How to Get Started Training for a Triathlon
Unlike single discipline sports like running and swimming, training for triathlon and multisport events adds a myriad of complexities. From designing a training plan to staying accountable and injury-free, most athletes stand to gain from having a well-designed program in place.
Given the training variety, order of events, and community component, training for a triathlon can be more engaging and stimulating compared to other sports. Not only can triathletes incorporate wider variety and creativity in their training plans, but the level of inspiration, longevity, and fulfillment can be greater as well.
For beginners, getting started training for a triathlon can seem like a massive undertaking. Not only must one develop fitness and skills in swimming, biking, and running, but there’s a lot of gear and equipment that go along with it.
To help get you started on your triathlon training journey, outlined below are fundamental steps to help you achieve your goals come race day and throughout your life as a multisport athlete.
Know The Purpose Behind Your Training
It may feel overly introspective to some athletes, but one of the most important first steps is to get honest and real with why you’re pursuing a triathlon in the first place.
For some athletes, it’s a bucket list item. Depending on the distance of their desired event, training may require minimal time and effort.
Compare that to an experienced Iron-distance triathlete whose goal is to qualify for Kona and the training demands substantially increase.
The simple exercise here is to answer the question – “what’s my purpose in training for a triathlon?” Some of the most common stories are:
- “I already train for swimming, cycling, and/or running. I love the idea of diversifying my training for a triathlon.”
- “I am overweight and multisport training gives me an outlet to stay active and burn calories.”
- “I identify as a triathlete. It’s who I am and I can’t imagine a life without training.”
- “Doing a triathlon sounds badass! I am not very fit but I would love to complete an event this summer.”
- “I’m a decent runner and cyclist. Despite my lack of experience swimming, I think it would be fun to get into triathlon.”
- “Making time for triathlon training helps me develop confidence and balance in other aspects of my life.”
- “I am a proficient triathlete and I want to maximize my competitive potential.”
Depending on where you’re at with your purpose, some of the following steps may already be accounted for. Nonetheless, below are the true fundamentals of triathlon training.
Assess Your Fitness Level and Define Your Goals
Once you’ve come to terms with why you want to do a triathlon, the next step is to gauge where you’re at fitness-wise. This assessment doesn’t need to be a formal aerobic capacity or VO2 max test, although it can be.
Rather, a simple evaluation of where you currently stand as a swimmer, cyclist, and runner can provide an adequate benchmark in constructing shaping your triathlon goals and training plan.
For individuals who are distantly out of shape, there are plenty of “couch to Sprint” triathlon training programs that range from 12 weeks to 20 weeks. In this case, simply completing the event may be the primary goal.
For more experienced athletes who can run a 5K non-stop or cycle 20 miles with ease, perhaps achieving a certain time or age group finish is the desired outcome. Or maybe your goal is simply to finish strong and have fun.
Before you begin organizing your training plan, take some time to assess your current level of fitness and what you hope to achieve from your endeavors. Defining realistic goals is a good way to hold yourself accountable while staying motivated throughout your training.
Pinpoint Your A-Race(s) and Plan Your Season
Understanding where you’re at fitness-wise will also determine the type of events you’ll pursue.
Sprint distance triathlons are typically the best starting place for most beginners. This distance is also most commonly found at local triathlon events, which are perfect for those just entering the sport.
Some local events will also have an Olympic triathlon option, which is double the distance of the Sprint. This substantial leap requires significantly greater fitness, as even the fastest athletes come in around 2 hours or less for Olympic distance triathlons.
It’s when entering the world of Iron-distance triathlon, such as 70.3 and Ironman, where the events are a much bigger deal. Between the commitment to training, financial investment, and sacrifice of time, Iron-distance training is a lifestyle.
Wherever you’re at on the racing spectrum, you’ll want to choose at least one event to call your “A-race.” An A-race is simply a target event in which you plan on being in peak physical condition.
This might be the one and only triathlon for your season, or one several. But prioritizing an A-race or two will help you optimally structure your training plan for the season.
Develop a Triathlon Training Plan
After you’ve defined your goals and A-races for the upcoming season, now you can get into the fun part of developing a triathlon training plan.
The beauty behind this process is that every athlete will have a slightly different approach to his or her training plan. The approach, whether very structured and rigid or very loose and flexible, will depend on your goals as defined above.
