I always used to look at people that had done a triathlon with envy. I thought they were an impossible feat of endurance on a level that I could never aspire to, let alone learning how to train for a triathlon.
That is, until I completed my first triathlon a few years ago and now compete as an all-world Ironman athlete.
As it turns out, even if you’re a 40+ dad looking after 2 kids you can still find the time to train and prepare for one of the toughest endurance events available.
And even if you don’t end up competing in an Ironman, how many of your middle-aged mates can say they’ve done a triathlon? Who knows, you might even aspire some of them to put on a wetsuit and start training for their first triathlon before they know it.
What is a Triathlon?
A triathlon is a race comprised of three (tri) events – swimming, cycling, and running. You do them in that order for a given distance until you finish the race.
There are 4 main types of triathlon that you’ll encounter, and these are:
- Sprint Triathlon—750 meter (0.465 mile) swim / 20 kilometre (12.5 mi) bike / 5 km (3.1 mi) run
- Standard or Olympic Triathlon—1.5 kilometre (0.93 mile) swim / 40km (25 mi) bike / 10 km (6.2 mi) run
- Half-Ironman or 70.3 Triathlon—1.9 kilometre (1.2 mile) swim / 90 km (56 mi) bike / 21.1 km (13.1 mi) run
- Ironman Triathlon—3.8 kilometre (2.4 mile) swim / 180.2 km (112 mi) bike / 42.2 km (26.2 mi) run
The most common one is the Standard/Olympic triathlon, and it’s more than achievable by most people with just a bit of training.
Now, that’s not to say it’s going to easy. Training for any race is challenging enough, so training for three is going to be even tougher. Fortunately, this guide is here to help you out.
How long does it take to complete a standard triathlon?
The total time varies on the event, but in general you can expect to finish a standard triathlon in 2.5 – 3.5 hours. If you want to tackle the Ironman, however, that’ll set you back by about 12 hours on average. That race is a different beast altogether.
Triathlon Training Plan: An In-Depth Guide to Help You Train for Your First Triathlon
This guide is designed for people who are embarking on a journey to complete their first triathlon after the age of 40.
It will work regardless of your experience, although if you’re very overweight I’d recommend trying to burn off some of the belly fat before diving head-first into this. That’s not to say you should never attempt a triathlon, but the stress you’ll put on your body and the difficulty you’ll have training will make it much harder for you.
However, this mostly applies to running. Swimming and cycling are still great ways for someone to lose weight, so you can get the best of both worlds by implementing these exercises into your weekly routine and then be better prepared for the triathlon when it comes to it.
The basic principles of how to train for your first triathlon
There are 4 main areas of triathlon training that we’re going to cover, as I want to keep it as simple as possible while still providing as much information as I can.
Unsurprisingly, the training will focus on swimming, cycling, and running. If you can do each of these then you can do a triathlon – it’s not rocket science. But, to go along with the exercise guides I also wanted to include some information on diet & nutrition. I’m not going to tell you exactly what to eat, but I will be covering macronutrients, recovery, timing, and some other important bits.
Let’s get started!
Most guides I’ve seen on how to train for a triathlon make diet way too complicated. I think there are times when it needs to be complicated, for example if you’re an athlete or competing for an extremely tough event like an Ironman.
However, for our purposes we’re going to focus on a normal triathlon event.
Macronutrients, or macros, consist of protein, carbohydrates and fat. Each gram of these macronutrients contains, 4, 4, and 9 calories respectively. They’re present in every piece of food in differing amounts, and how much you need of each one depends on your activity level, age, gender, and more.
The recommended daily intake is 2000-2500 calories, which is a good baseline, but the guidelines tend to lose almost all credibility after that.
This is what the NHS recommends:
- Energy: 2,000kcal
- Total fat: less than 70g
- Carbohydrate: at least 260g
- Total sugars: 90g
- Protein: 50g
I’m not sure what kind of person this is for, but eating these ratios is going to make triathlon quite difficult. It won’t be impossible, but it’s going to hurt.
