A Complete And Simple Guide To Triathlon Training
Thinking about training for a triathlon, or perhaps you have completed a few races and are now looking to move forwards?
You may think triathlon is a difficult sport, with 3 “separate” sports to train for; you might be put off by the race distances, or think you need a lot of equipment and a lot of time to train.
Don´t be put off by all the hype and myths in triathlon media. The “favourite” training sessions of elite/professional triathletes, the various online competitive training platforms like Strava are notoriously intense, with them all suggesting that it is all about hard work, complicated sessions, lots of hours training.
It is mainly hype!
What is triathlon to you?
Are you a professional triathlete, is it bringing in the money that will pay the bills and support your family?
Is it your hobby, your de-stressing activity, your way to fitness and wellbeing?
Probably the latter, so keep it that way and keep having fun – triathlon is all about fun!
The best way to keep it enjoyable is to keep it simple; training can, and should, be enjoyable, challenging but simple. The enjoyment side will keep you committed while the challenging parts make you feel better and be proud of your achievements.
The first take away point for everyone is that triathlon is a single sport (made up of swim, bike and run). Ignore most of the myths – you don´t need to become a swimmer, a biker or runner. In fact, if you do, you will waste a lot of time trying; we´ll explain the simplicity.
The basics of training for triathlon
The easiest way to succeed in anything is to establish a routine or habit, or specifically, a training programme, and to make sure you enjoy the training process. Get the routine and enjoyment factor and you are more likely to stick with the programme long-term.
For you to progress and keep enjoying the sport, we first need to dispel one major training myth. The “no pain, no gain” saying is possibly the most dangerous mantra ever conceived! You don´t need to do hard / fast training that is uncomfortable to improve. The fashion and hype for high, or even mid-intensity training causes illness, injury, over-training and a plateau or drop in performance. So, don´t consider doing it until you have established a good level of fitness, and even then, limit it to one session per week.
So, does this mean you can train and not get out of breath? Yes, definitely!
Triathlon, at any distance , is an aerobic sport, which means that it can only be raced at an intensity that is aerobic. This being the case, aerobic training must make up the largest part of your overall triathlon training.
Don´t be fooled into thinking that low intensity – EASY in our terms – means slow. It may be to start with, but it is the only sustainable way to build your fitness in a healthy way. Be patient, enjoy the training and it won´t be long before your EASY (slow) pace becomes fast. Add some strength work into your training and you have the perfect triathlon training combination; aerobic development plus muscular endurance – exactly what you need to perform well in a triathlon.
Strength training should be specific to swim, bike and run; weightlifting or even gym-based training is not specific and so should never replace the development of the specific discipline.
Now for the biggest simplification – don´t try to swim, bike or run!
If you don´t have a background in these individual sports, or even if you have, remember that you want to be a triathlete. A triathlete swims to get to the bike, rides to the start of the run then runs to the finish – all as fast as possible.
An obvious statement. Now think about what this means.
The swim needs to be as fast as possible with minimal impact on your ability to ride a bike fast; the bike also needs to be as fast as possible and minimise the effect on your ability to run. Thinking more closely, no matter how good you are, you will have some fatigue after the swim, similarly the bike will add more fatigue. The result being that it gets harder, especially the run at the end!
The way to train to improve is to be patient, stick to the training routine and swim, bike and run using simple movement patterns.
You have 3 disciplines to train, limited time to train and you´re probably not quite as mobile/flexible as you used to be – so you cannot possibly expect to acquire the swim, bike and run specific “techniques.”
Relax, enjoy training and improve your triathlon performance.
Three stages of triathlon training
We break training development into three stages. These stages don’t have definitive timescales and are not separate entities – they overlap, especially in the early days of your journey. This is important. Following a rigid triathlon training plan will not lead to good results, as it isn’t taking into account your specific fitness levels and needs. You know what is working best for your body.
Eventually you will leave Stage one, but Stage two and three may interchange depending on the time in the season and the race distance you are training for.
Stage one of training
Developing a routine, settling into the routine, committing to it and taking ownership
If you are new to triathlon or looking to revise your current training routine, the first thing to do is review all your life commitments. What free time do you have after family commitments, work hours, etc. Not only do you need to think about what time constraints these activities place on you, but also how they impact your wellbeing and energy levels.
When you know what your “normal” weekly commitments are, you’ll have a better idea of the time and energy you can channel into your triathlon training. A point to note here is that more training is NOT better!
You need to find a sensible training routine that includes recovery time as this will ensure progress. When looking at your training, remember:
|(training, work, family, etc)||(sleep, eating, etc)||
(faster, stronger, fitter and healthier)
So, start with a manageable amount of training (often less than you think or you would like) and prioritise the swim and bike over the run. For simplicity, effectiveness and time management, stick to the SAME layout every week. The layout in week 1 could be the same in week 10, 25, etc, if everything else in life stays stable and consistent. The content will progress, but the layout can be the same.
Finally, in this first Stage of training, it is important to take ownership of your training and life surrounding the training. YOU, and only you, are responsible for the success of your training, even if you have a triathlon coach prescribing sessions. You need to make sure you think ahead and manage your time to allow you to get to sessions with the correct equipment, having fuelled and hydrated and then, most importantly, get to bed early so you can recover.
Stage two of training
Learn to train by listening to your body (EASY, HARD, etc), develop movement patterns and movement pattern efficiency – and be patient!
