Triathlons are arguably the most challenging competitions in the world, requiring athletes to excel in not one, but three, hard-hitting disciplines — swimming, cycling, and running. But, despite the fact that elite triathletes cover hundreds of kilometers over eight-plus hours, triathlons aren’t just for Olympic-level competitors. In this guide, we’re covering how to train for a triathlon starting from the very beginning.
The great thing about this kind of race is that it comes in a ton of different lengths and options so that even relatively green athletes can throw their hat in the ring. A good beginner triathlon training plan almost always starts with a super sprint or sprint event. Over a period of several years, many dedicated triathletes advance to the big, bad Ironman Triathlon. This event is often considered the most difficult one-day sporting event in the world!
Here’s how to start training for a triathlon if you’re starting from scratch.
- Master All Three Sports — Regardless of which triathlon distance you start with, you’re going to need to master swimming, cycling, and running individually. Most training plans involve taking different days for different disciplines at first. For example, spend Mondays on your triathlon swim training, Tuesdays on cycling, and Wednesdays on running. Over time, you can work up to fitting two and then three sports in a single day’s training session. Don’t forget your phone — and a waterproof running armband from Armpocket — to ensure that you keep an accurate log of all activities.
Start with a Super Sprint or Sprint — If you’re looking to build your triathlon game up from nothing, it’s crucial that you start out with the shorter-distance triathlons, called super sprints and sprints. Many elite athletes actually do triathlon sprints for years before they advance to the longer, more competitive races. But don’t mistake sprints for cakewalks. These are serious challenges that aren’t for the faint of heart!
Super Sprint — These are the shortest forms of triathlons, usually lasting around 40 to 60 minutes with a configuration of: 300-meter swim, 13-kilometer bike ride, and three- to five-kilometer run.
Sprint — The slightly longer but equally as beginner-friendly is the sprint triathlon. This distance involves a 750-meter swim, a 20-kilometer bike ride, and a five-kilometer run. For beginners, it usually takes an hour or two to complete.
- Advance to an Olympic Triathlon — Olympic triathlons are, unsurprisingly, the races conquered by Olympic athletes. Competitors complete a 1,500-meter swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride, and a 10-kilometer run. These can take as long as four hours. Although they require more preparation — competitors need to consider nutrition, proper pacing, strategy, etc. — many competitors prefer them over sprints because they allow you to “settle in” to each sport and optimize it to your preferences.
- Advance to a Half Ironman — Next up is the Half Ironman. This 70.3-mile total event ups the ante with longer distances and adds cutoff times to make things just slightly more challenging. Halves involve a 1,900-meter swim, a 90-kilometer bike ride, and a 21.1-kilometer run. They can take over five hours to complete and require serious training regimens beforehand.
- Finish with the Ironman Distance Race — Last but not least: the world-famous Ironman Triathlon. This is the Big Kahuna, featuring a 2,800-meter swim, a 180-kilometer bike ride, and a 42.2-kilometer run. In total, the race cutoff is 17 hours, but most average competitors finish in around 12 hours. About 50,000 people complete full Ironman events each year.
Q. How Long Does it Take to Train for a Triathlon?A. The time it takes to train for a triathlon depends on a few factors, like how well-conditioned you are when you start and which kind of triathlon you’re training for. It might take you only eight to 12 weeks to train for a sprint triathlon, while it takes most people eight months to a year to complete an Ironman triathlon training plan.
Q. How Often Do Triathletes Train?A. There's no single training plan or timetable that triathletes follow. However, those training for long-distance triathlons generally commit between 10 and 20 hours per week to training, building up the time commitment as the race gets closer. Because longer events require serious stamina — sometimes up to a full day’s worth of high-endurance exercise — long periods of training multiple times per week are essential.
Q. Do Triathletes Eat During a Race?A. As you might imagine, long-distance triathletes must consume some kind of sustenance as they compete. After all, some of them are burning serious calories for a period of 16-plus hours and traversing hundreds of miles while they do it. During the Ironman triathlon, competitors replenish their calories and electrolytes by drinking plenty of water, eating sports gels and even munching on protein bars and candy along the way.