How to Train for a Half or Iron Distance Triathlon

Tanya Jones Endurance Sport, Performance, Training, Triathlon Leave a Comment

As we start preparing for a new season of racing, I thought it would be a good idea to put together some thoughts on how to train for half and full distance triathlons. This should give you an idea of what is expected, what’s reasonable, and what’s necessary to get through your first half or full distance event.

Before we get to the nitty gritty, I think it’s important for me to explain my philosophy on coaching people for endurance events. I want people to get to the start line feeling prepared and confident that they will finish and achieve their goals, BUT to do it in a way that has balance with the rest of your life. It’s easy to fall into the trap of letting this type of training take over your life and I don’t want that to happen. The goal is to get a reasonable amount of training that is not at the expense of family, friends, and a social life. And to make sure that you are not so exhausted that you are too tired and sore to enjoy those moments.

My background to sport is as an age group athlete that must also manage a job, family, and social life, so I understand the desire to achieve performance goals while still maintaining an appropriate life balance. The goal is to compliment your life and not take over. There is so much information out there, so it is important to put on your critical thinking cap and determine if the advice you get is reasonable for you and for the actual time that you have available to put into your sport. We’ve all seen the 20 plus hour a week training plans out there. These may work for some people but may actually be more detrimental to your performance in the long run. Take care with your precious time and be realistic about what you can commit to.

Let’s Start With the Basics

There are some non negotiables when training for a half or iron distance event. You must swim 1900m, bike 90km and run 21.1km for a half iron and swim 3.8km, bike 180km and run 42.2 for a full iron distance. Those distances are nonnegotiable but the time you spend propelling your body forward will be different depending on your speed as an athlete in each discipline as well as your current experience in each sport. You may start your training as a new athlete to one or all disciplines and wonder if it’s possible to reach the cut off times. For example, if your current bike speed is 20km/hr, that’s a 9-hour bike time for an iron distance. The thing to remember is that with consistency in your training and an appropriate progression, your fitness and endurance will increase as well as your bike speed and you will be fine. It is important to note that an appropriate progression is key and just smashing your body every week will not work in the long run and you struggle to achieve the gains you are looking and working so hard for. The goal is to beat the cut off times on the bike with enough energy to run well and reach your potential.

I want you to be able to train enough every day so that you get tired and recover so your fitness increases, but not so much or so hard that you get too tired to train the next day or pick up an injury. This is the main take away from this discussion, but is a lot easier said than done sometimes. Most of us endurance athletes find it easy to work hard and push ourselves, it’s the recovery that is often the most challenging part of training. If you look on Strava and other forums, a lot of posts are proud of crushing or smashing each session. No one really brags about their recovery session, even though that is the most important session of the week.

How to Structure your Week?

Here is how I suggest you structure your week. You want to get to a place where you can do about 3 rides, 3 runs, 2-3 swims per week with a recovery focus day. For most, that recovery day will be a complete day off from training and for others it may be an easy swim or a short very easy bike. An easy run does not count as a recovery day, there is still too much impact to the body to count as recovery. The most important part of the week is that recovery focus day to allow your body to adapt from all your previous hard work. We are then going to focus on where you can make your biggest return on investment for race day, which is most likely the bike. The time you spend training on the bike is also going to benefit your running. The cardiovascular benefits (heart, lungs, blood) of being able to transfer oxygen into your muscles faster and more efficiently, is what we are ultimately looking for in terms of fitness. Running does not seem to have the same transfer of training effect to the bike. Getting fit run wise doesn’t help your bike legs but getting fit on the bike does help your running ability.

So, we are going to prioritize your 3 bike sessions per week. Two of which can be about an hour and the third will be your longer ride. Next you will have 3 runs per week with a couple starting at about 30 min and the other one will be a longer run as a run 9 min, walk 1 min. And finally, there will be one key swim per week with a few supporting swims if possible. That is the basic structure, you will bike one day, run the next, bike one day, run the next and so on and then fit your swim in around that where you can. Keeping in mind to still plan in the most important recovery day as well. Every fourth week you dial down both the intensity and duration of your training for a recovery week. For a lot of athletes, this is the most challenging week, but it is the most important week of each cycle. This is where you recover and adapt from all the training done in the previous weeks.

How Long Do I Need to Train?