Stage one and two overlap, the things you do in Stage one will carry across into Stage two. All the swim, bike and run sessions you complete will be developing your movement patterns.
Movement patterns should be your focus, not “technique”. You are not trying to be a swimmer, cyclist or runner.
You are an adult triathlete with limited training time and certainly not enough to ever perfect the “technique” of a solo sportsperson. Just get your muscles and joints used to replicating the movements needed to swim, bike and run with your body’s ability and the time you have.
The other overlap with Stage one is the learning of how your body reacts to the training load alongside your other daily tasks.
Something we consider very important is getting our athletes to learn to train by feel – listening to their inner voice and learning what the body is capable of each session. We categorise effort by VERY EASY, EASY, MEDIUM and HARD; simple!
Your brain and internal sense of perceived effort is the most reliable, accurate and up-to-date-on-the-day way of training to the correct intensity. It never runs out of batteries, needs to be synched to satellites, or ignores the fact you might not have slept well, had a stressful day at work or home, not eaten enough, the weather is hot and humid, etc.
Most of your training should be EASY effort (aerobic) – no matter how “advanced” you become in triathlon. EASY effort to your inner self is always EASY; on a good day, EASY will be faster than EASY on a bad day, but both are EASY for the body and provide the same physiological adaptations.
It does take time to build confidence, to learn to trust that inner voice, but when you do, you will train much more effectively.
Technology on the other hand doesn’t know how to factor in other stresses on the body; EASY on good days may mean you will have to restrain yourself, on bad days you can easily overexert yourself and cause significant damage. Technology is advancing quickly but still can’t adapt to your needs on the day.
A big factor that is often overlooked with a reliance on technology is its negative impact on mental outlook. You can very easily become obsessive and try to “beat” every session (adding more watts during cycling, running at a higher pace, etc), resulting in overtraining. You will always have good days and bad days; don’t let a “data driven” bad day put you in a negative state. This state can last and affect your next training session(s). Always reflect and take out the good from training, whether it is a “good” or “bad” session.
Finally, have patience. In Stage one you took ownership of your training, in Stages one and two combined you are building movement patterns and learning to listen to your inner self. Now you must be patient and let your fitness and strength develop.
Stage three of training
Noticeable aerobic and strength gains, boosts in confidence, learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable (for race day performance)
The body is very good at adapting to stress; remember:
Stress + Rest = Progress!
Combine rest with regular and gradual increases in stress and your body will get fitter, stronger and faster.
So, now you have consistently followed your weekly routine, your movement patterns have been replicated thousands of times, you are “at one” with your inner self and have been patient. The rewards for all your commitment are going to be in full swing now!
You will notice your swim, bike or run is quicker at the same effort level. You will feel stronger in the push phase of the swim stroke, you are pushing bigger gears on the bike and finding hills easy to scale.
All these noticeable changes will also have a positive impact on your confidence and approach to training , as well as your approach to life. You will believe in your abilities and be able to control your mental state, even when things get tough in training sessions and on race day.
We call this being “comfortably uncomfortable”. All the training hours working on both your aerobic system and strength have also made you mentally tougher. You can sustain discomfort for longer periods.
Uncomfortable means heavier breathing and minor muscle burn – NOT maximum effort and is no higher than 85% maximum effort. Expect to be working at an intensity that prevents you from talking full sentences (limited to 3-5word sentences) and makes the working muscles burn slightly.
You can call upon your achievements of completing previous training sessions, knowing that it feels tough at the time, but is only temporary and will reward you for your effort!
This is often referred to as a breakthrough – and it can take several years of consistent triathlon training to achieve but it really is worth it.
Triathlon Training Kit
By now you hopefully realise that triathlon training doesn’t need to be complicated. In fact, it should be simple!
Following this theme, you should keep your triathlon kit simple too, especially when you´re starting out. You can even make your own training tools for individual specificity!
The cycling part of triathlon is the most complicated part and the most dangerous – financially! Don’t be sucked into the hype of needing an exotic or expensive triathlon bike with all the latest aerodynamic frame, wheels, helmet, etc, not to mention the power meter, GPS multisport all-singing, all-dancing watch. It’s simply not needed.
Ever heard the other sports saying: “All the gear and no idea”? This is very applicable to triathlon. Getting all the gear without knowing how to use, or worse still, not being able to use it, is a mistake we see all too often
Keep it simple; one of our athletes once competed in a sprint triathlon on his old, beat up commuting bike (his race bike was here in Spain as he lived and trained with us for a long period). He got a lot of funny looks but won the race!
Training builds your fitness and strength, your “engine”. Money and expensive kit doesn´t!
Anyone can do a triathlon with a swimsuit and goggles, bike on any road-worthy bike, with an approved helmet while wearing running shoes on flat pedals and run by adding a t-shirt!
Everything else can be added later, as you become more knowledgeable about what is essential and what is often expensive but unnecessary.
Lastly, make sure all your training is practicing for racing. As the old sports saying goes – “don’t do or use anything new on race day”. For you, this means that you should use the same goggles, bike, helmet, shoes for training as you will use for racing. It keeps things familiar, which is super important.
Triathlon training – it is simple!
Like most things in life, keeping things simple works best.
Triathlon training is often very over-complicated with all the hype and myths around what you must do and what you must have.
Sit back and take a good look at what it is you want to do, as we´ve hopefully outlined here, and you should realise that it is, and should be kept, very simple:
Easy, enjoyable and effective!
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