBD a miracle supplement, hailing its effects at speeding up recovery times. With CBD, you get all the powerful anti-inflammatory properties without any dependency, and it won’t make you feel “high” because it contains no psychoactive THC.

CBD Triathlete has a range of CBD products designed specifically for triathletes. You get a soothing balm for taking the stiffness out of the muscular system after a hard workout and an everyday lotion to protect your skin from chlorine in the pool and the pollutants you pick up while training outdoors.

The tincture is our favourite, offering you an oral administration with an easy dropper head. Take a few drops under your tongue each morning, and feel the anti-inflammatory benefits of CBD, soothe your nervous system, and restore your muscles.

CBD can help you in your recovery and boost your performance. It’s entirely legal, even in tested organisations. CBD Triathlete gets our nod of approval for its stringent third-party testing process, ensuring your get the purest form of CBD and the best results from including it in your diet.

Give CBD Triathlete a try for yourself and let us know how it influenced your recovery during your first training camp.

Some Favourite European Training Camps

Club La Santa, Lanzarote, Spain

Club La Santa is often promoted as one of the world’s no. 1 holiday resorts, with over 80 different sports and activities catered for and surrounded by stark landscape offering extreme endurance challenges to both runners and cyclists of all levels. It is host to world -famous IRONMAN Lanzarote, which is widely recognised as one of Europe’s oldest and hardest on the circuit. It is therefore no wonder that Club La Santa’s triathlon camps are a firm favourite among triathletes and regularly visited by elite spots men and women.

Tri Training Harder, the Algarve, Portugal

Tri Training Harder is a UK based triathlon coaching company which offering luxury triathlon training camps in the Algarve, Portugal. Triathletes will find themselves in an ideal training base having access to the mountain range of Serra de Monchique and the coastal regions of Faro and Albufeira. Tri Training Harder camps boast fantastic training facilities and 5* accommodation and are suitable for triathletes of all abilities.

Blackrock, Chamonix, France

Blackrock Lodge is a great destination for triathletes who want to train at altitude and in a beautiful scenic setting. The training camps have been designed by triathletes for triathletes. The camps offerings include open water swimming in the kilometre-long alpine Lake Passy or Chamonix’s 50m open-air lap pool, both with stunning views of Mont Blanc; the cycling routes take in some legendary Tour de France mountain passes; and for running, there is a 300m sprung running track for speed and interval training, as well as distance, hills and altitude training routes.

Tenerife Top Training (T3), Tenerife, Spain

Tenerife Top Training offers a unique training environment. The advantage of year-round sunshine coupled with the highest mountain in all of Spain and the world’s third biggest volcano offers triathletes opportunity for some of the longest mountain climbs and descent in Europe, as well as ample opportunity for hill reps and trail runs at altitude. T3 boasts amazing swim facilities as well as offering easy access to open water swimming given its proximity to the sea.


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