Are you new to the sport of triathlon and starting to see the logos and tattoos everywhere of those who have completed an Ironman or Ironman 70.3?
Do you want to join the ranks of those who have traveled 70.3 or 140.6 miles under their own power in one go? Are you thinking – “it will take me years to get to that point.” Well, maybe not.
What Does It Take To Level Up?
I am writing this article knowing full well that this is a question with a million possible answers. Every individual is unique and will progress in their fitness journey at different speeds.
I have coached and watched athletes who have started training for their first full-distance triathlon without ever having raced before, as well as athletes who have completed 20+ Half Ironmans before ever attempting a Full.
I am writing this article based on my opinion as a coach, observations of the athletes I have coached, as well as milestones I feel are important at each triathlon distance.
This article is not designed for the competitive athlete and is more focused on the casual or age-group racer. It is targeted at sharing the minimum amount of training that could be completed prior to racing each distance, as it would typically take much longer to be competitive or to place in races than what is cited below.
It is important to note before going any further that I am not a medical doctor, and you should always consult your physician before starting any training plan or making significant changes to your training regimen.
Sport Experience Level
Before diving into each triathlon distance, let’s define what we mean when we cite different levels of triathlon experience, based on how much you are working out, and how many years you have been training in a particular sport.
No Triathlon Experience
- 0-1 swim/bike/run workouts per week
- 0-1 years competing in swim/bike/run events
Some Triathlon Experience
- 2-3 swim/bike/run workouts per week OR
- 2-3 years competing in swim/bike/run events
Lots of Triathlon Experience
- 3-4+ swim/bike/run workouts per week OR
- 3+ years competing in swim/bike/run events
How Long It Takes to Level Up
It is my strong opinion that (barring injury or other limitations) anyone with any level of athletic experience can complete a sprint distance triathlon with the proper training.
Someone who is working out regularly and experienced in triathlon may be able to complete a sprint tri on a whim, while it may take up to half a year for someone completely new to the sport to get the hang of not only training but the knowledge involved in doing their first triathlon.
Look for a plan that is at least 20 weeks in length if you are generally sedentary, and just getting started out with your first training plan.
This will allow you at least 12 weeks of general prep to gain fitness in each sport, as well as additional time to learn about the nuances of transitions, nutrition, gear, etc. while you complete race preparation training and a taper.
If you are currently doing some swim, bike, or run training each week, look for a plan at least 8-12 weeks in length, to allow you to do some brick sessions and race-specific training before taking on a race.
This will help things go smoother on race day, especially if you have not raced in a while. Otherwise, preparation could be done in as little as 4 weeks if you just need a tune-up prior to race day, and some time to get your gear in order.
Lots of Experience
Someone with years of triathlon experience, or someone who is regularly training all 3 disciplines can often complete a sprint distance at a moment’s notice. Signing up for a race the morning of is not uncommon for this athlete.
If you are not feeling confident in racing without any training plan, look for a short plan of 2-4 weeks to get back into the rhythm of race-specific training before doing a short (3 days – 1 week) taper.
Similar to a sprint race, the demands of an Olympic distance event can be completed by most, even as an introductory race to the sport.
Often new triathletes have one sport that they are less comfortable with or accustomed to, so may need a slightly longer plan to focus on that discipline and prepare for the longer distance.
If you are starting with an Olympic distance as your first triathlon, look for a plan that is on the longer end of this recommendation.
You will want to have plenty of time to gain fitness in each discipline, spend some time focusing on your weakest discipline to ensure you can complete the distance for that sport, as well as have time to prep for the race specifically.
If you are equally strong in all 3 disciplines and comfortable with the distances, you can likely prepare in as little as ~3-4 months.
There are many fantastic 2-3 month plans out there that can take someone’s current workouts, and transition them into training for an Olympic race in a couple of months.
If you are already fairly active, you can likely prepare for an Olympic race with minimal general training and some race-specific sessions.
Lots of Experience
Similar to a sprint race, someone with years of triathlon experience, or someone who is regularly training in all 3 disciplines can likely sign up for an Olympic event the day of.
A short plan of 8 weeks or even 4 weeks total is likely enough to finish an Olympic distance race, however, additional training may be needed to race more competitively at this distance.
