As the name suggests, a triathlon consist of three separate disciplines; swimming, cycling and running, usually in that order. Most beginners undertake a novice or sprint triathlon, consisting of the following distances:

  • European Novice triathlon: 400m, 20km bike ride, 5km run
  • Sprint triathlon: 750m outdoor swim/500m indoor swim, 20km bike ride, 5km run.

A training schedule for a triathlon needs to be balanced, as training for one discipline won't necessarily benefit another – for instance, focusing on running training will have little impact on cycling performance. Let's take a quick look at how a balanced can be achieved.

Swim Training

Distances for a beginner's swim triathlon beginners vary, but are usually set at between 400m – 750m. If you are not a confident swimmer, before your swim training kicks in, spend time trying to hone your front crawl technique. A few lessons with experienced swimmers or swimming coach will definitely be of benefit. A bad technique will use up too much energy, whereas good swim skills will prove more energy efficient, as well as avoiding expending a lot of energy at the beginning of the race on bad swimming techniques.

If you have not swum in a relatively long time, to start your swim triathlon training schedule, simply see how far you can swim, and how long it takes you to swim that distance (most pools are around 25-50m in length). The next swim session you undertake (aim for at least two in a week), just aim to increase your swim length, whilst maintaining a good swimming technique. Revisit your swim technique if you feel it's lacking or causing you to exert yourself too much.

Your next step is start building your distance up as follows:

  • Session 1 – Swim 5-10 lengths gently as a warm up; then pick up the pace for 5-10 intervals (depending on fitness) of half a minute rest per 75m (ie half a minute every 3 lengths). Try picking up the pace even more every other interval to help increase fitness.
  • Session 2 – Swim 5-10 lengths gently as a warm up; then swim 2 lengths (50m) followed by half a minute rest, and then 4 lengths (100m) followed by one minutes' rest. Repeat this 5 times.
  • Session 3 – Swim 5-10 lengths gently as a warm up; then swim non-stop for around 20 minutes and make a note of how far you managed to swim during this time. The aim is to be able to at least swim the beginner's race distance in this time – for novices this is 400m, and for sprint triathletes, this should be 750m. Ideally you should be able to swim above and beyond this distance by at least 150-200m. If you find that you've fallen short, simply repeat session 3 and aim to increase your lengths by at least 50-100m per week until you've reached the triathlon distance.

Finally, it's worth noting that outdoor triathlon swims in Britain usually require a wetsuit to be worn as standard. You should take time to learn how to get into and remove your wetsuit effectively. Also swimming in a wetsuit will feel decidedly different to swimming in trunks or a swimming costume; make sure that you allocate time to readjusting to swimming, as breathing can feel restricted and you may need to learn how to swim in cooler temperatures.

Cycling Training

For beginners, the main aim with cycle training is get out on your bike at least two or three times a week, or as regularly as you can manage. Ideally, you should be able to cycle for around an hour each time, incorporating undulating landscapes or changes of cycle pace into your route. Remember to give yourself adequate recovery time in between cycles though; this will help to avoid muscle fatigue and risk of injuries.

If you feel that you need to increase your stamina, try endurance sessions on a gym bike, or take part in spinning classes. Within a relatively short amount of time the chances are that you'll find that you can ride faster for longer.

It's also worth investing in a good quality bike and training on that bike – training on one bike and racing on another will do you no favours. Ensure that your brakes are in good working order and tyres are pumped to their optimum inflation, as this will help you to achieve faster speeds whilst using less energy.

Running Section

Running is often seen as the easier discipline which requires less focus on skill and technique – this is, of course, dependent on fitness and experience. For a beginner with a general good level of fitness, running 5k should prove relatively easy, but in a triathlon race, it becomes somewhat more difficult after the cycling leg.

Triathletes often undertake 'brick training' (bricks relating to the way the legs feel after cycling) – typically 3 intervals of around 20 minutes of cycling, followed by running interval of around 10 minutes. Less experienced triathletes can reduce the interval times to suit their fitness levels. Because this type of training can prove quite strenuous, it's worth allowing at least a couple of days recovering in between sessions to reduce the risk of strain and injury.