How to build your own triathlon training plan

A coach is a great investment, but you can also create your own programme if armed with the right tools. Here's how...

Illustration of a swimmer on a construction site

Now that we’ve showed you how to set goals and boost your chances of reaching them, it’s time to take things to the next level. Here, we’ll help you formulate your own training plan, giving you the information you need to go away and overcome the hurdles of training for a multisport event.

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And, for the alpha males and females among you, that starts with one clear message: don’t let your ego ruin your chances of success.

“With any training you undertake for an event, the number one goal is to make the start line injury-free and healthy.” The words there of Phil Mosley of MyProCoach. Phil’s been coaching amateur triathletes for over 20 years and is adept at designing training plans for people with busy lives. You must, he says, remember you’re not a professional. Vis-à-vis, don’t overcook things. “Too many age-groupers set too hard a training schedule and then beat themselves up that they can’t keep up with the plan. They then overdo it and end up injured.”

In short, if you feel more is better – a common belief among multisporters – you’ll soon be burnt out or get ill. Instead, dance to the mantra sung by legendary coach Joe Friel in his acclaimed The Triathlete’s Training Bible, namely do the ‘least amount’, plan ‘continual improvement’ and be ‘specific’…

“Least amount implies that less is better. How can that be? Most successful athletes support the notion that small fitness gains made over a long time are better than quick fitness changes over a short time. We all know that ‘too much, too soon’ leads to breakdown yet we keep doing it.

“Continual improvement has to do with taking a long-term approach to training. Gradual workout changes from week to week produce fitness that stays with you longer and ultimately reaches a higher level than when big changes are made. Your body is prepared to handle changes of a bit more than 10%. Doing more than what you’re physically capable of absorbing is worse than wasting effort, as it leads to breakdown.

“Most specific has to do with how daily workouts benefit triathlon- and duathlon-specific fitness, which is the ultimate goal of training. Each and every workout should have a purpose, whether to improve fitness, maintain fitness or recover. Getting the balance right with these three is key
to success.”

Minimum workload

Let’s work through these, starting with what’s the minimum needed to reach your targets? In all honesty, this is hard to pin down hour-wise due to all our individual circumstances and fitness background. However, we can prescribe advice based on distance completed; in other words, when it comes to a supersprint of 400m swim, 10km bike and 2.5km run, once you can individually swim for 20-30mins, bike for 20-30mins and run for 20-30mins, you’re arguably ready to go.

When it comes to Olympic-distance, you need to reach a place where you’re training up to 75% of the distance in each discipline. So for a 1.5km swim, 40km bike, 10km run, we’re talking a 1.125km swim, 30km bike and 7.5km run. Do that and you’ll forge the fitness to bring it all together at your event.

As for middle- and iron-distance, you’re looking at a programme of two swim sessions, two-to-three bike sessions, and two-to-three run sessions each week. For many people at this level, your training’s already dialled in but, as a snapshot, if you’re going long, prepare for weekly 4-7hr bike rides and managing the subsequent fatigue.

Peak progress

Credit: Dan Seex

As for planning progress, back to Mosley. “Whatever level you’re at, I’d start off at whatever’s easy to you and progress by 5mins a week when swimming and running, max. And 10mins biking, max. More than that, you’ll be injured.”

“Also, avoid back-to-back hard sessions – these are hard by intensity or duration,” Mosley continues. “And include at least one rest day in the week, plus an active recovery week every fourth week. They’re about half the training you do in a normal week. They’re good not just because they help you recover physically, but it’s a mental break as well. It’s also a good chance to spend a little more time with your family.”

This upward curve of performance is formalised in sport-science circles as ‘periodisation’. This has many models depending on the experience of the athlete, but the most simplistic one is the traditional model of periodisation where you build stamina during the winter via long, mid-effort rides before upping intensity as the season approaches. For instance, you might train 80% of the time under 75% of your maximum heart rate in the off-season and 20% over. This might then change to 65% under 75% maximum heart rate and 35% over as time rolls by.

There are myriad physiological reasons behind this model, including raising your ability to burn fat; repeated speed, like chasing and then leaving a competitor, is higher with stronger aerobic foundations; and a lower-intensity winter’s kinder on your immune system. This is the basic template but it’s one that many 220 Triathlon readers should follow.

