Marathon: check. Tough Mudder: check. Triathlon: Not yet?
Sure, triathlons sound intimidating. They are, in some ways, the ultimate endurance challenge, requiring not only the gear but also the rigorous training routine to, y'know, survive a swim, bike, and run.
But we're here tell you that it's time set aside your fear of the mighty tri. Even if you're no endurance specialist, it only takes three months to properly train for a triathlon, according to eight-time Ironman competitor Sam Cardona, corporate wellness director at New York Health and Racquet Club and assistant coach at TriLatino, a New York-based triathlon training club.
That's not to underestimate how demanding the three-part race can be. But if you follow a well-structured plan like this one, you’ll be adequately prepared by race day.
Going the Distance
Before training, you need to choose your distance and locate a race (find one at trifind.com). There are five primary triathlon distances:
Sprint triathlon: Half-mile (750m) swim, 12.4 mi (20km) bike, 3.1mi (5km) run
Olympic triathlon: 0.93mi (1.5km) swim, 24.8mi (40km) bike, 6.2mi (10km) run
ITU Long-Distance triathlon (double Olympic): 1.86mi (3km) swim, 49.6mi (80km) bike, 12.4mi (20km) run
Half-Ironman triathlon: 1.2mi (1.9km) swim, 56mi (90km) bike, 13.1mi (21.09km) run
Ironman triathlon: 2.4mi (3.8km) swim, 112mi (180km) bike, 26.2mi (42.195km) run
If you’re already in very good shape, it may be tempting to dive right into an Olympic-distance tri. For most competitors, swimming is the limiting factor: "Even if you're physically fit, it doesn't matter if you can't swim,” cautions Cardona. “Always start with a sprint triathlon and gradually work your way up.”
Triathlon training schedule
Your schedule will dictate how much time you can devote to training. Cardona suggests setting aside no less than three days a week, although six days a week is ideal. Break your training up by skill; focus on a different element of the race each day of the week. For example:
The swim is the most challenging event, so Cardona recommends starting the week with 30 minutes of laps in the pool. Focus on your technique and breathing.
Do a run that includes speed work or hill repeats to increase strength and improve technique.
To develop speed, you need to know your race pace—that is, the pace you hope to hit during the running leg of the race. For example, if you want to run the 3.1 miles in 25 minutes, you’d need to practice doing eight-minute miles. Start with an easy 15-minute run to warm up, then run 200 yards at race pace. Back off to an easy pace again for 200 yards to recover. Repeat five times and cool down with another 15-minute run at an easy pace.
To do hill repeats, warm up with an easy 15-minute run, then go to a small hill—you want a long but gradual incline. Sprint up the hill for 30 seconds then jog back down. Repeat 10 times. Then run on a flat surface for 10 minutes of recovery and do 10 more hill sprints. Cool down with an easy 15-minute run. The goal of hill repeats is to do each set at a consistent speed while covering the same distance.
Hit the pool for about 45 minutes. This swim is intended to build up endurance, so be sure to limit breaks between laps.
Combine riding and running with a 45-minute bike ride followed immediately by a 20-minute run. “You have to train the body to run off the bike. It’s a slightly different sensation compared to just starting a run, and it makes a real difference on race day” says Cardona. That's why this workout is especially important for first-time triathletes.
Take the day off. “If you don’t give your muscles the opportunity to rebuild, you'll end up with an injury,” Cardona says. It’s best to rest after the toughest training day. This gives your body the opportunity to get rid of toxins, strengthen bone tissue, and come back stronger.
Because most people have more time to train on the weekend, Saturday is devoted to the longest part of the race: the cycling portion. (If you work on weekends, adjust your schedule accordingly). Head out for a long ride—between 60 and 90 minutes.
Finish the week with a 5k tempo run, which is done at a fast but consistent pace. Warm up with an easy 15-minute run, followed by 20 minutes at race pace, and then a 15-minute cool down. Each week, increase the time spent at race pace until you're able to run the entire race distance at that pace.
In addition to training the different legs of the race, Cardona recommends strength training twice per week on swim days, which are easiest on the body. Focus on total-body conditioning, hitting the muscles that are most important for each event. For the swim, Cardona suggests lat pulldowns, lateral raises, and shoulder presses. Because biking taxes the quads and hamstrings, focus on leg extensions and hamstring curls. Also be sure to include a core exercise like the plank.
Since you’re looking to build strength, not bulk, and you don’t want to overtax the body, Cardona suggests doing three sets of 10 reps for each lift.
Beginner tips for triathlon success
1) Most people struggle with the swim the most, so Cardona recommends signing up for lessons in order to become a more efficient swimmer. You can even get someone to take a video of your stroke from underwater so you can see what you need to improve technique-wise. The better you glide through the water, the more energy you’ll save for the other two events.
2) Start your swim training in a pool. After about a month, you can head to open water. “It’s important to get acclimated and feel comfortable,” says Cardona. “Otherwise your heart rate will go up, you’ll panic, and you won’t perform as well.” The first time you head out, stay in the water for about 10 to 15 minutes at a time and be sure to swim along the shore in case you become fatigued.
3) Practice hydrating and eating on the bike. You need to train the way you race, and that means taking in some kind of nutrition every 30 minutes—and there are no picnic tables on the trail. Whether it’s gels, bars, or sports drinks, find what works for you and get in the habit of consuming it in motion without missing a beat.
4) The biggest challenge when it comes to the final leg of the race is learning to run off the bike. “Your legs will be kind of numb and wobbly,” Cardona says. He recommends starting off easy. Keep your heart rate low and slowly pick up the pace. It’s also good to check out the course beforehand and look at the terrain. Is it hilly or flat? Find similar surfaces to train on.