The Beginner's Guide to Triathlon Training Plans | EP#84

The Beginner's Guide to Training Plans | EP#84

It's not easy knowing how to plan and structure your triathlon training. Failing to do so is a recipe for not improving. Fortunately, this episode will be your complete, easy-to-follow guide on how to go about planning your training and creating an effective training program.

Discuss this episode!

  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy! 
  • Since this episode is primarily for beginners, I'm sure you'll have a lot of questions about how to create training plans. Write your questions in the comments, and I'll answer every single one of them.
  • Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • The cornerstones of your training program: consistency, moderation, progression, and periodisation
  • How much should you train?
  • Weekly planning and distributing workouts within a week
  • What types of workouts you should be doing in which phases of the program?
  • Periodisation
  • An example program for beginners training for a sprint triathlon

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Shownotes

The cornerstones of your training program

02:47 -

1. Consistency

  • Your plan must be consistent over a period of time.
  • This doesn’t mean that you can’t have any breaks but it means that when you look back at your training after completing the plan, you had no major breaks unless it is a strategic, planned recovery phase like the off-season. You kept your training baseline volume up to a certain level.

2. Moderation

  • Your plan needs to be moderate. This goes hand in hand with consistency because if you do too much too soon, you won’t stay consistent. You’ll either get injured, sick, tired, or bored of the sport.
  • If you want to improve, there will be times when you may feel like the training is pushing you a bit outside your comfort zone. That is fine but it has to be just a little bit outside. 
  • When this happens, those steady, long-term improvements start to accumulate without having the negative effects of losing consistency.

3. Progression.

  • Your plan must be progressive. This is a logical consequence of the points of consistency and moderation.
  • You should get fitter slowly but surely. The baseline of what you can do in training increases with your fitness level.
  • What could have been a perfect amount of training 3 months ago, that was moderate for you and allowed you to stay consistent, may now be very easy for you. Sticking to this exact same training despite this improvement may cause you to stagnate.
  • This is when you need your training plan to be progressive. You can increase the amount of training or you can add more challenging workouts.
  • However, you have to keep in mind the consistency. You don’t want to have it to be too progressive.
  • It is better to be a bit too conservative rather than too aggressive in how progressive your program is.
  • Building durability takes time. Even if you have built a lot of fitness over 3 months, maybe your durability hasn’t increased at the same rate. Your aerobic fitness and cardiovascular system may be able to take that new level of training but maybe your musculoskeletal system cannot.

4. Periodisation

  • You can’t repeat the same kind of training over and over again. This will just give the same kind of performances over and over again.
  • Progression is a part of periodisation. However, periodisation is much bigger than progression because it also includes things like regression.
  • This includes phases like the preparation phase after the off-season, that doesn’t have to be progressive. It’s more about getting into the routine of training again.
  • Progression starts closer to your goal race after the preparation phase. This depends on where you are, your individual abilities, the distance you are training for, and so on.

How much should you train?

07:45 -

  • There’s no single way to answer this question. There’s no formula for this. However, there are principles when it comes to planning to determine how much you should train.
  • Even if you’re a complete beginner to triathlon, if you have some form of sport and training background and you are already training consistently several times per week, you can train up to 6 times per week pretty easily.
  • You can split your training into 2 runs, 2 bikes, and 2 swims which is something that we talked at length about with Gale Bernhardt in Episode 54, that is all about beginner triathlon training.
  • However, let’s say that you’re just starting triathlon and you’re used to just jogging 2 times per week and nothing more.
  • I would suggest a slightly more personalized approach for you. This would be to do a few weeks of 3 workouts per week. Then a few weeks of 4 workouts per week, then 5 and 6.
  • It takes a couple of months at least to gradually build up to that 6 times per week target in this case.
  • If you are already training 5-6 times per week, you don’t necessarily need to increase the number of workouts per week to have your training be progressive.
  • For most beginners, having a complete rest day is very beneficial.
  • If you would increase your number of workouts, I’d prefer for you to do 2 workouts on one of those days rather than taking your rest day.
  • What you may consider instead is to gradually increase the total duration of your training. If you are at 6 times per week and you don’t want to add that second workout on any given day, then a good pattern that you can use to increase the duration carefully would be to increase your current duration by 10% for  next week. Then, hold that new duration for 1 more week. Then go down for an easy recovery week. Then you can again increase by 10% from that new baseline. Hold that new duration for another then recover again.
  • Until you are consistently training for 7.5-8 hours per week, you can get a lot of bang for buck out by just increasing the duration of your workouts very gradually without adding more workouts.
  • For most athletes, this is the most practical way to do things with work, family, etc. It may be very difficult to train 2 times per day.
  • However, when you get to that 7.5-8 hours, that’s when you’d start considering adding more training sessions if you have the opportunity. If you don’t, you can still keep adding duration to those sessions.

