Train for Your First Triathlon

Finishing a triathlon is easily within reach using our no-excuses guide

There’s good reason why triathlon is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports: The swim, bike, run combo provides the ultimate cross-training challenge that will morph your body (and self-perception) like nothing else. The fitness you’ll get from consistent training in three disciplines is incomparable to what you’d attain from focusing primarily on one. While juggling three different disciplines might sound daunting, this built-in balance keeps training interesting and helps stave off overuse injury that can plague those who have a single-sport focus centered solely on running or cycling.

And there has never been a better time to tackle your first—or 15th—triathlon. Thanks to a major evolution in training methodology, today’s triathletes are prioritizing workout quality over volume, which allows even the most time-crunched, super-busy people to make life space for their multisport ambitions. In other words, coaches and triathletes have learned how to work smarter, not harder.

Another reason to jump in now: you won’t go broke trying to chase your triathlon goal. From bikes to race apparel, many of the technical innovations of pricey top-end gear (think carbon fiber construction and wind-cheating fabrics) have been diffused into affordable options. Whether you’re considering your first tri or gunning for the podium, our guide gives you the training savvy (read: free speed) to get you blazing across the finish line with surprising ease.

The Swim

Triathlon’s first leg tends to elicit the most angst from new (and many seasoned) triathletes, but with some training consistency and simple technical know-how, it’s where athletes can see the fastest, most dramatic gains. Even if you consider yourself a decent swimmer, there is always room for improvement and a need for better training. But it takes more than just swimming more laps at the pool, and trying to do it on your own can be fruitless.

“The smartest thing a beginning swimmer can invest in is technique instruction from a good coach,” says Matt Fitzgerald, an endurance sports coach and author based in Oakland, Calif. To comfortably get through a sprint triathlon, he recommends beginning at least six weeks out from race day with two swims per week building to a minimum of 1,000 yards per swim. Most rec centers like the YMCA and many gyms offer instructor-led pool swims—called masters workouts—designed to teach adults how to swim with greater efficiency, better technique and, ultimately, improved speed.

Masters workouts cater to every level of swimmer, from the doggy paddler looking to graduate to freestyle (front crawl), to former collegiate swimmers trying to stay in shape. Search the U.S. Masters Swimming directory (usms.org) for area workouts, or link up with local triathlon clubs (use USA Triathlon’s club filter at usatriathlon.org) to connect with new pool training buddies.

Once the correct swim mechanics are ingrained—an essential benchmark before even thinking about your speed—swimmers should challenge themselves by training with people who will push the pace beyond their comfort zone and include sprints in workouts. This “graduated” swimmer will also benefit from using pool training tools like hand paddles and pull buoys, which reinforce proper body position in the water. Also, regardless of swim experience or ability, every aspiring triathlete will benefit from doing a few open-water swims before race day. Swimming without the guidance of lane lines or walls for rest should not be novel concepts on race day!

Gear Essentials

Swimsuit: For guys, go with Speedo style if you’re bold or jammers for shorts-like coverage. For women, choose between a one-piece lap suit or competition-style bikini.

Goggles: Be ready for a little trial and error in the pool—each brand and style will fit differently, and it takes some time to zero in on the perfect match. On race day, it would be smart to have a darker tint and a lighter tint available so you can accommodate for the light conditions before the swim start.

Swim cap: A must for longer hair and for warmth in cold-water training. Also, most races require a color-coded swim cap that corresponds to your age-group classification.

Wetsuit: This is a must for race-day buoyancy and warmth, although wetsuits become optional if the water temperature reaches a certain level.


The Bike

If you love the sense of adventure and freedom of riding a bike, we’ve got some good news: the bike portion is typically the longest part of a triathlon event. That also means developing a comfort and prowess in the saddle will serve you well in the sport. Tucson, Ariz.,-based triathlon coach and former pro triathlete Jimmy Riccitello encourages his beginners to use their local gym’s spin class as an intro to cycling. “There’s an instructor, and the workouts are typically more intense than what a beginner would do on their own out on the roads,” he says.

