Sprint Triathlon Training

  1. Learn to Swim
  2. Have Fun

If your goal is to simply finish your first triathlon, that's pretty much the two most important things in my mind. Make sure that you are not putting your life or someone eles's in jeopardy and you can muddle through the rest. However, it's probably not a bad idea to put a little more than baseline effort into your race which will undoubtably increase the fun factor.

For those that want to put a little effort into their race preperation read on for what has worked for me. Keep in mind I am not super competative. I like to feel that I am part of the race, but, not interested in gunning for a podium spot. If getting on the podium is your goal, my site might not be the best place for you.

Learning To Swim

Swiming is a skill. Yes, you must have a level of fitness to swim well, but, at it's core, learing to swim is learning a skill. If you find yourself out of breath after one length or feel like you are thrashing about, it is probably due to your technique more than your physical fitness. Learning proper form will benefit you much more than trying to muscle through it.

It might take longer than you think. I read stories online all the time of how someone learned to swim 1000 yards in a matter of a month or two, and I am always a bit skeptical and jelous at the same time. I never swam in my life until I started training for triathlon and it took me about 6-12 months before I could swim 1000 yards non-stop and unaided (no wetsuit or pull buoy). It is quite possible that I am just a slow learner but, don't be surprised if it takes a good while before you can swim long distances distances comfortably.

Get a coach. If you are new to swimming I would highly recommend hiring a swim coach for at least a couple sessions so that you can learn the basics of the swim stroke, when and how to breath and when and how to kick. Also, be very careful with selecting a coach. Selecting a triathlon specific coach or one with competative swim experience will most likely get you into good form MUCH faster than the instructor teaching toddlers to swim at the local club.

Read a book. Yes, you can vastly improve your swimming by reading a book or visiting an online resource. I really liked the book Total Immersion by Terry Laughlin. He is highly focused on balance and form targeted toward the adult swimmer. Swim Smooth is another great online resource with tips and videos.

Buy a wetsuit. USAT guidelines allow for wetsuits to be worn at 78F and below without restriction up to 83.9 if you do not care to be eligible for age group awards. If you are at all uncomfortable in the open water a beginner wetsuit such as the TYR Hurricane Category 1 can offer a tremendous amount of buoyancy. You should never rely on your wetsuit as a life saving device, however, it is great insurance and will probably give you a nice boost in speed. In this wetsuit I can litterly just float on my back to take a break. Make sure it is a triathlon specific wetsuit which is designed to fit snugly and accomodate comfortable, efficient swimming.

Swim in open water. Swim at least once in open water before your race. You don't want to have your first open water experience on race day. Even one pre-race swim will make a world of difference and the more you can get in the better. Never swim alone and if you are looking for a little extra insurance, get a swim buoy like the Kiefer SaferSwimmer.

Relax! Anxiety and being rigid in the water can ruin your swim form in no time. The more relaxed you are the easier you will breath and the smoother you will swim.

Preparing for the Bike

First, let's get a couple of beginner questions out or the way first.

Use the bike you have. I love buying new training toys, but, if you are new to competative cycling the best favor you can do yourself is just race on what you have for your first race. I suggest this for a couple of reasons. First, it's the cheapest thing to do. Second, it allows you to establish a benchmark for when you do upgrade to your new race rig. Third, and most important, competing in a triathlon, seeing the other bikes that people are riding, getting a feel for what worked and what didn't may all influence the race bike that you may purchase. You may not be the fastest, but, you will get to the finish line.

Learn to change a flat. With an extra tube, tire levers, mini air pump and practice, you can fix a flat in 10 minutes or less. Don't let a flat tire end your race.

Bike twice a week. Biking twice a week, building up to race distance with get you to the finish line. If you just want to finish, that's it, nothing fancy.

Preparing for the Run

Run a 5K. Here again, nothing fancy. Run twice a week building up to 5K as the great majority of sprints end with a 5K run. If you have never run a 5K, register for one or two 5K races before your triathlon. It will give you some training motivation and help aleviate some of the race day jitters for your triathlon.


Prepare ahead of time. One of the best ways to get through transition smoothly is by being prepared ahead of time. Know exactly what articles of clothing you will be changing/keeping on, what nutrition you will consume in transition/take with you and in what order you plan to do all of this. Rehearse a little in real life and rehearse a lot in your head.

What should I have in transition? This is by no means an exauhstive list, but, what I typically have in my bag. Pack everything that you might need, but, don't over pack. You don't want to be digging through a mountain "what if" gear in T1

Take your time. Yes, if you are new to triathlon, you want to go through transition with your mind focused and calm so that you can make sure that you don't forget anything. Heading out on the bike course without your helmet will cost you much more than the extra time it took to double check and could even result in a DQ.

Make yourself comfortable. If you are comfortable, you will be faster, or at the very least enjoy the day more. If it's a hot day, take the time to put on sunscreen, make sure the water bottles are topped off and your shoes and socks are fitting as you like them.

