Experience Life Magazine

Your First Triathlon

What you need to know about how to prepare for your first sprint triathlon from the sport’s most respected expert.

Editor’s Note: Joe Friel has trained endurance athletes — from novices to Olympians — since 1980. He holds a master’s degree in exercise science, is a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Elite-level coach. He is founder and past chair of the USA Triathlon National Coaching Commission, and is a featured columnist for Inside Triathlon. The following article is adapted from Friel’s book, Your First Triathlon (VeloPress, 2006).

Training in one sport, such as running, is hard enough. Training in three sports at the same time is more than three times as challenging, in part because you need to blend so many different workouts into a week. When preparing for a triathlon, you obviously can’t do as much swimming as a swimmer does. The same goes for biking and running. Athletes in each of these single sports put in far more training time and distance in their respective sports than does the typical triathlete. For example, the average beginner athlete in each of these sports probably exercises around five to six hours each week. If you tried to do what each of them do, you’d have to exercise 15 to 18 hours a week, and that doesn’t include strength training. Obviously that’s not going to happen.

Assuming you have around three to four hours each week to work out, you need to figure out how to make the best use of that time so your fitness improves steadily. If you overdo it, you may easily become overtrained, injured or sick. But if you do too little, your fitness won’t improve enough to finish your first triathlon. This is the quandary every new triathlete faces.

This article can help you solve that problem by providing a training plan you can follow and modify as necessary. It’s not possible to have a one-schedule-fits-all training plan; there are just too many variables, such as time available to exercise, prior experience in one or more sports, how quickly one recovers and individual rates of fitness improvement. So, I’ve designed this training plan with optional workouts based on your unique situation.

Why should you even have a plan? Why not just swim, bike, run and do strength workouts when you have the time? That may work for a few people, but chances are it won’t work for you. I expect you are like most triathletes — very busy, with too much to do already. And yet somehow you’re going to try to wedge triathlon training into each day. If you don’t have a plan of what you will do every day, chances are you won’t do much. A well-defined plan keeps you on schedule to achieve your goal. I have made your plan as user-friendly and flexible as possible so you can stay on track.

Before we get down to the nuts and bolts of a training plan, let’s review a few basic concepts on how to get fit.

The Big Picture: How to Get Fit
The plan I’ve put together for you is based on a system of training called periodization. Periodization is really nothing more than a way of organizing training so that you train hard when you need to, rest when you need to, and are race-fit the day of your race. (Editor’s note: For more on this concept, see “Periodization: The Art of Fitness Timing” in the December 2005 archives.) Using periodization, your weekly hours of training will increase steadily as you get in better condition and are able to handle more. Essentially, your workouts will become progressively longer.

They will also become more like the triathlon for which you are training by requiring more effort. If there are going to be hills on the triathlon course, eventually you will have to include hills in your workouts. If your first triathlon will be in what is usually a hot time of year, you will need to practice in the heat as you get closer to race day. All of this is called training specificity — your workouts will become increasingly more like the race over time.

The most important aspect of preparation for your first triathlon is consistency. There’s no doubt that you will miss some workouts, but you can’t miss many.

Occasionally there will be days when something pops up in your life and prevents you from getting on your bike right after work as you had planned, such as the boss asking you to work overtime. There will be some Saturday when taking the kids out of town to a soccer game will be more important. You may also catch a flu bug and miss a few days of training. But it’s important to keep such interruptions to your training plan to a minimum. If missing workouts becomes a weekly occurrence, your chances of achieving your triathlon goal will be greatly diminished.

Experienced triathletes have developed coping strategies for these interruptions to training. Seasoned triathletes will take a bike and a stationary trainer to the soccer match and ride while watching the game. They will run during their lunch break on days they need to work late. They get up earlier to work out on mornings when they have to be at an early meeting. They watch the big game on TV while riding a stationary bike rather than missing either the game or the ride. To get in shape for your first triathlon, you will have to become a master at such coping strategies. If you allow life to get in the way of your workouts too often, you just won’t be ready.