Here’s what I would recommend instead for a 45-year-old man weighing about 80-90kg:
- Energy: 2,500kcal
- Total fat: 70g
- Carbohydrates: 340g
- Total sugars: less than 60g
- Protein: at least 160g
The biggest difference here is the protein intake. 50g is nowhere enough to sustain a grown man, and as there are no downsides to consuming more protein (and a lot of downsides to not consuming enough), you might as well fill up on them.
Note, this macronutrient profile applies if you’re training for a triathlon. You’re going to need the extra calories and protein to repair your muscles, and you’ll need the higher carbohydrates to give you fuel for your training.
What foods can you eat
The simple answer here is pretty much anything you want – within reason.
Personally, I prefer a mix of lean meats, white rice, wholegrains, & sweet potatoes, and lots of fruit and vegetables. You can split your meals up as much you want, but I’d recommend having something before and after a workout, then a couple of other meals + snacks throughout the day.
The trick is to keep yourself satisfied, without stuffing your face or staying hungry for too long.
- Pre-Workout: You should try to eat something small 30 minutes before training that contains a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein with low fat (200kcal)
- Post-Workout: High protein, high carb, moderate fat (700kcal)
- Snack: High protein, high fat, low-moderate carb (250kcal)
- Lunch: High protein, moderate carb, moderate fat (600kcal)
- Snack: High protein, high fat, low-moderate carb (250kcal)
- Dinner: High protein, moderate carb, moderate fat (700kcal)
Total = 2500kcal
Here’s what that might look like throughout the day:
- Pre-Workout: One slice of banana on toast
- Post-Workout: 3 eggs, wholegrain toast, protein shake, piece of fruit
- Snack: Mixed nuts or beef jerky with some berries
- Lunch: Chicken pesto pasta
- Snack: Greek yoghurt with nuts
- Dinner: Grilled salmon with rice and vegetables
To determine your daily calorie intake use this handy macro calculator.
It’s important not to use these guides too strictly. You should try to autoregulate as much as you can, and eat based on your needs. If you find yourself hungry all the time despite eating enough calories, try bumping up your fat intake a bit. Fat and protein will help keep hunger at bay much longer than carbs.
Lastly, while I haven’t given you a list of foods to eat, I will include a list of things to avoid at all costs:
- Vegetable and seed oils: Sunflower, rapeseed/grapeseed, vegetable
- Added sugar: Some sugar from fruit and vegetables is okay
- Excess alcohol: Some is okay, just don’t expect to perform optimally if you’re chugging beers every night.
For a full guide to eating, check out our article covering the best diets for active men.
If you’ve looked at training for a race before there’s a good chance you’ve heard this term.
Carb loading is simply increasing your daily intake of carbohydrates in the run up to an event so that your body has more fuel to use during the race.
I’ll be honest, if you’re just looking to compete in a standard triathlon you probably don’t need to worry too much about this. Your carb intake should naturally be high during training anyway, so provided you maintain this throughout and until the event you should be okay.
If you do want to learn more, however, you can read this guide to carb loading.
Now that the basics of nutrition are covered, we can start looking at each exercise in more depth.
Before going forward, and this goes without saying, you should make sure that you can swim. A lot of adults can’t, or they don’t know how to do it effectively, so if this is you, book some adult swimming lessons at a local pool.
If you can already swim, great. You might think that in order to practice the swimming section of a triathlon you just need to force yourself to swim long distances. This isn’t entirely wrong, but there are ways you can program your training in order to make it as effective as possible.
Firstly, I would recommend watching a YouTube series based on the idea of perpetual motion freestyle.
This will help you internalize the fundamentals of technique that you should focus on, instead of making life harder for yourself by doing the stroke incorrectly.
Secondly, there are two main strokes you’ll want to focus on in training – the front crawl and the breaststroke.
Front crawl is ideal, as it’s the fastest stroke and requires the least amount of leg work. Remember, once you finish swimming you still have to cycle and run – not something you want tired legs for.
However, if the front crawl becomes too tiring then you may find yourself falling back on breaststroke for a hundred metres to give you some much-needed respite. As a result, it’s crucial that you learn the best techniques for each stroke in order to make the rest of the triathlon more bearable.
The swimming stroke that we’re most familiar with, front crawl is a staple for the triathlon. It’s the perfect match of speed, effort, and fatigue, and won’t tire out your legs. So, how can you make sure you doing it as optimally as you can?
