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Beginner triathlon training guide [free plan]
In this article, we will…
Whether you’re looking to challenge yourself or seeking a varied and comprehensive fitness routine, this guide demystifies the three sports—swimming, cycling, and running—and offers practical advice, training plans, and motivational strategies.
Discover how to balance training with life’s obligations, prevent injuries, and achieve your triathlon goals.
Ready, set, tri!
If you are reading this, you might consider taking on the exciting challenge of completing your first triathlon.
This beginner triathlon guide will take you from questioning if triathlon is for you to be well-informed and ready to embark on your next big journey.
And you do not need to be a seasoned endurance athlete with stacks of medals. All you need is the will to dig in and commit to something extraordinary.
So let us begin…
- Beginner triathlon basics
- What is a triathlon?
- Why triathlon?
- A beginner triathlon guide overview
- How long is a triathlon?
- How long should a beginner train for a triathlon?
- Can you do a sprint triathlon without training?
- How many days a week should you train for a triathlon?
- How many hours a day do triathletes train?
- When should you train triathlon?
- Beginner triathlon training plan
- Week 1
- Week 2
- Week 3
- Week 4
- Next step in your beginner triathlon journey
Beginner triathlon basics
What is a triathlon?
You get a triathlon if you mix swimming, cycling, and running. And during race day, the switch between each sport happens in the transition area. Well, that is right, you need some gear to accomplish both the training and the racing.
Let us briefly look at the three sports.
SWIM. First out is the swim split. And that is the moment most beginner triathlon athletes are concerned about. Over 80% of our athletes say that their weakest sport is swimming.
Thankfully, you can wear a wetsuit (for warmth and buoyancy), and the split takes up the least of your time during a triathlon. Moreover, if you are not into freestyle swimming, you can breaststroke your way around the course.
BIKE. “It’s just like riding a bike.” – Well, as you get more into triathlon training, you will find that there is a complete science to riding a bike. Both inside on a turbo trainer and outside on the road. 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. Therefore, allocating around 50 % of your training to riding your bike is advised.
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. But more on this later in this article.
The reasons to train for a triathlon are as varied as there are athletes. And finding your own 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.
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 prevent boredom in training since you combine multiple sports.
SELF-FULFILMENT. You will get a good sense of achievement from the project of finishing a triathlon – regardless of the distance. Completing your race is a motivating goal. And along the way, you will achieve smaller goals that will improve your confidence, endurance, and determination.
CONTROL. Numerous things in life are out of control and can be frustrating. On the contrary, triathlon training is something that you can be in charge of. And having control is pivotal for your mental well-being.
A beginner triathlon guide overview
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 approaching the triathlon quest.
DEFINE YOUR STARTING POINT. The best way to start your beginner triathlon journey is with a realistic assessment of your abilities. So, be true to yourself and set the baseline.
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. We recommend you do the same.
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 weekly workouts and hours.
SET YOUR TRAINING ZONES. It is essential to have a good understanding of how hard you should push yourself in your training. Whether you measure the intensity on heart rate, pace or effect, your training zones are the foundation for all training and racing.
PLAN YOUR SEASON. Training for training’s sake is less helpful than targeted training with a specific purpose. This is why a beginner triathlon training plan is so important – it guides you from the first day of training to race day.
That said, those “steps” may seem easier said than done. However, keep reading – we will do our best to sort things out.
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.
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 exercise fewer hours per week.
However, do not underestimate the distance. Many seasoned triathletes return to the sprint because of its challenge, speed, and joy.
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 some dedicated preparations. And is something that most athletes commit to completing after a couple of years in the triathlon game. However, read our Ironman training guide if you aim for a full-distance triathlon.
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,
Remember one thing. You are supposed to be fit and ready on race day. And not before that day. The training season is therefore spent getting ready and building you up for race day.
And it takes time, something that addresses an often-asked question.
Can you do a sprint triathlon without training?
The answer is yes. Surprised? If you are healthy and want to tick off the bucket list, 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? Triathlon should be fun, so training your body for the challenge will give you a much better experience on race day. Furthermore, the risk of getting injured is more significant without proper training.
How many days a week should you train for a triathlon?
To begin the discussion – how many days per week are you training now?
We see top 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 works 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 energized 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 triathlon program is that you do the work based on your capacity. Following it or our 12-week beginner triathlon training plan guarantees your success!
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 advice for you as a beginner triathlon athlete is to schedule shorter workouts more frequently – rather than two longer workouts per week.
