Training for a triathlon is tough and intense. In preparation for a race, you need to do several swimming, cycling and running sessions during the week, backed by a specific diet.
You need to make sure your body has enough energy to sustain the physical effort, but without weighing it down and affecting performance.
In this article we'll give you some useful tips if you've decided to take part in a triathlon competition. But remember they're not intended to replace the advice of your personal trainer or nutritionist.
Physical strength in triathlon
In any triathlon discipline, the body has to cope with extreme effort. To practise the sport you really have to be suitably prepared: no one can just take on a triathlon without risking their health.
This is equally true for Sprint, Olympic triathlon or Ironman.
As we know, the main difference between these events is the distance to be covered. In the sprint, distances are short, but muscular effort is intense in terms of speed. On the other hand, Ironman is a trial of resistance. Olympic triathlon is a halfway point between the two.
In any case, triathlon demands an exceptional focus on physical preparation, because the body has to work incredibly hard.
But how does training differ for the various types of triathlon? Let's find out.
Triathlon: different training for different events
Every type of triathlon pushes your body to a different kind of physical effort. Consequently, your training needs to be different for the various types of competition.
An important point to bear in mind: when choosing your event, remember that there's a natural factor that may affect your ability. Some individuals are more suited to resistance activities, others to sudden surges.
However, training is essential for any competition. Indeed, a well-trained athlete is often more successful than a talented one who doesn't train consistently.
Training for Olympic triathlon
The distances involved in Olympic triathlon are considerable, but the importance of speed should not be underestimated. An average race lasts just over 3 hours. Physical activity is intense throughout this time.
Training should be both aerobic and anaerobic, with a specific focus on all three activities: swimming, cycling and running. Since the cycling stage also depends on your ability to follow in the slipstream of others, you'll also find it useful to prepare a strategy for that section of the race.
Training schedules for an amateur athlete taking part in Olympic triathlon stipulate the following:
- 6 km of swimming a week, divided in two 3 km sessions;
- 150 km cycling a week, with one shorter ride (60 km) and one longer (90 km);
- 30 km running a week.
These are rough guidelines. The training you can handle depends on your initial fitness.
Is this training intense enough to prepare for an Olympic triathlon event? No. Training for a triathlon also requires aerobic sessions to improve cardiovascular performance, and muscular resistance training over long distances.
When it comes to cycling, we suggest you organise group rides too, to improve your ability to follow in the slipstream of the leaders. On the road, it's an excellent way to save energy but keep performance and time excellent.
If you want to take part in a triathlon event, training will occupy nearly all your free time for at least 11 or 12 weeks. Your motivation needs to be really strong to handle the training.
Training for Sprint triathlon
Training schedules for sprint triathlon are slightly different, due to the specific nature of this discipline. Does a shorter race mean less training? No, because it's just as tiring when the speed is fast. However, your training schedule should include 2 or 3 sessions a day, at least 6 days a week.
Roughly, each week you need to do:
- 2 swimming sessions;
- 2 cycling sessions;
- 2 or 3 running sessions.
Physical preparation for a sprint continues for about 12 weeks, but in the 3 weeks preceding the event, it's very useful to do some combined training (swim + cycle + run).
This definitely requires more intensive muscular and cardiovascular effort than doing them separately. Another disadvantage is that it can be hard to organise the logistics for all three together.
Nevertheless, it's really useful preparation for the race. You could begin with combined training over short distances, and then, in the weeks leading up to the race, distances similar to those in the actual event.
Triathlon diet: what you need to know
Food is our source of energy. The energy needs of an athlete are higher than a person who lives a sedentary life; for a triathlete, these needs are very high indeed.
Does this mean you can eat anything you like during training? The answer, of course, is no. In fact, to maintain excellent physical performance the body needs to be well-fed and full of energy, but not heavy.
The triathlete's diet must be balanced in terms of the three major food groups: carbohydrates, protein and fibre. It's also important that it's rich in vitamins and minerals, which are used in abundance during intense physical activity.
It's therefore not a high-protein, low-carb diet, or vice versa.
Meals should be balanced and nutritious, as well as frequent. You shouldn't skip any meal, starting with breakfast and including snacks.
Even during the race it's essential to carry energy bars to prevent falls in sugar levels, injury and fainting. With professional guidance, you might want to consider taking specific dietary supplements.
Here's our top tip: employ an expert nutritionist who can help you balance energy in and energy out, and also consider the hormone cycles that are essential for race performance, but which alter during very intense activity. In fact, it is training and diet that determine both the health and the performance of an athlete.