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Get Planning: How to Train for Your First Triathlon

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In the third part of a three-part series, we discuss how to frame a training plan for the rookie triathlete.

Read part one and part two.

Congratulations on your decision to do this triathlon thing. You have the gear, maybe some goals, and now it’s time to think about your training.

In simple terms, consistency is just as important in tri training as it is in running. Joining a club or finding a group is helpful. The basic structure: swim twice a week, bike twice a week, and run twice a week. If all else fails? Do what you can and don’t give up.

It may seem overwhelming, but the important part is to just get started with this simple framework in a way that works well with your existing schedule. As you get further in your triathlon journey, you can gradually increase the amount of time and distance you do in each session, but to start, figure out what works for you. If there’s a pool by your office, schedule a swim during lunch. Keep your expectations realistic—your primary goal in the beginning is just building consistency.

Are you a morning person? Do you have more time in the evenings? What about childcare? Is your spouse or significant other on board with your plans? If not, are you prepared to adjust? These are some questions to ask to help frame your schedule.

For a sprint triathlon, I recommend a minimum of 12 weeks of training, if you are a beginner.

If you are an advanced runner and cyclist, you can perhaps do a little less. If you are a great swimmer and runner, again, you might get by with fewer weeks of training. This is a general training framework for a woman who can run/walk a 5K, and who is fairly new (but capable) in the swim and bike.

Never fear, however! If you don’t have experience in the swim or the bike, then just increase the number of weeks you plan to train. This is all about making your training work for you. If you need 16 weeks, or six months—take it. You want to feel confident, comfortable, and competent on race day. Go at your pace, focus on consistency, and enjoy it.

A Basic Training Structure

Note that this is a general guide for getting to the start (and finish line) of your first triathlon. If you are currently a marathoner, keep your running routine intact, and just follow the swim and bike. IF you are new to all three disciplines, remember to go easy, be patient, make sure to take the rest weeks, and have a great time.

You will want to ease into it. In the first two weeks, for each discipline’s session, aim to swim 200-300 meters, bike for 30 minutes (or a minimum of five miles), and run (or walk) one mile.

After that, each week, add some more time and distance. Don’t forget to take rest days—more than one per week, if you feel you need it.

As you become more advanced, you can try a bonus workout called a “brick.” During this kind of workout, you complete your bike and run workouts back-to-back. As soon as you get off the bike, go immediately into your run. Keep the run short at first—just five or 10 minutes.

If your goal race is taking place in a lake or the ocean, it’s important to practice a few times in the same conditions. If you’re planning to use a wetsuit, make sure to practice in it, too. It’s best to do open-water swims with a friend, for safety reasons.

As you advance, you’ve built consistency, and you’re ready for more, build to 800 meters during your swim workouts; one hour (15 miles) during your bike sessions, plus one 20-mile (or 90-minute) ride, and up two five miles on your runs. Start practicing the transitions between each—if you’re wearing a wetsuit, practice taking it off, then putting on your shoes, helmet, and sunglasses. When you get off your bike, practice putting on your running shoes (if you’re using bike shoes), taking off the helmet, and grabbing your hat or visor.

Before race day, read the rules and other information for beginners provided by USA Triathlon.

A few days before the race, make sure you have everything you need—make a checklist of all the equipment and fuel you plan to use.

Then, on the morning of the race, stay positive. Nerves are normal, but don’t let doubt creep in. You’ve got this! Your speed isn’t important—just keep moving forward. Thank the volunteers and the people who made your journey possible. Smile for the cameras—no matter how funny they may be, they’ll be proof of your amazing accomplishment.

Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is a four-time Ironman, recovering attorney, motivational speaker, coach, and author of  Triathlon for the Every Woman: You Can Be a Triathlete. Yes. You. She is the host of the podcast “The Same 24 Hours.” You can download a free triathlon race day checklist here. Her next book, The Year of No Nonsense, is available Fall 2019.