Weekly planning and distributing workouts within a week

13:20

3 principles to follow

1. Spread out your workout days and rest days

  • For example, if you have 5 workouts and 2 rest days, don’t take the 2 rest days as consecutive days. It’s better to have them spread out. For example, have Wednesday and Sunday off.
  • If you have only 1 rest day per week, you can have it any day you want that suits your schedule.

2. Spread out your workouts within each discipline

  • Let’s say that you have 2 swims, 2 runs, and 1 bike in that 5 workouts per week example.
  • Don’t take your 2 swims and 2 runs on consecutive days. You should rather have your swims on Monday and Thursday and your runs on Tuesday and Friday, for example.
  • In other words, take 2-3 days between the workouts in each discipline to get that nice, even distribution of workouts in each discipline.

3. Spread out your harder and easier days

  • Harder days can mean either longer days or intense, more demanding workouts.
  • Let’s say that you have 3 workouts per week that are easier and 2 workouts that are harder, a long run and a long bike for example.
  • You can do the long run on a weekday and do the long ride on the weekend to get at least a couple of days in between those harder workouts.
  • The rest of the workouts in between are the easier workouts which give you additional time for recovery even though they are not rest days. But relative to those harder days, they will still allow for more recovery.

What types of workouts should you be doing in which phases of the program?

16:03 -

  • This is the point where a good knowledge of the basics of exercise physiology is really good to have. Self-awareness of your physiology comes into play a lot in here.
  • This is why triathletes who have a coach can improve so much quicker because the coach has that knowledge and understanding of how to interpret what the athlete is doing in terms of what their physiology is telling them.
  • However, you can learn a lot of the basics yourself by continuous self-study. This podcast is a great resource so that you can improve your ability to self-coach.
  • Again, there is no formula here. The following examples will guide you through what to think about when it comes to answering the question of what types of workouts to include in your particular case.

The complete beginner

  • Let’s say that you’re just starting out in triathlon and you’re completely new to endurance sports. In this case, it’s all about you building a base of aerobic endurance and decent technical skills.
  • You don’t need to concern yourself with the intricacies of different types of intervals and the like.
  • What you should do is to listen to Episodes 27, 29, 30 of That Triathlon Show where we talk about how you can establish your training zones in swimming, biking, and running respectively.
  • These episodes allow you to see how slowly you need to go to be in that aerobic endurance training zone which is Zone 2 in the five-zone system.
  • This zone will minimize your risk of injury while your musculoskeletal system – tendons, ligaments, connective tissues – is getting stronger slowly but surely. It will give you the most bang for your buck for building that foundational, bottom of the pyramid fitness which all other fitness is built upon. This is your aerobic base.
  • You need to have that strong base like the foundation of a house. It accounts for most of any triathlete’s fitness. If you go and look at a professional triathlete, most of their fitness and performance – their ability to go incredibly fast – comes from an incredibly big base of aerobic endurance. There is no shortcut to building this strong base.
  • A zone-2 workout is the kind of training that is done at a conversational pace.
  • When you're a beginner, it is also the best time to establish good technical foundations in swimming, biking, and running. Go and get swimming lessons. Join a triathlon club and have their squad coach look at you run and bike and give you tips.
  • Download the Hudl Technique App and have somebody film you and send it to a remote coach who can look at it frame by frame.

