Beginners, Podcast, Training

Beginner triathlon training with Gale Bernhardt | EP#54

 September 2, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

Beginner triathlon training with Gale Bernhardt | EP#54

Learn how to train for your first triathlon, and how to train when you've got your first sprint behind you and want to move up the distances to an Olympic, or get faster in the sprint.

Joining me to discuss these topics is Gale Bernhardt, Olympic coach, who has helped countless beginner triathletes using the concepts we discuss today.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • How to lay out your training as a beginner triathlete
  • How much do you need to train to complete your first triathlon?​​​​
  • How should you pace your races and workouts?
  • How does your training change when you've done your first sprint and want to get faster or go longer


About Gale Bernhardt

2:43 - 

  • My first trip to the Olympics was in 2000 when I coached US cyclist Nicole Freedman to win US Pro Nationals. T​​​​hat punched her ticket to the Olympics that year.
  • This experience led me to supporting the World Cup teams in triathlon for the next 3 years.
  • Through a selection process, I was selected to be the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan Americn Games Coach for both the men’s and women’s team.
  • My performance at the Pan-Am Games got me selected to be the 2004 Olympic coach for USA Triathlon. Both for the men and women’s teams.
  • My first personal triathlon was in 1986. At that time there were no easily accessible information for age-group triathletes to get into the sport. So, at that time I put together my own training plan to do my first sprint triathlon.
  • Within a year people knew of what I was doing myself with triathlon and they also knew of my coaching and teaching history in sport.
  • I started at age 16 teaching swim lessons and helped with coaching the little kids swim teams when we went to competitions. I then went on to teach alpine skiing and also taught at local health club facilities in typical fitness classes to help people improve their fitness.

What would be your training principles for the complete beginner training for their first sprint triathlon?

9:53 -

  • It somewhat depends if that person is already in other sports. If they’re doing other sports then I think it’s a little bit easier for them to transition to triathlon and build some endurance.
  • People shouldn’t be afraid to try a sprint triathlon even if they have absolutely zero fitness right now. Within about 9-12 weeks, they can slowly build up enough endurance to be able to comfortably complete the event.
  • The principle is that when you start your training plan, start from the place where you are right now and don’t take training principles from someone who might have more fitness than you.
  • Certainly, less fitness is not going to hurt you by doing a plan that might be below your capabilities.
  • Be patient so that you can strengthen your tendons and ligaments so that you will not get injured because the last thing you want is to not be able to do anything at all.

How much should a beginner who has low fitness train in those 9-12 weeks?

11:40 -

  • I look for them to swim 1-2 times a week. If their past sport included swimming, they can get away with only swimming once a week. But if they don’t have a swimming history, I would prefer for them to swim twice a week.
  • I look for 2 workouts in each sport each week.
  • In the biggest training week in the plan that I recommend to people most often, they don’t have to train any more than 4.5 hours total. So, it’s not much.

What’s your take on just doing 2 workouts per week in the weakest discipline (it will be swimming for most), and then doing 1 run and 1 bike for beginners that otherwise get overwhelmed with the amount of training?

13:05 -

  • I think that there’s definitely creative ways that you can get away with doing fewer workouts.
  • I agree with doing a couple of swim workouts for people who are not swimmers. The thought of swimming for non-swimmers causes a lot of stress typically. If you’re able to train a couple of times per week, you increase not only your fitness but also your confidence which will cost you lesser energy on race day.
  • Another creative way that you can get away with fewer workouts is do either brick workouts which are bike-runs or what I call a combo workout which is a run first, and then a bike. You can do these combo or brick workouts instead of splitting up the bike and the run. So then you can train a fewer number of days.

What about if you’re a beginner triathlete who has done a couple of sprints and you want to complete an Olympic distance or maybe just improving your time and result?

15:07 -

  • If you want to complete rather than compete in an Olympic distance triathlon, then the training volume increases.
  • Typically, I don’t bump up the mid-week workouts a lot because many people work and they find it hard to fit in more time mid-week. If I bump those up, it’s a small amount. The bigger amount of the training goes on the weekends when people have more time in their hands to be able to train.
  • For the person who wants to get faster in a sprint distance, I’ll bump up the training volume a little bit. But what really changes is the amount of intensity or speed work that is done during the workouts.
  • For the real beginner, I am mostly concerned with conditioning to make sure that they can safely complete the event and not get injured.

