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Choosing a Triathlon Training Plan

What training program is best for you given your background?

by Ron

Where does one start?  We all come from a myriad of backgrounds, prior injuries, different genetics, etc.  Perhaps your coming from a background in purely running, cycling or swimming and you wish to minimize injuries and add some flavor to your program.  Maybe you come from the couch and want to lose weight and make a positive change to your life?  Or perhaps adding 'triathlete' to your resume will sound totally cool?  Well, this article will just give you some pointers on choosing a triathlon training plan to fit your lifestyle and goals.

A few questions to ask that will determine a plan are:

  1. What are your goals?
  2. How much time do you have per week to train?
  3. Do you have any prior injuries that could pose a problem?
  4. Are you overweight?
  5. Right now, do you have a base in running, biking or swimming?
  6. Your first year of training.  What should you focus on?

What are your goals?

Perhaps you just want to do a sprint by the end of this season.  Or you have set your sites on a full Ironman in the future.  Whatever you future plans are, you will want to make sure you build up slowly and safely.  The last thing you want is to get too excited and go from the couch to a 1/2 Ironman in one year.  Oh, it can be done by some with certain backgrounds, but not by the majority.  Ideally you would like to build up to a certain distance (example: sprint or olympic) and maintain those training distances for an entire season before building up again to go to the next distance.  There cannot be enough said on building and maintaining a solid base for a period of time before building up to the next level.  A deep base such as this will drastically reduce injuries.  One can't keep building without some maintenance phases.  Strong, solid foundations are what's going to get you to an Ironman distance safely or whatever your goals are.

I would agree that its safe to go from nothing to an olympic during the course of a whole year providing you don't have a lot of weight to lose and running, biking and swimming is not totally foreign to you.  But that's as far as I would take it.  From then on, the next year, focus on some olympics to build that solid base then during the off season, start building to a 1/2 Ironman length and maintain that for the following year before kicking it up to a full Ironman training.  But that's just me.  I tend to think conservatively as I have vowed to remain injury free for the rest of my life.

Available Time

Well, of course this will be a limiter as to what program you choose.  A sprint program will take you from about 2-4 hours of training a week.  The olympics are 4-8 hours per week.  And the 1/2 Ironman will be 7-11 hours per week to train.  If your brand new to this, I would highly recommend the 2x programs to get used to the training.  Only after a few months should you go to the focused programs should you feel you need extra help.  The 3x programs should not be attempted by beginners as it is a little much to get your body used to and will probably only serve you to get burnt out.  The 3x programs would be good for somebody that is not new to endurance sports or one that wants the extra days for intensity specific training. Also for the competitive and already has a tri or two under their belt and wants to improve their times but not necessarily go up in volume (distance). 

Talking to your family on your goals and getting support will significantly help your training and overall family life.  You need get your family to understand your goals and be able to support you since your training will be taking a little time away from them.  But hopefully you can galvanize your whole family and set a good example.  Its just a balancing act that you must really maintain and stay in tune with your family.

Prior Injuries?

Even without any prior injuries, I definitely recommend you to see a doctor or sports physician to discuss your issues and your goals.  But with a history of injuries or being overweight, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE discuss your plans with a physician, coach or other sports related practitioner of medicine.  They will work with you to develop a plan that is right for you and any shortcomings you may have.  We want to remain injury free people!  The sport of triathloning will offer many benefits to your body and mind BUT only if you start up appropriately for yourself.  If not, then starting up incorrectly will just give you body problems.  So, the take home lesson is: besides the advice contained here, definitely get a second opinion from a qualified individual.

Are You Overweight?

A lot of us will be having goals of weight loss.  How much weight?  If you a couple 10 pounds overweight, then starting out with any of these programs here should be ok - especially the couch-to programs.  If you have a lot to lose, starting out running may very well be NOT the best thing to start up with...example: couch to 5k or couch to sprint.  This will be too much impact on your unconditioned knees and could bring on injuries.  The safest route would be to start a biking or swimming program combined with some strength training and along with a good diet to start preconditioning yourself so that when you add running in, you will not be prone to injury.  My doctor told me that in a study of several cadavers, many of them pure distance runners, that the biggest cause of joint degeneration or problems IS NOT caused by distance running itself BUT by improperly starting a running program too quickly or with weight to lose.  Its just too much pounding and the body can't adapt fast enough.  So if you have weight to lose, definitely talk to a specialist, get on a good diet and start on a bike or swim program.  Depending on how overweight you are it just may be feasible to start one of the couch-to programs which is just a conservative walk-run program that runs the course of several months.  Just approach this smartly and get a doctors opinion.

Do you currently come from another discipline such as running, swimming or biking?

If this is so and you already have an established base of at least 30-60min in the swim or run and 60-180min on the bike then getting yourself into a program here will be a little easier.  Since these programs assume that you are starting new in all three sports, in your case you can just maintain the sport that you already have a good base in and then start the other two new disciplines according to the program.  Once you have caught up to the sport that your 'maintaining' then you can proceed forward just like the program states.

Your first year of training.

There are many programs and modifications to increase your speed.  These are heart-rate training, fartleks, hill training, intervals, etc.  If this is your first year, DO NOT worry about these.  DO NOT worry about speed.  You need to establish endurance first.  That is exactly the reason why all the programs here are just a slow buildup in minutes (except the 1/2 Ironman)  Speed will come after your first year.  You cannot get faster safely if you don't already have the endurance and distances established first.  So make sure that, if this is your first year, JUST concentrate on endurance and volume.  Don't worry about being too slow or that people are passing you.  This is your race and not someone else's.


Develop a program that will fit YOUR lifestyle.  Feel free to make the necessary modifications.  Just make sure you have an 'EZ' week once a month for rest and recuperation and you only build up by no more than 10% a week.  Note that the programs here are general.  They are certainly not the only programs.  Do your homework.  Many other sites and books have excellent programs that may work better for your needs and goals.  These programs here are just a simple starting point to get you past the finish line comfortably. 

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