Triathlon 101: The Roadmap For Your First-Ever Triathlon

Don’t be scared. OK, maybe a little. But the good kind like when you know you’re about to do something awesome. Just know you can do this, and we’ve got your back. Presenting the Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Tri (that’s also rad for seasoned spandex lovers). Compiled by Susan Lacke, Brad Culp, and the Triathlete editors. 

A Letter from Those Who’ve Triathloned Before

You did it! You signed up for your first triathlon! Now what? The exhilaration of clicking the “register” button can quickly be replaced with panic: Now that you’re signed up to do this thing, holy @#$%, you have to actually do this thing. It’s terrifying, it’s confusing, and it’s also pretty great. We’re excited to have you join our ranks—so excited, we asked a stellar coach to make you fun, simple roadmap to your first sprint starting line (see below). That’s not to say it’s going to be easy. You’ll likely experience days when training for three sports can feel overwhelming, if not outright impossible. There will be days when you feel like throwing your bike into the ditch and hitchhiking your way back home. (Or, you know, Ubering.) It may take some time to get used to the idea of wearing neon spandex and eating squishy foods out of foil packages. You’ll get weird tan lines, water in your nose, and blisters in places you didn’t even think blisters could grow. There will be sweat, that’s for sure. There may be blood and tears. There will likely be pee involved at some point. But in spite of all this, you’ll persevere. Because now you’re a triathlete, and that’s what triathletes do. You’ll get your bike out of the ditch, adjust your spandex, and cross the finish line like a boss. You’ll actually do this thing, and you will love it. (Trust us.)

Let’s Get Started. Shall We?

Rookie Mistakes

Pros, they’re just like us. 
AJ Baucco (USA)
Pro Since 2011
“My first triathlon was a complete disaster. I completely underestimated how long it would take to set up my transition area, and then I heard the race director announce the 60-second warning for my wave while I was still setting up. With half of my wetsuit on, I started to sprint toward the beach. I made it to the start line when the gun went off, but I realized that I couldn’t zip up my wetsuit alone. I almost decided to swim with it open, but figured that was a bad idea. Once I survived the swim, I thought the rest of the race would be smooth sailing, but of course I was wrong. About halfway through the bike, I saw my family on the side of the road. All excited, I started waving at them and rode directly into a ditch. My body was fine, but my pride took a hit. I jumped right back on my bike, but I was at the base of a hill and my cycling skills were pretty poor. I failed to clip in and fell over again. After that, I decided to just run my bike up the hill. My family caught the whole ordeal on video. Needless to say, my second triathlon went a little better.”

Lucy Charles (GBR)
2017 Ironman Kona Runner-Up
“My first triathlon was an Olympic-distance race in Hyde Park in London. My partner Reece and I were doing it together as our first race. We just pushed on our tires in transition and thought they felt plenty hard, even though we couldn’t remember when we’d last pumped them up. We didn’t do too well on the bike, but I thought the tires felt fine because I had no idea what an inflated tire was supposed to feel like. A few months later, we learned a bit more about how tires are supposed to feel and what PSI was, and we realized that we’d hardly had any air in our tires at that first race. I had absolutely zero knowledge of bike mechanics when I first got started.”

Doug MacLean (USA)
Pro Since 2011
“I did Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 2007, and I had no idea what I was doing, particularly when it came to nutrition. I had developed a habit of eating Payday bars on long rides, and caffeine seemed to help me go harder during workouts, so I thought why not load up on both of those during the race? The day before the race, I rolled into transition with Payday bars covering my top tube, and I’ll never forget the look on Michael Lovato’s face when he caught a glimpse of my “nutrition plan.” The next day I felt like a rock star for the first 80 miles of the bike, fueled by nothing but Red Bull, caffeine pills, and Paydays. As you can probably guess, things got ugly after that: quad cramps, bizarre highs and lows, and non-stop trips to the Porta Potty. Combining Ironman and caffeine pills—it’s the new colonic! I wrote to Payday after the race to ask for sponsorship. They never wrote back.”

What I Wish I’d Known

Daniel Frost (Hamilton, New Zealand)
“You don’t need a whole lot of gadgets! Swimwear, goggles, running shoes, a bike, and a helmet.”

Jael Wencesiao (Vancouver, Canada)
“Open-water training before the race is crucial. It doesn’t matter how fit you are if you start panicking in the open water.”

Bryan Pearson (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota)
“Nipple protection! I wish I knew they made something specifically for that before one of my very early long runs. Ouch!”

Daniel Saurers (Franklin, Tennessee)
“Leg shaving will change your life. the ladies have been hiding how good it feels, all fresh and smooth.”