Your Training Plan
Your training plan allows 12 weeks for you to get in shape. If you’re starting from ground zero, that should be just about right. If you have been working out for a few weeks you can jump in at a level that closely matches what you are doing now.

This beginner plan is for the person who is brand new to all three sports. It will help you gradually build fitness in swimming, biking, and running. The plans refer to workouts by number, such as “Bike 2” (see chart below for workouts).

Your Intensity Guide
Each of the workouts tells you how hard to exercise, using this “Rating of Perceived Exertion” (RPE) scale:

Zone 1: Very easy with light breathing
Zone 2: Easy with increased breathing
Zone 3: Moderately hard with somewhat labored breathing
Zone 4: Hard with labored breathing
Zone 5: Very hard with panting

This scale may be used for all sports of the workouts in the training plan. For the bike and run workouts, if you are using a heart-rate monitor, you can refer to your heart-rate training zones, if you know them. You don’t have to use a heart-rate monitor; RPE is fine.

Optional Workouts
Most weeks in the plans have two swim, two bike and two run workouts scheduled. Beginning at six weeks to go until your first triathlon, combination (bike + run) workouts are included. There are also optional swim, bike, run and strength workouts included for each week. These are workouts you may do if you have the time, but they aren’t necessary if you just want to finish the triathlon. The experienced swimmer, cyclist or runner may want to do the optional workout in his or her sport to maintain a higher level of fitness.

Combination Workouts
These training sessions, combining biking and running into one workout, are the key to doing well in triathlon. Over the course of several weeks they become mini-triathlons and get you ready for the challenge of completing two or more sports without rest.

Recovery and Rejuvenation Weeks
Recovery and rejuvenation weeks are built into the plans at nine, six and three weeks before your first triathlon. During these weeks, consider cutting back even more if you are especially tired or feeling pressured to keep up with everything in your life. It is perfectly fine to not do the optional workouts or to leave out one or more of the primary workouts in order to rest more. These mini-breaks will allow you to physically rest and mentally rejuvenate. There will be no loss of fitness. In fact, after resting more than usual you will probably feel like you gained fitness.

Race Week
The last two weeks on each schedule are called “1 Week to Tri on Saturday” and “1 Week to Tri on Sunday.” Follow only one of these weekly plans, depending on which day your first triathlon is to be held.

Beginner Plan

Mon.

Tues.

Wed.

Thurs.

Fri.

Sat.

Sun.

