How To Train For a Triathlon

How To Train For a TriathlonTriathletes are a special breed of human being. They expect a lot from themselves—more than even the usual Type A personality would. They also generally have a masochistic streak about a mile wide. What kind of person would want to put themselves through such a physical and mental ordeal? For most people, the answer to that question is probably, “Not me, and I don’t even want to think about it.” However, the triathlete is driven to seemingly impossible challenges. They wish to prove that it is indeed possible to push the human body and mind beyond the individual’s presumed limits, to triumph over difficulty through sheer force of will.

It should go without saying, right at the start, that before you begin ANY type of serious fitness regimen (and if this isn’t, nothing is), you should be sure that you are in good health and that your diet is healthy. Even before you begin the physical training portion, you should ensure that you are putting only the healthiest and least-processed natural foods into your body. Juicing is a great way to do this, and you can learn about it in this online course.

If you or someone you know is planning to compete in a triathlon, then quite a bit of training is in order, and it is not something that one can do at the last minute. Training for a triathlon is almost a full-time job, and will certainly, on its own, provide a number of challenges for the body and mind. Training for a triathlon, in other words, is serious business. Today, we’ll look at a basic training regimen for the aspiring triathlete.

Getting Ready

Anyone who’s successfully completed a triathlon knows that they are relatively easy to talk about, and quite another thing to actually assay. It’s important to get the actual task ahead of you clearly in focus before beginning, so that there will be no doubts in your mind as you prepare yourself. The mental preparation is as important as (many would say more important than) the physical preparation.

The Nuts and Bolts

So what, exactly, does a triathlon entail? Triathlons are multi-stage competitions that require three sequential and continuous endurance-based athletic activities. The triathlete must compete against his fellows (and him- or herself) in endurance-level swimming, cycling, and running. And there are no breaks in between. When a triathlete comes out of the water after the swimming portion, he or she must immediately hop onto a bicycle and get rolling. Similarly, upon reaching the end of the bicycle portion, the triathlete must immediately begin running.

It’s worth noting that what “endurance level” means, exactly, depends on the specific type of triathlon you’re going to enter. The shortest overall triathlon is known as “Sprint Distance,” and is comprised of 750 meters of swimming, 20 km of bicycling, and 5 km of running.  This is a good distance to start with, for obvious reasons. A wise man once said of triathlons: “Start small. If you live, do a longer one. If you die, don’t.”

Moving up, the next longest type is known as “Intermediate” or “Standard Distance,” and is also known as “Olympic Distance” since it uses the parameters set by the IOC. It consists of a 1.5 km swim, a 40 km cycle, and a 10 km run. This is the most commonly encountered form of triathlon, and is probably what most people think of when they hear the term.

Next is the “Half Ironman,” or “Long Course.” After a 1.9 km swim, there is a 90 km bike race and a 21.1 km run. The “Full Ironman,” or “Ultra Distance” course is truly staggering. After a 3.8 km swim, the triathletes must complete a 180.2 km cycle, and a 42.2 km run. That 42.2 km run, by the way, is the length of a standard marathon race. Let that sink in for a while. Completing an Ironman means swimming two and a half miles, biking more than a hundred miles, and then running a marathon.

Before You Begin Training

Let us begin with the premise that anyone can run a triathlon, even those who are out of shape. This is not to say that after fifteen years as a couch potato you can go out and finish a triathlon tomorrow, but it is within the realm of possibility, assuming that you train properly.

If you are not, at present, in what you consider to be “good shape,” it might be a good idea to start some simpler training first, and get yourself up to a minimum standard of fitness from which you can then assay the training for the triathlon. You can learn and start training with this online course designed to trim you down quickly, and this online course, designed to get you in shape with no equipment, in your own home. It is also probably a good idea to try and change your mindset about fitness in general, making physical health and well being a priority both now and for the rest of your life. This online course is designed to get you fit for life, and that can’t be a bad thing.

The Training Regimen

As long as you are healthy and fit, and you have no major health issues that would prevent you from beginning such a rigorous training regimen, you can begin working specifically towards the goal of the triathlon. The distances and some of the techniques, obviously, will need to be adjusted for the specific type of triathlon you’re training for. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that if it is your first time, you’re working towards a “Sprint Distance” triathlon. Adjust higher if you’re shooting higher.

Time and Your Joints

If you have ever done any appreciable amount of running, or played any sport, you know that athletic activity is hard on the body in two ways. In the short term, your muscles are affected. In the long term, it is your joints that sustain the most abuse. You cannot simply start out from nothing with a training regimen that requires the full distances you will compete in. It would destroy your joints, especially your knees. You must build up to the distances in a sane and gradual way.

The first part of your training, then, takes some time. It is smart, if you have never engaged in any training like this before, or if it has been a long time since you have done so, to build up each event individually. In other words, before you begin the “real” preparation period for the triathlon, you should probably budget at least two months each for running, biking, and swimming, to develop your aerobic base.

