How to guide – beginner triathlon [free plan]

Add swimming, cycling and running, and you have a triathlon. Kick-start your journey with our beginner triathlon guide and the free training schedule.

Estimated reading time: 27 minutes

Great – you want to become a triathlete! Welcome to TOT Endurance and this roadmap that will take you from feeling – is triathlon something for me? To well-informed and ready to embark on your next big journey.

And you do not need to be a seasoned veteran of the sport with stacks upon stacks of medals. All you need is the will to dig in and commit to something extraordinary.

In this relatively long article, we will,

  • Answer the most common questions we get regarding beginner triathlon.
  • Give you a starting point for all the gear you may or may not need.
  • Engage you in a 4-week free beginner triathlon training schedule.

So let us begin…

Why train for a triathlon?

The reasons to train for a triathlon are as varied as there are triathletes. And finding your why is crucial since it will be a cornerstone for you to lean on when going gets tough (yes, it is not always fun!). So, remembering why you are doing it will motivate you.

Linnea Funered is a busy triathlete that rather runs in her bibs than bike in split shorts. She might choose coffee over swimming. And most certainly love her road bike.

Here are a couple of reasons we often hear from athletes we train.

VARIATION. Triathlon is a great way to become universally fit. You get great endurance, build overall strength, and, since you combine multiple sports, you will not wear yourself out. Or get bored.

SELF-FULFILMENT. You will get a good sense of achievement from the project of finishing a triathlon – regardless of the distance. Your race is a great goal, and along the way, you will accomplish small sub-goals that will build your confidence, stamina, and perseverance.

CONTROL. Numerous things in life are out of control and can frustrate you. On the contrary, triathlon training is something that you can control. And having control is pivotal for your mental well-being.

For further inspiration, read the interview with Linnea Funered and how she got into the triathlon circuit. Or, how Mike Goddard ended up in the national triathlon team for Great Britain.

A beginner triathlon guide

Before we take you further “down the rabbit hole” – making you spend more time and money on triathlon than initially intended – let us give you the basics. Or, better, some advice on how you can approach the triathlon quest.

DEFINE YOUR STARTING POINT. The best way to begin your triathlon journey is with a realistic assessment of your own abilities. So be true to yourself and set the baseline. Read more on how to start endurance training.

SET YOUR GOAL. Most triathletes like to structure their training season around a specific end of a season triathlon event. And then use the rest of the season to prepare for that race. To act accordingly, read more on finding your goal.

Mike Goddard is about to set out on a 16 km run through the olive groves and over the hills to the coastal town of Puerto de Mazarron, Southern Spain. This is where he goes during the winter when it is too cold in Scotland.

DETERMINE YOUR TRAINING VOLUME. Given your situation – including family, work and other obligations – how much time can you spend on triathlon training? The advice is to plan for and commit to a pre-defined number of workouts and hours per week. Read more on frequency, duration, and training quantity.

SET YOUR TRAINING ZONES. The intensity of your training is essential to have a good understanding of. Whether you base it on heart rate, pace or effect, your training zones are the foundation for all training and racing. Read more on intensity and functional threshold.

PLAN YOUR SEASON. Training for training’s sake is less helpful than targeted training with a specific purpose. This is why an individual training plan – that guides you from the first day of training all the way to race day – is so important. Read more on training structure and periodisation.

What is a triathlon?

You probably know that if you mix swimming, cycling and running, you get a triathlon. And during race day, the switch between each sport happens in the transition area. Not to forget, to accomplish both the training and the racing, you need some gear (more on this below). That’s it!

However, let us briefly look at the three sports.

SWIM. First out is the swim split. And that is the moment most athletes are most concerned about. Over 80% of our athletes say that their weakest sport is swimming.

Thankfully though, it’s the split that takes up the least of your time during a triathlon. Moreover, if you are not into freestyle swimming, you can breast-stroke your way around the course.

The swim start during Ironman Jönköping in Sweden
Just before the swim start during Ironman Jönköping, Sweden. It was only a couple of degrees Celcius, and the rain was pouring down. But Lena and Joachim were happy and ready for the signal.

BIKE. “It’s just like riding a bike” – Well, as you get more into triathlon training, you will see that there is a complete science to riding a bike. Both inside on a turbo trainer and outside. But during your first season, just riding the bike a lot is the recipe.

The bike split is considered demanding during race day due to the length of the moment. So the advice is to allocate around 50 % of your training riding your bike.

RUN. Last but not least comes the run. It may be the most straightforward sport of the three to start with. You just go out and run. But with the simplicity of it, the highest risk of getting injured lies.