12
Weeks to Tri

Optional strength #1 or day off

Swim #1 and optional run #1

Bike #1

Run #8 and optional strength #1

Swim #1 and optional bike #1

Bike #2

Run #1 and optional swim #1

11
Weeks to Tri

Optional strength #1 or day off

Swim #1 and optional run #1

Bike #2

Run #8 and optional strength #1

Swim #1 and optional bike #1

Bike #3

Run #2 and optional swim #1

10
Weeks to Tri

Optional strength #2 or day off

Swim #2 and optional run #2

Bike #1

Run #8 and optional strength #2

Swim #2 and optional bike #3

Bike #4

Run #3 and optional swim #1

9
Weeks to Tri (R&R)

Optional strength #3 or day off

Swim #2 and optional run #3

Bike #5

Run #8 and optional strength #3

Swim #2 and optional bike #3

Bike #8

Run #4 and optional swim #1

8
Weeks to Tri

Optional strength #3 or day off

Swim #3 and optional run #8

Bike #1

Run #3 and optional strength #3

Swim #3 and optional bike #1

Bike #8

Run #4 and optional swim #1

7
Weeks to Tri

Optional strength #3 or day off

Swim #3 and optional run #4

Bike #6

Run #8 and optional strength #3

Swim #3 and optional bike #3

Bike #9

Run #5 and optional swim 1

6
Weeks to Tri (R&R)

Optional strength #4 or day off

Swim #4 and optional run #8

Bike #6

Run #4

Swim #4 and optional bike #3

Run #5

Optional swim #1 and combo #1

5
Weeks to Tri

Optional strength #4 or day off

Swim #4 and optional run #4

Bike #8

Run #8

Swim #4 and optional bike #2

Run #6

Optional swim #1 and combo #2

4
Weeks to Tri

Optional strength #4 or day off

Swim #5 and optional run #8

Bike #7

Run #6

Swim #6 and optional bike #3

Bike #8 and optional swim #1

Swim #6 and combo #3

3
Weeks to Tri (R&R)

Optional strength #4 or day off

Swim #5 and optional run #8

Bike #7

Run #7

Swim #6 and optional bike #3

Bike #3 and optional swim #1

Swim #6 and combo #4

2
Weeks to Tri

Optional strength #4 or day off

Swim #5 and optional run #4

Bike #8

Run #8

Swim #6 and optional bike #1

Bike #1 and optional swim #1

Swim #6 and combo #3

1
Week to Tri on Saturday

Day off

Bike #3

Run #1

Run #2

Bike #1

Your First Triathlon

1
Week to Tri on Sunday

Day off

Swim #5

Bike #3

Run #1

Swim #2

Bike #1

Your First Triathlon

 

 

Swim Workouts

The workouts are written so that yards or meters can be used, depending on your pool’s measurement.

Swim Workout 1: This is a 10-minute swim with low effort in zones 1 or 2. Swim one length of the pool, rest for 30 to 45 seconds, then swim back and rest again. Continue this for 10 minutes.

Swim Workout 2: This is a 15-minute swim with low effort in zones 1 or 2. Swim one length of the pool, stop and rest at the wall for 30 to 45 seconds, then swim back and rest again. Continue this for 15 minutes.

Swim Workout 3: This is a 15-minute swim. Swim as far as you can without stopping but no longer than 400 yards/meters. Keep the effort low — zones 1 or 2. Rest for 1 minute. Swim one length of the pool in zones 2 or 3, then stop and rest at the wall for 30 to 45 seconds. Continue this for the remainder of the 15 minutes.

Swim Workout 4: This is a 15-minute swim. Swim 100 yards/meters in zone 1. Rest 30 to 45 seconds. Swim 75 yards/meters in zone 2. Rest 30 to 45 seconds. Swim 50 yards/meters in zone 2. Rest 30 to 45 seconds. Swim one length of the pool in zone 2, followed by 30 to 45 seconds of rest at the wall. Continue this for the remainder of the 15 minutes.

Swim Workout 5: This is a 15-minute swim. Swim 100 yards/meters at zone 1. Rest 30 to 45 seconds. Swim 25 yards/meters in zone 3. Rest 30 to 45 seconds. Do the 25-yard swim three more times with the same rest breaks. For the remainder of the 15 minutes repeat the one-length swim in zone 1, followed by 30 to 45 seconds of rest.

Swim Workout 6: Warm up by swimming 100 yards/meters in zone 1. Then swim 400 yards/meters nonstop in zones 2 or 3. Time yourself.

Bike Workouts

 

Bike Workout 1: This is a 20-minute ride on a mostly flat course or an indoor trainer. Gradually increase the intensity from zone 1 to zone 2 as you warm up. Stay mostly in zone 2 throughout the remainder of the ride. Concentrate on your pedaling cadence (count every time your right foot goes down for one minute). Keep your cadence at 90 rpm. Cool down in zone 1 for 5 minutes.

Bike Workout 2: Ride for 20 minutes on an indoor trainer. After a 5-minute warm-up building from zone 1 to zone 2, unclip one foot from the pedal. Then, with the bike in a low and easy gear, pedal with the other leg. You’ll find that at the top of the pedal stroke there is a “dead” spot that is a bit difficult to pedal through. Focus on this dead spot to smooth it out. At first you will last only a few seconds with one leg as it fatigues quickly. Change legs when this happens. Over time you will become more efficient at the top of the stroke and be able to pedal longer before tiring. This is a sign that your pedal stroke is improving. Strive for 2 minutes on a leg before needing to change legs. Allow 5 minutes at the end for easy pedaling to cool down.