Most athletes pursue a combination of structure with some degree of flexibility when developing a training plan.
The most common underlying training objectives that are universal to most athletes include:
- Structuring a training plan so that you’re in peak physical condition for your A-race. This often means organizing between 12 to 20 weeks of training that lead up to your big day, including a taper period the week before the event.
- Knowing your training capacity with respect to your lifestyle and physical condition. Busy athletes might only have 6-8 hours to dedicate to training. Additionally, some athletes may need to incorporate more rest days to avoid over-training or injury.
- Dedicating workouts to focus on disciplines in which you’re the weakest. For beginners, this is likely the swim portion of triathlon. It may be beneficial to plan up to 3-4 pool sessions per week to improve freestyle technique and build confidence in the water.
Triathlon training plans often come in 12, 16, and 20-week programs. There are also shorter and longer training programs, such as 8-week plans or 24-week (or 6-month) plans.
Adopting or developing your own tri training plan is largely contingent on the type of race you plan on doing (Sprint versus 70.3) and your goals.
Although most plans provide specific workouts per week, the great part about developing your plan is that you can be creative with your training and program your weeks to accommodate your individual needs and desires.
Understanding the Fundamentals of Periodization
Most training programs emphasize a common theme around periodization. The concept of periodization is best explained by Joe Friel, a former professional triathlete and author of the book The Triathlete’s Training Bible.
Based on Joe’s principles of periodization, the frequency, intensity, and volume of your training will purposefully evolve to help you arrive at your A-race in peak physical condition. In short, training goes from building base fitness and skill to increasing race specificity and rest as the event nears.
Joe’s theory is that you can only reach peak fitness two or three times each year. This is why choosing no more than two or three A-races is often recommended,
Learning the fundamentals of periodization makes it simple to understand the framework behind your triathlon training plan. Check out Joe’s blog for a simple way to learn and adopt periodization into your own tri training program.
Dial-in Your Triathlon Bike and Gear
One of the most common questions that crops-up when getting started training for a triathlon is “do I need a triathlon bike?”
The short answer is no, you do not need a triathlon bike. Assuming it’s not an XTERRA or off-road triathlon you’re training for, any road bike will do.
However, if you do pursue triathlon long term, then investing in a triathlon bike (or time trial bike) can have its advantages. There have been studies1 that show various reasons why triathlon bikes offer benefits over road bikes for triathletes.
Not only do tri bikes have a steeper seat tube angle, which puts riders in a more forward and aerodynamic position, but differences in hip angle and overall fit can help conserve primary running muscle groups off the bike. Learn more about these advantages by visiting our triathlon bikes page.
Is It Worth Investing in a Triathlon Bike?
A quality bike will likely be the steepest financial investment in your triathlon career, but also one that will yield the greatest performance dividends, as the bike leg is the greatest leg of the sport.
For a new entry-level triathlon bike, you can expect to pay between $1,500 to $4,000+. Even for a used tri bike in good condition, you’ll be hard-pressed to find something under $1K.
Keep in mind that high-performance triathlon bikes are often priced between $5,000 and $10,000+, so the spectrum of options and cost is vast. Competitive athletes, especially those doing Ironman, are willing to invest in the best technology to gain every edge they can.
Should I Buy a Wetsuit for Triathlon?
Aside from other essential gear like running shoes, bike helmet, swim goggles, and apparel, the other major consideration is buying a wetsuit.
Similar to bikes, a quality wetsuit is a good investment for athletes pursuing triathlon long-term.
Wetsuits have been shown to improve swimming performance2, especially for very lean athletes, by helping to increase buoyancy and encourage a more streamlined position in the water.
In addition to efficiency gains, wetsuits are highly advantageous for open water swimming in cooler temperatures. Studies3 support the importance of wetsuits when training or competing in cold water conditions ranging from 50 to 65°F (10 to 18°C) temperatures for periods over 30 minutes.
On the low end of the spectrum, a triathlon-worthy wetsuit will cost between $150-300, unless you find a great used deal. For a premium option, you could spend upwards of $700-1K. The ROI sweet spot in wetsuit technology is somewhere in the middle. What’s most important is that it feels comfortable and enhances your triathlon experience versus hinders it.
Build Mental Toughness and Discipline
Endurance performance in triathlon is mentally taxing. What defines the best athletes are those who can push themselves to not only sustain physical fatigue but also remain psychologically positive over long distances and durations.
