What really makes a good triathlon training plan? Here's the ultimate guide to create the best triathlon plan for you around your life and weekly routine.
This guide covers three main points:
What are you training for?
Your training may depend on the distance of triathlon you’re aiming to do. Make sure you are familiar with how far you are expected to go and this will govern your training needs. There are 4 main distances and they require slightly different training plans.
Sprint distance triathlon
On average, you will swim 1/2 mile (750 meters), bike for 12.4 miles (20K), and run for 3.1 miles (5K). Depending on your fitness level, course conditions, and the weather on race day, you can expect to complete these three legs in about 1.5 hours.
When training for a sprint triathlon, you can plan on carving out at least three to four months if you’re a novice.
Standard / Olympic distance triathlon
When you line up on the starting line, get ready to swim 0.93 miles (1.5K), bike 24.85 miles (40K), and run 6.2 miles (10K). Plan on spending about three to four hours outdoors swimming, biking, and running when you get to this level. While not overly long, it will still test your endurance, make your quads burn, and put your mental fortitude to the test.
Novices may require three to five months to be ready for this distance, while experienced triathletes may only require six to 12 weeks.
70.3 / half Ironman Distance triathlon
The Half Ironman is the primer for the ultimate race: the Ironman. This distance (70.3 miles) will test both your mental and physical strength as you swim 1.2 miles (1.9K), bike 56 miles (90K), and run 13.1 miles (21.1K). It’s important to note, that there are Ironman-distance triathlons as well as specific “Ironman” branded tris, since “Ironman” is a trademarked name.
Once you reach this level of competition, you can expect to spend about five to seven hours completing this race. So, if this triathlon is on your to-do list, make sure you plan accordingly. Novices may require four to six months to be ready for this distance, while experienced triathletes may only require three to four months.
Nutrition can become essential, so we suggests figuring out what your specific fuelling plan will be—hydration as well as nutrition—as you will exercise continuously for an extended period of time.
Ironman distance triathlon
Not only is it the most mentally and physically challenging feat of human fitness (140.6 miles!) but it’s also a huge investment to train properly. Each year, over 96,000 athletes register to compete in Ironman races, representing over 90 countries, regions and territories.
This triathlon distance requires a 2.4 mile swim (3.9K), 112 mile bike (180.2K), and 26.2 mile run (42.2K). Depending on your fitness level, course conditions, and the weather on race day, you can expect to complete these three legs in about 10 to 17 hours. Novices may require six to nine months to be ready for this distance, while experienced triathletes may only require four to six months.
Work / Life / Training Balance
Get it done first thing in the morning
We are all different on this front, however the first few hours of each day can be the most productive. That means that I often try to get my training done at that time whilst the going is good.
Once that’s in the bag, your mood can definitely be improved and you can start the day with a bit more energy. The ‘first thing in the morning principle’ limits the chances of other things in life getting in the way of training too and, anyway, at the end of a tiring day it’s a lot more tempting to get sucked into the couch. It’s probably the number one reason people manage to train on more days than they don’t at this point in their life. Handily, it also keeps training away from tea time, bath time and bedtime, which are things that we make a big effort to prioritise.
Organise social sessions
It's important to get that life balance right. Don't sacrifice quality time spent with your friends and loved ones as this will effect your relationships. It can be a good idea to include them in your activities! Get your friends into cycling, running or swimming and go out for 'social' sessions where you have a good catch up. Take your loved one with you whilst you go running and get them to ride with you if they can't run that fast. Go explore on the bikes... there are multiple examples. Even a hike can sometimes be used as a training stimulus which they may enjoy!
Keeping these relationships well balanced means that you are happier in day to day life, and are also able to commit more time to training outside of these social sessions.
Choose manageable goals
Most athletes are highly goal orientated people. For many of us, attempting regular training without a goal leads to nothing really happening, whilst training with a goal tends to result in full on commitment.
The problem with the ‘full on commitment’ thing is that when you choose a complicated, long and hard event (like an Ironman for example), the preparation required has the potential to cause friction as it rubs up against other areas of your life.
Some people just cap the level of commitment they’re willing to put in once a goal is established, but I’ve always found that tough once I’ve signed up for something, as I have this itch to just do a little more preparation.
Having one main big but manageable goal each year seems to work well, and aiming for things like long distance trail running races, a long distance paddling event or some swim/run events. These are ‘manageable’ in the sense that they mainly involve training for 1 sport at a time rather than trying to do 3 or more sports, whilst being scary and exciting enough to actually stimulate some training on the days you don’t feel much like heading out.
Keep the weight down
Having less weight to carry around has multiple benefits. The main one being it reduces the risk of injury whilst upping the running volume. The other reason is that the less weight you have to carry, the easier it is to move faster! Do this with care and under the advice of a professional or someone who's experienced.