Bike Workout 3: Ride your bike for 30 minutes on a mostly flat course or on an indoor trainer. After a 10-minute warm-up, concentrate on the 9-to-3 drill. Think of the pedal stroke as being the face of a clock, with 12 o’clock at the top and 6 o’clock at the bottom. When the pedal cranks are parallel to the ground, the forward foot is in the 3 o’clock position and the back foot is at 9 o’clock. What you want to do in this drill is feel like you are moving your rear foot straight forward from 9 to 3 on the clock face without ever going through 12. Obviously you are, but by firing the muscles this way you train them to pedal smoothly. Every minute or so, think about pedaling this way for several seconds. Take a mental break and then do it again. Repeat this frequently throughout the ride. Leave the last 5 minutes for an easy cool-down in zone 1.

Bike Workout 4: Ride your bike for 40 minutes on a mostly flat course or an indoor trainer. After a 10-minute warm-up, concentrate on the shoe-top drill. As you are pedaling, try to keep your foot against the top inside of the shoe and avoid touching the bottom inside of the shoe. This drill emphasizes all parts of the pedal stroke except the downstroke, which is the easy part. Leave the last 10 minutes for an easy cool-down in zone 1.

Bike Workout 5: Ride your bike for 40 minutes on a mostly flat course or an indoor trainer. After a 10-minute warm-up, concentrate on the toe-touch drill. As your foot approaches the 12 o’clock position, try to touch your toes to the front end of your shoe. Make sure your heel is slightly higher than the ball of your foot when doing this. Leave the last 10 minutes for an easy cool-down in zone 1.

Bike Workout 6: Ride your bike for 30 minutes on a mostly flat course or on an indoor trainer. After a 10-minute warm-up, concentrate on the pedal-mash drill. Shift to a higher (harder) gear, one that keeps your cadence between 50 and 60 (you may need to count every time your right foot goes down to get this right). For 15 seconds, stay seated and drive the pedals down with a lot of effort at this low cadence. Then shift back to a normal gear and pedal easily at a comfortably high cadence for 1 minute and 45 seconds. Repeat this drill four more times. In other words, do one mash drill every 2 minutes. Do not do this drill if you have sensitive knees. Instead, ride in zone 2 for 10 minutes. Leave the last 10 minutes for an easy cool-down in zone 1.

Bike Workout 7: Ride your bike for 30 minutes on a course with lots of short hills. The experienced rider may make this a 60-minute ride. After a 10-minute warm-up, climb several hills, staying seated and keeping your cadence above 70 rpm (you may need to count every time your right foot goes down for 1 minute). A variation on this workout is to do three to five repeats on a hill that takes about 2 minutes to climb. Do not do this workout if you have sensitive knees. Instead, ride in zone 2 for 10 minutes. Leave the last 5 to 10 minutes for an easy cool-down in zone 1.

Bike Workout 8: Ride your bike for 40 minutes on a mostly flat course or an indoor trainer. Stay in zones 1 and 2 for the entire ride. Your cadence should be comfortably high.

Bike Workout 9: Ride your bike for 60 minutes on a mostly flat course or an indoor trainer. Stay in zones 1 and 2 for the entire ride. Your cadence should be comfortably high.

Run Workouts

All run workouts are best done on a flat, soft surface such as gravel, grass, dirt or a track unless otherwise noted. Avoid concrete and asphalt.

Run Workout 1: This is a 20-minute walk-run session. Walk briskly for 5 minutes. Run 15 seconds in zone 3 then walk 45 seconds in zone 1. Repeat 10 times with 45-second walks, 10 times. Cool down by walking in zone 1 for 5 minutes.

Run Workout 2: This is a 20-minute walk-run session. Walk briskly for 5 minutes. Run 30 seconds in zone 3 then walk 30 seconds in zone 1. Repeat 10 times. Cool down by walking in zone 1 for 5 minutes.