Just like endurance athletes train their body for the physical demands of triathlon, athletes can also train the mind to develop emotional control and mental toughness.
Triathlon, even more than single discipline sports, can be just as mentally challenging as it is physical. It is normal for athletes to experience a degree of anxiety and intense emotions before a race or big training session.
These feelings can be the result of inadequate race preparation, setting overly-ambitious goals, or perceiving the course to be overly difficult.
According to sports scientist Andrew Hamilton who has studied the psychology of triathletes, psychological toughness and mental resilience is built on a strong platform of physical fitness.
“To enjoy repeated bouts of hard exercise during competition you need to have experienced repeated bouts of fatigue that follow long-duration exercise in training. In the same way you train your body to cope with the demands of training, you also train your mind to think positively about the experience.”
Whether you’re training for peak physical performance or recovering from an injury, building mental toughness can be your greatest ally.
How to Build Mental Toughness for Triathlon Training
Although defining mental fortitude can be somewhat ambiguous, it can be summarized as the ability to consistently perform at target levels despite everyday challenges, psychological roadblocks, and adversity.
A compelling study4 of over 1,200 athletes, many of whom were triathletes, identified eight sub-elements that shape mental toughness. These were: confidence, constancy, control, determination, positive cognition, self-belief, self-esteem, and visualization.
This type of research is making it increasingly clear that mindset can have measurable effects on performance. But how can athletes cultivate mental toughness and be more disciplined in their training? Below are a few techniques and practices that have been proven to work.
- Mindfulness and meditation training focusing on self-monitoring, self-awareness, and reflection.
- Motivational self-talk and taking ownership of your inner self-dialogue.
- Develop habits and routines outside of triathlon training that challenges yourself, such as waking up early, taking ice baths for recovery, or optimizing your diet.
- Embrace obstacles in everyday circumstances that reinforce self-belief and confidence that you can overcome stressful situations.
From mental resilience to mental stamina, there’s a lot of elements that go into the psychology of becoming the best athlete you can be. Everyone has their own weaknesses and strengths, so take some time to go inward to determine the best course of action for you.
Practice Swim-to-Bike and Bike-to-Run Transitions
Especially for beginners, practicing transitions – otherwise known as the fourth discipline triathlon – is an important component to increasing confidence and efficiency as an athlete.
The first transition, known as T1, requires swift removal of one’s wetsuit, if required, and an efficient bike prep routine. For athletes competing in sprint and Olympic distance triathlon, this process is often mere seconds.
One of the biggest considerations and competitive advantages with the swim-to-bike transition, or T2, is going sockless. While short-course athletes can get away with no socks, for Iron-distance athletes, socks are typically a must-have.
Not wearing socks makes it easier to have your shoes clipped-in on the bike prior to mounting. This time-saving technique eliminates the need to put on one’s cycling shoes while idle in the transition zone versus while in motion on the bike.
These quick time savers are less common in Iron-distance events, as athletes often take more time in T2 before embracing 112 miles of cycling. Depending on your event and goals, your T1 maybe a swift sub-1-minute transition or relaxed 5-minute reset before getting on the bike.
Unlike T1, the bike-run transition is seamless and intuitive. For competitive short-course athletes, learning to remove your cycling shoes before bike dismount is an essential practice to save in T2. But for Iron-distance athletes, these seconds saved may seem meaningless.
Beyond the actual transition itself, triathlon running has been shown to be more difficult than stand-alone running alone. In fact, a study5 showed that the energy cost during the triathlon run is 1.6-11.5 % higher than running alone. This science supports the importance of bike-run brick training and getting familiar with this otherwise awkward and taxing transition.
Some coaches prescribe their athletes’ repetitive bike-run-bike workouts with multiple transitions in one session. Not only does this enable triathletes to master the transitionary aspects of T2, but it also adapts the body to handle the physical demands of running off the bike.
Improve Technique and Programming with a Triathlon Coach
Working with a triathlon coach holds its purpose for many types of athletes, from programming effective training sessions based on an athlete’s fitness to providing motivational support and guidance throughout a season.
Coaches come in many forms, depending on an athlete’s objectives and dynamic preferences. While some prefer to work with a local coach in-person, others enjoy the accessibility of working with an online coach. Given today’s digital world and ease of communication, the latter has become a popular option.