Can you give us examples on how to add that speed work to your workouts?

17:14 -

  • Let’s take bike for example. Let’s say you’re doing a 45 or 30-minute bike during the week. After 10-15 minutes of warm-up, then I would have you increase your intensity or your speed for about 3 minutes and then recover for 1 minute. Then repeat this cycle 5-8 times.
  • Then I’ll change the amount of work. That 3 minute time will change a bit as you get closer to race day.
  • Let’s use RPE (rating of perceived exertion) here. In everyone’s first race, I tell them on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is just really conversational and easy and 5 is the speed that you would use to sprint across the street or down the block, your first sprint distance triathlon will primarily be at number 1 and 2 RPE.
  • For people who are looking to increase speed at that sprint distance, then I will start to add those intervals at an intensity level 3.
  • If they have more time, like 9-12 weeks before they want to be faster, then I’ll include intervals at level 4 that are equal rest to the work interval. In other words, if I have you go at level 4 for 3 minutes, then I’m going to have you rest for 3 minutes.
  • So that’s one of the more traditional ways that I help people increase speed. One of the less traditional ways is something I call miracle intervals. I discovered this back in 2006 when I had a cyclist that accidentally ran into dog and he broke his collarbone. And he still had a 100 mile race in February that he wanted to do even though he had a broken collarbone in December.
  • So, I knew that I couldn’t have him strength train because that will cause too much stress on his collar bone. He couldn’t ride outside for 6 weeks due to doctor’s orders. I thought that I need a way to keep his strength up so that he doesn’t lose power on the bike. So I had him do all out 30 seconds as much power as he could possibly produce. Then take 4.5 minutes recovery. This is more common now, but endurance athletes tend not to do those big high power workouts especially in triathlon.
  • He then did one 2-hour ride on the trainer just to keep his endurance tuned up. Then when he went to his 100-mile race in February, he was able to keep almost the same power output numbers as he did in his best year, and he was only 5 minutes off from his best time.
  • So I did a little research on this and I found out that the short 30-second intervals followed by generous amounts of recovery allow people to maintain lactate threshold speed which is the speed that you can hold for an hour and it also allows people to keep some endurance.
  • I did add some longer workouts the closer we got to the race but it was around 4 weeks before the race. So he didn’t have much time to have those longer speed workouts.
  • The lesson is that I believe that it doesn’t matter where you are in sport – beginner or advanced. You can use these shorter intervals to increase your fitness and your power.
  • For the beginner athletes, I have them start at 10-20 seconds and build power throughout that 10-20 seconds and then recover for maybe a shorter time period, around 1.5 – 2.5 minutes.
  • The more advanced the athletes is, then the higher power output I want over the course of 30 seconds. And then I also want more recovery.

Do you prescribe strength training for your beginner triathletes?

26:23 -

  • I do if they have the time to fit it in. If they’re looking just to get through their first event, then my primary concern is endurance.
  • If they have the time then I absolutely prefer that they do some strength training or even yoga or pilates to be able to improve body strength, flexibility, and balance.
  • But when push comes to shove, if something needs to go for your first event, I would pull out that strength training because it is time consuming for a lot of people.

How do you use gadgets like GPS watches, heart rate monitors, and power meters with beginners?

27:28 -

  • With beginners that are fit, I’ll have them do a self-test time trial in cycling or running. It can be as short as 10 minutes but for the more fit beginners, I’ll typically do a 20-minute time trial. And I instruct them to go at the fastest pace they think they can hold for 20 minutes. I don’t want them to go out too fast and then fade at the end. I’m looking for the highest average heart rate or power they can hold for that 20 minutes.
  • Then from those numbers, with the athletes that are using training devices like heart rate, pace, or power, any of those, I then divide the training zones up a little bit more. I have 7 that I use.
  • The first two zones are primarily aerobic work.
  • The third zone is what I call tempo, which is just you accumulating some lactic acid but it’s being removed fairly efficiently by the body and you can have a fair amount of time in the third zone in your longer workouts.
  • The fourth zone for me is the threshold. And that’s the power, heart rate, or pace that you can hold for roughly 60 minutes in a race or time trial.
  • The fifth zone is aerobic capacity or being able to produce power in that 3-minute range and the equal work and recovery range.
  • Then above that is the all-out high-end sprinting that goes anywhere from 10 seconds for cyclists to around 3 minutes.
  • It’s definitely easier with pace and power to distinguish those upper zones. If people have access to a heart rate monitor, then even in those upper zones they’ll still use RPE.
  • And I tell all of my athletes I never want them to lose that RPE, because I want them to rely on how they feel during the race and ask themselves, “Can I push a little bit more and get a little bit more speed right now regardless of what the numbers are telling me?”

