Three Times the Fun: Triathlon Training

April 22, 2014
Three Times the Fun
iStockLearning to swim efficiently will help conserve the energy you’ll need throughout a race.

Training for your first triathlon can be a daunting task. Every athlete has a different approach, yet for a novice the basic questions remain the same: What equipment do I need? Should I take any classes? How much do I train? If you maintain an active lifestyle you’re already on your way. Hiking your favorite trails, mountain biking a thigh-burning single-track, or swimming laps in a refreshingly cold pond are all great ways to develop a foundation of fitness and ease your way into a workout plan. Even fit beginners should start slow, says ultra triathlete Kale Poland of Laconia, N.H. Despite having a wide variety of triathlons checked off his life list, including the Deca Ironman—a 24-mile swim, 1,100-mile bike, and 262-mile run— Poland builds his training around simple, attainable goals and exhorts beginners to do the same. Even someone starting from scratch can still manage to be in race-level shape in less than a year, Poland says. Though your goals might not include a Deca Ironman any time soon, Poland recommends that beginners build a base level of fitness and endurance before they focus on improving speed and strength. Here are a few tips to get your triathlon training going:

  • Procure properly fitting equipment (e.g., a bicycle and running shoes) before you jump into training. A myriad of resources exist online to help beginners with gear selection.
  • It should come as no surprise that training takes time, a lot of it. Plotting your exercise schedule on a calendar every month will prevent you from losing track of daily priorities.
  • In this early stage of training, Poland suggests working on your weaknesses. For him it’s swimming: “Running and biking? Everyone knows how to do them. Swimming is technical.” Swim training courses for beginners are frequently offered at local pools, where instructors can help you develop a swimming regimen.

Depending on your fitness level prior to the start of training, the first phase, or base phase, typically lasts from 6 to 8 weeks. Poland, who is also a cross-country ski coach for Gunstock Nordic Association and a certified spin instructor, says that many novices burn out in this phase because they press too hard: “Base phase workouts should be low-intensity with no specific goals—yet. It’s important, especially for beginners, to limit training to less than 10 hours a week.” Poland recommends a workout plan that includes running, biking, swimming, cross-training, and rest days:

  • Day 1: 30-minute run at a conversational pace (if you can talk while running, you’re at the right pace) followed by an easy, 30-minute bike ride
  • Day 2: Swim training
  • Day 3: Cross-training (hike, X-C ski, or yoga, for example)
  • Day 4: 3- to 4-mile interval run (First and last mile should be at conversational pace to warm up and cool down. For the 1 to 2 miles in between,  alternate between two intervals: a 5-minute slow (conversational) pace and a 5-minute fast (slightly faster than conversational) pace.
  • Day 5: Rest day
  • Day 6: Swim training
  • Day 7: 1-hour bike ride followed by a 30-minute run at conversational pace


As they progress, beginners should listen to what their body is telling them, Poland says, and acknowledge its strengths and weaknesses. It’s also helpful to read up a bit. “Do some homework as to what you are getting into, and learn the skills and proper technique in all three disciplines,” he says. No matter how many races you plan to compete in (if any), Poland recommends finding a workout plan that keeps you actively engaged in promoting the health of your body. Doing this will not only maintain a durable foundation should you choose to progress with your race training, but it will also keep you fit for recreating in the mountains, lakes, and rivers for a long time to come. Now that you’ve developed a foundation of endurance and fitness, it’s time to take all that you’ve garnered—physically and mentally—and progress to the build phase.


Ready to build? Read “Do the Leg Work” to learn more.

Read more about interval training in  “Hike Farther.”

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Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith is a former managing editor of AMC Outdoors.