In terms of training, start easy, add some resistance training, and progress into longer sessions. Let us suggest the run-walk method.

How long is a triathlon?

Triathlons come in many different forms and sizes. You have terrain triathlons, winter triathlons, and the most common type – racing on the roads.

The typical short-distance format for a triathlon is the Olympic (also, Standard distance) and the sprint distance.

An Olympic distance triathlon includes 1,5 km swimming, 40 km cycling, and 10 km running. And if you divide it by two, you get the sprint distance.

The four most common triathlon distances.
The four most common triathlon distances.

For most of us, the first race will be a sprint. And it is wise in many ways. Foremost, your starting (training) period is generally shorter, and you have to put in fewer hours of exercise per week.

However, do not underestimate the distance. Many seasoned triathletes return to the sprint because of the challenge, speed and joy of it.

When you open the door to long-distance triathlon, you have the infamous Ironman and the half-ironman distance.

The Ironman distance is the mother of all triathlons. It covers 3,8 km swimming, 180 km cycling, and to top it off – a full marathon! Each split alone usually qualifies as a stand-alone event.

So racing these kinds of distances calls for serious preparations. And is something that most athletes commit to completing after a couple of years in the triathlon game.

If you aim for the full-distance triathlon, read the extended article about how to start training for an Ironman.

How long should a beginner train for a triathlon?

Well, as with much in life, the initial answer is – It depends. However, a guideline that you can use as a starting point is,

  • For short-distance, we suggest 12 weeks of training. And if you are entirely new to endurance sports, add another 8-12 weeks of base training.
  • If you have trained triathlon for a while and aiming to race multiple times per year, organise your season around one main competition. And use all other triathlon and non-triathlon events for preparation.
  • Long-distance triathlon asks for more extended preparation. Again, for an in-depth discussion, read the blog about Ironman training.

Remember one thing. You are supposed to be fit and ready on race day, not before that. The training season is therefore spent getting ready, building you up for race day. And it takes time.

Can you do a sprint triathlon without training?

The answer is probably yes. If you are healthy and just want to tick off the bucket list. Then you should be able to complete a sprint triathlon without any training.

But then again, are you going to have a good time doing it? Triath should be fun, so preparing your body by training will give you a much better experience on race day. And without proper training, the risk of getting injured is more significant.

How many days a week should you train for a triathlon?

To initiate the discussion – how many days per week are you training now?

  • If you start from scratch, kick off your journey with the free beginner triathlon training schedule below.
  • And if you already have a training routine, get going from there. Begin switching your sessions to more triathlon-specific training.
A typical training week for an athlete that has been training for some time.
A typical training week for an athlete that has been training for some time.

We see triathletes who exercise multiple times per day, six days per week, and some that (only?) train three sessions a week. It all depends on your situation and ambition. Remember that it is not about who is working out the most, but training the smartest.

Also, training should give you energy, not take it away from you. Sure, you get fatigued when training, but you should feel energised at the end of the day. Again, let your situation guide how often (and how hard) you train. Do not follow someone else training plan or pace.

The great thing about the below beginner program is that you do the work based on your own capacity. By following it or any of our other individual programs, success is guaranteed!

How many hours a day do triathletes train?

Okay, by now, you have figured out how long in advance you should train for your first triathlon. You also have a good idea of how many days per week you should work out. But how much time will be spent on each session?

First, a general piece of advice for you as a beginner triathlete is to schedule shorter workouts more frequently. Rather than two longer workouts per week.

The whole idea is to have a consistent approach, and 30-60 minutes per day work wonders on your progress.

A benchmark for beginner triathlon training each week.

In the above graphic, you find a benchmark for your commitment to training each week. It is no absolute science, but use it as a guide to breaking down your training week.

And typically, you will need to do double the amount of cycling than the other sports. Suppose that you plan to train 8 hours a week. Then you want to commit to four hours on the bike, two hours running and two hours swimming.

When should you train triathlon?

Be pragmatic when you plan your training week.

  • Clear your schedule and make time specifically for your daily exercise. That way, you do not find an excuse to skip training. Instead, practice proper time management.
  • Training can be done during your lunch break. Running or biking to or from the office or when the kids are asleep. So do not have to quit your day job.

Consider training a part of your life, as important as your other interests. The work you put in now is a true investment in yourself – the health benefits of training are lifelong.

What do you need for your first triathlon?

You can spend a fortune on triathlon gear. And, you often meet an attitude that triathlon is three times more fun. Implicating both the training and the equipment.

