How to Train for Your First Triathlon (Beginners Guide)

Want to train for your first triathlon but not sure where to start?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone…

In this post, Ironman UK finisher Robert Jackson from Minimal FiT will show you how to train for a triathlon so you’re feeling confident come race day.

What we’ll cover:

  • Triathlon distances and beginner-friendly races
  • How much time to train each week
  • Pro tips to maximise your training sessions
  • Race day preparation

But first, what order is a triathlon raced in?

Traditional triathlons always have the same 3 disciplines and order of events:

  1. Swim
  2. Bike
  3. Run

Swimming is done first for safety reasons. Imagine trying to marshall 1,000 tired triathletes spread out hours apart in the water.

The distances of each section vary a lot, so let’s take a closer look.

Triathlon distances and beginner friendly races

The 4 most common distances for a triathlon are:

  • Sprint (750m swim, 20km cycle, 5km run)
  • Olympic (1,500m swim, 40km cycle, 10km run)
  • Half (1,900m swim, 90km cycle, 21km run)
  • Full (3,800m swim, 180km cycle, 42km run)

What is an Ironman triathlon?

An Ironman triathlon is a full distance triathlon. Ironman is a company, who have marketed themselves well enough to become synonymous with that distance.

What distance should I race as a beginner?

A sprint triathlon is the most suitable race for a beginner. If you’re not that comfortable in open water, you can find pool based swims rather than open water ones.

How long does a sprint triathlon take?

Anywhere from 1 to 2 hours, so don’t let the name fool you into thinking it will be short!

How much time should I train each week?

For sprint triathlon training, aim for at least 3.5 hours per week. That’s an absolute minimum and you’d benefit from doing more.

You could split that up as follows:

  • Swimming – 1 hour
  • Cycling – 1.5 hours
  • Running – 1 hour

More details on training sessions to complete below, but first…

How long do I need to train for a triathlon?

12 to 16 weeks before your event is ideal. Start too early and you might burn out from too much training. Start much later and you might not get enough training in.

Pro Tip: The cycling section of a triathlon is the longest, proportionally, so more time on your bike will pay off.

Pro training tips to maximise your training sessions

Let’s look at each discipline in order.

Swim training essentials

Most triathlon swims will be in open water, which means it will be nothing like your indoor pool swim.

Getting plenty of open water practice is the most important part of your swim training. That means at least 7 or 8 sessions before your race.

Many first-timers fail to do this and regret it. There is very little pool swim training you can do that will prepare you for open water.

Pro Tip: The aim for the swim is to stay calm and relaxed to have more energy for the bike and run. Going hard on the swim will not gain you much time vs using that energy on the bike or run.

Here are the key things you need to practice and train for:

Sighting

Put simply, sighting is looking where you’re going while continuing to swim.

This is absolutely critical because in open water you have no lines to guide you like in a pool. If you don’t swim straight, you’ll end up swimming way further.

Wetsuit wearing

Swimming with a wetsuit will make you more buoyant and, most likely, change your body position in the water. It also restricts movement in the shoulders.

Getting out into open water is essential for practicing this skill.

Group swimming

In a pool you likely swim in lanes and have very little contact with other swimmers. At the start of an open water triathlon swim, you will be surrounded by other people.

Prepare ahead by taking some open water group swim lessons.

Boost your bike training

For 99% of people, the bike section of the race will take the longest. Spending extra time training for it will help you get a faster overall time.

Indoor training can be very useful, as it’s rare to get stretches of road outside where you can ride continuously without stopping for cars or traffic lights, especially in London.

Keep it simple for your first triathlon and aim for these two sessions each week:

  • 1 x long ride – Ride outside for 1-1.5 hours. If that’s too much to start with, aim for 30 mins and then build up each week.
  • 1 x interval ride – Ideal to do indoors. Warm up for 5 minutes, then ride at 80% effort for 3 mins, followed by 50% effort for 1 min. Repeat 8 times, then ride slow to cool down.

Pro Tip: Always wear the same clothing that you train in when you race. Changing anything on race day is a big no-no, as it might cause issues like blisters and chafing. Not fun!

Run training recommendations

A sprint distance event will be a 5km run. Your first challenge is to be able to run 5km continuously. Once you can do that, complete these two sessions each week:

  • Brick session – This means doing a bike ride first, then running immediately after, just like in the race. If you’ve not done this before, be prepared for your legs to feel very weird! Combine this with the indoor interval session mentioned above.
  • Interval session – Can be done indoors or out. Warm-up for 5 mins. Then run for 90 seconds at 80% effort (faster than your normal 5km time). Jog or walk for 60 seconds. Repeat 8 times. Cooldown and stretching.

Race day preparations

If you’ve been training consistently, you will need to “taper” before your race.

Tapering just means to reduce the volume of training you have been doing. In reality, if you’ve only been doing 3-5 hours a week, you should still be doing some swim, bike and run sessions in the week leading up to your race.

The key is not to do too much for you. Normally run 5km a week? Maybe just run 3km instead.

Pro Tip: If you feel underprepared, don’t go hard on your sessions only a few days before your race to make up for it. This will not work.

What to do on race day

The same as you have done in your training sessions. Make sure to eat the same foods you normally would, wear the same clothes and don’t change anything.

Testing out a new gel or drink on race day can lead to stomach upset and destroy all your hard work.

All the hard work is done. All you have to do now is relax, do your best, appreciate the experience and have fun.

You can always sign up for another one once you get the triathlon bug! There are a few good websites to find your closest race on:

  1. British Triathlon
  2. Find a Race
  3. Tri Finder

And if you’re still not that confident in the water, you could consider doing a duathlon first. A duathlon is just cycling and running. Usually, run, bike, run in order.

Good luck. Train hard, race easy!

Author Bio

Robert Jackson has completed Ironman UK, finished L’Etape du Tour twice and cycled 750km across The Pyrenees in 6 days. He owns a personal training and massage studio called PT Pod and works as a personal trainer with Minimal FiT, his PT business.

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