Sample Training Program

Keep in mind, I'm not a trainer. Just a middle aged guy trying to figure this sport out. Here is what I might do if I was training for my first triathlon from a somewhat untrained state. This is more of an example or guidline vs. an actual training plan. Basically, build your distances, have hard workouts and easy workouts and get some rest. As long as you try to swim, bike, run at least twice a week, get one day of strength training in and one day off, you should be fine. If you are struggling with the swim, add another swim day. If this is too easy for you, increase intensity or distances.

If you are new to swimming, I highly recommend starting your swim training at least 6 months ahead of your race. Winter is a great time to focus on swimming.

If you really want to get serious pick up a copy of Joe Friel's book "The Triathlete's Training Bible".

Week # Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
1 Swim 400m Intervals. Use pull buoy if you have to. Run/Walk 15 Min Ride Bike 30 Min. or Spin Class Swim 400m Intervals. Use pull buoy if you have to.
Core and/or Glute strength training.
Ride Bike 30 Min Run/Walk 15 Min
2 Day Off Swim 500m Intervals. Use pull buoy if you have to. Run/Walk 20 Min Ride Bike 30 Min. or Spin Class Swim 400m Intervals. Use pull buoy if you have to.
Core and/or Glute strength training.
Ride Bike 30 Min Run/Walk 20 Min
3 Day Off Swim 600m Intervals. Try not to use pull buoy. Run/Walk 30 Min. More run than walk. Ride Bike 30 Min. or Spin Class Swim 500m Intervals. Try not to use pull buoy.
Core and/or Glute strength training.
Ride Bike 45 Min Run/Walk 30 Min. More run than walk
4 Day Off Swim 700m Intervals. Use pull buoy only last 100m. Run/Walk 30 Min. More run than walk. Ride Bike 30 Min. or Spin Class Swim 600m Intervals. Use pull buoy only last 100m.
Core and/or Glute strength training.
Ride Bike 45 Min Run 30 Min
5 Day Off Swim 500m without stopping. Run 30 Min Ride Bike 30 Min. or Spin Class Swim 500m without stopping.
Core and/or Glute strength training.
Ride Bike 30 Min Run 30 Min
6 Day Off Swim 600m without stopping. Run 30 Min Ride Bike 30 Min. or Spin Class Swim 700m without stopping.
Core and/or Glute strength training.
Ride Bike 45 Min Run 30 Min
7 Day Off Swim 900m without stopping. Run 30 Min Ride Bike 45 Min. or Spin Class Swim 800m intervals/drills.
Core and/or Glute strength training.
Ride Bike Race Distance Run 3 Miles
8 Day Off Swim 800m without stopping. Ride Bike 45 Min Transition Run off Bike 10 Min Swim race distance without stopping. Preferrably open water.
No Strength
Day Off 15 Minute Bike Ride
10 Minute Run

Race Selection

Triathlon courses vary greatly from one venue to another, so research the races in your area or even a little beyond your local area to find the ones that appeal to you. Do you want a short swim, flat course, hilly course, urban, scenic... For my first race I specifically chose Lake Mills because it had the shortest swim I could find at 400 meters and also a novice division. It turned out to be a great day and got me hooked.

Will I Be Last?

Almost certainly not, especially if you train even just a little. However, if you do find yourself closing down the course, enjoy that you are out on the course racing. Just attempting such a race puts you way ahead of the couch potatoes and generally, the guy or girl brining up the rear is the one that's putting in the biggest effort of the day and will cross the finish line to cheers of encouragement.

Having Fun

The primary reason I train and race is to have fun. Yes, I am competative, primarily with myself, and aspire to perform better every race, but, am careful to keep it all fun. Having over inflated expectations or getting upset when you get passed up by the guy with the $6000 bike setup can stress you out and ruin what should be a celebration of your training and abilities to this point. Keep it all in perspective and make it fun. You might even find that you race better.

Know The Rules

Knowing the race rules can literally make or break your day. Did you know you can hold on to a kyak or stationary plattform without penalty on the swim as long as you do not make forward progress? Did you know that most races prohibit headphones or cell phones on the course? Did you know that your helmet must be on AND BUCKLED any time you are in transition with your bike? Use the rules to your advantage and avoid penalties. Most races use the USAT Competative Rules or some derivitive of them, so take the time to read through them as part of your training.

Know The Course

Do your homework. Every race should have a published course online. Take the time to not only glance at it, but, study it. Being familiar with transition location, course elevation, twists and turns will all pay off dividends on race day.

Walk through your race. The day before a race (usually at packet pickup), I like to walk down to the beach to get familiar with the water conditions and then walk through transition as I will be coming in and out during the race. Make sure you can easily find your bike after the swim and easily find bike and run exits.

What If Something Goes Wrong?

Expect the unexpected. You can pretty much guarantee that something will not go according to plan in every race you run. Rain, cold, heat, course changes, forgotten items, course changes, race delay, race format change... the list goes on. Rather than stress out about these details, just be prepared as you can be, assume someting will come your way, and embrace the challenge of finding a solution or adapting to the conditions. It is a big part of triathlon and just adds to the feeling of accomplishment when you overcome unforseen obstacles. You can read my race reports to get some great examples of things gone wrong.