But there is no reason for you to get all the gear at once (or ever?).

We once coached an athlete who started out by installing his mother’s bike on the turbo trainer. And he spent the whole winter training indoor like that. When spring arrived, he had saved enough money to buy his own bike. Later that same year, he won his age group during a sprint event.

So, what are the must-haves and nice to have?

Feel free to download our checklist on all things you may need for your training and your upcoming triathlon race.

Swim gear for triathlon

Starting swim training is relatively inexpensive. You need a swimsuit, a pair of goggles and a swim cap.

MUST HAVE

  • Swim goggles – A must when swimming in chlorinated water and in salty seas. If you are swimming in brackish water or freshwater lakes, you can swim without goggles, but it is way more comfortable to swim with.
  • Swimsuit – Unless you are doing your training at a nudist resort, you need a swimsuit.

NICE TO HAVE

  • Swim cap – Depending on where you live, this can be mandatory gear for training. For us here in Sweden, it is not compulsory. However, it is a great way to keep hair away from your face and keep the pool’s hygiene high. Also, if you got a cap from your last triathlon event, use it with pride. You earned it and definitely have the bragging rights.
  • Earplugs and a nose clip – These are great tools to use if you are sensitive to getting water into your ear canals and/or sinuses.
  • Paddles, pull buoy, and swim fins – Swimming has lots of extra gear that you can use to become a better swimmer. Use them wisely, and harvest the benefits.
  • Wetsuit for open water swimming – Sooner or later, you need to start looking at wetsuits. It is more or less mandatory, but check this with the event organiser. A wetsuit shield you from the cold, make you more buoyant and reduce your drag in the water – making you faster.
  • Safety buoy – When swimming in open water, a safety buoy is good for several reasons. You will be more visible to others out at sea, and it is something to grab onto if you need to rest. Additionally, you can put your car key and wallet in it when swimming.
  • Buoyancy shorts – To simulate swimming in a wetsuit while swimming in the pool, you can use a pair of buoyancy shorts. They will help by lifting your hips and legs closer to the surface.

Triathlon bike equipment

Unlike the swim and run, you can break the bank on the bike. But relax; you do not need a NASA-equipped bicycle to participate in a triathlon. As long as your equipment follows the rules of the organiser, anything goes.

One important thing when you buy your first bike, get a frame that fits you. It will last you for many years, and everything else is replaceable.

MUST HAVE

  • Bicycle – that is, any bike!
  • Helmet for outdoor cycling – Safety first, so no helmet, no riding.

NICE TO HAVE

  • Turbo trainer for indoor cycling – A turbo trainer is great, both for training during the winter and if you are the type of person who loves training in a really structured way. On a trainer, you can control almost everything about your ride.
  • Cycling shoes – Cycling gets more efficient if you are pushing, pressing, and pulling on your pedals. Being attached to your bike via your shoes will make you produce more power by activating more muscles when creating momentum for the whole pedal stroke.
  • Sunglasses – Going fast will make your eyes dry. Protect them from both the sun, wind and bugs with a pair of sunglasses.
  • Water bottles – Since you train with resistance from the wind. You won’t feel how sweaty you are getting from cycling. So fuel up!
  • Extra tire/tube + pump – Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. Having to end training because of a flat tire is no fun. Prevent it by having spare parts with you on your ride.
  • Multi-tool – Same as above, you do not want to end training because of a technical breakdown.

What gear you need to run

When it comes to the running – well, you know the slogan – just do it!

And get yourself a pair of good shoes relevant for you and the terrain you will run in. However, remember that you will run on asphalt during a triathlon event. So make sure that you practice it.

MUST HAVE

  • Running shoes – Sure, you can take the route of barefoot running, but for most – that will take you a considerable amount of time getting used to. So, opt-in for a pair of running shoes. Go to a running-specific store, and ask for help to pick out a pair that suits you.

NICE TO HAVE

  • Cap – Protection from the sun, and it will keep sweat away from dropping down into your eyes.
  • Sunglasses – You do not want to run around squinting. And you need to see where you are going and where to put your feet.
  • Energy belt – If you are going on a longer run, having extra energy to get you through will be welcomed.

Beginner triathlon training plan

So, let us get into the actual triathlon training. The overall recipe is simple – add swimming, cycling, running, and, finally, some strength training to your schedule. Nevertheless, the devil is in the details. And even with a recipe, you need the best ingredients to create a feast.

Training-wise, “just doing” the sports is an excellent way to get going. Soon, however, it will be more fun and develop your skills faster and better if you follow a training plan.

