Starting Triathlon - Starting to Train

It’s easy to imagine that training is something reserved for professional athletes or those at the peak of their abilities; not something for people starting out in a new sport. Far from it. Training is simply adopting a structured approach to activities with the aim of improving performance. Following a simple training plan, when starting triathlon, will help you complete your chosen distance to the best of your abilities. In this post we look at how training can help you complete your first triathlon.

When you become a more experienced triathlete there are numerous training resources available to you – from coaches to books, such as The Triathlete’s Training Bible and Serious Cycling. But, when you’re starting off, this may all seem a little too much too soon. Your training program for your first event should focus on four key elements:

  1. Duration

  2. Speed

  3. Technique

  4. Transition (more on this later)

Duration

One of the core themes of training is specificity. The idea is that we should train for what we want to achieve. For example, if you want to ride a hundred miles, you need to focus on long rides at a steady pace. Or if you want to become a better sprinter, you’ll need to focus on explosive efforts that emulate sprinting. On this basis, we need to consider the type of event you’ve chosen for your first triathlon. The chances are that it’s a sprint distance (20-km bike) event or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, an Olympic distance (40-km bike). If you’ve gone all in and opted for a longer event, such as an Ironman, you’ll need to follow a very structured training program possibly using the resources mentioned in this post’s introduction.

Assuming that you are entering a sprint or Olympic distance event, you don’t need to focus on long rides. Although these will help build fitness, and can aid weight loss, they won’t be the most beneficial. Instead focus on regular short rides. For example, three rides per week may start as two at 5-km and one at 10-km. And as your fitness improves, you can gradually increase the distance until you are completing two 20-km rides and one 40-km ride. A short and regular approach will help you achieve your goals far more than a single long weekly ride.

If you think that you might struggle to do three rides per week because of darkness, even riding on a spin bike will improve your endurance. And if you struggle to keep motivation, indoor cycling sessions, such as Spinning and Sufferfest, offered by most gyms are better than nothing. However, if you can, make sure that you get at least one ride on the road each week because this will help you adapt to real-world terrain and help improve your bike handling skills.

Speed

Initially, you should focus on duration and not worry about speed. When you are able to complete your chosen distance, it is time to start adding some speed sessions into your cycle rides. One of the most effective ways of improving speed is to utilise ‘interval’ sessions. In a nutshell, an interval is a short amount of time where you ride at a higher intensity (faster and harder) than you normally would, followed by a short period of recovery. Different interval lengths suit different cycling goals, for example, someone wanting to improve their sprint will work with intervals that last just a few seconds; while someone wanting to improve their mountain climbing may do longer intervals, of say several minutes, where they ride above their normal climbing pace.

At this point in your training you want to increase your overall average speed, which means that you want to be able to ride at a higher heart rate for a longer period of time. Intervals of between two and five minutes can help you achieve these goals. A typical training session might look like this:

  1. 15-minute warm-up

  2. 5 x 2-min intervals with one-minute rest between each

  3. 10 warm-down

As you get closer to your event, increasing interval length can be beneficial because it helps train your body for the specific demands placed upon it. For example, you could build a training session around 3 x eight-minute interval sessions with a two-minute rest between each.

Experiment with differing interval lengths to find what works for you, but you must remember to always warm-up properly by riding at a steady, but not slow, pace to avoid damaging your muscles and connective tissues.

Technique

All cyclists, regardless of their level, can improve their skills. Top professionals spend hours working on technique and position in an effort to gain precious seconds – Team Sky’s Marginal Gains is a fantastic example of this approach. When starting off, you need to focus on:

  • Pacing – learning to ride at a pace where you expend optimal effort without pushing yourself towards premature exhaustion.

  • Climbing – learning to climb different types of hill in an efficient way that is both quick and doesn’t lead to exhaustion.

  • Descending – descents are fast, but those who lack descending skills can lose significant amounts of time through poor technique, and they can place themselves in danger.

There are some good tips for these elements on YouTube, for example on the GCN channel (Global Cycling Network) and, of course, in books such as Simply Road Cycling.

Whatever resources and techniques you use for improving your riding, spend some time during each ride focusing on just one particular element. It’s easier to learn new techniques individually, and when you are more experienced, piece these together to optimise your cycling. For example, when practicing descending, you may focus on road position during one session and then during the next, focus on your position on the bike. With time you will be able to bring the all of the elements together and be able to descend confidently at speed.

Transition

Triathlon is a multi-discipline sport which means in order to complete an event you connect one sporting activity to another. As you probably already know, a triathlon follows the format swim-bike-run. The period that connects each activity is known as ‘transition’, and triathletes call this the ‘fourth discipline’. When people train connecting two disciplines, they refer to it as a ‘brick session’.

When you finish your swim, your heart will be pounding and it’s likely that you won’t be thinking completely straight – you will be caught up in the heat of the moment. It’s a great idea to practice the transition from swim to bike. For most people swim training will be in a swimming pool rather than outdoors and this does make the transition less realistic. But still you can swim in the pool, change quickly, and cycle straight away. Your body will still benefit from this training, and you’ll get into good habits such as making sure that you always put your helmet on before you touch your bike (during an event you will be disqualified if you touch your bike without a helmet on!).

Practicing running after cycling is much easier than swim to bike. There’s no harm in adding brick sessions from the very start of your training program. These sessions will allow your body, especially your legs, to adapt to the change from cycling to running. For all of your brick sessions do a shorter ride and run than you would normally do individually. It’s the adaption from one activity to another, at this point in your training, that is more important than the actual distances undertaken.

Moving Forward

This article has introduced you to the basics of some of the most important elements of training for first-time triathletes. Working in a structured way, focusing on the areas that we have explored, will help you not only complete your first triathlon, but complete it faster than without training.

Enjoy your training and remember that you will accelerate your progress on the bike by getting hold of Simply Road Cycling where you will find accessible, fun advice on all of the key areas of road cycling including bike fit, climbing, descending, and riding with others – order your copy today on Amazon.


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 The Starting Triathlon Series

Photo Credit: Quino Al