David Seybold (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania)
“Nutrition is one-third of your training strategy, and a very important part. You must give it attention. The other two-thirds, workouts and rest/recovery. I used to think it was all about 100 percent training. I wish I would have been coached in proper nutrition.”

Peter Bennett (Washington, England)
“Give yourself enough time before the start of the race to set up and go to the toilet. Time disappears setting up for three sports, and having a few minutes to focus really helps.”

Christian Langmayr (Kaarst, Germany)
“Train the changing parts. It’s so hard to put socks on when feet are wet and to change onto the bike and into running gear. It can kill race time on a short distance.”

The Plan

Triathlete-to-be? Seasoned superstar in search of speed? This two-tiered sprint plan will get you to the start line ready to rock.

Allow us to get philosophical for a moment. The sprint tri is the heart of triathlon. It’s by far the most popular distance both for its do-ability and fun-ness. Its beauty lies in its versatility: Whether you’re gunning to complete your first tri ever or want an incredible, heart-pounding challenge, you’ll get what you’re looking for and more at a sprint. It’s like the yummy ice cream base to a glorious sundae—you pick the toppings.

Technically speaking, a sprint is any race shorter than the standard Olympic distance of 1.5km swim, 40km bike, and 10km run. (That’s about a 1-mile swim, 25-mile bike, and 6.2-mile run.) Often, sprints are half the Olympic distance, so our plan promises to help you crush up to a half-mile swim, 13-mile bike, and a 5K run. But variations on the distance abound, and they’re all exciting in their own right.

Ready to experience the thrill of the sprint? We tapped coach Cody Moore, a guy who has coached countless athletes from first-timers to pro/World Tour–level triathletes and cyclists, to make two plans: one for those looking to complete the distance, the other for those who want to redline the whole thing. Pick your passion, then get thee to a pool!

Start with the 12-Week First-Timer Sprint Plan if:
You have never done a triathlon before or consider yourself a novice. You have some experience swimming, cycling, and running but may have never combined them before. This plan averages about 5.5 hours per week.

Start with the Eight-Week Intermediate Sprint Plan if:
You are an experienced triathlete who has raced an Olympic distance or greater, and/or an experienced sprint-distance racer. You are looking to PR at your upcoming sprint tri, and you are looking to maximize quality over quantity. This plan averages about nine hours per week.

About Coach Cody Moore:
Coach Moore has worked with Boulder, Colo.-based APEX Coaching & Consulting since 2004. His multisport philosophy emphasizes quality over quantity. Moore is certified by USAC, USAT, and the NSCA, and is currently APEX Coaching’s administrative manager and bike fit specialist.

The Key: 
Swim
Speed (SP): A swim focusing on top-end speed. Take as much rest as you need between efforts, as the goal is max speed for short distances.

Aerobic (AE): A swim with a focus on developing base fitness and holding a long and strong stroke. These swims cover longer distances and have minimal rest. Focus on lowering your stroke count and maintaining good form throughout.

Threshold (THR): Threshold swims target your goal race pace for an upcoming event. They provide an opportunity to hone in on pace prior to race day. Main sets like 300m @ 1500m Race Pace.

Recovery (EZ): The purpose of these swims is active recovery. Use these as an opportunity to recover from your sessions earlier in the week. Take plenty of rest and stay relaxed throughout.

Technique (TEC): Work on an area of your stroke you may be struggling with. Pick drills and technique work that targets weaknesses in your stroke (e.g., finger drag drill, single-arm swimming, etc.).

Bike
Steady Endurance (SE): An aerobically focused ride. These are done in your Zone 2 HR zone, 60–70% of your Functional Threshold Power (FTP), and/or a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) of 3–5/10 (meaning on a scale of 1 to 10, you feel like you’re giving an effort between 3–5.)

Easy Spin (EZ): A ride focused on recovery. Easy spins should be incredibly easy—HR Zone 1-2, <55% FTP, and/or 1–3/10 RPE

Run
Recovery Run (EZ): A run focused on active recov- ery. You should feel like you could carry on a conversation during these runs. HR Zone 1–2, RPE 1–3/10. You may break this up to a run/walk as needed.

Steady Endurance (SE): A run focused on aerobic development. You should feel like you could talk if you had to during these runs. HR Zone 2, RPE 3–5/10. You may break this up to a run/walk as needed.

Brick
A brick is used to practice the transition from one sport to the next for race-specific conditioning. Be sure to move quickly between sessions, setting up your transition as if you were racing. Remember, transitions are important in sprint events!

Transition Practice
Go back and forth between swimming and biking (taking off goggles, cap, putting on bike shoes, helmet, then riding), and then biking and running (taking off helmet, bike shoes, putting on run shoes, gear, then running). Repeat for duration of the session.

