How Triathlon Run Training Works

By: Gerlinda Grimes
Athlete running in sporty shoes while exercising.
To train for a triathlon, you need a strict routine.

"Triathlon 101" author John Mora traces the attraction to triathlon back to being a kid. "Let's jump in the pool! Let's go bike riding! Race you to the corner! In a sense, we all grew up as triathletes" [source: Mora].

For a relatively new sport, the triathlon sparks a special kind of fervor among its competitors. The first Ironman competition, held in 1978, came about when Navy commander John Collins got sick of his swimming, cycling and running buddies bragging about who was the better athlete. Collins challenged his friends to complete three grueling events in a single day: a 2.4-mile (3.86-kilometer) rough water swim; followed by a 112-mile (180.24-kilometer) bike ride around Oahu island; and capped off with a marathon-distance (26.2 miles, or 42.16 kilometers) run. Fifteen men took up the challenge, and on Feb. 18, 1978, Navy man and former pentathlete Gordon Haller became the world's first "Ironman" [source: Mora].


Within a few years, the media got wind of the intense hijinks going on in Hawaii, and in 1982, ABC Sports filmed second-place Ironman finisher Julie Moss as she literally crawled across the finish line in what has been called one of the defining moments in sports history. Soon after, the United States Triathlon Series standardized shorter triathlon distances, opening the sport up to a whole new crop of athletes. In 2000, the Olympic distance triathlon was added to the line-up at the Australian Olympic games.

People get into triathlon for lots of reasons. Bored of pounding pavement, many runners take up the triathlon challenge in order to add variety to their workouts. Triathlons, held outdoors in different conditions, allow track runners and urbanites to get a taste of the trail. They enable pool swimmers to try their strokes in the open sea and off-road bikers to spin their wheels over city streets. Ironman distance triathlons pose an immense challenge to even the most hardened endurance athletes. Meanwhile, with standardized sprint distances, even fitness newbies can get a taste for one of sport's most hardcore challenges. We talk about run training for sprint triathlons in the next section.


Sprint Triathlon Run Training

More than half of today's triathlons are sprint distance: a series of 0.75-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike ride and 5-kilometer run) [source: Mora]. Shorter distances are attractive to beginners and competitors who only have limited time to devote to training.

Even at sprint distance, however, triathlon is a challenging sport. Many athletes tend to focus on swim and bike training, probably because swimming is less familiar to most athletes. However, as the final leg of the race, running is arguably the most demanding segment of a triathlon, both physically and mentally.


As with any race training, the key to sprint triathlon run training is to gradually increase distances over the course of your training program. A moderately fit person can train for a sprint triathlon in eight to nine weeks. You should plan to work out six days per week (two bike days, two swim days and two run days), with one day off for recovery. Your run workouts should look something like this:

  • Maintenance runs. One time per week: If you're a novice, your maintenance run should be 15 minutes (or 1 to 2 miles) at a pace where you can carry on a conversation without huffing and puffing. If you have some experience and are trying to improve your running speed, you can alternate easy runs with interval workouts.
  • Long runs. One time per week: In the first week, your long run should be about 20 minutes (or 2 to 2.5 miles) at an easy pace. Every other week, add another 5 minutes (or another half mile) to your distance. Your longest run, 30 to 35 minutes (or 3 to 3.5 miles), should be about 14 days before your race, and you should taper down your distance to 15-minute easy runs in the two weeks before the race.
  • The Brick. On your long run day in week 6 or 7, add a bike workout (10 miles at a moderate pace) before your long run. This will allow you to practice your bike/run transition.

The change from swimming to biking or biking to running can add several minutes to your triathlon time. In the next section, we talk about ways to minimize time spent make the T2 (bike to run) transition.


Brick Workouts: Teach Yourself to Save Time in the Transitions

Many experts agree that a successful running leg is the key to a top triathlon finish [source: Mora]. However, all the run training in the world won't prepare your legs for the shock of transitioning from cycling to running at race speed. For that, you need to integrate "brick" workouts into your training. A brick (which involves two of the three disciplines, swimming and biking or biking and running) prepares your body for the experience of hopping onto a bike sopping wet or setting off on a run with rubbery cycler's legs. Bricks also give you a chance to practice and time your transitions.