Once you have the basics down, a lot of swimming comes down to rhythm. You find your own motion and almost zone out once you get into that flow state.
Stroke, stroke, lift head & breathe, stroke, stroke…
Provided you don’t bump into other people, lose focus, and swallow a load of water the key to success in the swimming portion of a triathlon is determination and self-belief. You want to be so well-practised before getting in the water that it just feels like another training session.
It’s impossible for me to give you every detail about how to swim correctly in an article. It’d take a trainer in person to analyze your stroke and offer suggestions in real-time. Just try to focus on using as little energy as possible through the use of those perpetual motion techniques mentioned in the video series from earlier, and keep practicing.
I’d also suggest getting practice in open water if possible, but more on that later!
As I pointed out earlier, the breaststroke is usually used as a last resort or a respite if you find yourself running out of energy. Although, some people find themselves using the breaststroke all the way through the race.
In general, breaststroke is simpler than front crawl, and if you’re inexperienced with the latter you may be better off focusing your efforts on breaststroke. Also, some people just don’t like front crawl at all and choose to use breaststroke as their preferred method. It’s up to you.
Here’s a great article that dives further into the correct technique for breaststroke in a triathlon.
Swimming workout plan for triathlon training
The premise for improving your triathlon swimming stage is pretty simple:
Start off small, and over time swim for longer distances and rest for shorter periods.
That’s all there is to any training program, really. If today you did X metres in the pool, next workout you’ll do X+Y metres.
That being said, what does a 6-week workout plan for triathlon swimming look like. Depending on your starting point it’s going to be different for everyone, but we’re going on the assumption that you’re new to triathlons and don’t have a lot of experience with long-distance swimming.
There are going to be two different types of workouts you’ll be performing:
- Workout A: An endurance-focused session for a set amount of time
- Workout B: A faster sprint-style session using sets and reps
You’ll do each workout once a week, with 2 or 3 days rest in between. If you’re a confident runner and cyclist, you may prefer to do more swimming if that’s an area that needs improvement. If that’s the case, just take down the rest periods so you’re doing a swimming workout every 1-2 days instead of every 2-3.
- Swim at a constant, relaxed pace for 20-30 minutes
- Every 5 minutes include one length of the pool that’s slightly more intense
- The first and last few minutes should be done at a gentle warm-up pace
- Warm-up with 5 minutes of gentle swimming
- Do 25 metres of front crawl at a fast pace (if your pool is 50 metres long go half way and then breast stroke the remaining 25)
- Rest for 30 seconds after each 25 metre sprint
- Repeat this 6-8 times
- Cool down with a few minutes of gentle swimming
Now that you have the core of each workout, you just need to track and scale. What do I mean by this?
After each session, make a note of how long you swam for, how many sprints you did, how difficult it was etc. Then, the next time you do that workout, aim to do a little bit more than last time.
For example, if you managed 25 minutes of swimming in workout A, aim for 30 minutes in the next one. If you did 7 sprints in workout B, aim for 8 next time.
This is called progressive overload, and provided you adhere to this style of progression (assuming your diet and sleep are okay), you’ll never regress. By the time you get to your triathlon you’ll be more than prepared.
Lastly, once you get to race week you’ll need to tone down your workouts a bit.
Just do one endurance-style workout a few days before the date of your triathlon at whatever level you’ve reached in your training. Don’t burn yourself out, but try to mimic what you’ll be facing in the triathlon as best as you can. Ideally you would have already swam more than the distance you’ll be doing in the race, but if not don’t worry. You’re usually able to summon extra reserves on the day and push beyond what you thought was possible.
The cycling stage of the triathlon is generally considered to be the easiest part.
Not many people have experience swimming in open water, and by the time you get to the running stage you’re much more fatigued.
That being said, cycling is still difficult. And, depending on the etype of race you’re doing – mountainous vs. flat vs. cold etc. – your training needs will differ greatly.
If we look at an olympic, or standard, triathlon, you need to be able to cycle for 40km (20 miles). As a beginner, it’s not impossible for you to average 15mph on a road bike pretty quickly into training.
I don’t know about you, but just over an hour on a bike sounds much more relaxing (if you can call it that) than an hour or swimming or running. It’s also totally doable, even without much training.
