How to train for your first triathlon

How to train for your first triathlon, according to the women who’ve done one

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Thinking about signing up for a challenge? If you can run, cycle and swim then it’s time to join the hordes of women getting involved with triathlons. Here’s how to start.

According to British women who swear by them, triathlons aren’t as terrifying as they seem. As Kate Offord, triathlon coach and co-founder of Manchester-based Smiling Tricoach, puts it: “When you actually get into it, you realise everyone is normal.”

Overachievers like Pippa Middleton, J. Lo, and Mel C are all fans of the sport, which involves competing in swimming, cycling and running races, all in one event. But the nature of triathlon – and the difficulty that comes with attempting to master all three elements of the race – famously makes these ambitious athletes a friendly group to spend time with.

Elizabeth King, an art therapist who took up triathlons to learn how to swim, explains: “Everyone is so supportive! I’m without doubt the slowest at running, but nobody looks down on me and there’s a real understanding of pushing yourself to your personal limits.”  

How to train for your first triathlon

If you’re thinking of dipping your toes in the water (and putting your feet on the road and the pedals), then this is what you should do next.

1. Book your race

Head to the British Triathlon website and book your race. “They’re the governing body,” explains Offord. “That’s where you’ll find all the risk-assessed events taking place across the country.”

You’ll need to select a race that fits your fitness goals: choose from a sprint (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run), Olympic (1.5km swim, 40km bike,10km run), half Ironman (1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21.1km run) or, for the brave, a full Ironman (3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42.2km run) distance.

Starting with a sprint or Olympic race, also known as a standard distance triathlon, is often best. These take about twelve weeks to train for, though an Olympic may take longer depending on your fitness level.  

For a half Ironman, you’ll need to give yourself at least six months to train, if not more, says Offord. For an Ironman, you’ll need to dedicate at least one year to training. “It’s a challenge, but many people nowadays even do half Ironman as their first triathlon. Because it’s longer there’s less pressure to feel like you have to go fast.”  

2. Join a club

Most towns across the UK have a local triathlon club with organised swimming, cycling, and running sessions. “If you don’t know where to start, join a club – they’ll teach you,” says Offord.

King agrees, explaining that one of the hardest parts of triathlon training as a beginner is having discipline, especially in the early mornings. A club holds you accountable. “You see friendly faces at every training session, plus, it’s the most cost-effective way to get fit,” she says.  

3. Get kitted out

When it comes to kit, triathlons have a bad reputation for being expensive. But you don’t need to splash out right away, Offord claims: “Get yourself a bike. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just safe to ride. Some people complete their first triathlon on a mountain bike – others on their shopping bike!”

If you’re competitive and want a racing bike straight away, try going second hand or borrowing one until you’re sure you’re invested in the sport.

You’ll also need a helmet, trainers, a swimming costume and goggles. “Make sure you have access to either a swimming pool or a safe place to swim outdoors too,” she adds.   

4. Make a plan

Look for a free training plan online, or speak with a coach. You can also make your own plan by thinking about where you are right now in each of the sports, and plotting out where you need to be by race day.

Start to add a bit more training time or speed incrementally each week, says Offord. “Don’t add too much, too quickly – that’s when injuries happen.” The golden rule? Add no more than five minutes or 10% to your runs, cycles and swims each week.

Training for a triathlon is a big commitment, so you need to make your training plan doable and realistic. Don’t cut sleep short or get up at 4am to do an extra run – that’s counterproductive.” Offord says that if you’re starting with a sprint, start with three sessions a week, one in each sport, and build up. If you’re quite new to fitness in general, that might sound a lot so factor in a little warm-up period to get yourself to a good base level.

Take your training slowly if you've never done a tri before, increasing your loads by 10% week on week.
Take your training slowly if you've never done a tri before, increasing your loads by 10% week on week.

As a rule, 80% of training should be at an easy, steady, comfortable pace, and 20% should be hard work: “It gives your body time to recover and get stronger!”

5. Work on your weaknesses

“Until you get to the top level, there are very few people who are confident in all three sports,” explains Offord. “A lot of people learn to swim to do a triathlon.”

King wasn’t a confident swimmer before her first triathlon, but three years later, it’s her favourite part. “Open water is my happy place!” she says. “I had to overcome fears of fish, other people around me, even accidentally drinking lake water — but I’ve swallowed quite a lot, and I’m still here.”

The best way to overcome your weakest sport is simply to do more of it. “Have a look at what you are confident with,” says Offord. “And do a bit less of that.”  

6. Strength train

Making time for strength training is crucial for preventing injury. One weight training session a week may be fine for beginners, Offord says, but as you progress you need more.

Triathletes often hunch over and crunch up muscles, so exercises opening the chest and hip flexors are useful. “Lateral pull downs and exercises that protect your rotator cuff help with swimming,” she explains. “And without strength through your trunk, it is hard to be a strong swimmer, so core work is great too.”

Classic compound moves like lunges and squats can help protect the body when running and cycling, enabling you to put more force through calves and hamstrings.  

If you don’t have time for strength training at the gym, get creative; try incorporating it into your swims, cycles and runs instead.

“You can turn your swim into an upper body strength training session by using hand paddles to increase resistance,” she explains. “On a bike, use a high gear and lower cadence, or do hill work. When you run, try running on different surfaces like grass and trails, so your ankles and lower limbs accommodate and grow stronger in different planes of movement.”  

7. Compete for your country

Just kidding – well, kind of.

“You could start today and end up racing for Britain!” laughs Offord. “Triathlons have quite a competitive age group system, so I could decide to train for a triathlon aged 74 and go on to represent my country.”

Whether you are planning on supercharging your fitness, making new friends – or competing for your country – triathlon is an often-overlooked sport with a lot of potential. So, lace up your trainers, put on your cossie, and give triathlon a go. 

Thinking of signing up? Get stronger now with one of our strength training plans first. 

Images: Getty

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