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Training For Triathlon

A Step By Step Guide To Planning Your Training

Through training for triathlon you are trying to build something - a performance. To do that you need to do some construction (to yourself) that enables you to become fitter, stronger, more resilient and ultimately FASTER.

If you try to build anything (a conservatory, a piece of flat-pack furniture, a child’s toy etc) without a plan, it is generally slower, less effective and can end in disaster.

Come on own up, most of us at one time or another have taken something out of the box, and said something along the lines of ‘I don’t need the instructions (plan)’.

Now own up on how effective that usually ends up the first time.... Probably not great, but eventually you will learn from experience and be able to do it faster, and more effectively.

Why would you want to invest a significant amount of time, energy, money and passion into something you haven’t thought out properly? Do you have time to waste making some fairly simple errors, or can you learn quickly and maximise your time and energy?

Right, go get a bit of paper, a pen, and get ready to do some thinking and make some notes. Even better, get a free copy of our training planner to fill in.

This is a fantastic tool. You enter your main events of the season as well as your aims and it then helps you to plan your training to achieve your goals. It walks you through a SWOT analysis (see below), as well as profiling your swim, bike and run performance.

It then allows you to record all your training, as well as your race plans.

There are several quick processes to go through to ensure you plan your training for triathlon effectively.

  1. OBJECTIVE - Think of your GOAL.
  2. SELF ANALYSIS - Take stock of where you are at the moment, what are the STRENGTHS, WEAKNESSES, what OPPORTUNITIES and THREATS are there to you achieving your goal?
  3. PERIODISATION - Get a calendar and put in the major dates and other events in your life. Then decided broadly how you are going to set out your plan.
  4. PLANNING - Plan the details of your training.
  6. EVALUATION - Then after a while review what you have done, see if it fits with what you expected or wanted and then start the whole process over again!

Set Your Goal – Without One You Will Wander Aimlessly!

When training for triathlon, a plan must have an end point at which time you evaluate how you have done against your initial objective.

Is it to complete an Ironman, or is it to qualify for the World Champs, or is it to become a healthier, fitter person, who enjoys a social training environment and gets a bit better at triathlon in the mean time?

Whatever it is, think about it, and then make a note. When times are hard, or you start to mentally wander off, or you achieve more than you thought you could, come back to this and reflect upon what you set out to do. You can always revise the aim as you go.

For instance as a complete beginner triathlete you may have no idea what your potential is. So you may set out just to be fitter, but then as you get into it, you get the bug and raise your ambitions.

Keep it real though! Many people might want to be an Olympic Champion and this might be your aspiration, but to reach this you need a realistic plan, which gets you there over time.

1.What Should You Consider When Making Your Triathlon Training Plan?

Once you have an idea of what you want to achieve you need to take stock of where you are and what you can and cannot do. This is where a simple SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) comes in.

Sounds like a complicate business document. Not in this case. It is simply looking at the things you have going for you and the things that will limit you reaching your goal. You then plan for how your training for triathlon will address these.

A comprehensive plan needs to consider some key points. Some might not seem that relevant initially but believe us, they are important.

  • Time

    How much time are you prepared to put aside, or do you have available to train for triathlon.

  • If you have any questions you can

  • Other Commitments

    Are there other things in your life that are important i.e. family, your job, other hobbies, etc – make space in your programme/life for them as well.

  • Training History

    Are you completely new to training for triathlon, or have you come here with a significant training history?

  • Strengths And Weaknesses

    Do you know what your strength and weaknesses are? If you are a good swimmer, but have never ridden a bike, plan to emphasise the riding more and swim less. But don’t ignore your strengths otherwise they might become weaknesses.

  • Motivation

    How committed are you to training for triathlon? This might seem like a harsh question, but whilst training for triathlon might seem like something you would quite like to do, will you still get on and do your training when it gets really tough and it is pouring rain?

    Or are you the obsessive type, who will let this goal run your life, for-going everything else to achieve it? The two extremes can plan initially very different programmes. Knowing how committed you are can help to set your expectations.

  • Importance/Priorities

    Similar to motivation and commitment, how big a priority is training for triathlon for you? Decide now and plan around this, then the rest of your life will be more balanced. Your family and friends know your commitment, and you can make good decisions around this.

Once you have thought about these things, have a think about your daily life. How is training going to fit into your life? Do you have a regular 9 – 5 job which means your time is very structured and reliable, or do you have a very unstructured job which means you never know where you will be and when?

Again, if you don't think about these things properly they will be the limiting factor in your triathlon training program and your enjoyment of the sport.

To help you get started we have put together a simple spreadsheet. You can get this by simply subscribing to this site at the top right of this page.

Once you've got this you can fill it in either by printing it out or by completing it on your computer. This planner covers the Goal Setting and SWOT analysis which can be used later when beginning to pull the pieces of your programme together.