Therefore, to give you a head start, we have developed the below free beginner triathlon training schedule.

4-week overview

In the graph, you find a summary of your upcoming four training weeks.

Overview of our 4-week beginner triathlon training schedule.
  • Each week include four sessions; mixing drills, force, endurance and muscular endurance.
  • We cover swimming, cycling, running, and strength training.
  • With workouts between 30 and 60 minutes, the program will ease you into a more structured training method.

Set your training zones

Before you dive into the training, you might consider figuring out (test for) your training zones. Those are the individual intensity zones that will help you to determine how hard you should train at any given moment.

Unfortunately, there is no magical test that will define your zones for all sports. So you need to do sports specific tests.

I hear you; it is not complicated at all!

  1. Download and use the free test protocols we include in all our training programs.
  2. Then set your training zones with the help of our zone calculator.

Week 1

Let’s go – the first week in this triathlon program will start your journey. Of the four workouts we include in the download for this week, we will pay extra attention to the swim session.

We know, many triathletes call the sport “survive-bike-run”. And that might be the case if you have just begun (open water) swimming. But do not despair; help is on the way.

No matter your swimming experience, there is always room for improvements in your technique in the water. The main reason: with better skills, you go from fighting the water to more enjoyable swimming.

So this week, we focus on your swim form.

The swim form session

As always, start by warming up. In this case, the session begins with 6 laps of 25 (meters or yards), where you alternate between freestyle swimming and breaststroke. After each lap, relax at the edge of the pool for 20 seconds.

Beginner triathlon swim form session week 1

NOTE. In our training, we assume that you can swim at least 100 meters/yards of freestyle. And it does not have to be fast or with perfect technique. If this is not the case, you will get there in no time if you are willing to spend some time in the pool. An excellent way to follow through with the training is by alternating freestyle- and breaststroke swimming.

Swim drills

When you are done warming up, you continue to the session’s main section – drills. The two exercises will help you develop the part of your stroke when your hand enters the water and until you start pulling yourself forward.

Beginner triathlon swim drills week 1
  • In the first round of 6 laps, you address the catch with a “catch up” drill. Place your arms in front of you, with your hands shoulder-width apart. Do one stroke and recover while your other arm is leading you, resting forward.
  • Then go on with another 6 laps of “throwing net“. This exercise is more challenging. And if you end up drinking too much water, add a pair of fins. It will give you better propulsion, and you can put your mind to the exercise.

Main swim set

To finish up the workout, you swim as many laps as you want (or until the time is out). Have in mind the drills and what you learnt from them.

Beginner triathlon swim set week 1

And if you feel like throwing in an extra lap of drills – just do it!

More swim training

We sort the freestyle stroke into six separate segments. Read about all parts of the stroke and watch our videos accompanying each swim drill.

Download week 1

Feel free to download (pdf) and follow along with the first week of our beginner triathlon training schedule.

Week 2

You get out of the water and head over to the transition area. Ready to switch to the bike leg. You are still in training, but transition one (T1) is most often one happy moment during race day. You made the first part (swimming), the crowd is cheering, and you still have the energy to smile.

If you have prepared your gear and practised the switch during training – you are now up for the most extended split of the three. There is a saying that “you can not be too good at cycling”. And this is especially true if you are training for an Ironman triathlon.

The main cycling ability

One of the essential cycling abilities is muscular endurance – the combination of strength and endurance. It will help you pedal through the wind and uphill. And used wisely, it lay the ground for a better run split. So in a way, you can not get too much of it.

And, you guessed it, that is why we give the bike session some extra thoughts this week.

Beginner triathlon bike muscular endurance session week 2

Bike session

Start your workout with easy pedalling for five minutes. Chose a gear that allows you to keep a cadence of around 90 revolutions per minute (rpm).

Beginner triathlon bike muscular endurance warm up week 2

That number (90 rpm) is not an exact science, but since you use more of your “endurance muscles”, it is generally better to pedal with a higher cadence.

Bike drills

During the next five minutes, you alter every 30 seconds between standing and sitting.

Beginner triathlon bike muscular endurance drills week 2

When standing, the advice is to use a higher gear (smaller cog in the back) and a cadence of 60-70. This will help you to get a less jerky pedal stroke.

  • Try to stand straight instead of leaning on the handlebar.

When seated, switch to an easy gear and stay around 90-100 rpm.

  • If you start bouncing on the saddle, it is a sign that your nervous system needs some high-cadence practice.
  • You may also notice a rise in heart rate, which is perfectly normal. With a higher cadence, you need to transport more blood to your muscles.