Half-Ironman (70.3) Triathlon
The half distance is my personal favorite, because it is challenging enough that it takes even seasoned athletes some time to train up for, however, it is a fantastic stretch goal for someone getting more and more excited about the sport with each shorter race they do.
Additionally, because these races are often run in conjunction with longer distance races, you can sometimes find one with longer cutoff times in case you are worried about meeting the mid-race deadlines.
1 Season of Sprint/Olympic racing + 20-24 weeks Half Ironman specific training
Although not 100% necessary to have a full season of racing under your belt to tackle a 70.3, your race-day experience will likely be much better if you have some practice at a distance you are more comfortable with first.
The logistics of a half-Ironman race can be intimidating even to seasoned triathletes, so this recommendation is as much about experience with racing as it is about experience training and fitness level.
For someone with some racing experience under their belt, or who is generally active in the triathlon disciplines, the road to a 70.3 can be as short as a 12-week half-Ironman training plan, depending on your current fitness level.
A slightly longer plan of 16-24+ weeks can help you gain additional speed and incorporate more race practice sessions, which will help you feel more confident and be more competitive on race day.
Lots of Experience
Similar to the semi-experienced athlete, a seasoned triathlete in good physical form needs relatively little training to complete a Half Ironman. They could comfortably skip the base-building phases of training and complete a short plan focused on race prep. Alternatively, a longer plan for this athlete will only benefit them in competitiveness come race day.
Full Ironman Triathlon
The full distance is where your current level of fitness when you start training will really come into play when choosing a training plan. When I completed my first 140.6, I had 2 seasons of racing under my belt, was training 3-4 days per week, and completed a 20-week plan.
The recommendations below mirror the amount of training I have seen athletes have great success with when completing their first full distance.
However, if you are lacking confidence, a longer training plan likely won’t hurt you, just make sure you choose a plan with enough recovery weeks in it (every 3-4 weeks) so you don’t get burnt out.
Training for this distance is about threading the needle between getting enough training for your experience level, without the training completely taking over your life for too long.
2+ Seasons of Sprint/Olympic/Half Ironman racing + 20-24+ weeks Full Ironman specific training
As daunting as a full-distance triathlon can be for a beginner, having a longer-term plan will set you up for success. If you already have a few seasons of racing under your belt, look for a 16-24 week beginner full-distance plan and you are on your way to hearing “You are an Ironman!”
I have coached ambitious athletes to complete their first 140.6 without ever having done a race before, however, the race for them was more difficult than it needed to be, and they had some prior experience racing one of the disciplines.
I do not recommend that path, but it can be done if you have the time to put into an aggressive training plan (15+ hour weeks at their peak).
Previous racing experience and/or regular training puts you in a perfect position to complete a full-distance race if you so desire.
Look for a beginner or intermediate plan with some base-building training (12 weeks minimum) as well as a generous race prep phase (8 weeks minimum) to get you ready to traverse 140.6 miles.
If you are completing an Ironman-branded race for the first time, this will also give you ample time to familiarize yourself with the flow of the well-attended races, as they are often set up differently than smaller local affairs.
Learn how to utilize gear bags, practice longer transitions, and dial in your nutrition before race day.
Lots of Experience
For seasoned triathletes looking to complete their first Full Ironman, assuming they are training regularly, feel free to get a bit aggressive with a shorter plan.
You are likely already doing some longer training sessions, so ramping up to a longer race in ~16 weeks should not be an issue.
However, you will still need time to practice your race day nutrition plan, and potentially get in a few practice races (half distance recommended) before race day.
All that being said, you will always know best whether or not you are feeling ready for a race or not. If at any point during a training plan, you are feeling ill-prepared or burnt out, it is best to consult a coach to help you get to the finish line in the best form possible.
Check out these other articles on how to know when hiring a coach is the right move:
- Hiring an Endurance Coach?: Questions to Guide the Conversation
- Getting the Most Out of Your Coaching Experience
- Find a Triathlon Coach
Ryan Grange is a USAT-certified triathlon coach and the owner of Z2 Endurance Coaching. He has been racing for over 10 years and coaching beginner triathletes for 2 years. He is passionate about training and getting new people into the sport of triathlon, and even more passionate about making his run shoes match his outfits.