As such this can be useful for you even if you already have a triathlon training program in place.

If you have a question about your training for triathlon, you can just ask us.

2. The Key Components To Building A Triathlon Training Plan

When it comes to building your plan for training for triathlon, there are a few things you should know.

Key Principles Of Training:

To maximise your triathlon training potential, you need to keep in mind the key principles of training. Without applying these, you are unlikely to improve significantly, or your performance will plateau. You do not need to think about these daily or get obsessed with them, but when planning your programme, use these to think about the sessions you are including and why they are in your programme.

Remember exercise is not necessarily training. Exercise makes you tired, training makes you better!

  • Specificity

    Your training for triathlon must be relevant to your desired outcome. i.e. if you are training for an Ironman, including long periods of short hard SPEED work is not going to help much.

  • Overload

    Your training for triathlon must induce fatigue. If you are never tired or challenged by your sessions you are not training, you are merely exercising.

  • Progression

    Sessions and plans must be progressive. If you repeat the same session every week, you will adapt to this session and after a while fail to move on.

  • Adaptation or Recovery

    To improve performance your body and mind must adapt. These effects take time (and differing amounts of time for the various adaptations) and you much make space in your programme for it.

  • Reversibility

    If you stop training for triathlon for an extended period of time (more than 2 weeks) you will begin to detrain and return to your natural fitness state. Individuals will de-train at different rates.

  • Variation

    Don’t get hooked on one or two session designs. Be creative with your triathlon training. There are a many ways of achieving a training objective in a session.

Specificity, Overload and Progression are closely related when creating sessions within a programme. A session needs to:

  • Fulfill a specific role in your programme (Specificity)
  • Challenge you in some way (i.e. the session is pushing your boundaries, or in combination with other sessions it pushes your boundaries) (Overload)
  • Progress over time, not necessarily every session, but over time you need to develop the session (Progression)

Structuring Your Plan - Periodisation Phases

You should now know what you want to achieve, how much time you have and how big a priority training for triathlon is for you. If you have read our Endurance and Speed training pages for each discipline you will also know a bit about training sessions.

Now you need to figure how to put this information in to a PLAN to guide your training for triathlon.

Periodisation is the technical name for the big plan that your training for triathlon fits into.

When we plan we start with the big picture, looking at where you want to get to and then working back to the current day. The big picture usually consists of something like a year or a racing season. This is then refined down into specific times of the year or phases called Macro Cycles. Typically these last about 2 – 4 months.

However some of you may be looking for a shorter timescale than a year, say an event in 4 months time. In this case your big picture is a Macro Cycle.

Then we refine this down further into slightly smaller chunks within the Macro Cycle. These are called Meso Cycles and last typically 4 – 8 weeks.

Then within this cycle we refine things down into the weekly training. This is called a Micro Cycle.

The table below outlines the phases we use within Macro and Meso Cycle planning. It also indicates what the training will broadly look like in these phases of a plan, as well as how long each phase lasts.

Phase Training Type Duration
Foundation Skills and basic training (‘training to train’) 2 weeks to 3+ months
Base High Volume/Low intensity. Predominantly sessions from ENDURANCE, but can include limited SPEED sessions. 4 weeks to 3 months
Build Medium Volume/ Moderate Intensity. This will include sessions from both SPEED and ENDURANCE. 2 weeks to 6 weeks
Preparation Specific to race distance. Usually uses a mixture of SPEED and ENDURANCE sessions. 1 week to 6 weeks
Recuperation Rest and recovery after a phase of training. 3 to 10 days
Transition Short phases between Base, Build and Preparation phases. 5 to 10 days

During any particular phase you do not necessarily exclusively train that type of training. The phase describes the majority or emphasis in this period. For example, it is quite normal to include some hard efforts in a BASE phase, similarly it is normal to include some Extensive Endurance in a PREPARATION phase.

Knowing the major emphasis of a training phase helps you to determine the priority sessions in a week. Say for instance you are in a BASE phase and you also have a faster run session in a typical week.

If you have to decide between two sessions that week because you don’t have time, or you are starting to feel quite tired, the PHASE will tell you which one is more important.

In this example, is it the Extensive Endurance run or the faster run session? As you are in a BASE phase, the Extensive Endurance is the one to keep.

3. Deciding On The Triathlon Training Content Of Your Plan

Within each of these cycles you need to decide what training to do. This is where your notes on what your goals, objectives, and strengths and weaknesses are come in handy. You should also consider where you will gain the most time and therefore reach your targets most efficiently.

Remember that your aims will dictate how important each discipline and the various aspects of training for triathlon are. For instance if your goal is just to complete an Olympic Distance race then you need to train to be able to cover the distance in each of the three disciplines, whilst the speed you do this in is less of a factor.

However if you want to beat a time then you need to consider your strengths and weaknesses and decide where the potential for gaining the most time is. Then you can work on developing a programme to achieve this.