In a run-intensive brick workout, you would bike 20 to 40 percent of your race's bike distance at an easy to moderate pace. Plan your route with only moderate hills so that you can save your legs for a more intense run leg. If you've followed the suggestions in the sidebar, you'll already be in your triathlon suit with your race number strapped across your chest as you approach the T2 transition. Here are a few other tips for a quick T2 transition:


  • Stake out your space. Stage your running gear (hydration belt, running shoes, body lubricant, pack stocked with gels or snacks) on a beach towel.
  • Invest in "speed laces," which tighten with a single tug.
  • Skip the socks. Instead, rub Body Glide or a similar lubricant onto the inside heels of your shoes. This will help prevent blisters and make your shoes easier to slip into.

When you practice, time your transition and try to shave a few seconds off each time you do a brick workout. Once your shoes are laced up, set off on a run that's 70 to 90 percent of your race distance. Choose a course that's as geographically similar as possible to the course you'll be running on race day, and run just little slower than you plan to run at the race.

With a few successful bricks and your first sprint triathlon under your belt, you'll be ready to dabble in longer distances. Next up, we talk about run training for Olympic distance triathlons.


Olympic Triathlon Run Training

Before the 1980s, triathlon was known as a grueling endurance sport that only "Ironmen" were fit enough to attempt. Then, in the early 1980s, advocates formed the organization known as USA Triathlon and worked to standardize competition rules. The group also popularized the Olympic distance triathlon [source:].

Consisting of a 1.5-kilometer swim, 40-kilometer bike ride and 10-kilometer run, the Olympic triathlon is the distance at which Olympic triathletes race. It takes mere mortals an average of three hours or more to complete an Olympic triathlon, making it a reasonable challenge for marathoners and other athletes looking to push the limits of their endurance [source: Mora].


If you're in shape for a sprint triathlon, or if you already have a good grounding in at least one of the three triathlon disciplines, then you should be able to complete training for an Olympic triathlon in eight to 12 weeks. If you haven't gotten off the couch since college and can barely jog a 5K, you should plan 16 weeks for training and follow a sprint training program for the first eight weeks. Some things to keep in mind about Olympic distance run training are:

  • Just like with sprint triathlon training, Olympic training increases distance gradually each week. Plan to train six days per week -- two run days, two swim days and two bike days, with a day off for rest.
  • One time per week maintenance runs should start at 20 minutes (or 2 to 2.5 miles) and increase weekly to a maximum of 60 minutes (or 6 miles) before tapering back down to 20 minutes in the two weeks prior to the race. More experienced athletes can alternate easy midweek runs with tempo runs or interval run training.
  • One time per week long runs should start at 30 minutes (or 3 miles) and increase to 60 minutes (or 6 miles) by week 5. Include a bike/run brick in week 6 and a taper in the two weeks before your race.

Olympic distance should pose plenty of challenge for the average athlete, but for those of you who like the idea of pushing your endurance to extremes, triathlon's Half-Ironman might be the distance for you. We discuss run training for that in the next section.


Half-Ironman Triathlon Run Training

A Half-Ironman is technically known by the Ironman World Championships as the "Ironman 70.3," after the total combined distance of the event. Whereas a novice athlete can complete a sprint or even an Olympic distance triathlon with only a couple months of training, Half-Ironman distances (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run) have maximum time limits that make them appropriate only for experienced triathletes and endurance racers [source:].

Athletes planning to attempt a Half-Ironman should keep a couple things in mind:


  • Upgrade your equipment. If you haven't already, now is the time to invest in a triathlon suit. If you've been slogging through the bike rides on your old mountain bike, trade up to a triathlon bike. Also, buy a new pair of well-fitted, adequately cushioned running shoes.
  • Be prepared to do the time. Proper training for a Half-Ironman starts at 15 hours per week and escalates to 25 to 30 hours. Treat your training like a part-time job.
  • Find some friends. These distances are brutal alone. Join a running club or a bike club so that you can do key workouts in the company of others with similar goals.