Yes, you will need at least six months of preparation before you actually begin training for the triathlon. No one said that this would be quick, simple, or something you can do lightly.

Creating the Base-Swimming

Let’s assume you start with swimming. You should be in the pool three or four times a week. If that’s not possible, you’re going to have some trouble. Make sure to take every fourth week off, however. The body needs time to rest and recover, especially when you’re pushing it harder than you’ve pushed it before. It is a good idea to start with short reps of 25 or 50 m cycles, and work up from there.

If you have never done any serious swimming, you may be in for a surprise. Most likely, you will need to work on your stroke. Triathlon swimming is pretty much exclusively about freestyle—there is no butterfly or backstroke happening here—but most people who have never swum competitively have very inefficient strokes. In fact, the swimming portion is often the most difficult for the first-time triathlete. You may want to look into securing the services of a coach. If you have any friends who’ve done any competitive swimming, have one come out to the pool with you to look at your stroke and give you some pointers about how to improve it. Your times will improve, but more importantly, each stroke will move you farther through the water with less effort.

Creating the Base-Biking

The key to biking success for the first-time triathlete is to build up endurance and a strong aerobic base. Create a loop you can follow that begins with the longest distance you generally cover. If you don’t generally bike more than 5 km, then start with that. Every third day, go to a larger loop in a sane increment. For example, if you started with a 5 km loop, on the third day, go to an 8 km loop. Increase your distance (time allowing) until you are able to easily bike for 50% longer than your target distance. If you’re training for a Sprint Distance event, then you ought to be able to 30 km without feeling like you’re going to drop dead afterwards.

Most important for the first-time triathlete is getting familiar with your bike, if you aren’t already (or if it’s new). Invest in a proper seat and consider investing in a bike specifically designed for triathlons, as they are specifically angled to work the quadriceps more than the leg muscles. This allows the triathlete to save his or her legs for the run that follows the biking.

Creating the Base-Running

Of course, you need the best running shoes you can get. Don’t try to get by with an old pair or a cheap pair. Your feet will thank you. Your knees will thank you. Your whole spinal column will thank you. Make the time to travel to a store that specializes in athletic shoes where you can have an expert analyze your stride and help you find the best shoes for your running style, purposes, and most importantly, your feet.

You can combine bike training with swimming, or running with swimming, for variety, but don’t combine biking and running, unless you like burning out and suffering feelings of impending doom. If you are just starting out as a runner (i.e., you have never jogged before in your life), you ought to read Eric James Anderson’s blog post about getting started as a runner.

Create your base by running in small increments, perhaps starting with 15 minutes or 20 minutes on your first day. At least once a week, do a longer run, starting with half of the total distance you are training for. Increase the distance of the longer run each time until you can do fifty percent more than the distance you are shooting for.

The Big Push

Once you’ve built your base, then you can start the Big Push. You’ll need about thirteen weeks for this. Why thirteen? You’ll understand in a little while. You will now need to commit to giving six days a week for training. You get one day off. You’ll need it.

So, the most logical method is to alternate and run a sequence. You might run on Mondays and Thursdays, bike on Tuesdays and Fridays, and swim on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Take Sunday off each week, or whatever day you like to take off. Also, you should take every fourth week off to let your body recover.

Go with times as your guidelines now, rather than distances. Alternate one shorter time with one longer time each week in each discipline. For example, in your first week, you might do a fifteen-minute swim on Wednesday and a thirty-minute swim on Saturday. The trick is not to burn yourself out. It is easy to do so. Honor the day off, and honor the week off. Your body will appreciate it, and so will your mind, as long as you aren’t too obsessive or neurotic. Then again, you probably wouldn’t be training for a triathlon if you weren’t a little bit obsessive, would you?

So you’ll train for three weeks each month and have one week off. After three months, you have one last week for getting ready and fine-tuning. By then, you’ll be in better shape than you’ve ever been in before, and will probably be a different person than you are now (in the best possible way). Training for a triathlon changes you just as much as completing one does, although you might not think so before you begin.

The Final Analysis

You’ll need to practice your transitions, of course. Between swimming and biking, you’ll need to get off your wetsuit, towel down, get your shoes on, get on your bike, and get your feet clipped into your pedals. This is the harder transition, and you’ll just need to practice a bit. Don’t wait until your final week to look at these “little things.”

Perhaps the best advice anyone can give a first-time triathlete, other than “believe in yourself,” is that you must talk to someone (or multiple people) who has completed a triathlon before. Find out the tricks, the hazards, the intangibles. Find out what that person did that worked, and what didn’t. Listen to your body, and listen to the experience of others. Remember that you’re on a journey that will transform you. You aren’t just getting in shape—you’re going to accomplish something life-changing. That doesn’t happen every day, or even every year. Learn from it. Get to know yourself again, and be open to the new things you find out. Good luck, and have a good race!