Want to become a faster runner? Give triathlons a shot! Train for your first sprint- or Olympic-distance triathlon with our flexible plan.


Megan Mann might never have completed a triathlon if a friend hadn’t talked her into it. A few years ago, Megan, a 31-year-old schoolteacher in Montgomery, Ill., was a fulfilled if unexceptional runner. She participated in races from 5ks to half marathons, and while she never came home with trophies or medals, she never got tired of trying.

So the last thing Megan expected to do in her very first triathlon was to place fourth out of 325 participants in her age group. The following year, Megan dedicated her summer to triathlon training. She returned to the same triathlon and won her age group. Another pleasant surprise: When Megan returned to road racing, she started to hit the podium in these events as well. Not only had competing in triathlons revealed Megan’s hidden talents for swimming and cycling, but the balanced training had also made her a better runner.

RELATED ARTICLE: RUN-WALK HALF MARATHON TRAINING PLANS

Megan’s story is not uncommon. Each year thousands of runners try their first triathlon on a whim only to discover that the two sports complement each other beautifully. Running fitness is a perfect foundation for success in triathlons, while the addition of swimming and cycling to a runner’s routine boosts aerobic conditioning.

A smooth transition from running to triathlon is no guarantee—but it’s easy to do with a bit of guidance and planning. To increase your chances of having an experience like Megan’s, follow three simple rules . . .

Rule #1: Don’t Swim Like a Runner

The key to becoming a faster on the roads is improving your fitness. However, when it comes to the water, technique trumps fitness every time.

Many runners preparing for their first triathlon make the mistake of swimming like runners—trying to build fitness when they should be focusing on form. To get started in the right direction, find a qualified swim coach and invest in a handful of one-on-one lessons. Use the U.S. Masters Swimming website (usms.org) to aid your search. Five hours under the watchful eye of a good coach will yield more improvement than five months of grinding out laps solo.

When you do swim on your own, devote a chunk of each workout to technique-development drills. For example, swim one lap with closed fists—this will teach you how to power through the water with your forearms. Next, swim a few laps, trying to reduce the number of strokes you take from wall to wall. Distance per stroke is an important indicator of skilled swimming.

RELATED ARTICLE: YOUR FIRST MARATHON TRAINING PLAN

Rule #2: Become One With Your Bike.

Runners often consider the bike a piece of equipment. Instead, think of it as an extension of your body. To ride comfortably, efficiently and with minimal risk of low-back pain, you need to ride a bike that fits you like a glove.

You don’t need to go out and spend thousands of dollars on a brand new set of wheels. For around $250, a professional fitting session from a certified bike-fitting specialist will adjust the position of the handlebar, seat and pedals to make your bike the perfect match for you. Be sure to choose a fitter certified by Specialized, F.I.S.T, Serotta or Retül.

Rule #3: Don’t Take Your Running for Granted

Every triathlete has strengths and weaknesses. As a runner, you might think that you should concentrate on your weaknesses—swimming and cycling—in your training while coasting on your running strength. That would be a mistake. Strengths have a way of becoming weaknesses when neglected. In other words, your training should be balanced.

Also, be aware that running on tired legs after riding a bike is very different from running on fresh legs. To run well off the bike you need to practice this frequently in training.

The Runner’s Triathlon Training Plan

When tackling your first triathlon, you should set your sights on a sprint or Olympic-distance event. The distances are a bit different—sprint includes 0.5-mile swim, 12-mile bike, 3-mile run, while Olympic means .93-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike, 6.2-mile run—but the training required for these two races is very similar. In fact, an appropriate training plan for an Olympic-distance triathlon is simply a sprint-distance training plan with a few extra weeks added on.

What follows is a flexible, 12-week training plan that can be used for either a sprint or an Olympic event. Begin in Week 1 and continue through Week 8 to prepare for a sprint, or through Week 12 to get ready for an Olympic-distance race. The plan consists of six workouts per week, as well as one optional run. In each workout, pay attention to your perceived effort to complete the run, bike or swim at the proper pace.

Get in the Zone

The workouts in all three disciplines are based on a five-zone intensity system.

