Triathlon for Beginners: 3 Steps to Your Personal Training Plan

Eine Gruppe junger Leute läuft während einem Triathlon ins Wasser

Swimming, cycling and running: the challenge of triathlon training is to prepare for three endurance sports at the same time.

Jemand läuft während eines Triathlons mit dem Fahrrad

These three sports place very different demands on your body:

  • Swimming is considered to be a technique-heavy endurance sport. Water is 800 times denser than air. To swim efficiently, you need to reduce drag (the resistance of water on your body) while increasing the thrust force of your arms to propel your body forward. The only way to improve this is by working on your swimming technique.
  • In cycling, the bicycle restricts your range of movement. This means that this sport greatly depends on building up a specific kind of endurance and reducing air resistance (drafting and/or aero position).
  • Of the three triathlon sports, running is the one that places the greatest demands on your cardiovascular system. Since this sport is at the end of the race, it is important to increase your running stamina and your mental toughness.

You can’t really take a recreational approach to training or improving at all three sports simultaneously. Therefore, you need to follow certain strategies in order to make performance gains in an efficient manner.

Planning your triathlon training in 3 steps

Step 1:

  • Determine your training cycle and how much time you want or can devote to your training.
  • Divide the number of weeks before the race by 3.
    Example: 30 weeks/3 = 10 three-week cycles
    Now multiply the average time you want to devote to training per week by 3 to get your overall training volume. Then you need to break your training volume down into the individual weeks of your three-week cycle based on the following weighting: 35% in week 1, 40% in week 2 and 25% in week 3. Therefore, if you want to train 10 hours a week, you will have a 30-hour cycle that breaks down like this :
  • Week 1: 10.5 hours (35 %)
  • Week 2: 12 hours (40 %)
  • Week 3: 7.5 hours (25 %)

This is the standard 2:1 training cycle — two weeks of intensive training followed by one week of recovery.

Jemand krault im Wasser

Step 2:

  • Choose a training goal for each three-week cycle.
  • What is my best sport?
  • What sport needs the most improvement?
  • Keep in mind: It takes much less effort to maintain a performance level than it does to improve one. Depending on the length of the race, the influence of the individual sports on the overall time differs: swimming makes up about 11-18%, cycling about 50-55% and running about 30-34% of the total time.

Thus, improving your swimming performance by 1% doesn’t really have a big impact on your overall time, whereas improving your cycling performance by 1% can shave several minutes off your final time (in long distance races).

On the other hand, if you wear yourself out during the swim, you aren’t going to be able to perform well on the bike.

Once you have set a goal for a training cycle, the other two sports have to take a back seat. Therefore, if the focus is to work on improving your swimming technique, your cycling and running training sessions will only serve to maintain but not improve your performance level. The priority over the next three weeks will be to improve your swimming efficiency.

You can change your goal for each training cycle but make sure to devote more time to your weaknesses than your strengths.

Eine Frau läuft in der Stadt

Step 3:

  • Keep track of your progress!
  • You should assess your performance at regular intervals (6-8 weeks) — the best time is at the end of the first training week of a cycle. These tests are designed to show you whether or not your training is producing the desired adaptations. But keep in mind that your performance doesn’t always have to increase — your goal can also be to maintain a certain level.

Of course, there are also other variations of this approach:

  • Ask yourself the following questions: How much time do I have until my race? What training options do I have? (swimming pool, track, seasons, etc.)
  • Besides the 2:1 training cycle, there is also the 3:1 cycle with three weeks of intensive training and one week of recovery. The weighting for a four-week cycle is 25% in week 1, 27.5% in week 2, 30% in week 3 and 17.5% in week 4.

Caution: Because three weeks of intensive training can greatly increase overall fatigue levels, this long training cycle is better suited for experienced athletes.

  • Of course, you can combine the 2:1 and 3:1 cycles to suit your training. Besides these standard training cycles, there are newer approaches like block training, supercompensation training, training at a specific time of day, etc. You should probably talk to a personal trainer, however, before trying one of these approaches because some of them are very demanding and could easily lead to overuse injuries if done improperly.

The main thing though is to have fun and stick with your triathlon training plan. We wish you great success in reaching your goals.

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Thomas Doblhammer Thomas is a sports scientist and certified personal trainer. Besides being an expert in swimming, running and strength & conditioning, he supports teams and coaches professional athletes. View all posts by Thomas Doblhammer »

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