Training for Your First Triathlon

Triathlon training can be complicated. After all there are whole books written on each of the three disciplines and you are going to put them together. Any triathlon training plan comes down to some basic facts; your time, human physiology, and your goals.


Your time is the first constraint. Triathlon training takes time, and unlike an unfinished novel, you cannot dabble at it now and again for years. Once started you have to stick with it. You cannot finish a triathlon by being a weekend warrior. Most triathlon training plans will call for a minimum of six hours of exercise a week. That is a minimum, if you want to finish fast or finish a longer triathlon you could easily be looking at training times that dip into the 15 hours a week range.

You also need to divide these hours by sport. Cycling takes the longest, while swimming can be the hardest logistically. You cannot do one sport and expect the fitness to trickle into another. The smartest thing to do, at least at the beginning, is spend more time in the sport that you are weakest.

Human physiology is the reason why you need to set aside so many hours, and there are different aspects at play during training. At first, and on a very basic level, there is muscle memory. If you are learning to swim or ride a bike researchers have found that it will take 10,000 or more repetitions before you can stop thinking about each pedal stroke or catch in the water. Luckily, unlike tennis, triathlon, other than swimming, is a sport requiring a largely low skill set.

A Common Aerobic Base

What it does require however is aerobic fitness. This is where those hours really come into play. Building the aerobic engine takes time. Most triathletes will tell you that it took several years of training for them to reach their physical peak. Aerobic activity is necessary almost every day, and even breaks as short as three days can begin to adversely affect previous gains. So, you are going to need to set aside five to six days a week for training. Additionally, some experts say that you can not improve at a sport with less than three days dedicated to doing it.

Building the aerobic engine also takes some planning. Different intensities of exercise use different aspects of the body’s fueling and aerobic systems. For triathlon training you want to build aerobic strength. This means that during training your breathing can largely keep up with your body’s oxygen needs. Most training programs will rely on what are called zones to assist you in knowing what part of the fueling and oxygen systems you are using. There are other systems as well, but to avoid excessive confusion, the zone system will be referenced throughout. There are five zones.

Zone 1 is where you are now, as you read this. You are relaxed, your heart rate is near it’s normal resting rate, and you could sing along to any song without gasping for breath. You are not building heart muscle or aerobic capacity.

Zone 2 is the most important part of an endurance training plan. In heart rate conditioning, which is the most common form of conditioning, zone 2 is located between 60 and 80% of your maximum heart rate. This is where the body is at its most efficient. It burns fat, a fuel it has plenty of, and you build stamina and heart muscle here. Almost all of the training you do at the beginning of your triathlon training should be in zone 2. There are many ways to find your maximum heart rate mentioned online. Avoid the ones that take no work, they’re useless, the best ones involve 20 minutes or more of hard effort.

Spending time in zone 2 is called base training. Base training is imperative for beginner triathletes, as well as generally accepted as the best way to start each season. Base training is where you go long and slow. You put in the miles, you hone your stroke in the pool, you get your running legs in gear, zone two is also where you become an athlete, who has the foundation to add speed later safely.

Lastly, but most importantly to your training program are your goals. Do you wish to survive a sprint or an Ironman? Are you looking to increase your speed? Increasing speed and/or distance requires more time and more structured training. Additionally, if you are already a serious cyclist you can get by with less cycling while you build up endurance in the swim and the run. Your goals are only hindered by your time. And though setting aside six to sixteen hours a week may seem difficult, it certainly can be done. It is a challenge, but that’s what makes completing a triathlon so special.

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