So you want the best beginner triathlon training program out there so you can be efficient with your time, not train in a way that risks injury and simply… get better results!
Maybe it is your first triathlon, or maybe you have done a couple already and found you loved it and want to take it to the next level.
Maybe you have been bitten by the “triathlon bug” and want to see what you are really made of.
Either way a beginners triathlon training program is essential to make sure you are on track to hit your goals(and hopefully smash them!)
To be honest, most people who are of average fitness can complete a sprint triathlon: 750m swim; 20km bike and 5km run.
There is also a super sprint distance available: 400m swim, 10km bike and 2.5km run.
Though the distances sound achievable, there is a lot going on in these distances and no room for error.
Triathlon is as much about competing with others as it is competing against yourself and beating last year’s time and putting all the odds in your favour.
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As you develop in your experience and understanding, you will learn things like building a baseline fitness, understanding peaking, tapering, some of the tools and gadgets, strength training, nutrition and sports psychology.
Beginner Triathlon Training Program: Getting Started
Firstly, please be sensible. Obviously you are doing this for fun, for fitness and to improve your health- NOT to kill yourself.
If you are starting from a decent swimming, cycling or running background and have reasonable fitness- awesome- this will help.
If you are starting from no activity at all, are overweight and have not done sport for a while, get checked out by your doctor first. Then start a walking programme- 30-50 minutes; 3-4 times a week. This is important to get your muscles, tendons and bones used to weight bearing.
You can also start your beginners triathlon training program with a few weeks of swimming and cycling as this is not as hard on your skeletal structure. If you have a bike, start twice a week doing 20-30 minute steady state rides or start in the gym with stationery cycling.
Always listen to your body. If you need more recovery, take it.
It is important to build your fitness in a way that does not injure you.
I always see people who are too gung-ho at the beginning, burning with enthusiasm and passion. Unfortunately, they end up burning out quite quickly.
So do at least 4-6 weeks of gradual baseline build. This will require patience as when you are bitten by the “triathlon bug” or have set your new fitness goals, you are keen to get results quickly.
Think of it like building a house. You cannot go and put up the brick walls straight away. You need to dig down and lay down the foundation. This often involves many weeks of frustration for the owner as it looks like lots of activity (and you are spending a ton of money!) but no results are actually seen above ground for many weeks.
But- once the foundations are strong, the house goes up remarkably quickly after that.
Put simply, if you skip developing your baseline fitness- it will only be a matter of time until your body crumbles and you will develop injuries. The good news is once you have your baseline fitness, this is quite easy to maintain for life.
Beginner triathlon training program important step:
Assess and address any known weaknesses
Sometimes you may know your weaknesses upfront. Maybe you do not know how to swim or maybe your knee always hurts when you run.
Try to address these issues now- as they will only get worse once you start increasing distance and intensity.
If swimming is a weakness, book 10 lessons and practice your technique consistently. This discipline will get you far better and quicker results that blasting up and down with the wrong technique.
There is NO point getting stronger at the wrong thing!
If you get knee pain when you run, you may need a sports therapist to video your running and improve your gait. Or you may need a scan of the knee to see if you have any structural damage.
If you are terrified of cycling on the road, you may need to start getting used to traffic on the quieter roads first then build up your experience in higher traffic roads. It is a good idea to go with a more experienced cyclist who can guide you as to road positioning and giving correct hand signals.
You may be overweight or you may look in shape but have a terrible diet full of junk food. Start to make gradual changes to this now. Ideally select from a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and good quality lean protein. Switch gradually from sugary soda drinks or excessive alcohol to more water.
If your muscles are tight and stiff, start to implement stretches after each session.
Mental strength: Sometimes you won’t feel like training- it might be cold or wet outside, you may feel tired or overwhelmed with fitting everything in.
Acknowledge there will be days like this and practice setting your plan in advance then sticking to it no matter what.
Start to practice positive self-talk.
Use phrases like:
“I never quit”
“I am feeling stronger and fitter every day”
“I am beating all the people on the couch”
Do this when you are training as well to make you feel good and keep going.
Train endurance early in your beginner triathlon training program
Triathlon is an endurance sport. Obviously there are different distances involved from sprint triathlon to ironman and ultras.
