Training for a Triathlon
Triathlons are considered by many to be the ultimate showcase of speed, endurance, strength, and athleticism, so it is of no surprise that more and more people are competing in triathlons each year. However, knowing how to train for a triathlon can be tough, as most people are only proficient in one or two of the three sports. Besides upping the ante in swimming, biking, and running, potential triathletes must practice efficient fueling and transitions in order to finish strong.
Types of Triathlons
When deciding to compete in a triathlon there are many options to choose from. The most popular is the sprint triathlon, which has a half mile swim, 12.4 mile bike ride, and 3.1 mile run. An Olympic distance triathlon comprises a 0.93 mile swim, 24.8 mile bike ride, and 6.2 mile run, while the two other popular distances are a full and half Ironman, with a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and 13.1 mile run for the half, and a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run for the full.
A beginner, especially one who has little experience swimming in open water, should opt for a sprint or Olympic distance race, as half and full Ironman competitions are serious events that require dedicated training and experience with little room for error.
The most important aspect when training for the swimming portion of a triathlon is having and understanding that the swims are held in open water, which is much more difficult than swimming in a pool. Additionally, the swim can be intimidating at the start, and inexperienced swimmers may become overwhelmed by the tangle of bodies and limbs. Listed below are tips for training.
Do not touch the wall while swimming. If you are not a strong swimmer, you will be surprised how much the wall aids in your momentum while swimming laps. Instead of doing a flip turn or kicking off the wall, simply touch the wall and turn around, without pushing off with your feet. This strategy will help you build the endurance necessary for the swim.
Practice in open water, if possible. If you have access to a lake or pond, ask a friend to join you for a swim while you test out how open water swimming feels. Never go alone, especially for your first time, as you could find yourself in a dangerous situation if you become too tired and cramp.
Work on your form. If your main sport is not swimming then you could likely improve your stroke. Enlist the help of a swim coach or knowledgeable friend to evaluate your form and offer tips for improvement. Small changes in the angle of hand entry, the rhythm of your breathing, or the way you turn your neck can make big differences in your efficiency which will help you in the later stages of the race.
Get in the water often. If swimming is your weakest of the three sports then you should spend the most time immersing yourself in the pool. Vary your workouts by swimming laps one day, working on your stroke the next day, and working on your sprint the day after that. Not every session needs to be 100%, but developing as much comfort in the water as possible is necessary before the day of the race.
The second component of the triathlon is the bike. People typically have some level of comfort with riding a bicycle, but may not know how to train for the extended duration encountered during a race.
Cycle with a high cadence. Achieving a good cadence (i.e. rotations per minute) is a good way to condition your body towards becoming a more proficient cyclist. Aim for 90+ rpm in order to achieve the full benefit of your time spent on the bicycle.
Reduce inefficient movements. Cycling is about getting from point A to point B in as little time as possible. Movements that detract from forward motion, such as side to side movements from your arms or hips, will ultimately slow you down. Work on improving your efficiency during practice by engaging your core to reduce these extraneous motions. In the beginning, you may have to slow down in order to build strength in these muscles.
Learn how to shift gears to maintain cadence. This is an important skill that bike newbies often struggle with learning. The goal of shifting gears is for you to be able to maintain the same effort regardless of changes in topography. This skill will help you in the middle of the race when your legs become tired or the terrain becomes hilly.
Pedal down and up. The point of being clipped into your bicycle (or caged in) is to utilize upward and downward forces on your pedals. Most beginners incorrectly assume that cycling is about constantly pushing down when in reality pulling upwards is important, too. Having a better balance between the push and pull will not only improve efficiency but also keep your muscles from fatiguing early in the race.
While it is rare for a triathlete to approach his or her first triathlon without an appreciation for running, every athlete can improve his or her running efficiency.
Do not skimp on the long run. Regardless of the distance you are racing, a long run is an important component of triathlon training. Not only does it help the body build a good aerobic system, but it conditions the body to pushing forward on tired legs. Out of all the weekly workouts, the long run is among the most important.
Improve your form. Like swimming, small improvements in running form can lead to big time drops on race day. If your head bobs, your arms cross one another, or your pelvis is not properly aligned with your body you may be working against yourself. Enlist the help of another runner, running shoe store personnel, or a coach to assess your form and make suggestions for improvement.
