How To Set Out The Perfect Triathlon Training Plan

Whenever you decide to try and get into a new sport, it is always important to ensure you seek proper guidance on how best to do so.

This can range from simply finding out more about what the sport entails, to detailed instruction on how to perform the activity to the highest possible level.

The harder a sport or activity is, the more help you are likely to need, and the greater importance getting the correct help will hold.

Anyone looking to get into triathlons certainly has a tall task on their hands, as it is a grueling activity, suitable only for the fittest, best prepared athletes in society.

However, everyone has to start somewhere, and there is no reason anyone interested in competing in triathlons can take their first steps towards that goal today.

So, with that in mind, allow me to give you some tips on exactly how to set out the perfect triathlon training plan.

We will cover everything you need to take you from a complete novice all the way to your first competitions and, hopefully victories.

I will show you everything from the types of activities you should perform to how best to break up and progress your training.

So, if you are looking to compete in your first triathlon and just need a little support and guidance to get you started, you have definitely come to the right place.

What Is A Triathlon Training Plan?

A triathlon training plan is a specially designed routine to help aspiring athletes hoping to compete in a particular type of event known as a triathlon.

A triathlon is a type of race that consists of three sports, hence the name, and usually includes cycling, swimming, and running.

All three of the activities are completed back to back in a single session and are designed to test the level of endurance a person has.

While the activities listed above are the traditional options, substitutions can be made in some rare instances.

The goal of a triathlon, much like in any race, is to finish all three of the disciplines as quickly as possible, with the person who finishes in the fastest time being declared the winner. 

A triathlon training plan focuses primarily on helping a person to improve their endurance, while also helping them to hone their skills in each of the required disciplines.

This will ensure they are skilled enough in each activity to be competitive, as well as fit enough to finish all three in one go.

Triathlon programs will often feature sections where the activities are broken down into different elements, to ensure you are well prepared for everything you are likely to face.

It may, however, also include endurance sessions performing activities not involved in a triathlon, so long as they push you to your limits and allow you to increase your stamina.

Can Beginners Follow A Triathlon Training Plan?

Beginners will usually be able to follow a triathlon training plan. However, how well they can follow it will depend on the complexity of the plan in question, and it may need to be simplified in order to more closely match their abilities.

When you are first starting out, it is important to begin with a very basic “base phase”.

This part of a plan will be built around less advanced activities and exercises, in comparison to the later phases.

This gives the individual an opportunity to work on their fitness and physical strength, before they move on to the more intensive, strenuous activities. 

Beginners should also understand their goals and know exactly what their bodies are capable of before they start ramping up the intensity.

Pushing yourself too hard, especially after a period of inactivity, can result in serious injuries, adverse effects, or simply losing the desire to continue. 

Exercises That Form Part Of A Triathlon Training Plan

There are a huge number of different exercises that can be included in a triathlon training plan, in order to help you progress in different skills and areas of fitness.

Most will be based around the traditional disciplines of cycling, running, and swimming, as they will improve both your skill and endurance at the same time.

However, other exercises can also be included, either due to the benefits they offer to your skill and fitness level, or because triathlons will occasionally feature a different exercise than normal.

The specific exercises you perform will also be largely dependent on how far into your training you are.

Over the first few weeks of your training, less intense exercises will be performed, in order to prepare your body for what lies ahead.

The intensity and frequency of workouts will then gradually increase over time, in line with your own abilities.

The person will then eventually move into the recovery phase as well, where they learn to care for their muscles and perform activities to stop them from getting damaged by the rigours they are putting them through on a regular basis. 

Some of the most common exercises and activities you will find on a triathlon training plan include cycling, swimming, sprinting, jogging, hill climbs on a bike, a foundation bike or run, running and swimming fartlek workouts, transition runs and run lactate intervals, and swim bases and swim thresholds.

While a number of these activities will be unfamiliar to many, each plays a specific role in enhancing endurance, power, and volume – all while helping to provide a consistent improvement to a person’s performance. 

The Three Phases Of A Triathlon Training Plan

Before we get into the exact exercises and activities you should look to include in a triathlon training plan, it is important that you understand how a properly executed plan is broken up.

We will therefore first look at each of the three main phases of a triathlon training plan.

I will show you how to properly split your program into these phases, while also explaining what each is for and why it is important for you to break things up in this way.

Base Phase

The base phase is generally the very first part of a triathlon training plan. It will normally include less strenuous exercises and activities, as it is designed to prepare you for what is to come.

It acts almost like a warmup for some of the more advanced workouts that will come in the next phase. 

This particular phase will usually last for a couple of weeks, with most people opting for around three to four or whatever is the equivalent to the first 25 percent of their training plan.

However, the exact rate at which you progress will vary depending on the progress and performance of the individual.

If required, you can either delay moving onto the next phase or speed it up, dependent on how you feel things are going.