The idea is to have a consistent approach, and 30-60 minutes per day work wonders for your progress.
In the above graphic, you will find a suggested benchmark for your weekly commitment to training. 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. So, for example, 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.
Consider training a part of your life, as important as your other interests. The work you put in now is an invaluable investment in yourself – the health benefits of training are lifelong.
Beginner triathlon training plan
So, let us get into the actual triathlon training. The overall recipe is simple – add swimming, cycling, running, and then 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.
To get you a head start, we have designed a free 4-week beginner triathlon training program.
In the graph, you will find a summary of your upcoming four training weeks.
The next step would be to join our 12-week beginner triathlon training plan.
Set your training zones
Before you dive into the training, consider figuring out (test for) your training zones. Those intensity zones will help you determine how hard you should train at any moment. Unfortunately, no magical test will define your zones for all sports. So you have to do sports-specific tests.
I hear you; it is not complicated at all!
First, download and use the free test protocols (we include them in all our training programs). Then set your training zones with the help of our zone calculator.
Download (pdf) the first week of our beginner triathlon training, including swimming, cycling, running, and strength sessions.
Let’s go – the first week in the beginner triathlon program will start your journey. And this week, we will pay extra attention to the swim session of the four workouts we include in the download.
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 improvement 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 pool’s edge for 20 seconds.
NOTE. In our training, we assume you can swim at least 100 meters/yards 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.
Also, we have put together 20 swim drill videos with plenty of instructions. So when there is a drill you have never heard about – such as “throwing net” – head to the swim drill blog to sort it out!
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.
Main swim set
To finish the workout, you swim as many laps as you want (or until the time is out). Keep in mind the drills and what you learned from them.
And if you feel like throwing in an extra lap of drills – go for it!
More swim training
Become a better swimmer by increasing your base strength and overall mobility with our 4-week swim strength training plan.
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 (pdf) the second week of our beginner triathlon training, including swimming, cycling, running, and strength sessions.
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, for most athletes, 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 practiced 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 lays 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 thought this week.
Start your workout with easy pedaling for five minutes. Choose a gear that allows you to keep a cadence of around 90 revolutions per minute (rpm).
That number (90 rpm) is not an exact science. Still, pedaling with a higher cadence is generally better since you use more of your endurance muscles.
You alter every 30 seconds between standing and sitting for the next five minutes.
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.
When seated, switch to an easy gear and stay around 90-100 rpm.
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.
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.
The following 30 minutes are divided into six iterations of 5 minutes (2+1+2).
That is it!
More bike training
Download (pdf) the third week of our beginner triathlon training, including swimming, cycling, running, and strength sessions.
When 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 so-called brick training.
But before you get into that, 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 at an elite runner’s fluid stride and effortless pace to realize there is a lot to learn.
Therefore, we focus on running skills in this week’s run session.
As always, start your workout with a warm-up. After five minutes of easy jogging, you switch to some dynamic exercises. The idea is to activate your glutes and core muscles, which you use during running.
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 rush through the session. Instead, take your time, almost exaggerating the movement in each drill.
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
Become a powerful runner by increasing your run strength and overall mobility with our 4-week run strength training plan.
Download (pdf) the fourth week of our beginner triathlon training, including swimming, cycling, running, and strength sessions.
By now, you have noticed that we include one strength session weekly – why is that!?
The short explanation: Strength training strengthens muscles (big surprise!). And 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.
Also, we have a comprehensive guide where we dive into the why, what, and how of core strength training for you as a beginner triathlon athlete. In addition, we have included a list of 13 essential core exercises with instruction videos. Bookmark it for later!
Before you get into the main set, warm up by jumping rope and push-ups.
Jumping rope is 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.
Push-ups, in turn, are 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.
Okay, let us get on with the actual core training.
Regarding the core, you should rely less on mindless repetitions and more on awareness to make it hurt where it suppose to. So, in this session, we have included only six different exercises.
More strength training
Our 4-week core strength training plan will make you less prone to injury and better-prepared for all disciplines in your regular training. You can do the core workouts at home, without any equipment. Check it out!
Next step in your beginner triathlon journey
You have now trained in a structured way for four weeks. If you gained results, we would suggest our 12-week beginner triathlon training plan. It is designed to help you prepare for your first triathlon event.
The individual training plan builds up gradually and guides you in how much, how often, and how hard you should train. So sign up today!