Training – Your First Triathlon

16th September 2015

Compete or Complete?

Once you have chosen your race, take time to think about the goals you would like to achieve. In this respect athletes generally fall in to two categories either Compete or Complete. Are you taking part just to see if you can complete the race, cover the distance and still remain in one piece, or would you like to be competitive – targeting a specific time or trying to rank in a particular place in your age group?

Triathlon is a sport where you can race against others in your age and gender group, giving a more level playing field. Whatever your level of athletic ability is you will be more effective in your training if you have a target. Remember, however, a goal that stretches you will make both the training and race day a more rewarding experience.

So you have chosen your race, you have set yourself a target(s) and really there is only one last thing to do: TRAIN.

Fail to Plan = Plan to Fail

Always keep your planning and training simple. The least effective training plans are the most complex and often take more energy to understand than they do to complete. If a plan is simple and realistic, while also being physically challenging it should enable you to meet your goals and keep you motivated.

The Key to Successful Training:

Specificity: If you are training for a triathlon you should be swimming, cycling and running. Even if you think you have a good level of fitness from playing a team sport or going to the gym, if you simply turn up to your first triathlon having not put any specific time into your swim, bike or run fitness you may complete the race but it won’t reflect what you are actually capable of. (Although, it is more likely that you will injure yourself and endanger other triathletes on the course.) Your training needs to be specific to the race you are working towards e.g. is the bike or run course hilly? If it is then you must train to be comfortable biking and running up and downhill. Is the swim in a lake? If it is then you must practice some Open Water swimming. Without a programme that contains specific training for your race you will be ill-prepared.

Balance: sure you have the correct balance of time split between your swim, cycle and run training. In general most athletes spend the longest time during a race on the bike; therefore you should spend a greater amount of time cycling instead of swimming or running. The next dominant discipline is cycling followed by swimming. A common training programme would be split: 50% cycling, 30% running and 20% swimming, this is very crude but gives you a starting point. However, if you are particularly weak in one area then, of course, you will have to spend more time working on that discipline.

Intensity: If you only train at one level of intensity you will only ever improve your ability to do longer period of exercise at that intensity. However if you include varying effort levels you will get stronger and as a result find it easier to workout at higher intensities while gradually increasing your average speed. Each session you do could include different effort levels, but this is not essential, as long as during the course of each week you are submitting your body to work at both comfortable and uncomfortable intensities you should see results. Using a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale where: 0 = sleeping, 4 = very light, 7 = moderate and 10 = maximum you should include sessions that take in efforts between 5 and 9 on the scale.

Flexibility: The best laid plans can falter. If your work-life, home-life or social-life gets in the way of training then you simply have to readjust things to work for you and get the balance correct. If you set yourself an unrealistic amount of training and fail to complete each week then you have to go back and re-address the plan. Keep it simple. Keep it achievable. Accept that the process is a learning curve; you will need to make concessions and compromises along the way but eventually with commitment and an open mind you will find a happy balance in which both training and work/home/social life can be accommodated!

Progression: Whatever your ability and fitness level, if you are new to triathlon your training journey will start with relatively low training volume that comprises relatively short duration of reasonably light intensity. At the outset the training will be adapting your body to absorb this new style of workout. A common mistake, which we see often, is athletes trying to train too long and too hard, too soon. The human body is not made to tolerate this and the most common response is injury or fatigue. The key benefit of training at lower intensities initially is that you can work on grasping the technical elements of each discipline, as an adult learning to swim again can be frustrating, or learning to ride a bike in a more competitive way requires you to think about not just pedalling quicker, but bike handling and gear selection. Once you have built a foundation of swim, bike and run fitness you can begin to increase the weekly training time as well as introduce more intensity to the sessions. A very general rule is that with each week you can increase the volume of training by a maximum of 10% until you get to a point where you have reached your time capacity.