Zone Perceived Effort Pace
1: Low Aerobic Very Easy Warm-up pace
2: Moderate Aerobic Easy Easy-run pace or swim/bike equivalent
3: Threshold Comfortably Hard Half-marathon race pace or swim/bike equivalent
4: VO2max Hard 5k race pace or swim/bike equivalent
5: Speed Very Hard 1-mile race pace or swim/bike equivalent

Training Plan

CLICK HERE TO VIEW PDF VERSION OF TRAINING PLAN

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
1 OfforRun30 min(Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd (Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 100 yd (Zone 3)Cool down: 100 yd (Zone 1) Bike30 min (Zone 2) Run30 min (Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd (Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 100 yd(Zone 3)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike30 min (Zone 2) Run35 min (Zone 2)
2 OfforRun30 min (Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd (Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 2 x 100 yd* (Zone 3)Cool down: 100 yd (Zone 1) Bike30 min (Zone 2)+Run10 minutes (Zone 2) Run35 min (Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 2 x 100 yd(Zone 3)*Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike35 min (Zone 2) Run40 min (Zone 2)
3 OfforRun 35 min (Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd (Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 3 x 100 yd* (Zone 3)Cool down: 100 yd (Zone 1) Bike35 min (Zone 2)+Run10 minutes (Zone 2) Run40 min (Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 3 x 100 yd* (Zone 3)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike40 min (Zone 2)+Run10 min (Zone 2) Run45 min (Zone 2)
4 OfforRun 20 min (Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 4 x 75 yd*(Zone 4)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) 

 

BikeWarm up: 10 min(Zone 1)Workout:6 x (1 min Zone 5 + 2 min Zone 1)Cool down: 10 min(Zone 1)+

Run

10 min (Zone 2)

Run40 min (Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 3 x 100 yd* (Zone 3)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike50 min (Zone 2)+Run10 min (Zone 2) Run30 min (Zone 2) + 10 min (Zone 3)
5 OfforRun40 min(Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 5 x 75 yd*  (Zone 4)Cool down: 100 yd (Zone 1) Bike40 min (Zone 2) RunWarm up: 10 min (Zone 1)Workout:6 x (1 min Zone 4 + 2 min Zone 1)Cool down:5 min (Zone 1) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 4 x 100 yd* (Zone 3)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike45 min (Zone 2) + 10 min (Zone 3)+Run10 min (Zone 2) Run50 min (Zone 2)
6 OfforRun40 min(Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 6 x 75 yd*(Zone 4)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1)  BikeWarm up: 10 min (Zone 1)Workout:3 x (4 min Zone 4 + 3 min Zone 1)Cool down:10 min (Zone 1)+Run10 min (Zone 2) Run40 min (Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 5 x 100 yd* (Zone 3)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike60 min (Zone 2)+Run10 min (Zone 2) Run40 min (Zone 2) + 10 min (Zone 3)
7 OfforRun45 min(Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 4 x 100 yd* (Zone 3)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike45 min (Zone 2) RunWarm up: 10 min (Zone 1)Workout:3 x (4 min Zone 4 + 3 min Zone 1)Cool down:5 min (Zone 1) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 4 x 150 yd* (Zone 3)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike50 min (Zone 2) + 10 min (Zone 3)+Run10 min (Zone 2) Run60 min (Zone 2)
8 OfforRun30 min(Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 6 x 75 yd* (Zone 4)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) BikeWarm up: 10 min (Zone 1)3 x (5 min Zone 4 + 3 min Zone 1)Cool down:10 min (Zone 1) Run20 min (Zone 1) + 10 min (Zone 3) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Main set: 400 yd (Zone 2)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Off SPRINT TRIATHLON!orSwim400 yd (Zone 2)+Bike 30 min (Zone 3)

+

Run

20 min (Zone 2)

9 OfforRun45 min(Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 3 x 200 yd (Zone 3)*Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike45 min(Zone 2) Run10 min (Zone 1) +15 min (Zone 3) +10 min (Zone 1) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 500 yd (Zone 2)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike60 min (Zone 2) + 5 min (Zone 4)+Run10 min (Zone 2) Run60 min (Zone 2)
10 OfforRun45 min(Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 4 x 200 yd (Zone 3)*Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike10 min (Zone 1) +15 min (Zone 3) +10 min (Zone 1) Run45 min (Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 4 x 600 yd (Zone 2)*Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike75 min (Zone 2)+Run10 min (Zone 2) Run60 min (Zone 2)
11 OfforRun45 min(Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 5 x 200 yd (Zone 3)*Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike50 min (Zone 2) Run10 min (Zone 1) +15 min (Zone 3) +10 min (Zone 1) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 4 x 800 yd (Zone 2)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike75 min (Zone 2) +5 min (Zone 4)+Run10 min (Zone 2) RunWarm up:10 min (Zone 2)Workout:6 x (1 min Zone 4 + 4 min Zone 2)Cool down:10 min (Zone 1)
12 OfforRun30 min(Zone 2) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Drills: 4 x 25 yd*Main set: 6 x 75 yd* (Zone 4)30 seconds after each 25)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Bike10 min (Zone 1) + 15 min (Zone 3) +10 min (Zone 1)+Run 10 min (Zone 3) Run30 min (Zone 1) + 10 min (Zone 3) SwimWarm up: 100 yd(Zone 1)Main set: 400 yd (Zone 3)Cool down: 100 yd(Zone 1) Off OLYMPIC-DISTANCE TRIATHLON!

 

*Rest 30 seconds after each set