How should I train for my first Olympic-distance triathlon?

I’ve been running and racing for several years, and I’m contemplating training for an Olympic-distance triathlon in addition to several running races. How can I work toward a tri without losing running fitness?

As you prepare for your tri, you will not only be able to maintain your running fitness - you may find you enjoy the balance that comes with multisport training. Although you have to weave three different types of exercise into your routine, you can do so with a little creative planning. Here’s a runner’s guide for training for an Olympic tri.

Training volume

Olympic tris include a 1.5K (0.93-mile) swim, a 40K (24.8-mile) bike and 10K (6.2-mile) run. Each week, you should spend 20 to 25 percent of your training time swimming, 40 to 50 percent cycling, and 20 to 25 percent running, as this is about the ratio you’ll expect on race day. Since your goals are to simply finish the tri and to race your running races, you can adjust the ratio to include slightly less swimming and cycling and slightly more running. To finish comfortably, you want to build up to about 70 percent of the race distance for each leg in your training - so 0.6 miles of swimming, 18 miles of cycling, and 4.5 miles of running.

Skills training

It is wise to invest adequate time in learning fundamental cycling and swimming skills. Although this requires patience, it will translate to better performance and a lower risk of injury. A great way to start swimming is to schedule a session or two with a swim instructor and ask them for form drills and workouts that are based on your swim fitness and skill level. Although many runners know how to ride a bike, cycling with a local bike club, store or tri group can provide training intel for race day. You will maximise your cycling performance by getting your bike fitted and tuned up at a local bike shop and learning how to use the gearing.

Training intensity

Because this is new for your body, it is important to focus on developing a foundation of fitness by training at an easy-to-moderate effort (Zone 2 to 3 if you use heart rate) for both your swimming and cycling workouts. This will balance the training stress on your body and develop muscle memory and sport-specific fitness. It will also allow you to continue to run hard and long to maintain your running fitness.

Training plan

Now that you have a big-picture view of the training focus, you can put together a plan with workouts that allow you to train to your weak spots (swimming and cycling) while maintaining your strengths (running).

Allow for at least 12 weeks of training and follow this weekly structure.

Frequency: two swims, two to three bike rides, and three to four runs
Intensity: easy-effort swims; easy- to moderate-effort rides; and easy-, moderate- and hard-effort runs
Volume: 0.25- to 0.6-mile swims, 10- to 18-mile rides, and 3- to 10-mile runs

Start out at the lower end of the suggested training volume for swimming and cycling and slowly build by no more than 10 percent weekly. Let your body be your guide.

The following is a sample of the first and second weeks of training. You can continue to rotate between these two weeks, building your swim and bike volume as the season progresses and your body adapts.

Week A (one rest day, two swims, two rides, and four runs)

Monday: Rest
Tuesday: Combo workout: Ride 30 minutes at easy effort, run 30 minutes at easy effort (As you progress through the training cycle, maintain workout time but build running intensity to moderate gradually.)
Wednesday: Run 40 to 60 minutes, tempo or hill workout
Thursday: Swim 20 to 30 minutes at easy effort (Progression: Start at 20 minutes, build to 30 minutes.)
Friday: Run 45 to 60 minutes at easy effort
Saturday: Swim 20 to 30 minutes at easy effort (Progression: Start at 20 minutes, build to 30 minutes.)
Sunday: Race simulation: Swim 0.25 miles, ride 8 miles, run 3 miles (Progression: Build by no more than 10 percent weekly to 0.6 miles, 18 miles, and 6 miles two weeks before the race.)

Week B (one rest day, two swims, two rides, and three runs)

Monday: Rest
Tuesday: Two separate workouts: Swim 20 to 30 minutes at easy effort/Run 30 to 45 minutes, interval workout
Wednesday: Ride 30 to 60 minutes at easy to moderate effort (Progression: Start at 30 minutes, build to 60 minutes.)
Thursday: Run 45 min at easy effort OR tempo or hill workout
Friday: Swim 20 to 30 minutes at easy effort (Progression: Start at 20 minutes, build to 30 minutes.)
Saturday: Ride 10 to 18 miles at easy effort (Progression: Start at 10 miles, build to 18 miles.)
Sunday: Run 6 to 10 miles at easy effort (Rotate between 6- to 8-mile runs and 9- to 10-mile runs.)

Train to specificity

The combo and race simulation (brick) workouts help prepare you to swim, bike, and run, all in one workout. The long runs will maintain your endurance for your running races. Most new triathletes start swimming inside to develop their skills and progress to outdoor swims before race day - they are vastly different. From there, get to know your bike, learn how to set up for a transition and you should be ready to race!