For the purposes of this post for beginners, I will assume you are starting with sprint distance.
Even though it is a short distance, you will still be working hard for 1.5 hours- 2 hours on average. You will need good endurance fitness.
Training endurance actually takes years to build up.
So even though the plan I give you will be fine to prepare for a certain event, you will notice you continue to improve over the next few years. Endurance training will also improve your ability to burn fat over sugars for energy.
So remember the body does adapt to stimulus placed upon it but it never happens as rapidly as we would like.
If you are starting from nothing- just start moving!
Take gym classes, do rowing, biking, running, swimming, cross country skiing, hiking.
It does not matter what you do in the beginning of your triathlon training program, as long as your are moving and are breathing harder and getting fitter. It does not have to be specific at this stage. Gradually increase the length of time you can keep exercising at a comfortable pace.
As your beginner triathlon training program progresses, you will be spending more time in higher heart rate zones and starting to train at your lactate threshold.
Lactate threshold is the point at which more lactic acid starts to accumulate in the body than can be cleared. This is the “burn” you feel in your muscles when you are working hard. It makes you want to stop. Training does not make this pain go away- but it allows you to do more before it comes, and tolerate it more when it does come.
You may start to introduce speed work and interval training. In the beginning, intervals of around 2-6 minutes with equal recovery time.
As the season progresses, you may reduce the interval work time and go for higher intensity workouts.
Once you have an excellent base and have started training intensely, add some power sessions. Power is the ability to generate maximum force quickly. This is important on short steep hills, or fast swim starts, or sprinting for the line in a run race. It involves teaching the nervous system to send strong signals to the muscles to contract maximally.
Power training comes from all out efforts.
So an example would be sprinting up hill for 20 seconds followed by a long recovery time. It is important to do this when you are fresh, not fatigued at the end of another session.
Assess your time and abilities clearly, then develop a plan.
The good news is there is no “one way” to train.
A beginner triathlon training program depends how fit you are now, how much time you have and how your body responds.
The keys are consistency and discipline.
For example: if you don’t have time for 1 hour bike ride, can you do 20 minutes of squats and lunges and 3 x 90 second planks?
If you don’t have time for 90 minute slow jog, can you go out and do 10 x 200m sprints?
If your legs are sore from a hard week of cycling and running, maybe you switch your programme for another swim session or go to the gym and do some weights, core work and stretching.
Include mental focus in your beginner triathlon training program
As with any great endeavours consistency and mental focus are key.
Know your goal and know what you need to do each week to get there.
For more info on mental training read this free book
It is clear that focusing on what you are doing as you are doing it improves fitness and technique so much faster. Also visualising your technique throughout the day at random times when you are not training improves your technique and skill as well.
The other thing you are developing during training is character- to say NO to the pub, so you can get up at 5am and fit in a session before work, or at least doing your workout first them joining them afterwards…
Once you have committed to this journey, do not let anything or anyone get in the way of achieving it.
People will respect you more.
Set out in advance how much time you have for training each week- do not be unrealistic- things will crop up from time to time.. so allow some flex.
Weekly training hours in a beginner triathlon training program
Focus is far more important than volume.
Many novices (and even experts) think more is better.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Focusing on the task at hand, understanding the main outcome of each training session and consistency are the keys to success in triathlon.
There have been some incredible Ironman distance results from athletes who only train 10 hours a week!
This did actually blow my mind when I first learned this.
The culture in triathlon is certainly “do more”.
But this is changing as people are staring to train more scientifically.
Also people do not want to sacrifice their whole life, their family, their work and all their hobbies to triathlon (especially if you can train smarter and get amazing results rather than loading up hours of junk miles achieving nothing but boredom and injury!)
So the elements you need to consider in a beginner triathlon training program are:
The aim is to improve cardiovascular system and prepare muscles, joints and tendons for training.
The aim is to increase endurance- add longer durations and intensity to sessions.
Start to build anaerobic endurance- higher intensity focus
Add weights/strength training if you are ready for that (not necessary first season)
Overall volume drops and intensity increases.
Add brick sessions (swim and bike or bike and run)
Continue weights -less volume, higher intensity
Taper, recover and get some good sleep this week.