Build Phase

The build phase is often referred to as the meat phase, as it is the heart and soul of almost all triathlon training programs.

It will usually take up around 50 percent of the entire duration of the training program.

This particular phase occurs when the individual has gone through the initial preparations, and they feel their body is ready to progress.

It is at this point that people will begin to test their limits and add a more significant increase in intensity.

During this phase, there are three specific goals that most people will have.

The first goal is to gain an increase in muscle strength, particularly in their lower body. This will facilitate a better performance on the track, especially when cycling or running. 

It is important, however, to focus on increasing the strength of the muscle, as opposed to its size.

While extra mass can indeed help to increase the strength of a muscle, it also increases its weight, which can negatively impact both the speed at which you can move, as well as your stamina.

The second goal of the build phase is to help people improve their endurance.

This is a crucial factor when it comes to long-distance competitions, which makes it incredibly important for us, given the lengthy duration of almost all triathlons,

The final goal of the build phase of our program is to effectively improve power generation in our muscles, particularly over longer distances.

While many people may think strength and power are the same, they are actually two different qualities, both of which have their own importance.

The strength of a muscle is the maximum force it is capable of exerting.

This would be important during a triathlon during a steep hill climb on a bike, where more force is required on each press of the pedals to keep the wheels turning.

Power, on the other hand, is how explosive a muscle can be over a short period of time.

This is essential during sprint sections of a triathlon, where there is very little resistance, in order to help you maximise your speed.

So, while power and strength may seem similar at first glance, it is essential that you develop both in equal measure if you are going to be successful in a triathlon.

Recovery Phase

The third and final phase of a successful triathlon training plan is the recovery phase.

During this  phase, the individual will gradually begin to reduce the intensity of their workouts.

Much like the base phase, the recovery phase should take up roughly the final 25 percent of the training program.

The recovery phase is designed to provide the body with an opportunity to relax and heal from the strain it has been placed under during the first two phases of the training program. 

During the recovery phase, the volume of exercises and activities you have been performing during the build phase, as well as the times and distances you have been performing them for, can be reduced by up to 50% in some instances.

Despite its designation as a recovery phase, it is also a good time to gauge the overall success of the program thus far.

This is because the individual will likely be able to still experience better intensity than they would have done before they began their training, even with a reduction in volume. 

How Long Do You Need To Follow A Triathlon Training Plan For?

There is no fixed duration that will work perfectly for every person, as everyone’s body is different.

In order to determine the optimum training time someone needs to prepare for a competition, numerous elements need to be taken into consideration, such as their experience and physical condition.

In the case of professional competitors, such as those competing at the Olympics, most individuals will choose to follow a specific triathlon training plan for a period of 12 weeks prior to the event, with many even stretching that to 16. 

Beginners, on the other hand, will need to take things slowly at first. This can mean one of two things.

On the one hand, a beginner may need to follow a shorter program, as their body simply isn’t equipped to handle 12 weeks of continuous, high intensity training.

On the other hand, they may need more than the regular 12 to 16 weeks, as their body can cope with the workload, but they need more time to improve their skills and endurance before they can consider competing in a more professional level competition. 

Overall, the most important thing is to listen to your body.

The further you progress in your training, the better you will understand what it is telling you, and most people will be able to get a good idea of exactly when they are ready to start competing for themselves.

Example Triathlon Training Plan

Now that you have a better understanding of the basic phases of a triathlon training plan, we can look at things in a little more depth.

Here we will expand those 3 basic phases into 6 and fill out an in depth structure, to complete a plan similar to what most beginners hoping to have success will use.

Triathlon training plans usually consist of a program that follows a week-by-week structure. The further the person progresses, the more intense these activities become.

Most programs are divided into twelve weeks, 4 for the base phase, 8 for the build phase, and 4 for the recovery phase.

The base phase tends to be particularly important in the outcome of the plan for those who are just getting started and have never followed one before.

It is also important to note that the plan should be followed on a maximum of 6 days each week, giving your body a day to rest and recover.

For anyone wanting to expand their program from 12 to 16 weeks, which is another reasonably common duration, simply add an additional week to each of the stages from stage two to stage five.

Stage 1: Starting Out Slow

Stage 1 is all about easing you in to your triathlon training program.

The first week of the plan starts out slow and consists of less strenuous activities.

This gives you a chance to experience what is to come and helps you start to work on your physical fitness.

These activities will give you a chance to gradually ease yourself into each of the three main disciplines. A good example of a routine to get you started would be:

  • Swimming for 800 yards
  • Foundation biking for 30 minutes
  • Foundation running for 25 minutes

This should also give you a good idea of your fitness levels going in.

The average person should be able to complete this in around 1 hour and 15 minutes, without having to push themselves too hard.

If you have completed a triathlon training plan before, it is possible to skip this stage and extend stage 2 from three to four weeks instead.

Stage 2: Base Phase

Stage 2 covers the second and third weeks in a twelve week program.

