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How to train for your first triathlon

Updated: Jul 15

Young man finish his first triathlon through a funnel

Congratulations on entering your first ever triathlon! This blog is designed to guide you to finish your event without any specific time goals. 

The first thing you are probably thinking with your training is, where do I start? 

I am going to try and break down and summarise this big question!


The first thing you will need to make sure you have is the basic kit - follow this link for a list of the absolute minimum that you will need to both train for and complete your first triathlon:

Now you can start focusing on training! 

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

First you need to consider your existing abilities. Are you an ex swimmer that is a little unstable on solid land? A pro cyclist who sinks in water? 

You need to know where your strengths and weaknesses are. If you can’t swim, or don’t know how to ride a bike, you will have to start at a lower level than the other sports and perhaps substitute training time on your favoured sports to improve your weaknesses. 

There are many people who decide to do a triathlon before they can swim. I recently had a retired man come to me to teach him to swim after he entered an ironman event. After struggling to swim 10m in the winter he is now ready to tackle the full distance swim, but had to drop a lot of cycling and run training to do it.

On the other hand you might find that you are a mega strong cyclist and that your time might be better spent improving the other 2 disciplines to enable you to achieve the fastest possible time.

Planning your training

With a typical local triathlon you will be looking to swim a maximum of 400m, cycle between 10 and 20km and run between 2km and 4km. With this in mind you can focus on achieving the distance. Below I will plan what you should be able to achieve by the end of each week and plan your sessions around your strengths and weaknesses. If you can already do the distance in one of the disciplines you can spend less time doing it, but don’t completely neglect it!

Triathlon Training Plan

Week 1: Train in each discipline over a distance or duration that is comfortable for you. 

Keep your effort levels relatively low throughout the week, add an extra session of your weakest discipline if you have the time. You should finish the week feeling like you have achieved a good amount of training without too much fatigue.

Week 2: Building on the previous week.

Aim to train for a little longer during each session than last week. The sessions should push you because of the duration, not the intensity. Aim to make each session 10-20% longer than last week, with the addition of an extra session in your weakest discipline. If you have time, try and do a session where you practice cycling straight after swimming. You might feel a little unstable coming straight out of the water so it is useful to get used to this feeling before race day.

Week 3: Building up to race distance. 

Practice cycling the race distance, getting off the bike and then immediately running the race distance. This can be a very strange and heavy feeling if you are not used to it and will often feel slow but this is largely down to perception of speed and you will actually be running a lot faster than you may think! If you can do this comfortably, you are ready to go next week!

Week 4: Race week.

Gradually reduce the duration of your training. It is a good idea to have a rest day before race day. If you need to go out, keep the session short and easy just to warm your muscles up.

Triathlete on a road bike wearing pink

Planning the individual sessions

To plan individual sessions as efficiently as possible you need to know the course that you are racing on. 

  • Is the swim in a pool? Lake? The sea?

  • Is the bike course hilly? Off Road? Draft-legal? 

  • Is the run flat? Trail? Laps?

It is best to train in similar conditions to what the event is going to be. For example swimming in a pool is very different to swimming in a mass start, lake swim. If you are doing an open water swim plan in at least a few sessions in open water before your event so you can get used to the additional skills that you will need such as swimming in a group and sighting.

For the bike, plan your training around the race course. If it is technical with a lot of corners, make sure you add that into your training routes. If the route is hilly, choose an undulating route for some of your rides. It takes slightly different muscles to climb uphill than it does to ride on the flat. 

If your first event is a draft legal ride then look for a local cycling group or some friends to ride with. It is a skill in itself to ride around others. Build confidence riding in front, behind and beside others and taking corners, braking etc. Going fast around other cyclists can be a scary prospect if you are not confident, so use your training time to gradually build yourself up.

Training for your run is going to be similar to cycling. Practice hills and going around sharp bends. The other addition here is going to be off road running where you have to tackle grass and trails. When running on a softer surface you are going to have to rely on your effort levels rather than your pace. 

Planning your transitions

This is focused more on race day but it is good to give some things a go during your training. 

You will start the triathlon with your swimming kit. Everything else that you will use will be in a transition area ready for you once you finish. To work out where each piece of kit should be, you need to think about what you need and what order you are going to use it. 

There are lots of different variations of kit but there are a few golden rules. 

A road bike setup in transition
  • Have your drink on the bike ready rather than on the floor.

  • Have your bike in a gear that you can pedal away from a stand still (Not too big!)

  • Have your helmet ready and unclipped in a place that is easily accessible.

  • Have your race number (tri belt or top layer) easily accessible.

  • Have your shoes that you are going to wear on the bike close to the front of your transition area.

  • If you have different shoes for the run, have them slightly out of the way so they are not hindering your first transition but somewhere you can grab once you get back from the bike.

Other helpful transition tips!

  • If you are in open water and are wearing a wetsuit, you are going to have to take it off before getting on the bike (unless you love being REALLY HOT!). Attempt getting your wetsuit off quickly after your sessions to get a feel for what you are able to do safely.

  • If the course is going to take you more than an hour you might want to think about either having some fuel already on your bike or having it to hand in your transition space to take on the bike or run. Energy gels are great for this and if you have a tri belt, many of them have loopholes for gels.

  • If it is really cold or you want to make sure you are comfortable for the event you might opt to put on socks, gloves or an extra layer in transition. It is a good idea to practice putting these things on when you are cold and wet (it’s not very easy!)

  • If it is really hot, it might be a good idea to put some extra fluid in transition that you can drink or pour over yourself to cool down. 

  • If you are going the no sock option, it would be a good idea to try this before event day!

Even after doing so many triathlons, I still find putting my running shoes on after getting off the bike the hardest part of transition - there’s always something to practice!

I understand this is a lot of advice and may make you feel a little overwhelmed but don’t panic!

You can get through your triathlon however you like, the best thing you can take into it is a strong attitude and self belief. Above all, remember to enjoy it!

If you have any questions or would like some advice. Get in touch!

We also provide coaching and have ready built training plans for all levels of athletes over many different distances.

Check out our coaching or training plans section! If you have enjoyed this article and would like to stay up to date on our training tips, subscribe to our Efficient Tips Mailing List for FREE!

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