Conquer Your First Sprint Triathlon in 6 Weeks

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With proper training, getting to the finish line of your first triathlon is a very achievable goal. I will teach you how to train like a triathlete, how to build fitness and how to arrive at the start line feeling energized and excited to race.

A sprint triathlon is an excellent place to start. Most sprint triathlons are in the range of a 500–750m swim, a 12-mile bike and a 3-mile run. To build endurance, you’ll start with a volume you’re comfortable with and add 10–15 percent per session until you hit the target duration. Learning how to put all three sports together to create a fluid and seamless race is what triathlon is all about.

The Program

The goal of this program is more than to just get you to the finish line. This program will prepare you to push the pace for the distance. Your challenge is not just completion: It’s to conquer the race!

This training program begins six weeks prior to your first sprint triathlon. Before starting, you should be generally aerobically fit and able to swim, bike and run. If you can complete a 12-mile bike, a 3-mile run or a 500-1000m swim reasonably well, you are ready to learn how to put the three sports together.

The training is based on heart rate, with times spent in either an aerobic (easy/moderate), or threshold (race pace) zone. Prior to starting, you will need to spend time calculating your heart rate zones, as outlined on the following page.

This is a time-efficient program, with a maximum of three sessions per week in each sport (nine in total). Weeks 1 and 2 emphasize building fitness at race pace. Week 3 is recovery with lower-intensity, aerobic work. Weeks 4 and 5 continue to focus on race-pace fitness, and will give you practice running off the bike. Week 6 emphasizes recovery as well as prepping your body to be sharp on race day.

During the week, workouts should be performed in the order listed and optimally be 4–6 hours apart (except for runs off the bike).

Race-day Tips for Newbies

1. Tune into some positive self-talk and mental imagery that you will use the morning of the race: “I am confident and prepared.”

2. On race morning, choose a breakfast that you have already tested in training sessions. Hydrate.

3. Get to the race about 60–90 minutes before the start, allowing for traffic, parking and registration if necessary. You will have to set up your equipment, and memorize flow in and out of the transition zone. All this takes time, and you don’t want to feel hurried.

4. Do a 10–15-minute jog about 30–40 minutes before the tart of the race, then stretch gently.

5. About 15 minutes before the race, get in the water in your wetsuit. If you have time, do some easy swimming, concentrating on being relaxed. Practice sighting to the first buoy, and do a couple of short pick-ups to warm up your muscles.

6. In the final moments before you start, breathe deeply, relax your upper body and mentally rehearse the start of the swim.

7. Be proud of yourself while you are racing and appreciate your newfound skill set!

Master your transitions

The well-known “fourth discipline” of triathlon is the transition. The shorter the race, the more important the transition speed. It’s easier to trim one minute off your transition than off your 5K run split, so practice swim-to-bike (T1) and bike-to-run (T2) transitions by creating small transition zones at home or at the pool. Lay out all your required gear changes and practice bike mounts and bike dismounts. If you want to see some 20- to 30-second transitions, watch the race recap videos of the ITU World Championship Series triathletes at Triathlon.org.

Your Lactate Threshold

Understanding lactate threshold (LT) training is critical to improvement. Your LT determines how long and how hard you can exert near maximum effort. There’s a point when the body begins to produce lactate at rates that are too fast for it to metabolize – this is the LT.

To determine your LT, do a field test on the bike and the run on separate days, when your legs feel rested. After a warm-up of 15 minutes (run) to 30 minutes (bike), do a 30-minute time trial on flat terrain where you can hold a strong, uninterrupted effort (a bike trainer is ideal for the bike test and the track is a good option for the run).

Pace the time trial as evenly as possible To determine your LT heart rate, hit the lap button on your heart rate monitor 10 minutes into the time trial. The average heart rate for the final 20 minutes is your LT heart rate.

This chart will help you understand the various zones.

Coaching Abbreviations / Terminology
WU = warm-up | MS = main set | CD = cool-down | X’ = X minutes, i.e. 3’ | X” = X seconds, i.e. 30” | Zn = zone (heart rate or perceived effort), i.e. Zn 1 = Zone 1 | (brackets) = time indication for rest in between intervals or tasks, i.e. 4 x 3’ (2’) | RPM = cadence (repetitions per minute) | HR = heart rate | PE = perceived exertion | Tempo = a strong, sub-maximal rhythm that gradually gets harder to sustain with duration. Great practice for even racing efforts. | Pick-ups = done at 75–85% of your maximal sprint speed, they are fast but in control. They help get your muscles warmed up and firing efficiently, and range of motion open. | Intervals = efforts typically done at (or above) race pace. The recovery is walking or very easy spinning on the bike. These help push your lt fitness and race pace to higher levels.

