Triathlon Training Tips

05/03/2012 07:45 am ET | Updated Jul 02, 2012
  • Ben Greenfield Author of the New York Times bestseller Beyond Training book; fitness expert; Get-Fit Guy podcast host

Summer is quickly approaching, and with warmer weather comes triathlon season. Originally reserved for uber-toned fitness fanatics wearing obnoxiously-colorful spandex, triathlons are now accessible to anyone and provide good motivation to get into full body shape. Even Lance Armstrong has switched from cycling to triathlon!

Contrary to popular belief, a triathlon is not necessarily the long, tortuous Hawaii Ironman event broadcast on NBC each year. Instead, a triathlon can be any event that involves the three sports of swimming, cycling, and running (although occasionally, in a winter triathlon, the sport of swimming will be substituted with cross country skiing).

So unless you have aspirations to do an Ironman, you don't need to swim 2.4 miles, bicycle 112 miles and run 26.2 miles to do a triathlon. That's just one kind of triathlon -- called an "Iron distance." In addition to the Ironman, the three other most common triathlon distances are:

  • Sprint distance: a 500 meter swim, 10-15 mile bike ride (~20K), and 2-3 mile run (~4-5K)
  • Olympic distance: a 1500 meter swim, 26 mile bike ride (~40K), and 6.2 mile run (~10K)
  • Half Ironman: half of an Iron distance

Training for a triathlon can be a bit intimidating at first, since you not only need to schedule a swim, bike, and run several times per week, but you also need to consider weight training, stretching or yoga and pay close attention to proper recovery.

On the other hand, because you're exercising with so many different activities, your risk of injury decreases because you're not stressing the same joints over and over again, as would be the case if you were, for example, training for a marathon. In addition, your overall fitness will quickly increase, because you are presenting so many different forms of exercise to your body.

Here are a few tips to start your triathlon training:


For swimming, the best place to begin if you aren't an experienced swimmer is to take a swim lesson at your local health club, or meet up with the local Master's swim club, which is a group of adults that do swim workouts together, usually with a coach. Most triathlons take place in a river, lake, or ocean, so you'll want to be prepared to practice swimming in open bodies of water, and you may also need a wetsuit, which can keep you both warm and buoyant while swimming.


For cycling, you don't necessarily need an expensive triathlon bike, and especially if you're just getting into the sport, a simple road bike will suffice. For the first four years that I competed in triathlons, I rode on a used $300 road bike I bought on the Internet, and you can often find good deals on Craigslist, eBay, or the classifieds section of many triathlon websites. Once you have a bike, contact your local bike shops to see whether they have any beginner rides you could join.


When it comes to equipment, running is the easiest of the three sports to outfit, since all you need is a pair of running shoes. But be warned: Compared to running with fresh legs, running after riding a bike can feel like plodding along with bricks strapped to your shoes, so in your triathlon preparation, be sure to practice some running directly after your cycling workouts.

For your overall weekly triathlon training schedule, you should set an initial goal of running, swimming and cycling twice a week, and also weight training one to two times per week.

If squeezing all this exercising seems intimidating, you can use this a sample triathlon training schedule to see how to set up a typical week. There are no hard and fast rules -- you can do these workouts in the morning, afternoon, or evening, depending on what works for you!

  • Monday: Ride your bike to a pool, swim, and ride home. Or drive to the pool, swim, ride an indoor bicycle, and then drive home. For the bike ride and the swim, include several short and hard efforts, called intervals. You don't need to exercise for hours and hours. For example, your swim can be about 20-30 minutes and the bike ride can be about 30-45 minutes.
  • Tuesday: Run and do a full body weight training routine. For the run, move at an even-tempo pace the whole time, for about 20-30 minutes, depending on your fitness level. For more tips, check out my article "How to Run Faster."
  • Wednesday: Same as Monday, but this time, keep your cycling and swimming easy, and instead focus on form and drills. For ideas on swim drills, check out Go Swim, and for cycling, try focusing on just one pedal, pedaling faster or pedaling slower, and also on relaxing your upper body.
  • Thursday: Same as Tuesday, but this time run a bit easier and focus on form, forward lean, relaxation, and quick turnover with your feet.
  • Friday: Life happens, so use this as your workout make-up day. If you are able to finish all the workouts Monday through Thursday, then choose a fun cross-training activity to do on this day, like playing soccer or tennis or going on a hike.
  • Saturday: Choose any two activities, or all three, and combine them into a longer workout. For example, you could swim 30 minutes and then ride 60 minutes. Or ride 60 minutes and run 30 minutes. Or if you're really up for a workout, swim 15 minutes, ride 45 minutes, and run 20 minutes. This is your "mini-triathlon" practice day.
  • Sunday: Rest and recovery! If you really want to treat yourself, get a massage (or use a foam roller for sore muscles).

If you want more details, then here's a link to a free audio podcast that I recorded with a triathlon coach.

Triathlon is a complex sport, and I've only scratched the surface here. But now you know what it takes to start training for your first race!

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