Master all three elements with this guide to getting triathlon training right
Marathons? Everyone in the office has done one. Tough Mudder? They don’t even give you a timing chip. For the man in search of a serious self-test, a triathlon is fast becoming the best option. It won’t just test your endurance and fortitude, it’ll force you to learn new skills and confront weaknesses.
“Triathlon, out of all the sports I have tried, is a huge learning experience, especially the amount you learn between your first and second races,” says Toby Garbett, a two-time world champion British rower and a competitive triathlete. “This is one of the things that makes it so appealing – there’s lots to learn and so much improvement to be made.”
The sprint distance is a good option for your first time out but your true target should be an Olympic race, which means a 1.5km swim, 40km bike and 10km run.
You’ll spend about 20% of your time in the water, half on the bike and the rest on your feet, so split your training accordingly – you can do a couple of sessions a week of each, but aim to spend the most time cycling. Build technique as well as endurance and you’ll be well on the way to Monday-morning show-off fodder.
Training Tips For The Swim
The most intimidating leg for many, but also the area where you’ll make the biggest time savings through technique. Commit to the crawl now – and invest in quality goggles.
For most people, the swim is the limiting factor – but even if you can get the distance done, better efficiency in the water means you’ll save energy for the other two legs. That’s why, in the early going, technique improvements beat raw cardio prowess. “Find a group to train with, or get a few private coaching lessons,” says triathlon coach Ian Rooke. A dedicated tri coach is a better bet because tri swimming technique uses less kicking than traditional front crawl, conserving energy for the road.
Endless lengths aren’t the answer. “To improve on your speed I would suggest not swimming any more than 400m in one go,” says Rooke. “You need to maintain good form and technique throughout the whole distance, whether it’s 100m, 200m or 1,500m. To work on speed I would suggest swimming 100m efforts using a given ‘turn-around time’ – for instance, 10x100m off 1min 50sec means you’d aim to swim 100m in around 1min 20sec, rest for 30sec, and go again when the clock hits 1min 50sec. Aim to reduce the swim time and increase rest time.”
If it’s tricky to get to the pool, top up your training and build swim-specific strength in the gym. You’ll want to work on your shoulders and core for full-body efficiency, and you can use the renegade row to build both. Get into a press-up position holding a pair of dumbbells on the floor, do a press-up, then row one weight up towards your armpit, keeping your core tight and body parallel to the floor, then the other. That’s one rep. Aim for five sets of ten.
The longest section of the race is the chunk where PBs are made or lost. Think quality not quantity in your training, and make sure you know how to change a flat.
At least one of your sessions a week should be a long-distance, low-intensity effort done at a comfortable, controlled pace. Work according to perceived endurance, not a heart rate monitor: your breathing rate should be relatively low, and you should feel like you’d be able to hold a conversation throughout the session. Your legs should start to feel less fresh, and then a bit tired – that’s the sweet spot where you know you’re putting in quality kilometres.
To improve your performance on flat courses, work on high gear intervals (or “big gear” as cyclists often call it). Do six sets of eight minutes in a big gear with two-minute spinning recoveries. Use a threshold effort, where you build to a burning in the legs then back off a little.
“If you have access to an indoor trainer – otherwise known as a turbo trainer – these are great bits of kit to help improve cycling fitness,” says Rooke. “Try to make your training race specific by holding a pace for a given amount of time, rest, then repeat for a number of sets.” To improve your ability to hit hills and recover, do 12/3s, where you alternate 12 minutes at race-pace intensity with three minutes at a higher pace. Build up to a 45-minute set for an Olympic-distance tri.
You’re nearly there but even for veteran runners, the final burst can be tough on bike-ravaged legs. Here’s how to finish strong and put in a time you can be proud of
First you’ll need to make sure you can cover the distance. If you’re new to running, increase your training volume gradually, and don’t increase it every week because your joints and tissues need time to adapt to the new stresses they’re under. Aim to do one long effort, building up in distance each week, alongside one faster-paced but shorter session and one “brick” effort (see below). Start the speed sessions by doing fartlek – just speeding up and slowing down according to your own internal sense of pace – before you start playing with intervals.
“The best way to improve speed is to go to a running track and do efforts ranging from 400m up to 1,200m,” says Rooke. “Use a similar method as with the swim – say, aiming for a 90-second 400m with 30 seconds of rest, then going again. Alternatively just give yourself the same rest each time no matter how fast your effort.” For a triathlon-pace race, a 2:1 or 3:1 work-to-rest ratio can be one of the most beneficial. Keep the total distance of each session relatively consistent so you aren’t overtraining.
Visualisation can work, but make sure you’re not picturing too easy a race. In multiple studies, psychological research indicates that the more time people spend fantasising about desired outcomes – everything from passing school exams to losing weight – the less effort they put into actually achieving them.
If you’re picturing a perfect, hassle-free race you’re more likely to fall apart, or at least slow down, when adversity strikes. Instead, use an effect known as “bracing”. Expect your race to be hard, and mentally rehearse how you’ll feel and what you’ll do if things go wrong. Prepare for the worst and take responsibility for your race.
Brick sessions - two disciplines back to back – are key part of your training, so do them properly
You’ll take time to adjust, so don’t push too hard too soon. “Start with a gentle five-minute jog after coming off the bike,” says Garbett. “Once you’re used to how this feels, increase time, distance and intensity gradually so you avoid injury.”
Talk Yourself In
“Once you complete a session in one discipline, it’s easy to feel you’ve done some good training and talk yourself out of the next bit,” says Garbett. Resist by going through mental cues as you come off the bike: say, “quick feet” or “loose shoulders”.
Do A Multi-Brick
Help your body adjust to different disciplines by giving it a few chances. Do a 30-minute bike warm-up, then alternate between ten minutes’ cycling and ten minutes’ running three or four times. Finish with a warm-down on the bike.
In a University of Queensland study, triathletes improved their running mechanics with plyometrics. Once or twice a week, warm up with a ten-minute jog or bike spin, then do up to five sets of five box jumps. Aim for quality, not quantity.
Mimic The Course
In the final weeks before the race, simulate the course as closely as you can during your brick sessions. If you’re going to hit a big hill 1km into the run but you’ve trained solely on the flat, you’ll struggle on the day
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