I suggest 16-20 weeks to adequately prepare for a full distance triathlon, where the last 12 are the most important. And for half distance you will need about 12-16 weeks where the last 8 are the most important. It does also depend on where you are starting from; you can start from scratch and finish an iron distance if you follow an appropriate 20-week progression and don’t get too tired and struggle with injury. The more experienced and fit you are, you can train for a full in 16 weeks, but I recommend you give yourself 20 weeks to allow for life to happen and avoid the risk of injury.

How Do You Progress Your Training?

In general, you gradually increase the duration of your longest ride and run each week. So, wherever your starting point is, plan to increase the length of your long ride by 30 minutes per week and your longest run by 15 min per week. In doing so, you can ensure you’re not adding too much training stress week to week to limit your risk of niggles and injury. Ideally working towards a 3-hour run and 6-hour ride for a full distance and a 2-hour run and a 3.5-hour ride for a half.  If you can get yourself to that position in training before race day you will be in really good shape to complete the distances and string them together. One thing that I really like to do as a coach is to separate the long run and ride if possible. Most people will fit the long training in back-to-back on the weekend but I like to do the long run on a Thursday and the long ride on a Saturday or Sunday so there is lots of time to recover from each. If you do need to do both long sessions on the weekend, I suggest you do the long run on the Saturday and long ride on Sunday so you are running on fresher legs and reduce the potential for niggles and injury. There are specific circumstances where long run after the long ride makes sense but that would be best as a coaching decision.

The next thing I like to have you do is break up your long run, anything over an hour, as a 9 min run and 1 min walk. That minute walk break will help to reset and refresh your body. If you can run now, continuously for 60 min, then you can run for an hour and forty using this walk run method without feeling any more fatigued or sore at the end. The walk break helps you bounce back faster from your long run and get on to your next days training.

There are some specific workouts that I like to have my athletes complete for the rest of your training week, but they are very specific to race goals and your individual fitness and capacity and would require some individual coaching. That being said, if you can do two more 60 min steady rides per week and two more 30-45 min runs every week, you will be in good enough shape for both a half and full iron distance event. As a coached athlete we would discuss sweet spot training and big gear low cadence work but if you follow the above strategy and are reasonable with your training, you will accomplish your goal event.

Now let’s chat about swimming. If you are not from a swimming background, all of your swims leading up to the 4 weeks before your goal event should NOT be done as a continuous distance. I know this sounds strange but the best way to get better at swimming is to swim with good technique. Every arm stoke is practicing the form and technique that you are trying to improve. If you are getting tired, you will be swimming with poor technique. So, break your swims up to 100m intervals with 5-10 seconds rest in between. Even if you are capable of swimming 1000m continuous, break it up to 10 x 100m intervals and that will allow your arms, shoulders and back to recover and you will ultimately be reinforcing a better swim stroke. All you have to do now is increase the duration of your swim by 200-400m per week and you will easily be able to get to race long duration by the time your race date is here.

As you get closer to your race, you should plan a race simulation weekend. Ideally about 2 weeks before your event. You can do this as a really long swim on the Friday. A long ride and brick run on the Saturday and finish with a long run on the Sunday. This is your chance to practice your transition and nutrition strategies.

For an iron distance:

  • 4km swim Friday
  • 6 hour ride followed by a 45 min run Saturday
  • 2 hour run Sunday

For a half iron distance:

  • 2km swim Friday
  • 3 hour ride followed by a 30 min run on Saturday
  • 90 min run Sunday

I hope this gives you a good idea on how to structure your training. There is definitely a lot more to get into, but this should be a good outline to get you started. A common concern is that the above method does not have you running a marathon before your iron distance event. This is done on purpose, running any longer than 3 hours is counter productive as you don’t have the time to recover from those sessions and get on to your next one. The goal to remember, is to increase your level of fitness without feeling completely drained and without injury.

There is more to consider with your training such as strength and conditioning, mobility and of course nutrition and meal planning for your everyday nutrition, as well as during activity nutrition strategy. It is very important to dial in your carbohydrate requirements and practice how you will be able to take them in as well and your individual electrolyte needs. Please feel free to reach out to work with me to develop these strategies or to diversify your training method.

Train well and empower yourself.

Tanya R.H.N.

Sports Holistic Nutritionist

Strength and Conditioning Coach

Multisport Coach

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