1. Home
  2. /
  3. Workouts
  4. /
  5. Triathlon Training Tips For The Time Crunched Athlete

Triathlon-TipsThinking about doing your first triathlon? Or maybe you have been in the game for a few years and are looking to set a new PR (personal record). We would all love to race like the pro’s but unless you’re getting paid to swim, bike, and run, you probably don’t have the time to spend 40 hours a week training. So how do we make the best of the training time we do have? It is all about quality over quantity.

Consistency Is Key

The first and most important concept you can implement to improve your training, and to help insure you make it to the starting line, is consistency. This may sound simple, but before you skip ahead to the next tip consider that this is the number one thing most people are lacking in their training. It is all too easy to skip a workout one night when a meeting goes late, and again for that family birthday party, and again when the weather gets nasty. The list of excuses can go on and on and before you know it those little excuses add up to a lot of missed training days. You have a life outside of triathlon, so how can you make triathlon training fit into your busy schedule?

    1. Have A Training Plan – You should know what workout you are doing on any given day before you lace up your shoes and head out the door. If you are a DIY kind of athlete there are a lot of wonderful books on training, I would start with Joel Friel’s “The Triathlete’s Training Bible.” There are also several resources on the internet that can get you started creating your own training schedule. If you prefer a schedule tailored specifically to your needs you can also enlist a triathlon coach to design a plan for you. It could include training in controlled environments such as pool swimming, indoor cycling, treadmill running. Whatever method you chose, by planning ahead you won’t waste any of your precious training hours trying to decide what you are going to do that day.

  1. Schedule Time For Your Workouts – Your training should have a set time on your calendar just like an important meeting. If you carve out time for training in advance you will have no excuse to skip that long bike ride come the weekend.
  2. Have Backup Plans – Think like a Boy Scout and always be prepared.  Is a rainstorm on its way to mess up your outdoor training regimen?  Get to the cover of your gym for a high intensity workout on the spin bike or treadmill. Don’t let high winds, rain, and hail stop you from getting your sessions in.

Courtesy of Flickr

Key Triathlon Workouts

Beyond the physical time spent training, one of the biggest differences between recreational and professional athletes is how they distribute their training efforts. Weekend warriors often spend about half of their training time at moderate intensity, while elite athletes spend the majority of their time at low intensity, about 80%, with the rest of their training done at high intensity. Studies have shown that polarized training, training done at either high or low intensities, yields the greatest fitness gains. You may be asking yourself why would spending more time training easy make me faster? The answer is this, the real limiter to your training is your ability to recover from key workouts.

triathlon run

Courtesy of Flickr

Triathletes are not the type to shy away from a challenge, and are no stranger to punishing workouts. The problem is not that you don’t work hard enough; it’s that you don’t know when to rest. By spending the majority of training in this middle ground you are not allowing your body to recover fully. Then, when you head out to do that track session, your body is not able to perform at the level of intensity that would yield the greatest gains in strength and speed. This is why focusing on key workouts is so important. It is your key workouts that will cause the greatest gains in performance come race day. Here is how to shift your focus towards key workouts:

  1. One Key Workout Per Discipline – You should have one key workout per discipline per week. That means you will have one challenging swim, bike, and run session each week. These should be scheduled ahead of time on your training plan. If you are creating your own training plan be sure to schedule your key workouts so that you have time to recover in between sessions. The whole idea is that your body will be fully recovered and able to perform at high intensity for each of these sessions.
  2. Use A Heart Rate Monitor – While a heart rate monitor is not mandatory, it can be a useful tool. Many athletes rely successfully on perceived rate of exertion. This basically means you’re simply guessing how intense your workout is or going by “feeling” rather than hard data. The problem is that, in general, triathletes spend the majority of their time training in the wrong zone. Using a heart rate monitor may serve as a useful reminder on low intensity days to slow down. If you do use a heart rate monitor then perform the bulk of your low intensity days in zone 1. You may be surprised at how much you need to back off on your easy days.
triathlon bike

Courtesy of Flickr

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for Triathletes

Now that we have covered how important your “key workouts” are, let’s go over how to best perform them to make you stronger and faster. These sessions will only make up about 20% of your training, and for good reason. High intensity interval training is like a potent drug.  The right dose will perform miracles for your performance, while too much could spell injury or burn out. These sessions will be short and extremely challenging. There is no limit to variations of HIIT workouts, but here are three different types of HIIT workouts to get you started. Each of these sessions should last around 30 minutes, remember there is no need to go long on high intensity days.HIIT High Intensity Interval Training

  1. Fartlek – from the Swedish word for “speed play”, fartlek workouts are an easy and fun way to get your interval training in. After a 5-10minute warm up you can begin your sprint intervals. You can set goals like sprinting to the next lamp post or up the next hill. These intervals are irregular and completely based on when you decided to turn up the speed or dial it back. Listen to your body, go all out when you are ready, then take a break until you feel recovered and ready to tackle your next sprint session. End with a 5-10minute cool down.
  2. Ladder – for these intervals you will start with a 5-10 minute warm up, followed by intervals that increase in time, distance, or intensity. The hardest interval will be in the middle of the workout before coming back down the ladder. Here is an example of a ladder workout:
    • 5-10minute warm up
    • 1 minute high intensity
    • 1 minute recovery
    • 2 minutes high intensity
    • 2 minutes recovery
    • 3 minutes high intensity
    • 3 minutes recovery
    • 3 minutes high intensity
    • 3 minutes recovery
    • 2 minutes high intensity
    • 2 minutes recovery
    • 1 minute high intensity
    • 1 minute recovery
    • 5-10 minutes cool down
  3. Tabata – the Tabata protocol is one of the most intense interval workouts around. This workout is incredibly hard because of its short rest periods, but that is also what makes it so effective. Listed here is the original Tabata protocol, this workout is extremely challenging. Unless you are already training at a high level start at 2 intervals and work your way up from there. If you have never done a Tabata workout you will be surprised at how intense this short workout truly is:
    • 5 minutes warm up
    • 8X 20 seconds all out followed by 10 seconds recovery
    • 2 minute cool down

Triathlete SwimPutting It Into Practice

Making it to the start line healthy and ready to race is a culmination of all of your training efforts coming together on race day. While there are many things to consider when training for a triathlon, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Below you will find a sample training schedule for a sprint distance triathlon. If you plan on tackling a longer distance remember that means more time spent in the water, in your saddle, and on your feet, make changes to this plan accordingly.

To get you started, here’s a sample workout schedule for a sprint triathlon:

Monday through Friday:

M T W Th F
Swim Rest Day 30 min easy 30min easy
Bike Rest Day 45min easy 30 min: Tabata intervals
Run Rest Day 30min: fartlek intervals 30min easy

Saturday and Sunday:

Sat Sun
Swim 30min: ladder intervals
Bike 45min long easy 60min long easy

*Click here to read Part 2 of our Triathlon Training Tips series “9 Nutrition Tips for Top Triathlon Performance”.