How Triathlon Training for Beginners Works

By: Caitlin Uttley
Plan ahead to make sure you've got the right clothing for each stage of the race, then wear it to practice to avoid any unexpected surprises.
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Whether you're ready to take your body to the next level in physical competition or you're just looking for a fun way to challenge yourself, triathlons offer a little bit of something for everyone. A triathlon is a race that consists of three activities completed back-to-back: swimming, biking and running.

Do you have to be an athlete (or even in shape) to take on such a monumental challenge? Nope, almost anyone can compete in a triathlon, no matter their size, shape or experience level. And the best part about training for, and competing in, a triathlon is that even if you're not in peak form to start with, you're bound to get in good shape in the process.


New triathletes can choose from races ranging from less than two hours to more than 15 hours, and covering anywhere from 16 miles (26 kilometers) to more than 140 miles (225 kilometers). Some common types of triathlon include:

  • Sprint triathlon: You'll swim about half a mile (750 meters), bike 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) and run 3.1 miles (5 kilometers).
  • Olympic triathlon: You'll swim 0.9 miles (1.5 kilometers), bike 24.8 miles (40 kilometers) and run 6.2 miles (10 kilometers).
  • Half-Ironman: You'll swim 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers), bike 56 (90 kilometers) miles and run 13.1 miles (21.1 kilometers).
  • Full Ironman: You'll swim 2.4 miles (3.8 kilometers), bike 112 miles (180 kilometers) and run 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers). That's right -- in a full Ironman, after you swim and bike for more than a hundred miles, you're expected to run a full marathon [sources: Beginner Triathlete, totaltriathlon].

If you're a beginning triathlete, you'll probably set your sights on a sprint race. It's a great way to get your feet wet, so to speak, and it's a good starting point if you're considering working your way up to more difficult events.

In all, it will take between 12 and 18 weeks to prepare and train for a sprint triathlon. In this article we'll look at what it takes to ready yourself for each part of the event, including the equipment you need, the techniques to develop and the amount of time to spend training. Preparing for a triathlon involves a lot of hard work, but the payoff (both physically and mentally) can be huge. So if you're thinking about becoming a first-time triathlete, read on to learn how to prepare yourself for what is sure to be an intense, but rewarding, experience.


Triathlon Swim Training for Beginners

The first leg of a triathlon involves swimming anywhere from a half mile (0.8 kilometers) to just more than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers), depending on the race you've chosen.

To begin, get your hands on the right equipment for the swim. At the very minimum, you'll need a well-fitting swimsuit that's comfortable and not baggy and a good pair of goggles that fit your face and don't leak. You also might consider purchasing anti-fog solution to keep your goggles from clouding up, a swim cap and a wet suit (if the race takes place in colder water).


Once you have your gear, you'll want to focus on your swimming technique. Good technique produces efficiency, and efficiency will help you get farther and last longer in the race. That's why a large part of your triathlon preparation will include mastering proper technique in all three segments -- swimming, cycling and running. In swimming, there are three major technique areas to focus on: your stroke, your position in the water and your breathing.

  • Stroke -- In most triathlons, there are no rules mandating which swim stroke to use, so go with whatever you find both comfortable and quick. Consult swimming websites, magazines or books for more details about proper form for each stroke.
  • Position in the water -- In general, fight the urge to lift your head up while swimming. Keeping your head down pushes your feet up and helps keep you in the proper swimming position.
  • Breathing -- Don't forget to breathe when you swim. To maintain your balance in the water and to avoid losing forward momentum, turn your whole body to take a breath instead of just lifting your head out of the water.

For a sprint triathlon, you should train in the pool about two or three times each week. Once you've mastered the moves for your chosen stroke, it's important to work on your endurance. Even in a sprint race -- the shortest of the triathlons -- you'll be swimming for about 15 to 20 minutes, so you should build up your stamina to allow you to swim for that long [source: Beginner Triathlete].

Now that you have a good idea of how to start preparing for the swim portion of a triathlon, it's time to get back on dry land. Keep reading to find out about training for the cycling portion of the race.


Triathlon Bike Training for Beginners

The second part of a triathlon involves a bike ride, but triathlon biking isn't your ordinary pedal through the park. Even in the shortest triathlon you're in for at least 12 miles (20 kilometers) of nonstop cycling, and in a sprint race that means biking anywhere from 30 to 55 minutes [source: Beginner Triathlete].

Perhaps more than in any other leg of the triathlon, having proper equipment is important in this portion of the race. At the very least, you'll need a racing bicycle, a bike helmet and a bike tool kit (to make any unexpected repairs during the race). Just as important as choosing the right bike is making sure your bike is adjusted properly to fit you, the rider. It's so important to have a good bike fit -- handlebar height, seat height and tilt, crank position and so on -- that you might consider getting it adjusted professionally at a bike shop. An improperly adjusted bike makes for a long and uncomfortable ride, so it's worth the time and effort to ensure the right fit.


Just like swimming, cycling technique is crucial. Here are some basic tips for good cycling technique:

  • Low gear, high revolutions -- Pedaling faster at a lower gear increases your cycling efficiency and actually reduces fatigue [source: Stieg]. Using a higher gear will make it more difficult to keep your pace, is less efficient and can possibly result in knee injury.
  • Lean forward -- Unlike leisure cycling, where it's more comfortable to sit upright, the most efficient position for racing is a slight forward lean over the bike, keeping your back straight, which is more aerodynamic than an upright position.
  • Push forward, pull upward -- In each revolution of your pedals, you'll not only push down on the pedal as it rotates forward, you'll also pull up on the pedal as it completes its revolution. Putting force into both the push and the pull gives you more power behind each revolution.