Run Workout 3: This is a 20-minute walk-run session. Walk briskly for 5 minutes. Run 60 seconds in zone 3 then walk 30 seconds in zone 1. Repeat 7 times. Cool down by walking in zone 1 for about 5 minutes.

Run Workout 4: This is a 20-minute walk-run. Warm up by alternating 1 minute of walking briskly in zone 1 with 1 minute of running in zone 2 for a total of 5 minutes. Run 10 minutes in zone 2. It’s OK to stop and walk a few seconds. Cool down by walking in zone 1 for 5 minutes.

Run Workout 5: This is a 30-minute walk-run session. Warm up by alternating 1 minute of walking briskly in zone 1 with 1 minute of running in zone 2 for a total of 5 minutes. Run 3 minutes in zone 2 then walk 1 minute in zone 1. Repeat 5 times. Cool down by walking in zone 1 for 5 minutes.

Run Workout 6: This is a 30-minute walk-run session. If your race will be on a hilly course, do this workout on hills. Warm up by alternating 1 minute of walking briskly in zone 1 with 1 minute of running in zone 2 for a total of 5 minutes. Run 20 minutes in zone 2. It’s OK to stop and walk a few seconds, and it’s OK to alternate walking and running on the hills. Cool down by walking in zone 1 for 5 minutes.

Run Workout 7: This is a 30-minute run. If your race will be on a hilly course, do this workout on hills. Run 30 minutes in zone 2. It’s OK to stop and walk a few seconds, and it’s OK to alternate walking and running on the hills. How much distance did you cover in 30 minutes?

Run Workout 8: This is a 20-minute “strides” workout. Parks are excellent for this workout. Do not do this workout on concrete and asphalt. Warm up by alternating 1 minute of walking briskly in zone 1 with 1 minute of running in zone 2 for a total of 7 minutes (the experienced runner can run for 15 to 20 minutes, building from zone 1 to zone 2). Then on a flat or very slightly downhill course that is approximately 100 yards long, run 20 seconds in zone 4. Note that these are not zone 5 (all-out effort). Hold back and concentrate on running form, not speed. Count each time your right foot touches the ground for this 20 seconds. The number should be at least 29. Turn around and walk back to your starting point. Do four to six of these strides. If you are taking fewer than 29 right-foot steps in 20 seconds, shorten and quicken your stride without running any harder than zone 4. As a variation on this workout, do the first two or three strides barefoot (on grass only, and be sure to check for sharp objects first). When you put your shoes back on, try to run with the same good form you used when barefoot. Cool down by walking in zone 1 for 5 minutes. The experienced runner can vary this workout by doing the strides uphill and may extend it to 45 minutes, with a longer warm-up and cool-down.

Combination Workouts

Combination Workout 1: Bike for 30 minutes on a mostly flat course or an indoor trainer. Gradually increase the intensity from zone 1 to zone 2 as you warm up. Stay mostly in zone 2 throughout the remainder of the ride. Quickly transition to a 10-minute run or walk-run on a flat course in zones 1 to 2.

Combination Workout 2: Bike for 40 minutes on a mostly flat course or an indoor trainer. Gradually increase the intensity from zone 1 to zone 2 as you warm up. Stay mostly in zone 2 throughout the remainder of the ride. Quickly transition to a 10-minute run or walk-run on a flat course in zones 1 to 2.

Combination Workout 3: Bike for 50 minutes on a course that is similar to the bike course in your first triathlon or on an indoor trainer. After a 20-minute warm-up, building intensity from zone 1 to zone 2, ride for 30 minutes steady in zone 3 (an experienced cyclist can do this in zone 4). Quickly transition to a 10-minute run or walk-run on a flat course in zones 1 to 2.

Combination Workout 4: Bike for 50 minutes on a course that is similar to the bike course in your first triathlon or on an indoor trainer. After a 20-minute warm-up, building intensity from zone 1 to zone 2, ride for 30 minutes steady in zone 3 (an experienced cyclist can do this in zone 4). Quickly transition to a 20-minute run or walk-run on a flat course in zones 1 to 2.