This does NOT mean do nothing, eat doughnuts and get drunk!
To be honest, most triathletes have worked so hard during the season, they don’t do this.
The mistake most make is NOT tapering. They think by doing an extra two runs, some squats and a long cycle, they will continue to get fitter and fitter.
This is not the case.
The best performances go to those who have actually tapered.
So a week before the race, do no more weight training.
Start to drop the volume of your sessions by 60%, keep intensity high though.
Use the extra time you now have to check your bike over, get all your gear together for the race, practice your transitions.
Two days out- do no more training.
Focus on deep breathing, visualising a great race, drink lots of water and relax.
Yes you will be nervous- but remember to enjoy yourself as well.
Beginner triathlon training program tips
It is critical that you know the purpose of each activity.
Ie some days your sessions will be “active recovery”. Funnily enough – this means recovery. Recovery does NOT mean blasting off at pace to zone 4 and 5 intensities!
Other sessions will be hard- if you are too tired from not recovering when you should have been- you won’t be able to push as hard and the session will be wasted.
Most athletes(even experienced ones) make the mistake of not having hard and easy sessions- they do them all at 70% max.. and get average results as a consequence.
So ask yourself is this session- easy? hard? a technique session? a power session to failure or an active recovery session? Then do that!
Rest and recovery weeks (R and R)
You would think we would look forward to these but recovery weeks are often neglected!
Many triathletes make the mistake of not understanding that recovery actually strengthens our body and allows for refuelling, rehydration and repair of all the muscles fibres to allow us to train harder when we go back.
One week a month- is R and R to prevent fatigue and injury and allow us to train harder in training weeks and therefore get better overall results.
Get into the habit of maintaining a training diary.
It does not need to be too detailed at this stage.
But it pays massive dividends to look back and see what contributed to your results and where you can improve next time.
Make a note of your objective on the top.
After every workout note how you felt, any injuries or illnesses, diet, heart rate (if you are tracking that at this stage), speed, weather conditions.
At this stage do not get too hung up on this, just something to think about. It does make a big difference in planning future programmes and will make subsequent programmes more specific to you.
It is very difficult to design a beginners triathlon training program that works for everyone. What I will give you is simply a guide that works. You will need to adapt it depending on your current fitness level, skills, experience, goals and time available.
Do not over analyse
I have touched on many elements of triathlon training.
The most important thing is just to get started!
As a beginner, you do not need the most advanced plan, or have the most expensive bike or to be linked up to every gadget.
Just start moving, train 4-5 times a week, start to eat well and add other elements in as you are ready.
It is a good idea to book a race – so you have the goal in the diary and suddenly a huge motivator to make sure you actually do it ☺
For your first race, you do not have to be perfect- just complete it in whatever time and enjoy it.
The Beginner Triathlon Training Plan
You should easily be able to find time for a sprint triathlon without killing yourself or completely overhauling your life.
4-5 hours training a week will be fine.
Be creative about fitting in sessions.
If there is a big sports game you do not want to miss, watch it while doing stationery cycling. If you know you have to work late, take in your running gear and do a quick run at lunch time.
The plan is based on 12 weeks program.
I have designed this using the RPE(rating of perceived exertion) scale
Zone 1 very easy, light breathing
Zone 2 easy, can still talk
Zone 3 moderately hard, increased breathing
Zone 4 hard with heavy breathing
Zone 5 very hard, gasping and panting
You can also use Zone 1-5 with heart rate zones.
Either is fine but for beginners, it is easier to go on how you feel without requiring equipment.
The beauty of RPE system is it also works for swimming.
Most weeks have two workouts of each discipline, and towards the end, I have included some combined workouts.
So use this as a guide.
Implement the concepts when you are ready.
If you are a beginner, just start!
Do not analyse until you are paralysed with information overload.
Remember to enjoy it. Don’t get intimidated by the language the bling, the gear or the gadgets.
Most beginners (and some intermediates) just turn up and wing it.
Many beginners do not do a beginners triathlon training plan and just train how they “feel” on the day.
So even if you achieve half of the suggestions in the post- you will be way ahead of most people!
Good luck and let me know how you get on in your next race
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