BY JULIA BEESON POLLORENO
Finding time to train for one sport is hard enough, so training for three must be impossible, right? Not if you do it right, says Bay Area triathlon coach Matt Dixon. In fact, tri training can be easier than your current routine. It can also protect you from injury, earn you big-time bragging rights, and get you in the best shape of your life.
The key to finishing your first triathlon, or doing better in your next one, is efficiency—not endlessly excruciating, soul-crushing, joint-smashing workout sessions. Here, we’ll show you strategies for swimming, biking, and running so you can hit the starting line with confidence—and the finish line faster than ever.
You’ll need to dial in your nutrition, too—follow this plan for optimal performance.
You’re probably terrified of navigating open water, drifting off course, or getting kicked in the face by another competitor. And those things might very well happen if you simply throw fitness at the event. But the experts will tell you that a successful swim is mostly about technique, says Matt Fitzgerald, an endurance sports specialist in Oakdale, California. Once you know how to swim, you’ll gain skill and confidence so you’re better able to manage trouble.
About two months before race day, start doing at least two swims a week, building up to at least 1,000 yards each. To prepare for the open-water freakout many first-timers experience, log a few practice swims in the ocean or a lake. Learn to “sight,” looking up every 50 to 100 yards to make sure you’re seeing the buoys that mark the course.
As you swim, minimize drag with proper body position and stroke mechanics. Here’s how.
Related: Streamline Your Swimming Stroke
1. GLIDE WITH YOUR HEAD DOWN
Positioning your body correctly begins with your head: Keep your noggin in line with your spine. If you raise or lower it, you’ll create excess drag. Rookies feel an urge to peek where they’re headed. Don’t, except when you’re sighting. Use the pool’s lane line to stay straight.
2. STRAIGHTEN OUT
Avoid lateral movement by keeping your head, shoulders, hips, and feet in a straight line. As you swim, imagine being stretched from both your head and your feet.
3. KEEP YOUR FEET CLOSE TOGETHER
Generate a compact kick using power from your hips, keeping your legs close together.
As your lead hand enters the water, your arm should be nearly straight. According to a recent study on fluid dynamics, this is more efficient than “sculling,” in which the arm is bent and traces an S curve while pushing water behind.
5. TIME IT RIGHT
As one arm reaches full extension in front of you, wait to pull with that arm until the other arm is just about to spear into the water. If you begin the pull before the other arm is ready to strike, your body will rotate prematurely, which kills your glide and slows forward propulsion.
6. BECOME A FALLING LEAF
As you stroke through the water, your body should open as you pull your arm overhead, and then close when you stroke through. Try to visualize your body as a falling leaf or a snow-boarder going up and down the sides of a half pipe.
One more tip: On race day, if you’re not a strong swimmer, your coach will advise you to hang back at the start to escape the scrum of flailing arms and legs. Heed that advice. You’ll only lose 20 to 30 seconds from your time, and you’ll avoid injury. If your goggles get knocked off, simply tread water as you put them back on properly to prevent fogging and to ensure that you can see where you’re going.
The biking leg is the Tri’s longest part, and also the part that depends most on good gear (here are the best triathlon bikes) and feeling comfortable. Nail it and you can offset a poor swim leg and set yourself up for a PR run. So log time on the bike to hone your form, says Jimmy Riccitello, a coach and former champion triathlete. He suggests weekly spin classes as an intro to cycling. “There’s an instructor, and the workouts are typically longer and more intense than what beginners would do on their own on the road,” he says.
Riccitello and his new triathletes do longer weekend rides (two or more hours) at moderate effort to build endurance and get used to riding on the roads, ideally with other cyclists. Doing the same will familiarize you with the dynamics of riding with people around you—a comfort that will be valuable on race day.
Related: Perform Like A Pro Cyclist
When you’re sitting on the saddle with your feet on the pedals, your knees should bend slightly. Sitting too high makes you inefficient; sitting too low undermines your power and can eventually lead to knee pain.
Try as many saddles as you can to find one that’s comfortable; a lot of men prefer a split-nose design for anatomical reasons. Remember, the cushioning comes from your bike shorts, not from the seat.
Make sure they’re not too narrow; that creates tension in your neck and upper back and can make you hold your head too high, killing efficiency. The bars’ pads should be set so your upper arm is about perpendicular to your torso when your back is straight.
Your handlebar or aerobars should not be so low that you don’t have full range of motion in your hips at the top of the stroke, which kills power and efficiency.
BONUS: BUY A BACK WHEEL TRAINER
About six weeks into your training program, consider picking up a stationary trainer for your home. It’ll allow you to use your own bike, and you’ll be able to do specific workouts, such as timed intervals, without having to worry about momentum killers like traffic lights, crazy drivers, and bad weather. Check out the Zwift app for a fun virtual-reality group ride experience using your smart trainer.
As for training specifics, a weekly high-intensity ride builds fitness fast. Try these three workouts.
- 7×2 minutes: Seven all-out 2-minute intervals, each followed by 5 minutes of easy riding. Total: 49 minutes
- 10×2 minutes: Ten 2-minute intervals consisting of 1 minute at medium effort and 1 minute of hard pedaling, with 2 minutes of easy riding between them and at the end. Total: 40 minutes
- 3×12 minutes: Three 12-minute intervals, gradually ramping up the intensity with each one; the third one should be all-out! Take 5 minutes of easy recovery between them and at the end. Total: 51 minutes
HOW TO TRAIN FOR THE TRIATHLON RUN
A strong run is the most critical leg in the triathlon, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The researchers analyzed individual split times and overall race results of top performing triathletes over a 26-year period and found that for the Olympic distance, the run is the greatest contributor to the final result. “The best way to build running speed and endurance is to gradually increase the amount of time you spend running,” says Fitzgerald. “Doing most of your running at low intensity will facilitate this process, but you can accelerate it by running at high intensity once a week.” You can also try these running workouts.
Related: 3 Tips To Run Smarter (And Faster) Than Your Opponent
Make sure your form is tight, which will help you go faster with less effort, and avoid injury. Here are the keys to perfect form:
1. RUN TALL
Slumping saps your efficiency. As you run, think about pushing the top of your head to the sky, which keeps your back straight and chest up.
2. FIND YOUR RHYTHM
Imagine the beat of a song that’s at the pace you’d like to keep (ideally 120 beats per minute), and swing your arms rhythmically and compactly to the beat, your arms bent at the elbows. This helps you set a consistent tempo for your tired legs.
Each time you stride, slightly exaggerate picking your knee up. That helps you avoid shuffling, which often occurs when you’re tired.
4. GAZE AHEAD
Looking 30 feet down the road helps your posture and boosts your mental outlook since it keeps you looking forward, not down.
5. STRIDE RIGHT
Your feet should land underneath your body or just out in front of it. This prevents you from overstriding or understriding, both of which can slow you down.
Once you’re off the bike and ready to pound pavement, your legs will feel like pulp. To prepare for that wobbly feeling and sheer fatigue, triathletes do “brick” workouts. These consist of a long ride—say, 20 miles—followed by a short run—say, 1 or 2 miles. Do two or three brick workouts before each race. These post-ride runs will keep you from experiencing jelly legs come race day.