Then continue with single-leg drills. Most of us are stronger on one side, and this exercise is excellent to even out such a difference. Also, it will give you an improved pedal stroke.

Beginner triathlon bike muscular endurance drills week 2
  • Un-clip one leg and just let it hang—pedal with the other leg for 30 seconds, then shift leg.
  • Use an easy gear (bigger cog back) and stay around 50-70 rpm.
  • Yes, it is tricky and quite challenging when you are not used to it. And as soon as you get tired, the stroke becomes jerky. But practice makes perfect!

Muscular endurance

After the single-leg drill, bike for five minutes in zone 2 (heart rate or power), drink some water and prepare for the more demanding part of the workout.

Beginner triathlon bike muscular endurance week 2

The following 30 minutes are divided into six iterations of 5 minutes (2+1+2).

  • Escalate the intensity to zone 4, and stay there for 2 minutes. Make sure to use a gear that matches a cadence of around 90.
  • Then immediately change to an easy gear (for example, 52/23) and pedal as fast as possible without bouncing on the saddle. The idea here is to flush your legs and prepare you for the next round.
  • For the next two minutes, you are cycling in zone 2. Again, switch to an appropriate gear…repeat!

That is it.

More bike training

Download week 2

Feel free to download (pdf) and follow along with the second week of our beginner triathlon training schedule.

Week 3

By the time you get off the bike on race day, ready for your run, the race time is usually over the halfway mark. Fatigue begins to accumulate.

And your legs are now asked to change from a circular motion to a stepping motion. This awkward change can be made more comfortable with what is called brick-training.

But before you get into that, for now, let us concentrate on the run training alone.

Born to run

Running is a seemingly simple sport. And something you have done since you were a child. However, we only need to look to the fluid stride and effortless pace of an elite runner to realize there is a lot to learn.

Therefore, in this weeks run session, we put emphasis on your running skills.

Run session

As always, start your workout with a warm-up. After five minutes of easy jogging, you switch over to some dynamic exercises. The idea is to activate your glutes and core muscles, which you use during running.

Run drills

Then it is time for the central part of the workout – run drills. Do each exercise two times before you continue to the next one.

The idea is to establish a better running pattern with improved coordination and balance. So, do not stress through the session. Take your time, almost exaggerating the movement in each drill.

  • You will find instructional videos for each exercise in the blog about how to run faster.

Zone 2 running

When you are done with the run drills, run in zone 2 for at least 15 minutes. Feel free to extend the session, but stay in zone 2 throughout the workout.

Try to incorporate the new skills, focusing on your running form.

More run training

  • Lower the risk of injury, increase running performance and lay the ground for your ability to run faster and longer with proper strength training for runners.
  • The run-walk method is a simple and effective way to improve endurance, avoid injury, and boost run motivation.
  • Long runs or endurance workouts are a staple in all running training programs. How long should your long run be?

Download week 3

Feel free to download (pdf) and follow along with the third week of our beginner triathlon training schedule.

Week 4

By now, you have noticed that we include one strength session per week – why is that!?

The short explanation…

  • Strength training makes your muscles stronger (big surprise!).
  • Stronger muscles can perform longer at higher intensities before they fatigue.
  • Consequently leading to a lower risk of injury.

And having good core (abdominal + back) strength is essential for a functioning body. For this reason, we put emphasis on core training during this week.

Core warm-up

Before you get into the main set, warm up by jumping rope and push-ups.

Jumping rope is quite challenging if you are not used to it, requiring top-notch coordination. And it forces you to coordinate your upper and lower body movements, which makes it a tremendous exercise.

  • If you get “trapped by the rope”, just untangle it and continue. After some practising, you will get it right.

Push-ups, in turn, is excellent in many ways. Except for strengthening your upper body, they activate the lower back and abdominal muscles. Hence, perfect as a warm-up exercise.

  • If 12 regular push-ups are too demanding, put your knees to the ground.
  • Tense your abdominal muscles so that you do not hurt your lower back.

Core strength

Okay, let us get on with the actual core training.

When it comes to the core, you should rely less on mindless repetitions and focus more on awareness.

To make it hurt where it suppose to. So, in this session, we have included only six different exercises.

  • Do four sets per exercise and continue to the next. Or, do one set per exercise, and iterate the routine four times. Your call.
  • Work for 30 seconds, then recover for 15 seconds.

Videos and instructions,

More strength training

Download week 4

Feel free to download (pdf) and follow along with the fourth week of our beginner triathlon training schedule.

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