Triathlon is its OWN sport

November 16th 2017

By Matt Hill
Categories: Triathlon Training

Triathlon is its OWN sport

Triathlon is a rare entity and is unlike almost any other sport. Why? Because it’s comprised of 3 different movements/disciplines, performed one after another, without rest.

Everyone knows this, but training for triathlon raises confusion – and inefficiency. This stems from the fact that individually there are 3 different movements required to perform the swim, bike and run – which are single entities/sports.

Each sport is “older” and better established than triathlon. Consequently, it is very common practice – and preached – that we must adopt the movement patterns / techniques / skills of each individual sport to get the best performance possible in triathlon.

This approach is far from ideal and leads to wasted time, reduced performance ceilings, plateaus, injury and lots of frustration!

Time is against adult competitors, novice and pro alike. It’s time to change your outlook on this multi-movement sport…

A new interpretation

The key to triathlon success is to recognise that triathlon is one sport. You are not training to be a swimmer, a cyclist or a runner. You are training for a triathlon.

A “specialist” swimmer, cyclist or runner will have been training and developing movement patterns for a very long time – and more importantly, developing them through puberty. These skills are rarely perfected as adults (adult = anyone that has been through puberty).

The exception to the above being that if you come from a swim, bike or run background these skills will still be there… much to your peer’s annoyance if they are not! You will have developed, and retained, movement patterns at a young age that the late-comers will never be able to achieve.

“Technique” for triathlon

Late-comers to the sports, must realise the importance of adapting “traditional” techniques.

Learning to optimise strength and endurance for one’s current mechanical structure, strength, and flexibility is paramount. Trying to adopt or copy the methods of specialist swimmers, cyclists or runners is not possible in adulthood.

Using swimming as an example, a competitive swimmer will spend between 5-20hours per week in the pool throughout childhood and into youth. They will have mastered the art of swimming at the prime time whilst their body is developing.

The swimmer will have time, and need to use advanced practices / drills to squeeze out as much of the athlete’s potential as possible, for those 100ths of a second over 50m!

An adult triathlete is perfectly able to get strong, fast and efficient in the water. However, they do not have the time to devote to just swimming. They also lack basic movement patterns (they haven’t been engrained), as well as limited mobility and functional strength.

Simply spending time swimming and developing strength and working within the ranges of movement they do have is a much better route. Knowledge of errors and knowing how to correct them is much better than performing endless amounts of drills– don’t perform a “special” drill just because Michael Phelps does!

Time spent on drills is often wasted training time – the drill is often performed incorrectly as the basic flexibility and movement patterns don’t allow it!

The same applies to bike and run.

What is a triathlon?

Train effectively (and successfully) for triathlon by considering what a triathlon really is:

  • The swim, the shortest section, the only upper body movement and the most feared!

Strength and endurance is needed to swim the distance with MINIMAL impact on fatigue – the swim WILL affect the outcome of a triathlon.

Building water confidence, swim strength (upper body), increasing and maintaining arm cadence while reducing leg kick will increase efficiency without increasing fatigue on the cardiovascular system.


  • The bike, a lower body movement, the furthest section and a means of transport! 

The sole purpose of the bike is to get you from the swim to the run. Train to be strong, stomping bigger gears, rather than spinning in lighter gears, (60-80rpm is ideal), will help to lower heart rate and cardiovascular stress (see: Stomping BIG Gears).

Cycling at high cadence, using the cyclists scraping and pulling up action, as well as an incorrect bike setup (as advocated for “specialist” cyclists) will massively impact your run ability…

  •  The run, a lower body movement (again), the survival discipline!

The run will ALWAYS be hard, no matter how effective the swim and bike, due to accumulated fatigue and muscle usage in the bike.

A tall, fast shuffle / speed walk action is easier to adopt and maintain to prevent “collapsing” forwards, bonking and injury.

Training must reflect the above points, but it is also important to tailor to the individual – background, age, strengths, etc. For example, if a triathlete has a background in swim, bike or run and has engrained a movement pattern, changes may not be needed.

Going forwards

Learn to look at triathlon as one sport, not three separate sports. Each part of a triathlon will have a knock-on effect to the other. Attempting to perfect each single sport with the technique of the single sport specialist will only take you so far and may even hinder triathlon performance. A different, and sometimes less attractive, technique must be adopted – FUNCTION vs FORM.

Time is limited for most athletes. Train SMART, train triathlon as a single sport with the time you have…