Cycling training for a triathlon
If this is your first triathlon, I’d recommend the same structure as the swimming workouts. Two alternating sessions based on endurance and speed. You’ll do 2 sessions a week, with 2-3 days rest between them.
- Cycle for 30 minutes or a set distance e.g. 10-20km
- Try to do it over a variety of inclines (not always possible)
- On a stationary bike (can also be done on the road), warm up for 5 minutes with gentle cycling
- At the start of each minute, you’re going to cycle as fast as you can for 20 seconds and rest for 40 seconds
- Repeat this 6-8 times
Again, exactly the same as the swimming sessions, you’re going to track each workout and slowly improve them week-by-week until you’re comfortable cycling 40km and have built up some good speed.
You should be able to improve by 5 kilometres each week, and after 6 weeks of this training you’ll be more than ready to take on the 40km of an olympic triathlon.
The best type of bike for a triathlon
If this is your first triathlon, you don’t need to shell out thousands on a triathlon bike – a road bike will do. You want to avoid a mountain bike or something with thick tyres, and just get something in the low-mid budget range.
You may end up hating your first triathlon and quit forever. If this is the case you don’t want to be left with a £3000 bike wasting away in your garage.
However, you don’t want to skimp too much. After all, you’ll be cycling hundreds or thousands of kilometres on this thing. If it’s poor quality, too small, uncomfortable or just a no good piece of junk, it’s going to be difficult for you to enjoy cycling in the first place.
There are always extras you can buy for your bike such as padded seats and better handlebars, but my recommendation would be to go to a cycling shop with a budget in mind and see what they suggest. Test some different models out, and then make the purchase.
You don’t need to spend hours getting in-depth about every aspect of your bike and trawling through review sites. Ultimately, your success in a triathlon isn’t going to be determined by the quality of your bike (unless you’re racing). It’s going to be determined by the hours you put into training.
If you get 6 weeks in and realize your bike is holding you back, great! Go and buy a new one and enjoy your newfound speed and efficiency. But more than likely your limits are going to come down to you, not the things you buy.
Probably the most brutal part of a triathlon. You’ve just finished a gruelling open water swim, cycled in high temperatures and broken your backside, and now you have to don your running shoes and put one foot in front of the other for over an hour.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. For some people running is actually one of the most enjoyable parts. You’ll be more spread out, you can enjoy more of the scenery, and you even have the choice to walk parts of it if it gets too much.
So, how do you train for the running part of a triathlon? You guessed it. Go running once or twice a week and slowly improve your distances and times.
If you like to follow incredibly specific training guides and workout plans, this probably isn’t the article for you. What I want to do is teach you the fundamentals of training so you can keep scaling up as much as you want.
When you eventually get into racing and competing on time, sure, you may need to hire a trainer or follow some ultra-specific guides. But until then, let’s get the running section of your first triathlon out of the way.
As you’ve just finished swimming and cycling, and your energy is drained and your legs are battered, endurance really is the key here.
If you’ve never run before it’s going to take a while to get up to a 10km run, but for anyone with a decent level of fitness it’s more than achievable in 6-12 weeks.
My goal with these workouts isn’t to get you the fastest triathlon time. It’s to make the act of training and competing in a triathlon for the first time a rewarding and enjoyable experience.
That being said, you will need to include some speed training to boost your overall aerobic performance. But, it’s not going to be soul-crushing. The focus should be on being able to run 10-15km without stopping or hating every step you take.
A sample running training plan for triathlons
Same principles apply here. 2 workouts a week with 2-3 days in between, progressively increasing the distance and speed at which you run.
Also, I’m assuming that you’re physically able to run. If you’re severely overweight with damaged knees, you should probably stop reading this article. Triathlon training likely isn’t the best fit for you.
If you can walk for 15+ minutes without any difficulties, or run a couple of kilometres without too much trouble then you should be okay. If things get too much for you while training I’d recommend a couple of things:
- If you get too tired while running, feel free to walk for a couple of minutes and then resume running. Over time you’ll run longer and walk less, until you’re eventually running for the entire session.
- Examine your running form and get checked at a specialist running shop (they usually do this for free)
- Make sure your shoes are of good enough quality.