Core
These are 10–20-minute strength sessions you can do at home with no equipment. Choose exercises that equally target the front and back sides of your body (e.g., planks, supermans, core twists, etc.). Check out Triathlete.com/sprintcore for our favorites.

12-Week Plan for First-Time Sprinters

Week 1 (Transition Week)
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 30min TEC
Run: 20min SE

Wednesday
Bike: 45min SE

Thursday
Swim: 30min AE
Core: 20min

Friday
Day Off

Saturday
Bike: 45min SE

Sunday
Run: 30min SE

Week 2
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 30min TEC
Run: 20min SE

Wednesday
Bike: 45min SE

Thursday
Swim: 30min AE
Run: 15min EZ

Friday
Bike: 30min EZ
Core: 20min

Saturday
Bike: 75min SE

Sunday
Run: 30min SE

Week 3
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 30min TEC
Run: 20min SE

Wednesday
Bike: 60min Main Set: 4 x 5min low cadence (60rpm) RPE 6/10; 5min rest between efforts

Thursday
Swim: 30min AE
Run: 15min EZ

Friday
Bike: 45min EZ
Brick Run: 20min EZ

Saturday
Bike: 90min SE

Sunday
Run: 40min SE

Week 4
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 30min TEC

Wednesday
Bike: 45min SE
Brick Run: 10min EZ

Thursday
Swim: 45min AE
Core: 20min

Friday
Day Off

Saturday
Bike: 75min SE

Sunday
Run: 30min SE

Week 5
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 30min TEC
Run: 20min SE

Wednesday
Bike: 45min MS: 8 x 1min at high cadence (110+ rpm) RPE 6/10; 2min rest between efforts
Brick Run: 15min EZ

Thursday
Swim: 45min AE

Friday
Bike: 45min
EZ Core: 20min

Saturday
Bike: 90min SE

Week 6
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 30min SP
Run: 30min SE

Wednesday
Bike: 45min MS: 2 x 10min building from 5/10 RPE to 8/10 RPE; 5min EZ spin between sets
Brick Run: 20min EZ

Thursday
Swim: 45min AE

Friday
Bike: 45min
EZ Core: 20min

Saturday
Bike: 100min SE

Sunday
Run: 50min SE

Week 7 (Recovery Week)
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 30min SP

Wednesday
Bike: 45min SE
Brick Run: 20min EZ

Thursday
Swim: 30min
EZ Core: 20min

Friday
Day Off

Saturday
Bike: 45min SE

Sunday
Run: 30min SE

Week 8
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 45min AE
Run: 30min SE

Wednesday
Bike: 45min MS: 2 x 10min at RPE 6.5/10; 5min EZ spin between sets
Brick Run: 20min EZ

Thursday
Swim: 45min THR

Friday
Bike: 45min EZ
Core: 20min

Saturday
Bike: 90min SE

Sunday
Run: 45min SE

Week 9
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 45min AE
Run: 20min SE

Wednesday
Bike: 45min MS: 3 x 5min at RPE 7.5/10; 5min EZ spin between sets
Brick Run: 30min SE

Thursday
Swim: 45min AE

Friday
Bike: 45min EZ
Core: 20min

Saturday
Bike: 100min SE

Sunday
Run: 60min SE

Week 10 (Recovery Week)
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 30min TEC
Run: 30min SE

Wednesday
Bike: 45min SE

Thursday
Swim: 30min SP
Core: 20min

Friday
Day Off

Saturday
Swim: 500m steady straight
Bike: 45min SE

Sunday
Transition Practice: 20min
Run: 30min SE

Week 11
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 45min AE
Run: 30min SE

Wednesday
Bike: 60min MS: 3 x 8min at RPE 7/10; 5min EZ spin between sets

Thursday
Swim: 30min EZ
Run: 15min EZ

Friday
Bike: 45min EZ
Core: 20min

Saturday
Double Brick Bike: 30min SE
Run: 20min SE
Bike: 30min SE
Run: 15min SE

Sunday
Day Off

Week 12 (Race Week)
Monday
Bike: 30min EZ
Run: 20min SE

Tuesday
Swim: 30min SP

Wednesday
Bike: 45min MS: 2 x 6min of 40s ON at RPE 9/10, 20s OFF at EZ; 5min EZ between sets

Thursday
Swim: 20min EZ
Run: 15min EZ

Friday
Day Off

Saturday
Swim: 10min open-water swim for feel
Bike: 15min with 3 x 5s surges
Run: 10min EZ

Sunday
Race Day!