Triathlete John Mora confesses that the Half-Ironman distance is his favorite: "It is demanding enough in both training and execution to give you a real feeling of accomplishment and happy exhaustion at the finish line, while not completely dominating your life the way the full Ironman distance might do."

In fact, the training formula for a Half-Ironman works much the same way as all triathlon training; the key differences are the intensity of the training and the addition of more bricks. Plan to train for at least four to five months. Run training for a Half-Ironman should start with 6-mile (10-kilometer) distances and escalate to 10 to 13.1 miles (16.1 to 21.1 kilometers), with brick workouts every other week or so. Long runs should mix a few miles at an easy pace with a few miles at a tempo pace, and maintenance runs should include intervals, hill training and tempo runs as well as easy runs.

Hungry for an even bigger challenge? The Ironman distance is the ultimate test of endurance. The next section is all about run training for Ironman distance triathlons.


Ironman Run Training

Do you have what it takes to complete the ultimate triathlon?
Do you have what it takes to complete the ultimate triathlon?

If you're already fit, have a year to devote to training, have 30 or more hours per week to train, and have a life that's flexible enough to accommodate your training, then maybe -- just maybe -- you have the tools to attempt the holy grail of endurance races, the Ironman (a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run).

With that said, not all Ironman finishers are elite athletes. In 2008, after being diagnosed with cervical cancer and completing an unsuccessful course of chemo, Kim Pace decided that, instead of dying, she'd sign up for an Ironman. On Aug. 8, 2010, Kim finished the 2010 Ironman Canada. It was the first triathlon of any distance that she'd ever completed [source: MacKinnon]. For many athletes, the Ironman is a symbol of hope, of triumph over adversity, of persisting through unimaginable trials. No matter how inspiring you find the challenge, however, an Ironman should not be taken lightly.


Take a long, hard look at your motivation for attempting an Ironman, and if you really feel you are committed, map out a 12-month training schedule that includes the following run training:

  • Six training days per week, with two to three days devoted to run or brick (bike-run) workouts
  • One time per week runs of at least 1 hour (or 6 miles), alternating easy runs with more difficult workouts (see below)
  • Long runs one time per week starting at 90 minutes (or 9 miles) and escalating to a maximum distance of 20 to 26.2 miles
  • Ladder workouts: Set a heart rate monitor to beep every 5 minutes. Warm up with an easy, 15-minute jog, and then begin running at 60 percent of your maximum heart rate. Every 5 minutes, increase your speed until your heart rate escalates 5 beats per minute. Continue increasing until you reach the top of your tempo zone (80 percent of max heart rate), then decrease 5 beats per minute every 5 minutes until you're back down to 60 percent.
  • Intensive interval training: At race pace, run these intervals -- three 400-yard laps, two 800-yard laps, one 1-mile lap, and two 400-yard laps with 1 minute of rest in between each interval.

Triathlon is a truly exhilarating sport. In addition to the triathlons discussed in this article, there are also indoor and relay options as well as mini-sprints, off-road triathlons and even Ultraman triathlons (320 total miles). Find lots more information after the jump.


Lots More Information

Related Articles


  • "Foster Grant World Championship 70.3 FAQ." 2010. (Sept. 1, 2010)
  • Greko, Gina and Sakovitch, Anneka. "Triathlon T1 and T2 Transitions." 2008. (Sept. 1, 2010)
  • Mackinnon, Kevin. "Ironmanlife: Kim Pace and the Iron Dames." Sept. 3, 2010. (Sept. 1, 2010)
  • Mora, John. "Triathlon 101." Champaigne, Ill. 2009.
  • Mora, John. "Triathlon Workout Planner." Champaigne, Ill. 2006.
  • "Norden Takes Inaugural Sprint World Title." Aug. 21, 2010. (Sept. 1, 2010)
  • "Resources For Media." 2009. (Sept. 1, 2010)