With three disciplines to master (four if you include transitions), creating a triathlon training plan presents some very unique challenges. For a start, there’s working out how to coordinate your swim, bike and run sessions so you’re making the most of your available time. You also need to develop a serious approach to your recovery and your fuelling, so you can make the most of training and reach race day in peak condition.
On top of all that, many athletes come into triathlon with more experience in one discipline. You may love cycling but can’t swim, or be a dolphin in the waves but lack power when it comes to pedalling. Building a tailor-made triathlon training plan that focuses on the areas you need to improve, therefore, is crucial.
Whether you’re training for your first race, a sprint triathlon or going for a full Ironman, getting the right personalised structure – rather than an off-the-shelf plan – allows you to target specific benchmarks in performance. And that should mean you get faster, quicker.
Sounds complicated, right? Well it’s actually more straightforward than you think. Becoming your own triathlon coach and writing a quality training plan doesn’t need you to unlock a mysterious formula or discover a magic process; it’s about being logical and planning ahead. And we’re here to help.
We’ve pulled together six simple steps you can follow to prepare for a triathlon. Anyone can do it if they’re willing to put in the effort, so grab a calendar and get planning.
1. Set goals and stick to them
Whether you want to train for a first race, improve your 10km time or just use triathlon for general health and fitness, setting a clear goal at the outset will help shape your approach.
Start with realistic goals. You might dream of being as professional as the Brownlee brothers, but that might not be doable in the time you have, so be optimistic but also practical. It’ll also let you enjoy the improvements as they come.
Once you’ve decided on a goal, really stick to it. Write it on a note and put it somewhere you can see it everyday. When you’re struggling, come back to that note and the reasons why you set yourself that goal. It’ll provide some very powerful affirmation when you need it most and send you into your next session with renewed intent.
2. Choose a target race day
Whether you’re shooting for a short or long-distance triathlon, it’s likely that your training plan will be structured around a specific race, so start there. On a calendar mark the date of your priority race and then simply count back from that point to today.
This will give you your total training window. But this isn’t yet your training time because the next job is to fill that block on the calendar with all the extra things you have going on (holidays, weddings, work events etc.), all those things that’ll stop you getting on the bike or in the pool. What’s left after this is the real amount of time you have to train – the number of training days or sessions you can put in.
Sometimes seeing it laid out like this can make realise you’ve not got the time to train for your goal. If that’s the case, rather than hope it’ll all work out or cram in injury-risking triple sessions, it might be time to reassess and choose a shorter distance like a sprint. Or if that doesn’t suit, choose another race and start the process again.
3. Recognise your strengths and weaknesses
When it comes to the fundamentals of swim, bike and run, being honest about your current capabilities in each of these sports is pivotal to producing an effective training plan.
Now’s the time to get real, be critical and identify your strengths and weaknesses. It might be that one particular discipline needs lots of work or there are several smaller areas within each sport you know you can improve upon.
Pay particular attention to your swimming form, bike power and running efficiency. Take stock and highlight the things that might limit you in reaching your goal. You can then tailor your sessions to address these in training.
Laying it out like this also makes it easier to identify where you can have the most positive impact in the light of the goals you’ve set. In this training block it might be impossible to improve your swimming form to the point it’ll help you hit your target time and working on your top-level running pace might provide a faster route to success.
4. Know your triathlon training segments
A word often used in triathlon training plans is periodisation. It sounds very professional – and slightly daunting – but this simply refers to breaking a training plan into time blocks. Every training block has a specific goal and when put together correctly, should build on the foundations of the previous one.
Periodisation can get very complicated, particularly when it’s taken to an elite level, but the simple aim here is to enable you to combine some harder training periods with some easier sections, allowing for adequate recovery and adaptation within your triathlon training plan. You can break this down into four segments.
- Base phase: The first cycle focuses on building a base for the rest of the program. In this phase you’re laying solid foundations so that your triathlon house is strong. This means less volume or intensity and more preparing the body (the muscles, cardiovascular system and brain) for what’s to come.
In this phase it’s important to start easy; there’s very little negative impact in starting your triathlon training slowly, but go too hard, too soon and there’s a far greater risk of injury.
- Build phase: Once you’ve established your base, it’s time to build. This segment forms the bulk of your training and will see steady, weekly increases in distance, effort and volume. The target here is to improve endurance in relation to effort so you can go faster for longer.
- Scheduled recovery: As the training increases, so does the need for structured recovery. This can come in the form of rest days that break up the week, or as rest weeks that sit at the end of 3-4 week training blocks, ideally a combination of both.
Rest days should be treated with respect, don’t be tempted to skip them and add an extra session to make up for that one you missed. Rest weeks should contain about half the volume of regular training weeks, with workouts being shorter and less intense.
- Race preparation: The final training block focuses on race preparation and that all-important taper, where the volume decreases to allow your body to fully recover and be fresh and ready for race day. Leading up to the race, you’ll be focused on resting as much as possible, eating well and getting some decent sleep.
5. Fine tune your nutrition and hydration
All the training in the world won’t get you to the finish line if you don’t feed your body correctly during your training and on race day, so it’s paramount that you get your nutrition right.
Your muscles need fuel in the form of glycogen, which the body produces from carbohydrate, so it’s important to have enough in your diet otherwise you’ll start to fatigue in training and that’s not going to help.
