Need a fitness goal for the summer? How about a triathlon? With MF’s sprint-distance triathlon-training program for beginners, you could go from couch to competitor in just eight weeks.*
* If you’re not a lazy arse
The swim-bike-run sport of triathlon is one of the fastest-growing in the world — and one of the most enjoyable to compete in and exciting to watch: did you see the scorching Brownlee brothers in the London Olympics recently — and Aussie Erin Densham going flat chat in a sprint finish for the medals in the women’s race?
Triathlons come in various sizes, from the big daddy of them all — the Ironman distance (3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42.2km run) — to the 70.3 (Half IM) distance (1.9km/90km/21.1km), the Olympic distance (1.5km/40km/10km), the sprint distance (750m/20km/5km) and right down to very manageable “enticer”-type events over short distances, giving the beginner a chance to dip their toe into the sport.
In this guide, we concentrate on helping you get ready for a sprint-distance race.
Our guide (it’s just that — a guide rather than a rigid program) ensures that you cover the three legs of the triathlon consistently over the eight-week period. It’s designed for someone who’s new to triathlons, but does have some fitness. If you’re healthy but a bit out of shape, it’s probably worth seeing your GP for a general check-up just in case, as you’ll be working hard by the end.
As it’s your first-ever event in a sport you’re trialling, the focus throughout your training should be not so much on increasing your speed, but on building the time spent on each of the disciplines, being consistent with your training, eating healthily throughout, and getting enough rest between training sessions.
In the first three weeks of the program, maintain the intensity at around a 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. Don’t overdo it. Your heart rate should be around 50-75 percent of its maximum rate (calculate your maximum HR by subtracting your age from 220). At this pace, you should still be able to carry on a comfortable conversation. If you can’t, it might mean you need to slow down a little.
If you want more intensity from your training, increase the time spent on each exercise, not the pace at which you do it. And don’t forget the rest days — resting for as long as your training allows your body to recover stronger. Follow hard days with easy ones and, after a solid session, always get a good night’s sleep. And don’t be tempted to train on a rest day — try yoga or stretching only.
Spending time on a stationary bike, running on a treadmill or swimming laps in lanes are great ways to build up your hours, but make sure you mix it up with some time in the real world too.
You’ll need: A pair of swimmers (there are no rules about these, unless they’re inflatable or motorised, so smugglers or boardies are fine) and goggles that don’t leak (Zoggs or Vorgee are reliable brands). Wetsuits are often worn in triathlons, as they provide buoyancy and can help your confidence in the water when you’re swimming in a thrashing pack alongside hundreds of others, but aren’t compulsory.
Build the fitness: Here’s a basic but structured swimming workout that you can build on as you get fitter. If you’re training in a pool, start your warm-up with 200m of freestyle, then follow it with 100m of kick-boarding (inexpensive models are available from stores such as Rebel; rebelsport.com.au). Then swim four laps (if you’re in a 50m pool) of slow-paced freestyle, focusing on your technique and taking a 10-second rest at each end. Your main set of 6 x 50 metres should be hard but consistent, with 10-second rests between each interval. Cool down with a light set of 4 x 50 metres of any stroke.
If you haven’t done that much swimming, it might be worth getting some coaching for stroke-correction. Your local aquatic centre or triathlon club will be able to help with information about coaches. Getting the technique right will help improve your swim and you won’t leave the water exhausted.
For most of us, the swim leg of the triathlon is the most challenging — all those scores of other hyped-up swimmers in your group churning away right next to you can be off-putting if you’re a novice. Good advice is to always resist the temptation to go hard from the get-go; just relax, concentrate on your breathing and take strong, consistent strokes. Breathe on every cycle (every time you take a stroke on the same side), making sure to breathe out underwater. Don’t forget that if you do need to rest during the race, you can stop and hold onto the side of an official’s boat, race marshall’s ski or any of the course buoys.
You’ll need: You don’t have to spend a fortune on a gleaming new beauty — many first-timers use a mountain bike. The important thing is to have a bike that fits you properly and is mechanically sound (check that the brakes work well). It’s also
a requirement that you wear a helmet, clipped on securely.
