Taking the decision to train for a triathlon is the biggest step many will take in their sporting lives. Many will be complete novices to all three sports, captivated by the idea of stringing swimming, cycling and running together, it’s the challenge that draws us in. However it can be difficult to know where to start, there are thousands of articles, books, YouTube videos and podcasts to wade through to get a well rounded picture of how to train effectively for the sport.
To help, I wanted to condense all of the knowledge I have attained over the years into the top ten training tips for taking on your first triathlon. I could easily make a list of the top 100 training tips, so I’ll have left a few out, but these should help stop newcomers from making embarrassing mistakes, or putting themselves at the risk of injury.
- Slow down
You’re no doubt excited to start your triathlon journey, and I’m excited for you, but we need to dial things back to help keep training efficient. If you swim, bike and run as fast as you can every day, you’ll burn out and will never reach your full potential. Two, maybe three workouts each week should be really challenging, and the other days of the week should be spent recovering from these hard efforts, so you’re ready to go for the next one. These easy days should be undertaken at a pace where you could hold a conversation if needed. Your main concern will probably be not being fit enough at this point, but if you are so over trained that you’re exhausted and burnt out by the time you get to the start line, you’re not going to have a good race.
2. Progress your training
If you have signed up for a sprint triathlon (750M swim, 20KM cycle and 5KM run), you could be forgiven for slowly building yourself up to these distances then figuring it’s job done and you can focus on getting faster over those distances. Hitting the distances in training is a milestone you should be proud of, but you should keep extending your training beyond these distances, running 6K, 7K, 8K, or even further to keep pushing yourself. This will improve your aerobic fitness, making you more efficient over shorter distances. Plus you’ll have the confidence of knowing you can run over the distance, meaning race day should feel easier! You should also start running intervals such as one minute hard one minute easy repeated 20 times, and progress this by reducing the rest or increasing the duration of the hard running. Keep moving forward with your training on your hard days.
3. Train in the open water
If your race takes place in a lake, sea or river, you need to be training there, in the wetsuit you’re planning to wear on the day. Swimming in open water is totally different to swimming in a pool, and you need plenty of practice before the big day, otherwise you’ll find yourself panicking and disorientated. Most lakes will provide coaching, either 1 to 1 or as part of a group, to provide you a much smoother transition into the open water.
4. Learn to ride at a consistent effort
This is especially true for those training for a long or middle distance race, but it’s worth remembering for all distances. When we used to race bikes as kids we were primarily racing from lamppost to lamppost, pushing hard for short periods. While most of us are wise enough to realise this isn’t the most efficient way to train for a triathlon, it’s tempting to push hard for a few minutes, then recover, push hard for a bit, recover, then push really, really hard up a hill. This is especially prominent for riders who are big Strava users, and want to push hard where they know there’s a segment. Even if you are racing a sprint triathlon you’ll be spending a minimum of 30 minutes on the bike, so you need to learn to spread your effort evenly over this period, especially as you have a run at the end!
5. Mix up your swim training
Swimming can be intimidating and may feel like a fight for survival when all you want to do is make it out of the water. As such, you could be forgiven for getting in the pool, slowly working your way up to the required distance for your race, then repeating this every week. Not only is this pretty boring, it’s also ineffective as it won’t help you swim better. Including a warm up, main set and cool down is a good place to start, splitting your swim up into shorter segments, such as swimming 100M fast with 30 seconds rest between each interval. You should also include swimming drills to help you improve your technique, which will allow you to move faster for less effort.
6. Practice your race day nutrition
If you’re going to be competing for anything longer than 90 minutes, you will probably need to eat during your event. Carbohydrate is the body’s primary source of fuel for the body, and when you start to run out of this valuable resource your performance will fall off a cliff as your body asks for more energy. Practice this in training, find what foods work for you, and when you need to take them on. Grabbing an unknown product from a feed station when you start to feel weak could easily lead to cramps, stitches, or vomiting, none which are generally not conclusive to fast splits.
7. Research your event, and train accordingly
If you have a hilly race, train on the hills. If you have a sea swim, train in the sea. If your race is in a hot climate, try to replicate this during your training. It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many people forget this if they follow a generic training plan. You should also take the time to familiarise yourself with the course in detail, to avoid any embarrassing extra laps or getting lost in transition, as well as reading the rules to ensure you don’t fall foul of any penalties.
8. Buy a turbo trainer
Training for the bike, especially if you live in a city where a ride ride can easily turn into an all day endeavour can restrict you to one ride a week. By purchasing a turbo trainer you are able to ride from the comfort of your home on a variety of terrain (mountains, flats, rolling hills), without worrying about traffic, potholes or bad weather. It also allows you to train properly by following workouts, or take part in virtual races for a bit of fun.
9. Train in poor conditions
A turbo trainer is a fantastic tool for allowing you to ride all year round, but that doesn’t mean you should jump on it instead of a long weekend ride at the first sign of clouds. You can have the best fitness and the flashiest bike, but if you can’t race in the wet or the wind, you’ll find yourself losing time hand over fist when the weather turns. We’re not suggesting you take any risks, if your race is in August you probably don’t need to head out in sub zero temperatures on icy roads, but having the experience to adapt to different situations will pay dividends on the big day.
10. Practice your transitions
Don’t leave it till race day to practice transitioning from swim to bike, or bike to run. The first time you come out of the open water you may feel like you’re about to fall over and it’s not uncommon to see new triathletes sat on the floor next to their bike waiting for the world to stop spinning. Equally, coming off the bike onto the run will leave you with wooden legs that feel disconnected from the rest of your body. The more of these you practice in training, the smoother the process will be on race day.
I hope that has given you some insight into how to train successfully for a triathlon. There are thousands of moving parts to consider, but we take the stress out of training with our bespoke coaching programmes for athletes of all abilities. Learn more here