Do Speed Work. Training for a triathlon is tough, and you will likely be tired week in and week out. However, do not simply rely on building a large aerobic base in order to propel you to the finish line. Instead, incorporate speed training into your routine to improve leg turnover, tax your anaerobic system, and to improve your running economy. Sample workouts include fartleks, intervals, hill repeats, and tempo runs.
Bike and Run Back to Back. Your legs will feel much different after a bike ride than they normally would at the start of a run, so it is important to practice running on dead legs. Key triathlon workouts include back to back long rides and long runs to help your body adapt to the additional stresses you will be placing on it during the race.
Undoubtedly the most difficult portion of a triathlon (and the area that most often needs improvement) is the transitions. The first transition, between swim and bike, requires a change of clothes and to put on shoes, while the second transition, from bike to run, requires a new pair of shoes and possibly a different set of clothes as well. Practicing these transitions is crucial in order to shave minutes from your finishing time.
Practice each transition. Don’t go into a race planning to “wing it,” as you will undoubtedly forget something. Set up a transition area in your backyard and go through the motions of everything you will need to do for both transitions. Time yourself and practice these transitions once a week, aiming to be more efficient each time. It may even be beneficial to hose yourself down as you practice T1, since toweling off and ditching soaked clothes often takes more time than seems necessary.
Visualize flawless transitions. Visualization can go a long way, according to sports psychologists. Visualize exactly what you will do when you leave the water and head for the bike, and again how you will handle the dismount and the start of your run. Some aspects of the transitions cannot be practiced, and can only be experienced, so try to envision best and worst case scenarios and how you will handle each situation.
Strength training may seem unnecessary when you are already dedicating so much of your time to swimming, biking, and running each week, but allotting 30 – 60 minutes for weekly strength sessions can help your body ward off injury while correcting imbalances and improving core strength. The stronger you are the better your body will be able to handle the incredible amount of stress you are asking it to withstand during the event. Sample weight room exercises include bench press with free weights, squats, tricep press, walking lunges, and Russian dead lifts.
You will have to fuel during the triathlon, especially during an Olympic distance event or longer, so be sure to practice each nutrition item during long bike rides and runs to ensure the formula settles well in your stomach. Aim to take in 30 – 60 g of carbohydrates per hour, and also replace electrolytes that are lost during the bike and swim portions. Have quick energy ready to go at the transitions, such as gels or energy bars, that are easy to eat and digest.
If swimming is your strength …
If your best event out of the three sports is swimming, you should plan to become better acquainted with the biking and running aspects. You likely have a well-developed upper body and shoulders but may not be used to the pounding of running on your legs. Maintain your swimming fitness with swimming workouts a few times per week, but devote much of your time and attention towards the roads and your bike. An especially important aspect will be how your legs respond to the biking to running transition, so be sure to practice this a few times weekly, even if both workouts are short.
If running is your strength …
Many runners find that running fitness does not correlate well to cycling fitness. Swimming and cycling will both help you maintain your aerobic base, so do not be as concerned with your weekly running mileage. If you typically run 60 miles during a normal week, aim for 25 – 30 miles per week during triathlon training to be able to focus more time on your weaknesses. Spend 4 – 5 days per week in the pool in order to become more comfortable with the water and bike as often as possible in order to condition your legs (especially glutes) to this exercise.
If biking is your strength …
Like runners, cyclists often find that running and cycling are not mutually exclusive. Different muscles are worked during each activity which can make running feel significantly harder. Spend less time on the bike as you increase your running mileage. Be sure to practice the biking to running transition, and do not neglect time in the pool. Do not be concerned about your fitness when cycling less in order to run more, as running is a more efficient exercise that will keep you in great aerobic shape. In the pool you should focus on developing arm strength, such as by swimming laps using only your arms.
Tackling Your First Race
For your first race, be sure to approach each segment conservatively. During the swim do not panic if you find yourself tangled up with other swimmers and in a mass of bodies. The race is not won during the swim, so do not be afraid to back off and finish safely. For the bike riding portion, settle into a comfortable rhythm for the first quarter of the race and then gently ease into faster riding. Finally, for the run, let your legs find a rhythm for the first half to full mile before increasing your speed. The worst thing that can happen during a triathlon is to bonk, so be sure to listen to your body and adjust accordingly.
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