The more experienced beginner

  • For somebody who is not a complete beginner anymore but has been doing triathlon for a season or two, what you should be doing is to progress your aerobic endurance and technique. This means that your Zone 2 workouts will gradually become longer. The total training volume may go up as well.
  • If you don’t have any progression in your program when you’ve been doing triathlon for a season or two, then you’ll quickly stop improving.
  • However, your main limiters are most likely still the aerobic endurance and technical skills. So, still get those swimming lessons unless you’re a sub 10-minute sprint distance swimmer.
  • Start introducing a few slightly more demanding workouts strategically into your program. Typically, the time to do this is when you’re 2-3 months out from your goal race.
  • This means that you’ve been doing some base training up until that point and you have the foundations in place.
  • Now is the time that you can start to add some intervals that can be, for example, a bit longer Zone 3 intervals. This may look something like 8 minutes in Zone 3 and then 3 minutes active recovery. Then you repeat this 3 times.
  • You should progress those intervals from week to week by building up to, for example,  3 x 12 or 2 x 15 minutes at Zone 3.
  • You can then start doing some Zone 4 intervals which is right around that anaerobic threshold that we talked about in Episode 71. You need to become familiar with this if you’re going to take control of your own training program.
  • This is essentially where you start to feel the muscles burn. You feel that lactic acid (or technically speaking, you feel hydrogen ions, but let's not go down that rabbit-hole today).
  • You may even do the occasional Zone 5 workoutAlthough for most beginners, I would take the more cautious, traditional, progressive approach starting with Zone 3 workouts slowly moving into Zone 4.

8 weeks left until race

  • If you have 8 weeks left until your race, during the first 4 of those weeks do 1 workout each in swimming, biking, and running that is a Zone 3 interval workout that gets progressively more demanding each week.
  • The other workout in each discipline each week is an easy Zone 2 aerobic endurance workout but maybe a little bit longer like a longer ride or run, or a technique workout in swimming.
  • Then after those first 4 weeks, you’ll do 3 more weeks where you progress into Zone 4 intervals. These are shorter intervals compared to the Zone 3 intervals but are higher in intensity.
  • You do these in your 3 quality workouts and the other 3 workouts, one in each discipline, are still those longer, easier Zone 2 sessions.
  • Outside of these specific race prep periods, you are either in your off-season where you’re not doing much like in a structured training or you’re building your base with progressive aerobic endurance training or technique work.

For someone who is new to triathlon but has done one or two of the disciplines before

  • You can do the training in the disciplines familiar to you like the more experienced beginner (see above) by adding those advanced workouts (Zone 3 and Zone 4 intervals).
  • But in the discipline(s) that you are completely new to, you need to start training like the complete beginner, doing only the aerobic endurance and technique work first to get your foundation in place.
  • However, since there is some overlap in the aerobic endurance component between the different disciplines, you may find that it doesn’t take you long to be ready to start adding some of those more demanding workouts in that discipline.

Periodisation

  • This is simply splitting your season into different phases where the type of training you do depends on what phase of the season you are in.
  • There are several different ways to periodise.

Off-season

  • This generally happens after your last race of the season.
  • You have no structured training but you can stay active. You can cross train. You can do a little bit of swimming, biking, and running just for fun.
  • Your goal here is to recover both mentally and physically.

Preparation

  • This usually lasts 2-6 weeks.
  • This is when you ease yourself back into training so that you can get your body ready to train with more structure in the next (base) phase.

Base phase

  • This is the longest phase for anybody but especially for beginners. In a classical periodised season, this phase could last around for 3-4 months.
  • You may not even need to need to move into any sort of build phase at all. You could just be doing a very long base phase for almost the entire year where you just work on aerobic endurance and technique.
  • It can last for a long time but you want to have progression in it despite that. You don’t want to just do the same thing week after week. You need to have progression in both your aerobic endurance and technique training.