Need further empirical evidence? A study undertaken by Professor Aldo Sassi of the Mapei Sport Research Centre in Italy analysed fluctuations of VO2 max in cyclists through the course of a season. (As a reminder, VO2 max is the maximal oxygen uptake a rider can utilise per minute of intense exercise. It’s measured in millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight or mL/kg/min. A good amateur triathlete’s VO2 max is upwards of 50; a pro’s around 70 to 85.)

Sassi tested the riders in December, March and June, roughly corresponding to a rider’s rest period, and early- and peak-season fitness, and noticed that, on average, VO2 max increased from 69.4 to 74.2 to 76.7mL/kg/min. Peak power output also rose from 6.3 to 6.8 to 7 watts per kilogram during an incremental fitness test. In short, even the pros allow themselves to lose a modicum of fitness during the off-season – around 9% in Sassi’s study. If they didn’t, they’d hit the wall.

What’s in a session?

When it comes to session content, there are broad rules you should follow throughout your plan. For swim, technique is arguably more important than fitness, which you can build in the other two disciplines. Every swim session should feature a technical component, which will often manifest itself in drills during the warm-up.

The bike’s a good place to build aerobic fitness with the weekly long ride a key component of every triathlete’s training schedule. As Mosley said, don’t increase this by more than 10mins each week and reel back every fourth week.

The run’s the discipline you must be most careful about, its weight-bearing nature cranking up the potential of injury. That’s why we’d advise running regularly off-road as the softer surfaces dampen loads. We’d also recommend one more intense run session each week to increase speed. Just ensure you don’t follow this with another hard session.

Does your sporting background matter how many of each discipline you should pencil in? “Not really,” says Mosley. “At the top end, for example, there’s a sweetspot of training each discipline two or three times a week. If you do four, it doesn’t make you that much better. Follow a balanced plan and, if for example, someone’s already a good runner, they’ll maintain their running and still improve the swimming and cycling.”

Race-specific training

Credit: Dan Seex

This, says Mosley, will have you in a strong position as race day edges closer on the horizon. Which is when you should make things more race specific. “As you approach your big day, do one race workout each week,” he says. “For instance, you might ride in your tri-suit on your race-day bike (or with clip-on tri bars) and include efforts at race pace. And ensure you feature open-water swims in the last month or two before your race.

“Then there are bricks, which you should do weekly in the last eight weeks before your race. These should mainly be bike to run, but throw in the occasional swim to bike, too. It’ll give you confidence that you’ve practised the T1 transition skills before race day, albeit it won’t boost you physiologically like bike-to-run sessions will.

“You should also pencil the occasional build-up race into your plans, whether it’s a shorter triathlon or a single-discipline event. But don’t do too many – one or two is fine to crank up confidence without leaving you too tired for subsequent sessions.”

One final note is on tracking and measuring your sessions and progress. Most triathletes love gear, which guides them to the latest multisport watches, power meters and swim devices. They embrace online training software like TrainingPeaks. All of these have their worth and help you balance training, recovery and improvement.

Then again, some triathletes prefer the old pen and paper. Both are absolutely fine, but we’d implore you to monitor your training and build-up races in some form, not only from a physiological and performance perspective, but it also boosts motivation to see how you’re improved in moments when you’re flagging. 

Peak at the races

Tapering’s where you cut training load to maximise fitness and freshness at your event. Here’s tapering expert Inigo Mujika on what to do…

“Research has shown that optimal tapering duration ranges between eight and 14 days. However, we all know that general rules do not necessarily apply to individual athletes, who should adapt taper duration to their individual recovery-fitness profile and their level of accumulated fatigue.

“Some triathletes recover faster than others and they’d need a shorter taper; others lose fitness faster than others and they’d need to train enough during the taper to avoid losing adaptation (i.e. detraining); while some may have a more pronounced residual fatigue from their intensive training and/or other stressful lifestyle factors, and they may require a longer taper or a more pronounced reduction of their training load in the days prior to the race.

“Training volume must decline during the taper by reducing either the duration or the frequency of the training sessions but not intensity. Simply put, triathletes should train less in quantity but maintain the quality.”

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