For cycling training, try to get in about an hour of riding once or twice a week. Practice on a course similar to the one you'll be racing on. If the upcoming course is hilly or winding, you'll want to make sure you can handle the bumps and curves.

Now let's get a little closer to the ground and switch over from cycling to running. In the next section, you'll learn what it takes to keep up the pace and finish the race.


Triathlon Run Training for Beginners

The third and final leg of a triathlon is the footrace. In a sprint triathlon, you'll run just more than 3 miles (5 kilometers), which takes anywhere from 18 to 45 minutes [source: Beginner Triathlete]. That's a serious hike after swimming and cycling for about an hour, but if you've made it this far, you're almost to the finish.

Fortunately, running requires little more than a good pair of running shoes (and some socks), though you also might want to invest in a comfortable pair of running shorts and some sunglasses.


As with swimming and cycling, running technique can be pretty important, especially in a race. Technique in running is largely made up of four things: posture, stride, pace and breathing.

  • Posture -- Stand up straight, but not straighter than is comfortable. Bending over can make it more difficult to breathe, and standing up too straight can cause pain. Keeping your head up will help you maintain good running posture. Focus your eyes on a point far in the distance, glancing down occasionally to check for obstacles in your path.
  • Stride -- Don't overextend your legs when you run, which can strain your muscles or cause you to lose balance. For distance running, short, light steps are better than long, heavy ones.
  • Pace -- Distance running is about maintaining your pace. Find a rhythm and stick to it as much as possible.
  • Breathing -- Getting into a rhythm with your feet allows you to focus on your breathing. A good breathing rate is one breath in for two steps and one breath out for two steps. Breathe deeply through your mouth with your whole diaphragm.

Unlike swimming and cycling, running is an impact sport and can be pretty rough on the body (especially the knees). It's a good idea to change up your training routine daily, so don't run two days in a row, and make sure you give yourself plenty of time to rest and recover. If you're training for a sprint triathlon, try to get out and run two to three times each week for 20 to 30 minutes.

Now that you've got an idea of what it takes to train for a triathlon, let's look at some common beginner triathlete mistakes to keep you from looking like a newbie on race day.


Common Beginner Triathlete Mistakes

Avoid looking like a novice by taking into consideration some of the most common beginner triathlete mistakes:

  • Inadequate training -- It's a mistake to assume that if you're skilled in one area, like running, that you'll naturally be skilled in the others. You don't want to discover you're weak in any area on race day, so train for all three parts of the race, no matter your experience level.
  • Overtraining -- Even though triathlon training is hard work, it's still possible to overdo it. Just as on race day, you'll need to pace yourself. You don't want to push too hard in training, or you won't make it to race day.
  • Not warming up or stretching before the race -- It's important to prepare your body for the race with warm-up and stretching exercises. Warming up enhances your performance, prevents injuries and helps you to mentally prepare for the task ahead [source:Bernhardt].
  • Not pacing yourself -- Even the shortest of triathlons can take between one and two hours to complete, so don't wear yourself out in the first few minutes by starting at full speed.
  • Not including a good diet in your training regimen. Just as important as exercise and technique training is a proper diet. Fuel your body with the right foods and reap the benefits.
  • Not having the proper clothing -- Plan ahead to make sure you've got the right clothing for each stage of the race. Some companies even make clothes you can wear during all three legs of the race without having to change. Just be sure to practice in the clothing you plan to race in to avoid any unexpected surprises.
  • Not practicing swimming in open water -- If your swim race will take place in open water, make sure you know how to swim in open water. You may not think there's much of a difference between pool swimming and lake swimming, but there is, and you don't want to wait until race day to discover what those differences are.
  • Not learning how to fix your bike -- You don't want a flat tire to be the thing that knocks you out of the race.
  • Not practicing transitions -- Some triathletes experience difficulty transitioning from cycling to running because the constant motion of cycling can make your legs feel a little wobbly. For that reason, it's a good idea to practice your transitions from water to cycling and from cycling to running.

Learn more about triathlons, triathlon training and other competitive sports by visiting the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Beginner Triathlete. "Choosing a Triathlon Training Plan." 2010. (July 30, 2010).
  • Beginner Triathlete. "Spring Training Programs." 2004. (Aug. 3, 2010).
  • Bernhardt, Gale. "The Real Reason You Should Warm Up." 2010. (July 28, 2010).
  • Holland, Tom. "The 12-Week Triathlete: Train for a Triathlon in Just Three Months." Fair Winds. 2005.
  • Jonas, Steven and Virginia Aronson. "Triathaloning for Ordinary Mortals." W.W. Norton. 1999.
  • Murphy, T.J. "Triathlete Magazine's Guide to Finishing Your First Triathlon." Skyhorse Publishing. 2008.
  • Stieg, Bill. "Anyone Can Be a Triathlete." Men's Health Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 6. July 2006.
  • "Triathlon Distances." 2009. (July 30, 2010).
  • USA Triathlon. "Triathlon." 2009. (July 28, 2010).