If you've done a sprint triathlon and you're hungry for more, it sounds like you're ready to start training towards the standard distance, otherwise known as Olympic distance. We asked triathlon coach Simon Ward for his expert advice for all those aspiring Alistair Brownlees out there.
You've taken your first steps in the sport of triathlon and completed a sprint event, so what's next? If you're looking to take the next step up, you'll probably be thinking about signing up for a standard distance event which is double the distance you have already completed (swim 1.5k, bike 40k, run 10k).
You can expect to be out there for at least twice as long as in your previous race and maybe a few minutes more when you take into account fatigue that comes with longer races. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? Yes, but I’m sure you like a challenge which is why you chose to give triathlon a go. With sensible preparation, anything is possible.
One of the biggest mistakes I see at this point is athletes thinking that they need to double their training volume. There are no set hours required to complete an event. Rather, you should start off by assessing how much time you can consistently devote to training each week. Better to manage five hours each week than one ‘hero’ week of 10 hours and then nothing for the next two.
Consider every aspect of your life, including sleep, commuting, family time, work and relaxing.
Each person has what is known as the minimum effective dose of training which allows them to make progress. If you’ve only ever trained for four hours per week, you’ll improve on four and a half hours. If it’s been eight hours, then even 10% more will lead to gains. There’s no need to double your volume immediately.
Just make sure that your program does not lead to injury or illness, has some progression and overload, is specific to your chosen event, and also has recovery time built in (rest days and recovery weeks). Finally, make sure it’s a program that works for you and not someone else.
To support a long-term interest in triathlon it is important to stay healthy and uninjured. That’s why you must focus first on the fundamentals - sleep, nutrition, mobility, and strength.
Sleep is the bedrock of human performance, and it’s also the time where your body repairs itself after training sessions. Increasing training time by reducing sleep is a fool’s game.
Strength and mobility
Training must include strength and mobility work to injury-proof your body and to help with efficient movement. The recommended daily amount of mobility is 15 minutes for every 60 minutes of training. So train six hours per week, and that requires 90 minutes of mobility work.
Much is written and talked about when it comes to nutrition. Which philosophy you adopt is down to personal preference and my advice here would be this:
- Eat real food, mostly plants, and not too much.
- Avoid refined sugars and processed carbohydrates (most breads, pasta, rice, cakes, cookies, sweets)
It’s important to find a diet that works for you and is sustainable in the long run.
Finally, it’s nutrition that influences your body weight, not how much training you do. It also influences how well you recover from training. You cannot outrun a poor diet.
How much time do I need to train in each discipline?
Ultimately this will depend upon where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Many triathletes have difficulty with the swim and may feel this element requires more time to learn the skills and gain enough endurance to swim 1500m. Others feel that their run lets them down, although in many cases a slower than expected run can be caused by working too hard on the bike.
As the bike occupies the biggest slice of the race and has the biggest influence on both overall race time and run time, it makes sense to spend a bigger portion of your time working on this discipline. A good ratio to start from would be swim 25%, bike 45%, run 30%. Don’t forget to leave at least 30 minutes each week for strength work and 15 - 20 minutes per day for mobility.
How hard do I need to train?
Ask 10 coaches and you’ll get a range of answers. One which will keep cropping up is adopting a ‘polarised training’ approach where 80% of your time is spent training below aerobic threshold (roughly 75-80% maximal heart rate). Simply put, if you can talk comfortably you are in the right zone. Measured on a 1-10 scale this would be a 7-8 and can be sustained for many hours.
The remaining 20% of your training time will be spent in the two higher zones.
Threshold (80-90% effort) where breathing is deepened but controlled and you can manage a sporadic conversation. On the 1-10 scale, this 8-9 and can be sustained for up to 60 minutes but usually performed in shorter intervals of 8-10 minutes. Vo2 max (where breathing is usually very deep, almost erratic and conversation is impossible). On the 1-10 scale, this 9-10 and can be sustained for no more than 4-5 minutes by recreational athletes.
How long do I need?
If you have a reasonable base and have been training consistently for the last 12 months with no long layoffs, you should be able to get ready for a standard distance triathlon in 12 weeks.
What else do I need to think about
Once you have started training you may want to consider adding in a short run after a bike session. Once per week is enough. You could do a short hard ride followed by an easy run (20-30mins) or a longer ride followed by a short hard run (10-15 mins). It’s not necessary to do a 40k bike followed by a 10k run at race pace.
To recreate real race conditions, consider doing a short super-sprint or sprint triathlon.
Your race will most likely take place at an open water venue (river, lake or sea) and will involve wearing a wetsuit. This is a different experience to a pool-based triathlon, and you must get some practice beforehand. I don’t recommend open water swimming on your own, so the best way is to contact your local club, find out where the nearest open water venues are and swim with others where they have appropriate safety cover.
Training for a triathlon is not complicated. Start with the foundations: Sleep, strength/mobility, and nutrition. This will give you consistency. Develop a good technique and spend 80% of your time training at an easy to moderate level. Add in some intervals and higher intensity work. Find a program that works for you and repeat for 12 weeks.
Oh, and have fun. See you at the races!