While this stage is still all about preparation, you should now be more used to the triathlon training plan.

This is generally considered to be the official start of the base phrase. 

This week should include all or most of the following activities:

  • Swim base for 900 yards
  • Foundation bike for 45 minutes
  • Foundation run for 30 minutes
  • Transition run for 10 minutes

If your fitness level is where it needs to be, by the end of this stage you should be completing this workout in around 1 hour 45 minutes, and certainly not surpassing the 2 hour mark.

Stage 3: Amping Up The Intensity

At the beginning of week four, you will move into stage 3, which is the start of the build phase and lasts from week four to week six.

This is where the intensity of exercises begins to increase, and some new activities are added.

A good example of the activities you will be completing during this stage is:

  • Swim base for 1000 yards
  • Foundation bike for an hour
  • Foundation run for 35 minutes
  • Swim Fartlek and spring for a total of 1000 yards

Due to the increase in training volume, many people will not want to complete all of the activities every day, especially in the early stages.

If this is the case, try and break it up in a way where you do as many as possible and make sure to complete each activity at least two to three times per week.

By the end of stage 3, everyone should be completing the entire routine in each session.

When you are completing the entire routine in each workout, try to aim for a time of under 2 hours 30 minutes.

Stage 4: Pushing To The Max

Stage 4 begins in week seven and runs through to the end of week nine.

This is the stage where participants will ramp their sessions up to maximum intensity.

The workouts included in this stage will look very similar to those from the previous stage, with slight modifications to either the time, distance, or exercise.

Your routine at this point should look like this:

  • Swim base for 800 yards
  • Short hill climb on bike for 45 minutes
  • Fartlek run for 30 minutes
  • Fartlek swim and springing for a total of 900 yards

By this point, you will want to be pushing yourself to your limits and completing the entire routine in each and every session.

A time of 2 hours or less should be seen as your minimum target, although, as you are now getting ready for competition, you will want to go as fast as you possibly can to really test yourself.

Due to this intensity, you should also make sure to complete the routine on a maximum of six days each week, giving yourself one complete day of rest.

This will allow the body to de-stress and repair, which should hopefully help you to avoid any injuries.

Stage 5: Recovery Phase

Stage 5 sees us enter the recovery phase. It begins at the start of week ten and concludes at the end of week eleven.

This stage focuses on reducing the intensity of the workouts, in order to allow the body to recover, preventing any injuries that become more likely the longer it is under periods of increased pressure. 

The routine you follow during this stage gives you more freedom than at perhaps any other point in your triathlon training plan.

The most popular options to use at this point include:

  • Repeating the routine from stage 2
  • Repeating the routines from either stage 3 or stage 4 but completing only half the time or distance on each activity
  • Repeating the routines from either stage 3 or stage 4 but doing so at a maximum of 50% of your normal intensity
  • Breaking the routines from either stage 3 or stage 4 in half and completing only one of the halves on any given day

During this stage, you will again want to ensure at least a full day of rest each week, with two being perhaps even more beneficial.

Stage 6: Rest

Stage 6 covers the final week of your triathlon training program and revolves entirely around getting your body in a happy and healthy place before a competition.

During this stage you won’t be performing any strenuous routines.

You will instead be focusing on resting up, letting your body heal, and performing activities that get it prepared in other ways.

Some of the best options to make use of during this stage include:

  • Going for brisk walks of at least 30 minutes each day
  • Taking an ice bath
  • Getting a deep tissue massage
  • Removing misalignments and muscle knots using equipment such as a foam roller
  • Performing a gentle, 30 minute session on a cross trainer
  • Completing stretching routines

While it is important to not become completely sedentary and remain proactive in your preparations during this week, taking your foot off the gas a little will ensure you don’t have any nagging pains or injuries that could impede your performance when your big competition finally arrives.

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This concludes our guide on how to set out the perfect triathlon training plan.

By this point, even those with zero previous experience in triathlons will be clear on just how challenging they are and be aware of how hard they will need to push their body if they are going to be successful in one.

While there is no one size fits all answer that will help everyone to be a success in the world of triathlons, you should hopefully now have a much better understanding of your body, the sport, and exactly what it takes to be a success at the highest level.

Even if the routine we have suggested doesn’t feel quite right to you, for whatever reason, it will have given you the building blocks which, when armed with the knowledge you now have, will allow you to tweak and adjust it into your own perfect triathlon training plan.

So, what are you waiting for?

If you have always wanted to take part in a triathlon, there is now literally nothing besides yourself standing in the way of you getting out there and preparing your mind and body to compete in your very first event.

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Dr. Ahmed Zayed holds a bachelor’s degree in medicine from Alexandria university and is a practicing plastic surgeon. He’s our expert on all things nutrition, medicine, rehabilitation, and flexibility. Dr.Ahmed has been a medical content writer for more than 11 years and his work reached top publications such as the HuffingtonPost

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