Build phase

  • For complete beginners that still want to have a little bit of build phase, this phase can be very short, even as short as 3 weeks.
  • For experienced beginner triathletes, it can last 8-10 weeks (similar to intermediate or advanced triathletes). 
  • This phase is where you have the basic foundations of your aerobic endurance and technique in place. Then you can s​​​​tart to include some of those more demanding workouts – the Zone 3, 4, or even Zone 5 intervals depending on where you are on your triathlon journey.
  • Still, keep a lot of the basic endurance training, especially in the disciplines that are your weakness and where you know you haven’t established that foundation yet.
  • Start to include race-specific workouts like open water swimming, brick workouts, and training on similar terrains that you’ll race or in similar weather conditions (like doing training in the heat).
  • Race specificity becomes more and more important the closer you get to your race even if you’re not necessarily doing any harder workouts.

How do you know if you have the basic endurance to move into a build phase?

  • Do an hour-long run at a constant pace at Zone 2 and measure your heart rate. Then, analyse your run or ride in TrainingPeaks and check the metric called pace to heart rate ratio (Pa:HR). See "Assess your aerobic endurance" in ​Level up your triathlon using Training Peaks | EP#39​​​
  • This metric measures whether your heart rate increases a lot even though your pace stays the same.
  • If the drift ("decoupling") is 5% or less, you’re good to go. Your heart rate doesn’t drift too much. You’re ready. You have the aerobic endurance to start incorporating the more demanding workouts.
  • If the drift is larger than 5%, then generally, you would be well served doing more aerobic endurance work instead of doing those hard workouts.


Peak and race phase

  • This phase can be as short as the week of the race or with an additional week for an athlete that recovers more slowly.
  • The objective here is simply to get to the starting line of your race as fresh and rested as you can. So, you reduce the volume and the demanding workouts.
  • However, if you have been doing those demanding workouts, you can still keep doing some light versions of them to stay sharp and to keep the leg speed.

An example program for beginners training for a sprint triathlon

  • This example is the from the training program called First Triathlon/Beginner 8-week Plan.
  • The reason why this is 8 weeks only is that I know that a lot of beginners take longer breaks between their seasons and only get back into training when there’s just 2 months left or so until their goal race.
  • In this program, we have 4 weeks base, then 3 weeks build, and then 1 peak week.
  • Most weeks in this plan have 6 workouts in total. Two in each discipline, or sometimes a brick replaces a pure bike workout.
  • In the recovery weeks (weeks 4 and 7) there’s an additional rest day. So there’s just 5 workouts.
  • The first 4 weeks are base training with progressive aerobic endurance and technique work.
  • For example, let’s take the Saturday bike. It goes from 45 minutes in the 1st week, to 1 hour, to 1 hour 10 minutes in the 3rd week. Week 4 is an easier recovery week where this workout is replaced with a short brick workout.
  • The total training time per week in these weeks goes up from 3 hours and 15 minutes to 4 hours to 4 hours and 30 minutes, and then back down again to 3:15 the week 4 recovery week.
  • In weeks 5 to 7, we start adding 1 demanding workout per discipline. This includes Zone 3 tempo intervals or even Zone 4 hill repeats on the bike. For the run, we have Zone 3 fartlek runs. We also add brick sessions. For the swim, we have endurance intervals that can be compared to Zone 3 type of training, and a couple of open-water swims.
  • The volume also progresses further to 4:45, 5:15, then drops back to 3:45 in week 7, another easier recovery week.
  • Then the last week of the program is an easy week where the volume drops even further. There are a few short intervals sprinkled in to keep you sharp and fresh. The volume is 3 hours, back to where you started but now that you’re obviously a lot fitter, it will feel super easy for you. You’ll be very fresh for your race at the end of this week.
  • You don’t need to make these programs complicated. You shouldn’t make them complicated because that can go against the principle of consistency and moderation. The simpler you keep them, the easier it is to stay true to all of those important principles.

More triathlon training programs

  • You can find all training plans I currently have available (I keep adding more, but each and every plan is a lot of work and I take my time with them) here.

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

Connect with host Mikael Eriksson

triathlon_coach_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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Discussion

Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments below. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy! 

If you are a beginner triathlete, be sure to write your questions in the comments, and I'll answer every single one of them. 

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