Triathlon Training 101
Training for 3 sports at once requires a bit of a different mindset, but follows some of the same methodologies used in other training regimes. Most people utilize training plans, which layout out daily workouts over the course of the several weeks leading up to a race. They will normally will range from 12 to 16 weeks, and often require you to do two workouts a day at some point. This will not only work your body, but your mental toughness as well which, I believe, is an often-overlooked aspect of training.
If you’ve trained for races like marathons, you are probably familiar with periodization training. Not to be confused with training periodically mind you. This is the methodology of breaking down a training plan weekly into 4 distinct periods or phases which are Base, Build, Peak, and Taper. Each has a different goal and approach with the overall goal of getting you to the peak of fitness just in time for your goal race. Note that some plans have more distinct phases and that’s fine, there is a lot of variability in training and this is meant as a general overview to get started.
When training for triathlons, a common type of training you’ll probably see is referred to as the “Brick”. This is often where you’ll have a bike ride followed immediately by a short run. From what I’ve been told, these are called “Bricks” as your feet will often feel like bricks when you start to run. This kind of training I feel is important as it gets you used to moving from one sport to another. Training moving from swimming to biking would also be good, but you’ll see less of it as it is much harder to coordinate.
And while we are on the subject, transition training is a good thing to work in at some point before the race. Often referred to as the 4th discipline, time spent in transition is time you aren’t biking or running. The transition between swim and bike is often referred to at T1 and the transition between bike and run is referred to at T2. For example, improving your T1 + T2 time by 45 seconds each is like running your 5k on a sprint triathlon about 30 seconds per mile faster. And you’d be surprised how long you can take in transition if not prepared. Not all transitions are done the same way, so research how your goal race does them and have a plan and practice the plan before the race.
Phases of Training
The goal of this is to have fun, build your aerobic endurance, improve technique, and build strength. As the name suggests, this lays the foundation for training. Think of it as the baseline of where you want to start from when you start building towards your peak. Like climbing steps so that when you jump, you reach higher. In general, I regard any time between specific race training, to be “base” training. This includes the “off season” as I believe consistency in training leads to an ever improving fitness and faster racing.
Generally this has a lower volume of workouts, but is the best time to hit the gym, to work on that swim stroke, and enjoy a bit of cross training like yoga, that will help reduce the chance of injury when you start increasing the intensity during the next phases.
Training during this phase/period should grow in volume, intensity, and become more specific. The workouts should also be increasingly more like the your goal race. Often, you’ll have a few build weeks followed by a “Easy” week where volume and intensity go down.
You’ll be pushing your mind and body harder and harder during these weeks, so you should pay extra attention to take good care of your body. Nutrition is very important to help your body recover from the hard workouts. This is a great time to schedule massages and to foam roll.
Volume and intensity of training grows once again. Emphasis on aerobic endurance and a decrease on drills. Training here should be very close to the distances and intensity you’ll see and do on race day and, depending on the goals and race type, may exceed it.
Mental and physical demands will be at their highest at this point and so should be your attention to recovery and nutrition.
You’ve done your longest and hardest swims, runs, and bikes, but it’s still one to two weeks away from your race? This period is called the Taper and, for some, it’s one of the hardest parts of training.
This doesn’t mean you stop training and start eating badly. Maintaining your diet and continue to train with the goal of maintaining the fitness you’ve built, along with recovering psychologically.
Volume and intensity is usually dialed back so your body and mind will be fully repaired and ready for race day. Usually training will switch to short intense workouts that don’t exhaust you, but still keep your body sharp and ready for race day.
Static plans, like the above sample plans, can be found online and in several books. Joe Friel and Matt Fitzgerald are great sources. But those plans and books don’t know you, they don’t know your strengths and weaknesses. The static plans can’t see you run nor see you swim. How do you adjust the plan if something goes wrong, like a sickness, that throws a wrench into the plan? This is where coaches come in.
Having a coach helps not only be able to adjust your plan and make it more dynamic, but they can help with your form and give you advice that comes from years of training, racing, and experience. For years, I did my own training plans and they worked out well, but I decided to employ a coach when I wanted to take it to the next step.
Recovery and Rest
Rest Days and Sleep are just as important as Long Runs in building fitness and endurance. The importance of this increases with age. Training puts stress on your body, but it doesn’t make you stronger or faster. Your body rebuilding itself makes you stronger and faster, but it only does this during rest periods. So it’s a good idea to have in your plan the ability to get a good night's sleep and has at least one rest day.
Also important is recovery after your race. Depending on the demands of the race, having a plan to take some time off and/or slowly start back into light training, building back towards your base training is a good idea. Be sure to plan for this however and stick to it as 1 or 2 weeks off can easily turn into 6 months as I can personally attest to.
Nothing will impact your racing more than injuries. I used to race a friend who was much younger than me, but I would routinely beat him in races. He was much fitter and faster than me though so it frustrated him greatly. One day, I let him in on a little secret, I was wiser than him. You see, the reason I beat him was because he was always injured on race day. He would push so hard in training, that he’d hurt himself. I was older and listened to my body while training as to avoid injury as much as possible, so I was able to race at my fullest on race day. Needless to say, he listened to my advice and started training smarter and I never came close to beating him again.
Moral of the story is to learn to listen to your body. This is a big part of where the mental part of triathlon comes into play. Another friend of mine was told he needed to learn to run uncomfortably, which is true. Your body will hurt when training and training, but it is up to you to learn if it’s a discomfort that can be ignored, or a pain you need to take notice of. Pay attention and listen to your body. Everyone has limits and pushing to them and not beyond them is the goal.
Sample Sprint Plans
About the Author - Larry is a long-time triathlete who has completed every distance of triathlon, including three Iron-distance triathlons. Larry recently qualified for the 2018 USAT Olympic-Distance Age Group National Championships in Ohio. Larry is currently serving as Austin Tri Club's Director of Training and Group Workouts. To read more about Larry and the rest of the Austin Tri Club board, check out our Club Leadership page.
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