If you are already a strong cyclist but poor swimmer and moderate runner, where can you gain the most time?

Do you have more scope for improving your running and hate swimming - therefore focussing more on run than swim training?

Or can you put enough time into your swimming to make gains here?

Do you continue trying to improve your cycling or do you just do enough to keep your cycling fitness where it is?

All of these sorts of considerations help you to decide what the training cycles should include.

Which Training Session Types to Use?

Once you have thought about what you want to achieve with your training for triathlon, how much time you have and have grasped the basic principles of training, you need to get grips with the types of training there are.

We use relatively simple terms to describe training types. The main performance enhancing types of training are simple:

  • Endurance – Long, Continuous Sessions

    Endurance sessions develop your ability to become fatigue resistant. They help you to endure training at a set pace for longer.

    The sessions can include changes in intensity and pace, but crucially they are continuous sessions – ie no recovery periods within the session.

    When combined effectively with SPEED training, you will go faster for longer!

  • Speed – Interval Training

    Interval training sessions use short durations and recovery periods in the session to develop specific areas of your physiology to help you go FASTER.

    These sessions will target different areas of your fitness such as both Lactate Thresholds or VO


    max. Improvements in these variables will ultimately allow you to cover a set distance faster.

This is the same across Swim, Bike and Run.

We go into much more detail about the content of Speed and Endurance sessions for each discipline in our swimming, cycling and running training pages.

Other types of training for triathlon that you may include in your programme include:-

  • Pre-Hab – gym based work to build fundamental control and strength.
  • This involves training to control your body weight, and learning how to do this properly to avoid injury in the future.

  • Strength and Conditioning – performance enhancing strength training.

    This type of training usually involves some kind of resistance to develop muscular strength.

  • Drills & Skill – Technical sessions.

    For a sound foundation, technique and skills sessions to develop advanced techniques.

In an ideal world (or that of the professional triathlete), you will include all of these elements as they will:

  • Reduce your risk of injury when done properly,
  • Improve your general robustness,
  • Provide variety,
  • Improve your technique and skills.

However we do acknowledge that not everyone has 30 hours or more available to train each week! So when writing your plan you need to prioritise which areas are most significant….to YOU.

For example, if you have a history of back problems, just cracking on with a lot of run training is only going to end in one way: TROUBLE. You will need to devote some significant time to addressing this, for example through specific conditioning/prehab exercises.

4. Doing The Training For Triathlon!

A simple yet time consuming stage! This is the point you get outside, in the pool or in the gym, wherever your programme takes you. This is what you got into triathlon for so make it enjoyable or rewarding!

5. Monitoring Progress

Every programme should have some check points, or monitoring. This ensures that the plan you set out on is on track, or not, as the case may be. Depending upon what you find out, you then have time to be able to adapt or change your plan.

What you monitor and when is dependent upon what you set out to do and which length of race you have decided to target.

Monitoring sessions can be broken down into two types:-

  1. Diagnostic

    This is designed to break performance down into parts, so you can see which bits of your profile need work

  2. Performance

    Usually time-trials over a specific duration, that will tell you whether you are faster or not. Not as specific in terms of deciding which training to do, but very effective at determining whether you a genuinely getting faster or not.

Diagnostic monitoring is normally performed in an exercise laboratory with lots of very expensive equipment. It will be accurate (if done through reputable sources) and can take a lot of guess work out of training for triathlon. However it is also more expensive.

With the advent of more technical equipment for training and racing such as power meters, heart rate monitors and so on, it is now possible to do more field (i.e. home) based assessments that will provide you with some good data.

Our lab-fitness testing page gives more information about this sort of monitoring. We are working on a page to help you carry out a self-assessment of your fitness.

How And When To Adapt Or Change Your Plan

When training for triathlon, there nearly always comes a time where you need to modify or, worst case scenario, completely change your plan.

We often come across people who say ‘why make a plan then? Why not just go with the flow?’

The simple answer to this is ….. that doesn’t work.

Planning your training for triathlon sets out where you are going, and roughly how you are going to get there. It’s like setting out to drive across America. There are many ways of going coast to coast, and most people don’t know the routes, but you have to choose one and get on with it. If you are lucky or planned well you will get where you were going with the minimum of fuss.

If however, you were unable to get all the information you required the chances are you have to make diversions periodically. Maybe the map was out of date, or roadworks forced a change. This is the adaptation in your programme.

The plan may be going according to plan, but then an unforeseen work commitment means training is limited for a week or two….now what? An injury pops up, what then?

The first thing to think about is what is the goal?Your course of action then needs to be formed around this.

If you sprain an ankle a week before the race or 2 months before, your course of action will be different. And the consequences to the remainder of your programme will be different. You may need to take advice about how to recover, but you then fit the advice into the goal.

Remember there are many ways of reaching your goal but they all revolve around a good plan and a good sense of direction.

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