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How to train for your first Triathlon

The first recorded modern-day triathlon took place less than 50 years ago. Mission Bay in San Diego, California, was the home of this first event on September 25th 1974. Since this date, this type of event has grown significantly in popularity and more people each year are keen to test their skills and see whether they can complete the classic swim/bike/run event and hit their goals.

Training for your first triathlon is all about preparation and commitment. Training for a triathlon requires dedication and focus on ensuring you can get the best out of each stage of your performance. Events can differ from organiser to organiser, so it is essential to do your research and consider the best option for your fitness level.

Considering Triathlon Distances

Triathlons vary greatly from organiser to organiser, so you have to consider each event individually. Distances can differ too, but you’ll most commonly find these triathlon types:

  • Olympic: The Olympic Triathlon was first introduced during the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. The whole distance travelled is 51.5km as athletes contend with a 1.5km swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run.
  • Sprint: The perfect starting point for newcomers, the sprint triathlon covers 25.75km with a 750m swim, 20km bike ride and 5km run.
  • Ironman: An infamous event for the super-elite, ironmen triathlons cover 226km. Athletes take on a 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and 42.2km run.

There are also many other recognised triathlon events, including super sprints and half-ironman events.

What are your Triathlon Training Goals?

Deciding to take on a triathlon is a big decision. It might be your next step after training in one of the three core areas or simply a new challenge you have set yourself as part of your fitness regime. The reasons behind and goals for your triathlon will be important for the event you select. For example, you may want the support of family, friends and familiar faces, so focusing on the local events calendar is your best bet. Alternatively, you may be drawn to one of the travel destination events around the globe, giving yourself the chance to enjoy some unforgettable scenery as well as work on your fitness. There are triathlon events organised around the world each year, with many locations to choose from. Be sure to select an event far enough into the future so you can plan an effective training schedule and give yourself the best chance of success.

Training for a triathlon takes a considerable amount of commitment, so having a genuine goal or focus throughout is essential to keep you going. You can’t simply turn up on the day and hope the event will go well, and you have to train hard to get the results you want. Beginners shouldn’t focus too specifically on finishing in a certain time or achieving a certain position and should try to take time to enjoy the process as well as the sense of achievement at the end.

Planning your Diet for a Triathlon

A solid nutrition strategy is the first step in any triathlon training plan. While you may already eat well, it is important to assess your diet for a triathlon, keeping in mind the additional training you will need to get race-ready. Critical elements of your diet to succeed in your triathlon goals include:

  1. Carbs matter: carbs fuel your body, so now is not the time to cut back on them. Instead, carbs should form part of every meal you eat and always be consumed before and after workouts.
  2. Load up on fruit and vegetables: getting in as many fruits and vegetables as possible is essential for an optimised diet. A busy training schedule can mean you quickly forget to eat as often or as well as you should.
  3. Recover with food: the right food is essential after training sessions or practice races. A combination of carbs and proteins is ideal for helping your muscles to recover quickly.
  4. Snack with your health in mind: always having a nutritious snack to hand helps ensure you don’t reach for something laden with calories and not much goodness.

These nutrition rules are pretty simple, but they are a great starting point for a diet on which triathletes can thrive. It helps ensure your body is adequately fuelled for every training session and the big event itself. Many coaches and clubs can provide you with a personalised diet plan to work alongside your training schedule, but these basic tips will ensure you have a good base to start from.

Setting your Triathlon Training Plan

How much training do you need for a triathlon? This will vary from person to person. Very healthy and physically fit people may be able to squeeze their training into an eight-week period whilst complete beginners may want to give themselves at least sixteen weeks to train. Twelve weeks is probably the average for most relatively healthy competitors, and once you’ve got your event date in mind, it’s time to layout your plan.

Firstly, you need to establish a routine for your swim/bike/run workout sessions. You should commit to at least two sessions per sport per week. Many triathletes also ensure they have one open water swim per week and fit in a swim/bike or bike/run workout once a week too to get used to the transitions.

A practical approach is to increase your distances week-on-week. However, you should ensure you increase distances by no more than 10% increase each training session. Experts also suggest that by the time of the event, you should be able to comfortably complete 10% above the entire event distance in each event. This helps to ensure you are prepared for event day, with some extra fuel in the tank.