Get the most bang for your buck
If training time is going to be limited then I’ve found that you have to be very ruthless about what you do. Warm ups and cool downs can be much shorter... This can be dangerous as you can do too much intensity within your program if you're not careful. Be sure to work with a coach or someone trustworthy to manage the overall intensity of your program.
Being specific about your training enhances the training benefits and therefore allows you to make the most of what you are doing, without any time wasted.
Curating a weekly plan that will get you to that goal.
Weekly session plan
There are many different ways of organising your weekly training plan dependant on your weekly commitments. Dependant on your fitness levels and time availability I would focus on doing each discipline twice a week with one of them being a key session to begin with. The priority sessions are highlighted, so if it's a case of doing one over the other, pick the priority sessions first. Any additional sessions are a bonus.
If you’re able to manage more sessions eg. morning and evening then I would recommend something more like this which focuses more on the swimming as this is arguably one of the harder disciplines to get better at.
How to progress your sessions
The time spent doing each discipline will progress dependant on time constraints and your training progress. The challenge is building up the training slowly as to avoid injury. The most common discipline to pick up injuries in is running as it is the most load bearing. It is important to build this up slowly. The general rule of thumb is to increase the distance by a maximum of 10 percent each week. This will hopefully avoid any aches and pains / niggles you could otherwise pick up. It is also important to invest in a decent pair of trainers. I currently wear Adidas Supernovas which are a comfortable supportive shoe with good cushioning to help avoid things like shin splints.
Below is another example of a weekly schedule for a 6 week progression leading into a race. Again, it completely depends on your time commitments as to how much you are able to commit to the training, however it serves as a good example of what it could look like.
Specific workouts to include in your plan
Fitness building runs and rides: These workouts make up the bulk of your training and are designed to make sure you can physically cover the distances in each leg of your triathlon. The goal of these workouts is to slowly increase your fitness while building your confidence in your own abilities. They will focus on the Aerobic Zone (see next page)
Brick workout: A brick workout is a back-to-back combination of two types of training — bike/run or swim/bike. The most challenging part of a triathlon is switching from the bike to running, so many triathlons focus on this part of your training. (The workout is named for the feeling you’ll have in your legs when you start running after cycling a long distance.) In a typical brick workout, the bike distance varies, but the run is short. A brick workout helps both your body and mind to practice running through that first miserable mile or two.
Open water swimming: Most triathlons involve open water swimming in a river, lake, bay or ocean rather than pool swimming. While you may need to train in a pool, practicing out of the pool before the race is important. You need to practice swimming in darker water with no lane markers and “sighting” the buoys that mark the course. Try to swim at least 15 minutes a week in a local pond. Make sure you have permission to swim, of course, and bring a friend. Never go swimming in open water alone.
Key session: These will be your intense sessions usually focusing on anything above LT1 (see next section). The focus of these sessions will be to both improve fitness and speed in all disciplines
Training Zones and Exercise intensities
ZONE 1 - Most of your training will be done here (80-90% of your training) ZONE 2 - some specific training for Half and Ironman distances may be here (10-20%) ZONE 3 - some specific training for sprint and olympic distances may be here (10-20%)
Easy. This is an intensity perceived to be Very Easy
Aerobic Zone. This intensity is sustainable for many hours. The top of this zone should feel Light and oten corresponds with a point where you have very little lactate and are maximizing fat oxidation
Lactate Threshold 1 (LT1). This intensity is Moderate and sustanable for prolonged periods but requires some focus. Breathing should still be controlled and fatigue should slowly occur. The top of Z3 requires training to be able to sustain for extended periods of time.
Tempo / Sweet spot - This is everything between zone 1 and 3 and is used sparingly to develop both LT1 and LT2 using sessions such as ‘over-unders’ and ‘sweet spot’ sessions.
Threshold (LT2) FTP sits in the middle of this zone. This intensity is Hard and requires specific training to be able to sustain. Intervals in this Zone usually range from 3-15 minutes. Efforts at high Zone 4 induce lactate production and subsequent fatigue and therefore require focus and control.
VO2. These efforts are now predominantly anaerobic meaning they are Very Hard. Vo2 max or MAP corresponds with upper Zone 5. These efforts are in the range of 3-8 minutes in duration.
Capacity. These efforts are nearing maximal intensity and should be EXTREMELY HARD. Fatigue will occur rapidly and efforts are only sustainable for up to approximately 1-2 minutes.
Speed. This intensity is Maximal. It is an all out sprint type effort lasting 5 seconds to 1 minute.
So there you have it... a full guide to get you started in curating your very own weekly schedule. Applying this advice is more than possible, but it helps to have people around you that can help you with the journey, whether it be friends, family, a personal coach or buying a training plan online.
This comes with a word of warning... online training plans aren't necessarily tailored to your weekly schedule and life... it's always worth talking to someone with experience to get their opinion on what you should be doing, and try and tailor it to your goals. That being said, some form of plan is better than none!