The easiest way to do this is to ensure all your meals strike a balance between carbohydrate for energy, protein to aid recovery and fat to keep your body functioning.
If you’ve never done this before, tracking your food intake with a food diary can help you understand what works and what doesn’t and how much you should be eating to improve your performance.
Ratios are often used as a guide for the levels of macronutrients you should consume but it’s often easier to focus on total calories or grams per nutrient since the amount needed each day will vary from person to person, depending on training volume.
- Carbs: As carbs are your main source of fuel, approximately 5 to 10 grams per kilogram of body weight per day is the aim (less on lighter days, more on heavy days).
- Protein: Protein intake sits around 1.4 - 1.7 grams per kilogram body weight per day for endurance athletes to maximise on recovery (click here to discover our favourite plant-based protein sources).
- Fat: Fat is essential but focus on the healthy ones from natural sources such as olive oil, avocado, fatty fish, nuts and seeds and aim for around 1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day.
You should look to get these from your main meals but snacking smart can be a great way to support your nutritional needs, especially before a training session when a full meal would be too much, but you need to top up those energy levels, or post-workout where convenient recovery foods make life more simple.
Energy bars like the Veloforte Pronto are perfect for the pre-workout, delivering an all-natural dose of carbs, protein and fats (with the added bonus of some caffeine for those extra tough/early morning sessions), while Veloforte Forza has been optimised for recovery with the right 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein.
When it comes to race day, hydration and carbohydrate intake become a priority. In triathlons, the best time to do this is on the bike, so it’s a good idea to practice eating and drinking on training rides to make sure you start the run feeling energised and not empty.
6. Track your data and monitor your progress
It’s one thing writing a date in your diary and another getting there, so to make sure you’re following your plan properly, it’s worth logging as much data in a training diary as possible.
Either write down your session immediately after, or even better, log the whole thing using some of the latest triathlon tracking tech. If budgets will stretch it’s worth investing in a multisport-friendly GPS watch, a heart rate monitor and – if you’re really serious – a power meter.
The latest top-end trackers like the Polar Vantage V or Garmin Fenix 5 offer single button transitions, making it easy to track multi-sport sessions. This will make it easy to see if you actually achieved your target for each session, be that time, distance, pace or intensity.
They also offer increasingly accurate recovery and training load insights that can help you avoid overreaching and risking injury too.
Bonus tips to boost your triathlon training
1. Introduce brick sessions
While you might think of triathlon as a three-sport event, there’s an all important fourth element – the transition – and that needs practice too. This is where brick sessions come in. Brick workouts are normally bike-to-run sessions but can also be swim-to-bike if you feel the need to practice that too.
This type of session is key because it helps familiarise your body with the shift from one discipline to the other. After a long time spinning your legs in the saddle spinning, finding your road running stride can be quite jarring at first.
A great place to start is in the gym where you can switch between the bike and a treadmill with ease and get used to how your body handles it. We don’t recommend jumping out of your local pool in your tri-suit and legging it the stationary bike though.
2. Get outside
That being said, nothing will prepare you more for race day then getting out there and battling against the elements. The momentary rest that turning at the end of a swimming pool offers is often underestimated by new swimmers, meaning it’s crucial you get into that wetsuit as much as possible before race day arrives and try some uninterrupted open water swimming.
The same can be said about hills on the bike; take a look at the course for the bike section of the race you’re planning to do and make sure you’re aware of any climbs. If you can, go and ride them beforehand as any familiarity with a route will immediately give you an advantage come race day. If you can’t try to ride hills of similar stature to get you prepared mentally and physically for what’s to come.
3. Get on the cross-train
Mixing your training up now and again can be very beneficial as it not only targets often neglected muscles, but a break from the norm also helps you enjoy your training, a vital boost for motivation.
Yoga for improved flexibility is a great place to start as it’ll enhance mobility throughout the body, and also improve core strength. That translates to a stronger position on the bike, which in turn means more power and better running form, which means more efficiency and/or pace.
Tri it and tweak it
Now you’ve got the basics, you’re all set to start building your bespoke triathlon training plan. And remember, now you’re in control of your own training you’ll also be well equipped to discover what works for you and what doesn’t. Even the best coaches learn about their athletes each time they train for an event and this will enable you to build everything you discover into future training blocks. You can be the master of your own tri destiny and there’ll be no stopping you when it comes to your next race.
Best tools to get started and organise your triathlon plan
The gold standard training tool used by pros and ambitious amateurs alike, TrainingPeaks offers a brilliant suite of features for planning and tracking your triathlon training. It’s free to sign up though to create custom plans you’ll need to go premium. From there you can monitor when you’re getting the right training results and you can even find a coach if you feel the need to get some expert help.
Ok, so this might feel obvious and it’s not strictly a training tool but Google Calendar has some nice features that make it a great option for mapping out a training schedule. For a start, you can add colour-coded sub calendars for swim, bike and run, set reminders for example 24 hours before you’re due an open water swim session. You can also invite others to join you on training sessions, and unlike building a spreadsheet, all the dates are already there.
You don’t have to own a Polar watch to use this hugely capable training planner, though it certainly works best for those who do. The Flow season planner lets you break your training schedule down into phased blocks, add layers for all three disciplines and strength and recovery. Plus you can create and save favourite sessions, drag and drop them into place on the calendar and get a great overview of the whole training block at-a-glance.