8-Week Plan for Skilled Short-Coursers

Week 1
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 60min THR
Run: 45min MS: 5 x 3min building from 10km to 3km race pace; 3min EZ rest

Wednesday
Bike: 45min MS: 8 x 1 min at high cadence (110+ rpm) RPE 6/10; 2min rest between efforts
Brick Run: 15min EZ

Thursday
Swim: 75min AE

Friday
Bike: 60min EZ
Core: 20min

Saturday
Bike: 120min MS: 10 x 3min at RPE 7.25/10 alternating efforts at big gear (65rpm) and small gear (100rpm); 1min EZ between efforts

Sunday
Run: 60min SE

Week 2
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 60min SP
Run: 45min MS: 2 setsof4x200m at 3km pace; 100m EZ between 200m efforts; 5min recovery

Wednesday
Bike: 60min MS: 2 x 10min building from 5/10 RPE to 8/10 RPE; 5min EZ between sets
Brick Run: 20min EZ

Thursday
Swim: 75min AE

Friday
Bike: 60min EZ Core: 20min

Saturday
Bike: 120min MS: 8 x 3min builds from 6/10 RPE to 7.5/10 RPE; 4min EZ between efforts

Sunday
Run: 75min SE

Week 3
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 60min AE
Run: 45min SE

Wednesday
Bike: 60min MS: 3×8 min of 30s on at RPE 9.5/10, 30s off EZ; 5min EZ between sets
Brick Run: 20min EZ

Thursday
Swim: 75min THR Core: 20min

Friday
Swim: 30min EZ
Bike: 60min EZ

Saturday
Bike: 100min MS: 5 x 5min THR 7.5/10 RPE; 5min EZ
Brick Run: 20min as: 5min EZ; 5min @10km pace; 5min @5km pace; 5min EZ

Sunday
Run: 75min SE + 15s surges up to 5km pace every 5min

Week 4 (Recovery Week)
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 60min AE
Run: 30min SE

Wednesday
Bike: 45min MS: 2 x 10min at RPE 6.5/10; 5min EZ between sets
Brick Run: 20min EZ

Thursday
Swim: 60min THR

Friday
Bike: 60min EZ
Core: 20min

Saturday
Bike: 90min SE + 2 30s cadence builds to max cadence 10min EZ between builds

Sunday
Run: 60min SE

Week 5
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 60min AE
Run: 60min MS: 24min of 1min ON at goal 5km Pace; 1min OFF EZ

Wednesday
Bike: 60min MS: 3 x 5min at RPE 7.5/10; 5min EZ between sets
Brick Run: 30min SE

Thursday
Swim: 60min SP

Friday
Bike: 60min EZ
Core: 20min

Saturday
Bike: 120min MS: 3 x 15min 6.5/10 RPE; 10min EZ between efforts

Sunday
Run: 75min SE

Week 6
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 60min TEC
Run: 60min MS: long & strong hill (if available); 30min tempo at 7/10 RPE

Wednesday
Bike: 60min MS: 6 x 3min VO2 intervals at 9/10 RPE; 3min EZ between efforts
Brick Run: 20min as 10min at 10km pace; 10min EZ

Thursday
Swim: 75min SP

Friday
Bike: 75min SE + 5 all-out 10s sprints spread evenly throughout ride
Core: 20min

Saturday
Swim: 750m steady straight swim
Bike: 120min SE

Sunday
Transition Practice: 20min
Run: 75min SE + 15s surges up to 5km pace every 5min

Week 7
Monday
Day Off

Tuesday
Swim: 60min AE
Run: 60min intervals MS:3x1miatgoal 5km race pace; 5min EZ between efforts

Wednesday
Bike: 75min MS: 3 x 8min at RPE 7/10 at goal race cadence and holding position; 4min EZ between sets

Thursday
Swim: 75min THR
Run: 30min EZ

Friday
Swim: 30min EZ
Bike: 60min EZ
Core: 20min

Saturday
Bike: 45min MS: 3 x 5min at 8/10 RPE; 5min rest
Run: 20min build 10km to 5km pace
Bike: 10min at race pace; 10min EZ;10min at race pace
Run: 15min SE

Sunday
Day Off

Week 8 (Taper Week)
Monday
Bike: 60min EZ
Run: 30min SE

Tuesday
Swim: 45min SP
Run: 45min taper intervals MS: 5 x 300m building from 5km to 3km pace; 1min rest

Wednesday
Bike: 60min MS: 3 x 6min of 40s ON at RPE 9/10; 20s OFF EZ; 5min rest between sets

Thursday
Swim: 75min THR
Run: 30min EZ

Friday
Day Off

Saturday
Swim: 10min open-water swim for feel Bike: 30min w/ 5min effort at 7.5/10 RPE & 2 x 5s surges to open up
Run:10min EZ w/2x30s surges up to race pace

Sunday
Race Day!