What’s your take on what beginners should get for equipment? Do you recommend for them to get a GPS watch or a heart rate monitor?

31:07 -

  • I think that if you’re going to stay in the sport after your first event then you should consider at least investing in heart rate monitors because that gives a little peak inside your body as to what is going on. And it allows you to be more precise and more cautious with your training.
  • What I mean by that is the heart rate monitor will allow you to safely push your limits and have less worry about blowing up or not finishing the workout or the race.
  • I can train people just fine with heart rate only and get a good amount of result.
  • Power meters are nice, but they are not absolutely necessary for performance in beginners.

How is the training time distributed between the three disciplines?

33:29 -

  • The peak week for beginner sprint athletes is 4.5 hours. And I tend to use the bike to build overall endurance because it carries a low risk of injury.
  • Additionally, for most people, the bike will take up half of the race time. So, the bigger amount of time goes into cycling.
  • Then the next volume of training time goes into running typically.
  • But again, if you have no swim history, then I’ll have you swim a couple of times a week for about 30 minutes. If they have swim history, they can get by with 1 swim a week.
  • The swim volume really decreases in the experienced swimmer if they are time-pinched and increase more for people who are inexperienced because I want them to go into the race with full confidence that they’re going to be able to navigate the water without fear.
  • For the 4.5-hour week, then the long bike ride would be between 90-120 minutes. This is way more than what they will be needing to get through the event. Most people can get through a sprint distance bike leg as a beginner in around 75-90 minutes.
  • For the 2 swim workouts, I look for them to be able to swim between 500 and 800 meters twice a week non-stop. This is pretty close to race day demands.
  • For the other 2 workouts, they can do a brick workout which is 30-minute bike ride followed by a 20-30 minute run because I like to have them experience the feeling of getting off that bike and changing the motion from circular to running.
  • Then they can do the other workout as a 30-45 minute run.
  • The percentage distribution of the disciplines is pretty close for those slightly more advanced beginners that are training for an Olympic distance. I might increase the bike a little bit more for the Olympic distance.
  • When you get into those longer distances you can’t do the distance in training. Or you shouldn’t be doing the distance in training for an entire Ironman event, because a 15-17 hour training day will leave people exhausted or injured.
  • I do use the bike to still build some endurance. But as the distances gets longer, what I start doing is putting 2 long workouts or even 3 on consecutive days. I found that this helps build race endurance as well.

Building up to that longer distance for a goal race on the bike, do you do that on the run as well for those beginners to build up to the 5k?

39:36 -

  • For sprint and even Olympic distance racing, I think beginners can build up to that 5k or 10k distance given enough training time.
  • If you have 3 months you should be able to build up to the full distance for the race on the run and on the bike as well.

What are your tips on how to pace the second sprint distance in order to improve and also the first Olympic distance race?


  • People will get some measure of how to pace those race because they’ve started to do some interval work in training. So they’ve started to do that level 3 and 4 on the perceived exertion scale.
  • So they know what their upper end of speed feels like physically and what their breathing sounds like.
  • I like people to think about their breathing because if you are breathing much harder and heavier than you ever have in training during the race, then I suggest that you back off a little bit. And that will get you through the race until you gain more experience.

Rapid-fire questions

Favorite book, blog, or resource related to triathlon or endurance sports:

Favorite piece of gear or equipment:

  • Mountain bike

Person in triathlon that you admire or look up to:

Final recommendation - weight loss and nutrition

45:05 -

  • For people who struggle with their body weight during sport, take a look at the book Become a Fat Burning Machine that chronicles a story of an Ironman athlete that I’ve worked with who really struggled with his weight for years.
  • We changed some of his eating habits and he was able to successfully get his weight down and get his health markers improved and also complete Kona Ironman.
  • If eating or nutrition is more of a concern than training, then the book is a place to look.

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

Connect with Gale Bernhardt

Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show. 

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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