Download the PDF version of this training plan here

Week 1

Monday
Day Off: Stretch. this week focuses on building threshold fitness

Tuesday
Run: Tempo. WU: 15’ as 8 ’Zn1, 7’ Zn2. MS: 15’ as 10’ Zn 3, 5’ Zn4. CD: 10’ as 5’ Zn2, 5’ Zn1. The last 5’ of the main set should feel challenging. No need to add a sprint finish (unless you are feeling inspired!).

Wednesday
Swim: Pace work. WU: 400-800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 10×50 (20”). hr/Pe rises to Zn 4. (Try to swim the 50s within 1–2” of each other.) 300-600 steady aerobic swimming, Zn 2. CD: 200.
Optional Run: Easy aerobic run, flat, Zn 1–2, 20–40’. Keep it easy for recovery. Take the day off running if you are newer or you have sore legs.

Thursday
Bike: Intervals. WU: 15’ as 8’ Zn 1, 7’ Zn 2. 6×30” (30”) pick-ups at 95-100 RPM, HR/PE gradually rises to Zn 4. MS: 4×5’ (2.5’) at 85-95 RPM. HR/PE rises to Zn 4 through the main set. CD: 15’ as 10’ Zn 2,5’ Zn1.

Performance Pointer: “Activation” is an important part of a warm-up on a day that you want to do higher-intensity workouts, and also on race day. The pick-ups get your heart pumping and open your arteries up to working muscles. Starting the main set will be less of a shock to the body after activation.

Friday
Swim: Speed work. WU: 400–800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 3 x [4×50 (30″) as 25 sprint, 25 easy]. Swim 100-200 easy between sets. HR/PE rises to Zn 5. CD: 400.

Saturday
Run: Pace work plus speed. Run repeats on a track, treadmill, or the same flat, measured stretch of road or trail. WU: 15’ as 8’ Zn 1, 7’ Zn 2. 4-5 strides. MS: 4x800m (2’ walking recovery). Evenly pace the intervals. HR rises to Zn 4 through the set. 4x200m (30”), build the pace from Zn 1 to Zn 4. Zn 4 is your fastest pace. The 200m repeats should be about 2” faster each interval. CD: 15’ as 10’ Zn2, 5’ Zn1.
Optional Bike: Aerobic recovery ride, Zn 1, 45–90’. Very easy and flat.

Sunday
Bike: Tempo. WU: 20-30’ HR Zn 1 rising to Zn 2. 6 x 30” (30”) pick-ups at 95–100rPm, hr/Pe gradually rises to Zn 4. MS: 20’ building effort by 5’. hr/Pe rises from Zn 3 to Zn 4. If you have a triathlon bike, do this in your aerobars at 85–95 RPM. CD: 20–30’, HR gradually drops to Zn 1.
Optional Swim: a good day for a pull buoy set with tired legs, and to build swim strength. WU: 400–800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 4–8×200 (30”) pull (paddles optional). CD: 200.

Week 2

Monday
Day Off: Stretch. this week also focuses on building threshold fitness.

Tuesday
Run: Tempo. WU: 15’ as 8’ Zn1, 7’ Zn2. MS: 20’ as 10’ Zn3, 10’ Zn4. CD: 10’ as 5’ Zn2, 5’ Zn1.

Wednesday
Swim: Pace work. WU: 400–800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 6×100 (25”). Try to swim the intervals within 2–3” of each other. HR/PE rises to Zn 4. 400–700m steady aerobic swimming to build endurance, Zn 2. CD: 200.

Optional Run: Easy aerobic run, flat, Zn 1–2, 20–40’.

Thursday
Bike: Intervals. WU: 15’ as 8’ Zn 1, 7’ Zn 2. 6 x 30” (30”) pick-ups at 95–100rPm, Hr/PE gradually rises to Zn 4. MS: 5–6 x 4’ (2’ Zn 2) at 85-95 RPM. HR/PE rises to Zn 4–5 through the main set. CD: 15’ as 10’ Zn 2, 5’ Zn 1. It may take 1–2 intervals to get your heart rate to the appropriate zone with the shorter intervals. Make sure the effort is high and even throughout the set of intervals.

Friday
Swim: Speed work. WU: 400–800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 2 x [3-5×100 (40”) as 50 sprint, 50 moderate]. Swim 100–200 easy between sets. hr/Pe rises to Zn 5. CD: 400.

Saturday
Run: Pace work. WU: 15’ as 8’ Zn 1, 7’ Zn 2. 4–5 strides. MS: 12x400m (1’ walking recovery). Even pace the intervals. HR rises to Zn 4 through the set. Hold back on the first couple of repeats—save strength for the last 5. CD: 15’ as 10’ Zn 2, 5’ Zn 1.