Build the fitness: The cycle leg is the longest in a triathlon. It’s when you can make up the most time, so devote the proper time to it in training. To become a better cyclist, mix up your sessions to include easy-paced rides, hills and sprints, and spin classes in the gym. In the first couple of weeks, build your cycling times from about 30 to 60 minutes, concentrating on building endurance via time in the saddle rather than trying to go fast. Practise your gear-shifting — it’s an important, and often overlooked, part of efficient riding.
After about week four, include some short, tough hill intervals. Repeat them a couple of times, but don’t overdo it — it can be harder to recover. In the final two weeks, find some hills of similar steepness and length that you might encounter in the race. Carry a water bottle when training or racing — filled with water or a sports drink.
You’ll need: A pair of shoes you’re comfortable in, socks that don’t chafe, sunnies and a cap for sun protection.
Build the fitness: When you do your first couple of training runs, start at an easy pace and go only for about 25-30 minutes in total. Concentrate on “getting in the zone” of comfortable, rhythmic breathing. Take short walk breaks if you find you need them. If you’re puffed in the first couple of weeks, run for five minutes, then walk for two, reducing the walking stages as you get fitter. At week five, introduce 30-second surges to your run every five minutes — they’ll get you used to sudden changes of pace, for example when you want to pass someone or crest a hill. Keep doing this until week seven, when you can start tapering for the race. If you feel comfortable with this regimen, increase the length of your runs to 35-40 minutes.
In the week prior to the race, reduce your run, bike and swim training, but try to get in at least one session of all disciplines — swim for 10 minutes, cycle for 10 and run for 10. If possible, ride or drive over the course to familiarise yourself with it.
Every triathlon has a transition area in which you’re required to make two changeovers: from the swim to the bike (called T1) and from the bike to the run (T2). A poor transition can add precious time and waste energy during a race, while a smooth one can improve your position and spirits.
On race day, arrive with enough time to survey the transition area. Lay out your gear (towel, helmet, sunnies, cap, cycling/running shoes) neatly on or next to your bike. Make sure you can find your bike among the hundreds of others, and know where the swim entry and bike/run exits are. It’s a good time to do a mental rehearsal as well. Visualising your transition will help you deal with any challenges on the day.
T1: At the completion of the swim, whip off your goggles and run to your bike. Drop the goggles, quickly dry your feet and put on the shoes you’re going to cycle in, your sunnies if you wear them, strap on your helmet and wheel your bike from transition to the line where you’re allowed to mount.
T2: At the end of the bike leg, slow down and dismount carefully before the dismount line, wheel your bike back to where it was racked, unclip your helmet, swap into your running shoes, whack on a cap to keep off
the sun and off you go.
Tim’s Top Tips
Triathlete Tim Reed (pictured right), from Byron Bay in northern NSW, is one of Australia’s best, especially over the 70.3 (half Ironman) distance. This year the 27-year-old set course records in winning the Australian Long Course Championships and Ironman Yeppoon 70.3. MF asked him to round up his best advice.
1. Recovery is as important as the training.
You can train as hard as you like, but if you don’t give your body the opportunity to adapt to the training stimulus, you’ll be flogging a dead horse. Sleep, nutrition and rest is crucial.
2. Maintain a balance and aim for gradual progression.
Triathlon tends to attract type-A personalities who soon go from trying their first triathlon to sacrificing family, friends, work and a lot of money to pursue their triathlon ambitions. It takes seven to 15 years to reach your potential in triathlon, so aim for gradual improvements that allow you to keep the rest of your life intact.
3. Stay in the moment.
Your first race can be overwhelming if you let it. Try to keep it simple. Focus on what you need to be doing right at that moment in the race, rather than worrying about what has happened or what is to come. Often, staying a little more relaxed can really help your performance.
4. The race can hurt.
That’s why we do it. It’s human nature to enjoy a moderate level of suffering and, in our blissful First World lives, endurance sports is one way to achieve that. Training doesn’t make it easier, you simply hurt faster. Be prepared to suffer, but know that once you’ve crossed the finish line it’ll all be worth it.
5. Specific training & racing tips
- Drink to thirst. More problems occur from over-hydrating then dehydration.
- Get a coach. If you’re going to put 5-15 hours a week into your training, it’s best that you’re doing sessions that have a specific purpose.
- Do regular core-stability training. It’ll help you stay injury-free and allow more consistent training.
- Triathlon is predominantly an aerobic sport. Some of the biggest performance benefits come from longer, slower sessions that build aerobic efficiency. You don’t have to smash yourself every session!