Strength Workouts

For all strength workouts, warm up by spinning on a stationary bike for 5 minutes. All strength workouts will follow this progression of exercises:

  • a)   Leg press
  • b) Seated row
  • c) Chest press
  • d) Heel raise or knee extension or leg curl (choose one of these three based on your personal weakness — calf, knee, hamstrings)
  • e) Abdominal curl with twist
  • f) Standing, bent-arm, and lat pull-down

Complete all of the sets before advancing to the next exercise. Maintain good form on each rep. Cool down by riding a stationary bike for 5 minutes with a high cadence and low resistance.

Strength Workout 1: Anatomical Adaptation (AA) Phase. The purpose of the AA phase is to perfect the exercise movements while building general body strength. Then with a 30RM load (a weight you could only lift about 30 times), do 3 sets of 20 reps each (it will feel easy) of the above exercises. Form is more important than weight loads in this phase.

Strength Workout 2: Maximum Transition (MT) Phase. The purpose of the first two workouts in the MT phase is to transition from lighter to heavier loads. This is the first week of the MT phase. With a 20RM load (a weight you could only lift about 20 times), do three sets of 15 to 20 reps each. Stop each set when you feel you could only lift the weight one or two more times. Do not go to failure.

Strength Workout 3: MT Phase, cont. The purpose of the MT phase is to improve triathlon-specific movement strength. This is for all weeks of the MT phase after the first week. Warm up by spinning on a stationary bike for 5 minutes. Then with a 15RM load (a weight you could only lift about 15 times), do three sets of 10 to 15 reps each. Stop each set when you feel you could only lift the weight one or two more times. Do not go to failure.

Strength Workout 4: Strength Maintenance (SM) Phase. The purpose of the SM phase is to maintain the strength you have built. Warm up by spinning on a stationary bike for 5 minutes. Do only 2 sets with 10 to15 reps of each exercise. The first set is done with a 20RM load (a weight you could lift 20 times). The second set is with a 15RM load (a weight you could lift 15 times). Stop the second set when you feel you could only lift the weight one or two more times. Do not go to failure.

What to Do When Things Don’t Go Right

Much as you’d like not to, you’re going to miss some workouts. There will be days when life gets in the way of exercise. You’ll have to go to work late or early, the kids will need a chauffeur, there will be no pool on a business trip or vacation, unexpected house guests will arrive, or something else will prevent you from doing a workout. An occasional missed workout will have no negative consequences for your first triathlon, but I must stress that repeatedly missing workouts, such as once or twice a week, will considerably reduce your fitness.

Although you can usually forget about the missed workout and continue on with your training plan as if nothing has happened, combination workouts should not be missed because they are very important to your preparation. If you can anticipate that you will miss one of these workouts, try rearranging your workouts for that week so that you can fit it in and leave out another one in the sport at which you are strongest. If you do the optional strength workouts, they should always be the first to cut.

Should You Exercise With a Cold?

Training hard makes you a candidate for an upper respiratory infection. As the workload increases, so does the risk of catching a cold or the flu.

What should you do if you feel a cold coming on — continue training as normal, reduce training, or rest? A “neck check” will help you decide. If you have above-the-neck symptoms, such as a runny nose or a scratchy throat, start your workout, but reduce the intensity and duration. You may begin to feel better once you’re warmed up, but if not, stop. If the symptoms are below the neck — such as a sore throat, chest cold, chills, coughing up matter, achy muscles or a fever — don’t even start. These are often symptoms of a virus. Exercising will make it worse. Let your body’s energy reserves go into fighting the bug rather than trying to recover from workouts.

This article was adapted with the publisher’s permission from Joe Friel’s bestselling book, Your First Triathlon (VeloPress, 2006). The book includes more information on training and nutrition, a gear checklist, what to expect on race day, how to personalize your plan, and additional workouts and training plans. Please visit www.velopress.com for more information.

Your First Triathlon by Joe Friel

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