Sunday
Bike: Tempo. WU: 20–30’ hr Zn 1 rising to Zn 2. 6×30” (30”) pick-ups at 95–100 RPM, HR/PE gradually rises to Zn 4. MS: 2×15’ (10’ easy) building effort every 5’. HR/PE rises from Zn 3 to Zn 4 and can reach Zn 5 in the second interval. If you have a triathlon bike, do this in your aerobars at 85–95 RPM. The goal is to try to ride a little stronger than last week! Take the 10’ recovery to refocus and get fired up for the next interval. CD: 20–30’, HR gradually drops to Zn 1.

Performance Pointer: You may find that though your heart rate gradually rises, the pace stays the same. A well-paced ride or run often feels like a building effort.

Optional Swim: WU: 400–800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 3-4×400 (40”) pull (paddles optional). CD: 200.

Week 3: Recovery Week

Monday
Day Off: Stretch. this week focuses on recovery.

Tuesday
Swim: Recovery pull set. WU: 400–800 with free, non-free and drills. CD: 200.
Pre-Activity Comments: today is a pull set. coupling a day off (yesterday) with a second day in a row of “non-legs” training is a good way to start a recovery week, to maximize regeneration.

Wednesday
Run: Aerobic base. 45-60′ flat run mostly in Zn 1-2. Include 4×20-30″ at Saturday’s 400m interval pace or effort within the run. This run is primarily aerobic. The short pick-ups remind the body to move efficiently.

Thursday
Bike: Aerobic with skills. 45–90’ ride, in Zn 1–2. Include 2×5’ of single-leg drills in the ride. Single-leg drills are performed on a flat stretch of road, slight downhill or the trainer.
Performance Pointer: A smooth pedal stroke equals higher efficiency. Isolating one leg highlights rough areas in the pedal stroke. the goal is 70+ RPM while single-leg pedaling. Choose an easier gear if necessary.

Friday
Day Off: Stretch, relax.

Saturday
Run: Aerobic base. 45–60’ run rolling hills mostly in Zn 1–2.

Sunday
Bike: Aerobic base. 1.5–2 hours, rolling aerobic, Zn 1–2. Include in your ride 4–6×2’ at race pace or effort. Take full recovery between these efforts. a primarily aerobic ride, the 2’ pick-ups maintain cycling efficiency. Pick a section of clear road once you are fully warmed up. Don’t exceed your sprint triathlon race pace/effort (i.e. these are not sprints). Take at least 8–10’ between efforts. Don’t build fatigue.

Week 4

Monday
Day Off: Stretch. this week focuses on continuing to build threshold and learning to run well off the bike.

Tuesday
Bike: Intervals. WU: 15’ as 8’ Zn1, 7’ Zn2. 6×30” (30”) pick-ups at 95–100 RPM, HR/PE gradually rises to Zn 4. MS: 5 x 5’ (2.5’ Zn 2) at 85–95 RPM. HR/PE rises to Zn 4–5 through the main set. Run off the bike, straight after the last interval.
Pre-Activity Comments: Try to match or exceed prior bike interval performances, before a quick transition into the run. Try to limit your transition here to less than 2’.

Run: Off the bike, flat. 10’ in Zn 4. 10’ easy jog as CD. HR drops Zn 2–1.
Performance Pointer: Practice running fast off the bike with a quick cadence. force it a bit if it feels bad at first; the legs will come around. You get better at running well off the bike with practice. In general, 8–12’ “brick” (bike-to-run) runs can be performed fairly regularly in the schedule. They don’t add a lot of fatigue but can reap great benefits by increasing your efficiency to run off the bike.

Wednesday
Swim: Pace work. WU: 400–800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 4×200 (30”). HR/PE rises to Zn 4. 400–700 steady aerobic swimming, Zn 2. CD: 200.
Performance Pointer: Rather than solely thinking about power and effort, try to focus on feeling hydrodynamic. Stay tall, long, shallow and streamlined.

Thursday
Run: Aerobic base. 45-60’ run rolling hills mostly in Zn 1–2.

Friday
Swim: Speed work. Short sprints help you swim high in the water and feel fast. WU: 400–800 with free, non-free, drills and kick.

Bike: Aerobic with skills. 60’–90’ ride in Zn 1–2. Include 2–3×5’ of single-leg drills in the ride.

Saturday
Bike: Aerobic build to tempo. Build this ride by 15’ from Zn 1, to Zn 2, to Zn 3, to Zn 4. run off. Practice riding a hard sustained effort and running off with appropriately fatigued legs. The last 15–20’ of this ride should start to be challenging.