In addition to helping athletes develop the optimal training plan, triathlon coaches can also provide guidance in improving one’s form and technique. This is where choosing a coach with certain areas of specialty can have its benefits.
For instance, some triathlon coaches have Olympic swimming backgrounds, while others are legends in running or cycling. Whatever their background may be, recruiting the most qualified coach based on your training needs can be a growth-enabling investment in many ways.
Cultivate Healthy Recovery Habits
Recovery for multisport endurance athletes is absolutely critical to maintain optimal performance long-term. While diet is often the first thing that comes to mind, proper recovery involves a wide range of components that go beyond food and nutrition.
Of the most important but often neglected recovery habits to cultivate involve proper stretching and mobility training.
Flexibility, Mobility, and Bodywork
This aspect of training might involve a combination of flexibility exercises, yoga poses, myofascial release, joint capsule mobilizations, and other bodywork practices to effectively restore and optimize muscle function and range of motion.
Older athletes will attest to the importance of having a morning and/or evening movement routine to improve recovery and help prevent injury. The mobility aspect of triathlon training is highly individual, but one area of recovery that’s rooted in science is nutrition.
Diet, Nutrition, and Food
Like there are diets ranging from vegan to paleo, there are several approaches to diet and nutrition in the world of endurance training. Interestingly, some approaches contrast greatly.
One diet and nutritional approach that is currently of trend is low-carb, high-fat “keto-adaptation.” While extreme to some athletes, there is science6 to support training in nutritional ketosis, or a sort of mock fasted state, to improve fat oxidation and long-distance endurance capacity.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s also science7 supporting sufficient carbohydrate and protein intake to replenish glycogen stores and maximize recovery. This more conventional and widely-adopted approach doesn’t shy away from high carbohydrate consumption and natural sources of sugar.
Because high-fat, keto-leaning diets are difficult to sustain long-term for most endurance athletes, it’s more to consume a balanced macronutrient profile dense with high-quality carbohydrate sources, amino acid-rich proteins, and healthy fats.
Sleep and Sleep Well
Lastly, getting adequate sleep is vital to recovery and athletic performance. It’s not uncommon for endurance athletes to require at least 9 hours of sleep at night, with some athletes making time for naps.
While sleep is also a highly individual component of triathlon training, it’s one thing that should never go neglected. Not only can inadequate sleep contribute to poor training sessions and insufficient endurance adaptation, but low quality sleep can also lead to overtraining and injury.
Using tools like the Whoop strap and Fitbit are effective ways to measure sleep. But for many athletes, the answers are obvious. Committing to good sleep and recovery habits – all while balanced with training and life – largely comes down to disciplined time management and self-awareness.
1. Will Duggan, Bernard Donne, Neil Fleming. Effect of Seat Tube Angle and Exercise Intensity on Muscle Activity Patterns in Cyclists. Int J Exerc Sci. 2017; 10(8): 1145–1156. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5786204/#b19-ijes-10-8-1145
2. L Cordain , R Kopriva. Wetsuits, body density and swimming performance. Br J Sports Med. 1991 Mar;25(1):31-3. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.25.1.31.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1913028/
3. Jørgen Melau, Maria Mathiassen, Trine Stensrud, Mike Tipton, and Jonny Hisdal. Core Temperature in Triathletes during Swimming with Wetsuit in 10 °C Cold Water. Sports (Basel). 2019 Jun; 7(6): 130. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6628109/
4. Zeiger JS, Zeiger RS (2018) Mental toughness latent profiles in endurance athletes. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0193071. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193071
5. Haworth,J; Walsh, M; Adam Strang, Hohl, J; Spraets, S; Wilson, M; Brown, C (2010). TRAINING FOR THE BIKE TO RUN TRANSITION IN TRIATHLON. Department of Kinesiology and Health Miami University, Oxford, OH, USA. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258218375_TRAINING_FOR_THE_BIKE_TO_RUN_TRANSITION_IN_TRIATHLON
6. Ma, S., & Suzuki, K. (2019). Keto-Adaptation and Endurance Exercise Capacity, Fatigue Recovery, and Exercise-Induced Muscle and Organ Damage Prevention: A Narrative Review. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7(2), 40. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7020040
7. Moore DR. Nutrition to Support Recovery from Endurance Exercise: Optimal Carbohydrate and Protein Replacement. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2015 Jul-Aug;14(4):294-300..https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26166054/