In addition to a weekly spin class, Riccitello has his new triathletes do a longer (a couple hours) weekend ride at moderate effort to build endurance and get used to riding on the roads, ideally with other cyclists. Group rides are social and fun, and will familiarize you with the dynamics of riding with other people around you—a comfort that is extremely useful for race day. After a three- to six-week adaptation period, he suggests you add another spin class or stationary trainer workout. Setting up your own bike on a stationary trainer at home is ideal because you’ll want to train using your race-day equipment as often as possible. Trainer time allows you to execute specific workouts such as timed intervals without worrying about stoplights, wind, traffic or other environmental factors. Check out the Zwift app (zwift.com) for a fun virtual reality group ride experience using your home trainer.

Workouts That Work

“Riding hard once a week is the best way to get faster on the bike,” Riccitello says. Here are a few of his favorite workout sets for building bike speed—fast. Each of these should include about 10 minutes of warm-up spinning to energize your muscles and get your body ready, and 10 to 30 minutes of easy spinning as a cool-down.

  • 7 x 2 minutes as hard as you can go. Do 5 minutes of easy riding after each interval.
  • 10 x 2 minutes, broken as 1 minute at medium effort, 1 minute hard. Spin easy for 2 minutes after each interval.
  • 3 x 12 minutes, riding slightly harder with every interval. Take 5 minutes of easy recovery after each. The final 12-minute interval should be all out!

 

Gear Essentials

Bike: Your ride doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive to get the job done—plenty of beach cruisers and mountain bikes have been seen on sprint race courses.

Helmet: From a basic bike helmet to a super aerodynamic lid, the options run the spectrum—and so does the range of prices.

Sunglasses: A good set of shades is necessary to protect eyes from road debris, reduce glare and wind, and enhance visibility.

Cycling shorts: Take note that cycling shorts are gender-specific, with a built-in chamois for extra padding where it counts but not so much it limits the ability to swim or run in them. (Many triathletes will wear their triathlon cycling shorts or a one-piece triathlon suit for an entire race so there is no need to spend time changing.)

Cycling shoes: These are only necessary if you opt for clipless pedals, which snap into the shoe for better rider-to-bike energy transfer.

 

The Run

Compared to the swim and bike, the run is beautifully minimalist: just grab your shoes and go. Of course, when it comes to training, a solid plan is slightly more complicated than simply logging miles, and the key is to increase mileage progressively without breaking down your body.

“The best way to build running endurance is to gradually increase the amount of time you spend running from week to week,” Fitzgerald says. “Doing most of your running at low intensity will facilitate this process, but you can accelerate it by running at high intensity once a week.”

The objective of speedy running is to increase aerobic capacity, just as slower running does, but in a different and complementary way. But, like in swimming, you want to make sure your form is correct before you start focusing on pace. A running coach can analyze your form and identify tweaks that will help you run more efficiently and prevent injury.

You might be a good runner, but because the run portion comes at the end of a triathlon, you have to be effective at running while fatigued, depleted and after a long time spent crouched over on your bike. For that reason, triathletes should also practice running immediately after cycling in training—what’s called a “brick” workout. To prep for a sprint triathlon, Fitzgerald recommends two or three brick workouts so you get accustomed to running on tired legs. These post-ride runs can be short—10 to 20 minutes can be sufficient.

Gear Essentials

Run shoes: Choice is highly personal, depending on individual running mechanics—a gait analysis will help target the best style for you.

Hat or visor: For sun protection and sweat wicking.

A good pair of shorts: Soft, technical fabrics (no chafing!); a comfy (and supportive) internal liner and pockets to stash your stuff are small details that make a big difference.

Sports bra: Banish any bounce with a well-fitting athletic bra.


Triathlon on the Cheap

Much of today’s triathlon gear and tech offerings are convenient luxuries if you can afford them, but most of us aren’t looking to blow a couple months’ salary on a new bike or all the exercise gadgets. Thankfully, most triathlon brands today are savvy to the needs of the market, which includes a growing segment of people who demand the performance features of high-end gear but at a more realistic price point. You can also save by searching online for used bikes and gear on sites like eBay, Craigslist and The Pro’s Closet. Also, consider signing up for a race near you to avoid the additional costs of travel—there have never been more racing opportunities of so many distances and types.

Pro tip: “Find a local training group or club for guidance, camaraderie and accountability if you don’t want to spring for one-on-one coaching,” says Boulder, Colo., triathlon coach and former professional triathlete Michael Lovato.

 

Julia Beeson Polloreno

The former editor-in-chief of Triathlete magazine for a half-dozen years, Julia Polloreno is a freelance writer and endurance sports nut. She lives in Encinitas, Calif, with her husband and two kids.