Run: MS: intervals: 3×1 mile (3’ walking recovery). Zn 4 hr/Pe. evenly pace the intervals. CD: 15’ as 10’ Zn 2, 5’ Zn 1. Running 3×1 mile off a challenging bike gets you one step closer to running 3 miles or 5K well after a time-trial effort on race day.

Sunday
Bike: Aerobic with skills. 60’–90’ ride in Zn 1–2. include 2–3×5’ of single-leg drills in the ride.
Pre-Activity Comments: Keep this ride aerobic. Single-leg drills are performed on a flat stretch of road, slight downhill, or the trainer.

Swim: WU: 400–800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 4–6×200 (25”) pull (paddles optional). CD: 200 with free and non-free.

Week 5

Monday
Day Off: Stretch. this week focuses on continuing to build threshold and learning to run well off the bike.

Tuesday
Bike: Intervals. WU: 15’ as 8’ Zn 1, 7’ Zn 2. 6 x 30” (30”) pick-ups at 95–100 RPM, HR/PE gradually rises to Zn 4. MS: 2×5’ Zn 3–4 (2.5’ Zn 2); 10’ Zn 4–5 at 85–95 RPM. HR/PE rises through the main set. Run off the bike, straight after the last interval.
Pre-Activity Comments: Finish with a strong 10’ interval before a quick transition into the run.

Run: Off the bike, flat. 10’ in Zn 4. 10’ easy jog as CD. HR drops Zn 2–1.
Pre-Activity Comments: Try to limit your transition here to less than 2’. Try to run this slightly more efficiently than last week.

Wednesday
Swim: Pace work. WU: 400-800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 400 (40″) 300 (30″) 200. Put in your best effort for the 400, but pace it out well. try to sustain the same pace for the 300 and 200 intervals. HR/PE rises to Zn 4. 400–800 steady aerobic swimming, Zn 2. CD: 200.

Thursday
Run: Aerobic base. 45–60’ run rolling hills mostly in Zn 1–2.

Friday
Swim: Speed work. WU: 400–800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 2x[6–10×25 (25”) sprint. 100 easy, 100 time trial, 100 easy] HR/PE rises to Zn 5. CD: 400.

Saturday
Bike: Aerobic build to tempo. build this ride by 15’ from Zn 1, to Zn 2, to Zn 3, to Zn 4.
Run: Pace work off the bike. Try to replicate (or better) last week’s run pace with less rest. MS: Intervals: 3×1 mile (1.5’ walking recovery), HR/PE Zn 4. Evenly pace the intervals. CD: 15’ as 10’ Zn2, 5’ Zn1.

Sunday
Bike: Aerobic base. 60’-90’ ride, Zn 1-2. Include 2-3×5’ of single-leg drills in the ride.

Optional Swim: WU: 400-800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 6-12×100 (20”) pull (paddles optional). CD: 200.

Week 6: Race Week

Monday
Day Off: Stretch. This is a recovery week, freshening up and then re-activating for race day.

Tuesday
Swim: Pull set. WU: 400-800 with free, non-free, drills and kick. MS: 6-10×100 (40”) pull (no paddles). CD: 200.

Wednesday
Run: Aerobic recovery. 25-35’ run flatter mostly in Zn 1-2. Include 3-4×30” at 5K pace (no faster!). This run is primarily aerobic. The short pick-ups keep you moving efficiently. Don’t overdo them, and don’t sprint!

Thursday
Bike: Aerobic recovery with skills. 30’ ride, Zn 1. Include 5’ worth of single-leg drills in the ride.

Friday
Day Off: Stretch, relax.

Saturday
Bike: Activation. WU: 15’ as 8’ Zn 1, 7’ Zn 2. MS: 2×3’ (2’ Zn 2) at 85-95 RPM. HR/PE rises to Zn 3 through the main set, no higher! CD: 10’. This ride gives you just enough to remember how to ride with power, but don’t overdo it.

Swim: Race tune-up. a short 10’ swim at the race venue. Practice your starts with 4×20 stroke accelerations. check out the landmarks and sighting points on the course. Visualize swimming smoothly and powerfully on race day, being relaxed and breathing.

Sunday
Race: Race day! Sprint triathlon. WU: Run 8’ Zn 2, 2’ Zn 3, then do 4-5 strides of 70-80yds. Swim 300-400 and include 4×50 descend pace from Zn 1-4. CD: After the race, bike 20’ very easy, Zn 1.
Performance Pointer: Racing without a proper warm-up is a shock to the body, so make sure you have plenty of time beforehand. Good luck!

Lance Watson, LifeSport head coach, has trained a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 30 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Contact Lance to tackle your first Ironman or to perform at a higher level. For more training tips, visit LifeSport Coaching on Facebook or on Twitter at @LifeSportCoach.