Basic Training

Presenting a completely sane three-stage plan to get you ready for an Olympic-distance triathlon


Swim, bike, run, repeat.    Photo: Wikipedia

Cutting to the Core

A solid core improves your swim stroke, riding position, and running posture. So should you add long strength routines to your schedule? Sure—if you have time. I didn't. A simple fix: Cut ten minutes off every other run and bike for crunches (3 sets of 15) and planks (3 at 30 to 60 seconds).

Stage One:
Your initial challenge is to commit to a schedule: You need to train at least four days a week, and on some days you'll want to mix in a light swim the same day as a bike or run. In the beginning, your workouts should be at a slow endurance pace. (Your endurance pace will be 40–50 percent of your maximum effort: Your heart rate should reach 70–90 percent of your field-test heart rate, and you should be able to hold a conversation.) Resist the urge to go faster here; you're building a foundation. Your stage goals: improved technique and endurance.

SWIM (1) It's fine to start splashing out laps, but do sign up for some basic technique coaching. You should come away with several kick-focused technique drills. Split your workouts equally between drills and laps. (2) Kickboards and flippers are your friends. Use them to build good kick technique. (3) Frequency is more important than duration (or distance). Try for two 30-minute sessions a week.

BIKE (1) Ride a minimum of two days a week for at least an hour, at endurance pace. If you're already in biking shape, push one ride to 90 minutes or more, and make the other ride a speed or power ride. (See Stage Two, next page.) (2) Practice good form: Your heel should be higher than your toes at the top of the stroke and lower at the bottom; pedal in circles as opposed to mashing up and down. Don't slouch—press your lower spine toward the top tube.

RUN (1) Running development parallels that of biking throughout your training. Start with two runs a week at endurance pace (note that your heart rate will be higher than when riding, since running is more aerobically taxing). If you're reasonably fit, try to last an hour. But it's fine to do the first three weeks at 30 to 45 minutes if necessary. Again, focus on training time, not distance. (2) When possible, run on dirt trails and other soft surfaces to spare your knees. (3) Good running posture: Straight up, with even-paced strides that meet the ground beneath your torso.

Stage Two:
You've built an endurance base; it's time to work up to race distances and longer, and start developing speed and power. This is the high-volume stage—you'll be training five to six days a week. Follow big days with easy days. When in doubt, fall back on endurance-pace efforts. Your stage goals: endurance, power, and speed.

SWIM (1) Keep up the drills, but steadily increase full-stroke swimming to 65–75 percent of your pool time. (2) Measure progress by your comfort level and gradually increase the distance you can go without stopping.

BIKE (1) Commit to at least one long endurance ride a week (probably on weekends); two hours is the minimum. (2) Develop power by climbing. On an hourlong ride, spend the middle 40 minutes going uphill—alternate between spinning in an easy gear and cranking in a hard gear. More spinning and less cranking is better for now. Push at about 75 percent of maximum effort (90–100 percent of your field-test heart rate). (3) Speed workout: Find a flat stretch of road and sprint at 75 percent of max effort for three to five minutes, then recover at endurance pace for three to five minutes. Repeat sprints and recoveries for a total of 40 to 50 minutes. (4) Always warm up and cool down with at least ten minutes of easy, flat spinning.

RUN (1) Go for at least one slow, hourlong run a week. (2) For your one or two other weekly runs, do either a power or speed routine. For power workouts, run six to eight 45-second repeats up a hill, maintaining your standard running pace. Jog down slowly between each repeat. For speed workouts, run four to five four-minute intervals on flat terrain at 75 percent of max effort. Follow each with two minutes of easy jogging. Cool down from both routines with 15 minutes of endurance-pace running.

COMBOS (1) Begin these halfway through, and start easy with a 45-minute ride, then 15-minute run. (2) Build with this mix: six-mile ride, two-mile run, six-mile ride, two-mile run. Short distances are fine. (3) Be creative: Run to the pool to swim, follow a swim with a spinning class—go nuts.

Stage Three:
It's time to get faster by upping the inten­sity of your speed/power workouts. This means you need more recovery time, so it's OK to shorten endurance days. But you can't get any faster the week before your event—that's a time to hydrate and relax. Your stage goal: preparation for the race.

SWIM (1) Reduce drills to 10–15 percent of your pool time as you stretch out distance. At some point, swim at least 1,500 meters without stopping. It's important to know you can do it. (2) Break up the monotony of laps by using a pull float and paddles. They also build strength and speed. (3) Try to swim at least a few sessions in your race-day wetsuit—you'll be more buoyant and actually use different muscles. If possible, swim in a lake to prepare for open-water variables such as waves, currents, and floating debris.

BIKE (1) If you're converting your bike to tri position (see "Shift Gears," opposite), do so early in this stage. You need to get used to the different handling. (2) Up the intensity of your power days. On hills, do more cranking in a hard gear and increase your effort to 80–90 percent (100–105 percent of your field-test heart rate). For intervals, try two to four minutes at 80–90 percent max effort, followed by equal periods at endurance pace.

RUN (1) Increase the intensity from your stage-two power/speed days to 80–90 percent max effort and add a few reps. (2) Continue with regular endurance runs and lengthen some to a mile or two beyond the 10K triathlon distance.

COMBOS (1) Try doing a couple of two-sport combos at actual race distances and pace. (2) Sandwich swims or rides between runs (for example: 20-minute run, 30-minute swim, 20-minute run). This lets your legs recover while you ride or swim.

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