- Stay hydrated, but don’t guzzle water before or during a workout. It’ll make you throw up.
- Try to run on softer ground where possible. Tarmac and concrete puts a lot of stress on the joints compared to a running track, grassy fields, or dirt.
- Warm up for 5 minutes by walking at a fast pace and doing some dynamic stretching (walking lunches, jump squats, high knees etc.)
- DO NOT do a couple of hamstring/quadricep stretches and then start running. You’re setting yourself up for injury.
- Aim to run as long as you can without stopping and make a note of the distance/time you achieved. This is your baseline.
- Cool down with 5 minutes of light jogging or walking followed by some stretching or foam rolling
With this workout you’ll be aiming to get a base level of activity during the first session. Running can sometimes be much more difficult than you realize, especially for new trainers, and it’s important not to stress your body too hard to start off with.
Running is a lot more high impact than swimming or cycling, so putting too much stress on your joints and bones isn’t going to be very fun. Over time your body will adapt and strengthen, but for now just aim to set a base level of endurance and then improve from there.
- This works better on a treadmill or running track, or anywhere you have set distances i.e. the 4 sides of a football pitch.
- Warm up for 5 minute with some light jogging, walking, and dynamic stretching.
- Run for a set distance (based on what equipment you’re using) at a fairly quick pace. So, if you’re on a track you might do half a lap or 100m, on a treadmill you might go for 1 minute, and on a football pitch you’ll go along one long and one short side.
- Walk or lightly jog for 30 seconds and then repeat the fast paced run.
- Do this 6-8 times.
- Cool down with a few minutes of light jogging, walking, and stretching or foam rolling.
It’s important with this workout that you DON’T go all out and sprint as fast as you can. You’re not going to be doing that in the triathlon.
All you want to do it get your body used to acceleration, power, and stress. Being able to summon these extra reserves of energy when your body is tired will massively help improve your overall aerobic endurance.
Do each of these workouts once a week with 2-3 days rest in between, and each week increase the distance/time/speed, and lower the rest periods – whichever you’re more comfortable with.
Remember, you need to be able to run for a MINIMUM of 10km. Running 10km in training compared to a triathlon is much different, as you’ll be fatigued from the previous events. You may also have hills and uneven terrain to contend with, further increasing the difficulty.
How long does it take to train for a triathlon?
Depending on your initial experience level it can take anywhere from 6 weeks to 24 weeks.
If you’re dedicated, focused, and stay on track with your diet, exercise, and recovery you should be able to do it in 6 to 12 weeks. However, the longer you have to train the better. And I wouldn’t recommend just 6 weeks of training for beginners. You’re just asking for trouble.
Should You Lift Weights if You’re Training for A Triathlon?
This question gets asked alot, and the answer isn’t easy. You have to think about the reason why you want to do a triathlon and what your current training schedule is like.
More than likely you’ll be training for a triathlon 5-6 days a week. Firstly, is it possible for you to fit in more training sessions for lifting weights? If the answer is yes, you need to be prepared to eat A LOT more food and sleep a lot more.
However, for most people adding an extra 3 strength workouts on top of this just isn’t feasible. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything.
Strength training for a triathlong can help fix muscle imbalances, improve form, and give you extra power in cycling and swimming.
You don’t need to do a lot. You could get away with 1 or 2 sessions a week on your off days (from triathlon training) without too many changes to your schedule.
I recommend following this guide by Stephen Weinmann on strength training for triathletes. It gives you some great exercises that will address imbalances, target weaknesses, and strengthen your core without causing inflexibility or fatigue.
If you’re going to be competing in your first triathlon, awesome! Hopefully this article has given you some valuable information about training for a triathlon, and I’m sure when it comes to the big race you’re going to crush it.
And, if you’ve done everything you’ll be signing up for your next one in no time.
However, if you’re like me and need a bit of extra support for your triathlon training from someone that’s been there and gone through it – I’ve completed numerous triathlons and am now an all-world Ironman athlete – then you’re in luck.
I offer 1-1 coaching for people like you looking to not just take part in a triathlon, but to take your performance to the next level and really thrive.
If you’re interested, click this link and schedule a consulation call to see if you’d be a good fit. I don’t take everyone who applies, only the most driven and motivated people!