Triathlon is one of the world’s most inclusive sports, with people of all levels of fitness taking part, but how much fitness do you actually need to take part in one? In simple terms, you must be able to tick off the duration of exercise to complete a triathlon distance. But you don’t need to go fast and you can take it easy with breaks.
The most accessible triathlon distance is supersprint (400m swim, 10km bike, 2.5km run), although British Triathlon also run shorter Go Tri events, where the fastest athletes finish in around 30 mins. With moderate training, completion can easily be achieved, allowing for two assumptions: you can swim and you can ride a bike. A yes to both must be the first step.
The swim of a supersprint is 16 lengths of a 25m pool. Reassuringly, there are pool-based triathlons, which mean you can have a break at the end of each length. Remember: you don’t need to swim front crawl in a triathlon and breaststroke is fine.
The bike’s probably the most straightforward discipline to tick off. While 10km may sound a long way, many people can cover that distance in a short space of time on their old mountain bike. A flat course also makes it easier.
The run’s often of greatest trepidation, being the final discipline. However, most of us have some jogging experience, ensuring the majority can run non-stop for 20-30 mins – aka the distance of a supersprint tri.
Using the 20-30min rule is a useful rule of thumb: can you swim, bike or run for 20-30mins? If you can in each of the disciplines, you’re arguably in good enough shape to give a triathlon a go. It’s simply a matter of completing a few weeks of training and acclimatising to the idea that you must run off the bike.
Training for your first supersprint should ideally include two sessions of each discipline per week and a rest day. Each of these sessions should last 20-30mins and you may go longer at the weekend. You could even try and bike in the morning and complete a run in the afternoon.
About two weeks before your race, try a 15-20min bike with a 5-10min run straight after. See how that feels. You’re taking steps to become a triathlete.
What about longer-distance triathlons?
As you climb further up the triathlon tree, your training will become more focussed. The crucial part of all of this is to build your confidence to know you can get around the course. For many, that will be completing the distance of each event. Here are a few guidelines to conquer your chosen race distance…
How fit do you have to be to do a sprint-distance triathlon?
You should be comfortable training up to 75% of standard-distance triathlon in each of the disciplines. As standard-distance is a 1.5km swim, 40km bike and 10km run, we’re talking a 1.125km swim, 30km bike and 7.5km run. If you can, you’ll certainly have the fitness to put it all together in an event.
How fit do you have to be to do standard and middle-distance triathlons?
These can be trained for by following a good club programme – two swim sessions, two to three run sessions (one interval) and two to three bike sessions. A weekend ride of 2-3hrs is plenty to get you around a standard-distance ride and would just about get you around a 90km route (middle-distance bike).
Training in a club environment, if you can, will provide you with the required fitness to complete a middle distance or standard distance event. The swim’s essentially the same distance, but the bike and the runs are more than double. If you can ride for 40km in a standard-distance triathlon, with some regular longer rides of 3hrs, you’ll build your cycling legs to ride 90km comfortably. The same with the run: if you can do an hour of intervals with the club on a Tuesday night, you can probably do a longer steady run of 21.1km.
How fit do you have to be to do an Ironman triathlon?
Ironman is its own beast. Due to the longer distances, it requires a dedicated training plan, and there’s certainly a shift from a club or hobby environment to a more structured training plan. Time will be the biggest obstacle. Do you have enough time to do regular 4-7hr bike rides? Swimming is longer, but if you have regular club or 1hr swim sessions through the week, the swim should take care of itself with a couple of longer swims in the lead-up to the race. The run can be approached very differently if you’re planning to just reach the finish line. Focus on being able to ride effectively and then schedule an effective run-walk routine. For long-course training, there becomes a point through the programme where you realise your typical sessions become half-distance (e.g. your steady run becomes 18-25km). At that point, I believe you’re ready to do an Ironman.
So how fit do you need to be to become a triathlete? The reality is if you can swim, bike and run, you probably have the fitness already to sign up and complete one, just be realistic about deciding the distance for you and work up through the different levels slowly.
You’ll find yourself in an inclusive and exciting group of people. Going for the longer distances may require more specific training, or joining a triathlon club, but that’s also a way to meet new like-minded people and enjoy some great tips on training, kit and routes. As you increase the distances, available time to train becomes a more significant limitation on your performance. Still, you’ll notice that the consistency of training is crucial in improving your fitness safely.
If you want to be competitive or you come from a competitive sporting background, you may wish to follow a more structured triathlon training plan or work with a triathlon coach. Both will offer a shortcut to success, but then we start comparing the differences between completing or competing in a triathlon. That is for another time.
Whatever you decide to do, we urge you to take the plunge and join the triathlon community: you’ll love it!
Philip Hatzis is a BTF Level 3 qualified coach and founder and head coach of Tri Training Harder