Alongside your sport-specific training, many triathletes recommend regular resistance training. Just one or two sessions a week should be enough, and this allows you to strengthen the primary muscles needed for each discipline of the triathlon. This will enable you to build and improve your mobility and stability. For example, for swimming, you’ll want to work on your back, shoulders and arm strength. For cycling, the focus will be on the quads, glutes and hamstrings. Finally, for running, you’ll be focusing on lower body and leg strength.

Crucially, your training schedule must have rest days and periods built-in. You need at least one to two days of rest every week to allow your muscles time to recover and repair. It’s also important to focus your training on each discipline to ensure you are ready.

Swim-Specific Training

New triathletes traditionally find the swimming race the most challenging part of the event. Some people may not have swum since their school days or only occasionally on holidays. Swimming competitively is a whole different experience. Finding a coach or a team to swim with is highly recommended. This ensures you can develop your swimming in the right direction. Learning to coordinate breathing with your chosen swimming stroke is often the most challenging part of the swim, so it is vital you spend time developing this skill.

Triathletes are required to swim with a cap on, and you will also want a good pair of goggles, so get used to swimming wearing both of these. Triathletes swim in open water, which is why it is essential to practice this kind of swimming too. Depending on the chosen location, you may also want to  invest in a wetsuit as the water temperature may be much lower than that you are used to training in. Keep in mind, some events do not allow wetsuits, so check this in advance before shelling out for any additional equipment.

Triathletes are always seen with their head down throughout the swim phase of the race. Breathing every 3-5 strokes and checking your location and you’re on track at this interval is also recommended.

You should aim to visit the pool a least twice a week, as well as one swim in open water. Most races take place in lakes or in the ocean, so you need to get used to the difference between pool and open water swimming. Build up confidence in the pool first if you are nervous about open water swimming, and always be sure to train with others if you are worried about this element of the race.

Bike-Specific Training

Regular cyclists and athletes who enjoy cycling events often see a triathlon as the next step up. The cycling element of the race is the most technical and most equipment-reliant. There are not many rules relating to the kind of bike you should use for the race, but most triathletes opt for a lightweight road bike for the best chance at a good race time. Experts also recommend opting for clipless bike pedals and compatible footwear to ensure you get the most out of this leg of the event.

While everyone probably thinks they can ride a bike, riding it well enough to complete a triathlon is different. Take the time to think about each pedal stroke. Then, as you practice, you can seek out the best cadence for your style of cycling and find an efficient way to get the most from your bike and your body.

Getting used to your bike is vital for a successful race. Practice changing gears and tackling hills, as most triathlons incorporate at least one hilly ascent. It’s also important to get used to clipping in and out of your pedals so you can quickly transition from the different race stages. Two to three cycling sessions a week should be enough, especially if you are building distance each time and working extra elements such as hills into your routine.

Run-Specific Training

Many triathletes were runners before they decided to take on this challenge. Experienced runners looking for a new challenge quite often turn to the triathlon as their next big event. Training for running is something many people will already be used to, but beginners can start from scratch and still make a success of their race.

All runners need to take to the road is a comfortable pair of running shoes. High-quality running shoes are essential for running on the road as you need to be able to deal with the impact of your steps.

Endurance running requires specific training and focus on your stride. Endurance runners have a particular appearance as you will see them lean slightly forward with their elbows bent at a 90-degree angle, with their arms left to swing naturally forwards and backwards. As each foot hits the ground, the aim is to move it back again swiftly and create a steady pace. Triathletes usually aim for an average of 75-90 foot strikes per minute, per foot.

You should try and include at least two runs per week in your training schedule. One of the runs should always follow your longest bike ride of the week and give you the chance to get used to the bike to run transition. Running workouts should include both long-distance runs and shorter bursts to help build speed and endurance. Make sure you can comfortably run for 30 minutes consecutively before throwing yourself into the high-intensity part of your training schedule.

Succeed in Training for a Triathlon

Once you’ve decided on an event, the training is vital to make a success of it. Enjoying the process may seem difficult after a particularly hard race or cycle, but it’s all part of the fun of the competition. Finding a coach or a partner to train with can also make the journey a lot more enjoyable but testing yourself is also a fantastic experience. Having a proper training plan in place hugely increases your chances of a successful race, and it makes all your effort worthwhile when you cross the finishing line having achieved all your goals.