You committed to your goal, bought the gear, and downloaded the training plan. Now what? For many beginner triathletes, trying to decipher a training plan can feel like reading Farsi. What we thought would be a straightforward plan—swim 30 minutes on Monday, bike for an hour on Tuesday—suddenly becomes bogged down with details of zones and intervals and lingo (so much lingo). But what does it all mean? We tapped Heidi Lueb, USA Triathlon Level 1 coach with Valor Triathlon Project to break it down.
Ready to learn more about triathlon? Check out our complete beginner’s guide.
When reading your workout plan for each day, you should be able to answer three questions: What are you doing? For how long? And at what intensity?
What Are You Doing?
In addition to knowing what discipline you’re practicing—swim, bike, run, weights, rest etc.,—reading your workout instructions will allow you to plan ahead for any special equipment or terrain you might need for the workout. You’ll also be clued into the intensity of the workout (more about this later), which may require special fueling ahead of the session. Pay attention to the details of the workout, which can clue you in to special needs. Some common terms you’ll see:
Pull: A pull buoy, a piece of foam held between the thighs.
Kick: A kickboard, a piece of foam held with extended arms.
Paddles: Flat or curved “gloves,” which add resistance in the stroke.
Band: A stretchy piece of rubber (many fashion theirs from a spent bike tire) worn around the ankles.
Trainer: Some training plans utilize a trainer for bike workouts. This is an apparatus which holds the back wheel of the bike in place, converting it to an indoor stationary bike.
Test Set: A test of fitness, ideally held on flat terrain with minimal stoplights and turns.
Drills: Many bike drills, such as single-leg drills, are best performed in the bike trainer. This increases safety as well as allows for a singular focus on technique.
Brick: A workout in which one discipline immediately follows another with no break. Most commonly refers to a bike ride followed by a run.
Time Trial: A test of fitness on flat terrain. A track is ideal.
Hill Repeats: Intervals performed on the incline of a hill, parking garage, or staircase. If hilly terrain is not available, a treadmill is also suitable.
For How Long?
Most workouts won’t simply say “swim for 60 minutes” and send you on your way to float aimlessly. Instead, you’ll likely see something more like this:
WU: 200m easy, 200m moderate
MS: 5x (50m hard/:20 rest), 300m easy, 5x (25 pull/50 free), 5x (25 kick/50 free)
CD: 300m easy
To complete this workout, you’ll need to break down the instructions. In this case, you’re doing a swim workout in which your warmup (WU) is to swim 200 meters at an easy pace, then 200 meters at a moderate pace. From there, you’ll move into the main set (MS), where you’ll swim 50 meters at a hard pace, then rest for 20 seconds. Repeat hard/easy grouping for a total of five (5x), then recover with a 300 meter easy swim. Then you’ll do five sets where you swim one length of the pool with your pull buoy, drop it at the end of the pool, then swim one lap to pick up your pull buoy, and repeat. The same will happen with the kickboard, then you move into the cooldown (CD) of 300 meters at an easy pace.
Though swim workouts are often based on distance, for bike and run workouts, you’re more likely to see these based on time, where instead of 5x (50m hard/:20 rest), your intervals will be written as 5x (2:00 hard/1:00 easy). Translation: Go two minutes at a hard effort, followed by one minute at an easy effort; repeat for a total of five hard/easy.
At What Intensity?
Perhaps the trickiest part of executing a workout on the training plan is performing the workout at the correct intensities. Many different training languages are used to communicate intensity. “Think about the kind of training that is going to fit the type of person you are,” advises Lueb. ”If you are a very data-driven individual and like parameters, a training plan that is built by perceived effort isn’t going to work for you; you will want to look at one that will help you figure out your training zones to give you those data numbers.”
Rate of Perceived Effort is perhaps the simplest tool for describing intensity. At the most basic level, training plans will use the metrics of “easy,” “medium,” “hard,” and “all-out”—these terms mean different things to different athletes, allowing plans to fit a variety of athletes. Others quantify these effort levels into zones. Though the zones may vary from plan to plan, they usually follow some variation of these general parameters:
Zone 1: Extremely low intensity—you should be able to very easily carry on a conversation while exercising. If you feel like you’re going too slow, you’re doing it right.
Zone 2: This effort level should feel easy enough that you can maintain the pace for a very long period of time. If you can talk but not sing, you’re probably in Zone 2.
Zone 3: Also known as a “tempo” effort, this zone is best described as comfortably hard. This is the fastest speed you can maintain while still feeling relaxed.
Zone 4: This zone should feel hard, but not all-out. This controlled effort requires both physical effort and mental focus.
Zone 5: Usually reserved for sprints and intense intervals, zone five is too hard for sustain for long periods of time. Is almost always followed by easy intervals or even a brief period of full rest.
Heart Rate Data
By wearing a heart rate monitor, athletes can get tangible data to keep them within the correct effort level. Many heart rate plans correspond with zones (above), only instead of training by feel, the zones are described by using a range of heart rate data.
By using a power meter for riding and running, athletes can get a constant reading of watts, or power output being transferred to the bike. Power numbers are an individual measurement: After establishing a baseline in a time trial, training zones are established based on a range of watts for each intensity level.
Some training plans, especially those created for a time-specific goal, will incorporate pace into their instructions. This may appear as min/mi, or minutes per mile (especially in run instructions) or as MPH, or miles per hour (as seen on the bike). The use of a GPS watch helps to ensure pacing is on point.
Other Helpful Terminology
Your training plan will likely be peppered with lots of other unfamiliar terms, including the ones below. If you come across a confusing instruction in your workout plan, don’t be scared to ask your coach or a fellow triathlete. Though it may be intimidating, many coaches would rather you get clarification, rather than assume and do it incorrectly. Says Lueb: “Vocabulary develops over time. We all had to learn by asking the questions!”
Length: The distance from one wall to the pool to the other. Usually 25 meters or yards.
Lap: The distance from one wall to the other, then returning to the first wall. Usually 50 meters or yards.
OWS: Open water swimming, which should take place in a lake or ocean.
Cadence: Revolutions of the pedals per minute (RPM).
Big Gear: Shift the bike’s chain into a higher (harder to push) gear.
Little Gear: Shift the bike’s chain into a lower (easier to push) gear.
Pyramid: An interval format in which speed and/or effort gradually increase in measured time increments, then decrease in opposite fashion.
Spin: Shift the bike into the little ring and increase the cadence. Usually recommended for hills and recovery.
Fartlek: Swedish for “speed play,” the Fartlek is an unstructured run workout in which the runner decides the distance and intensity of any speed intervals, as well as the recovery period.
Kick: Performed at the end of a run workout, a kick is meant to simulate the final stretch of a race, where speed is required on tired legs.
Striders: Long, bounding leaps from one foot to the next, usually as a warm-up or cool-down.
LSD: Long Slow Distance—most often the longest run of the week, meant to build endurance.
Active Rest: Any form of gentle movement that is not focused on gaining fitness; rather, active rest allows the body to recover from the previous block of training. Examples are an easy swim, a walk, or yoga class.
Hard Rest: Also known as “complete rest,” this notation designations a period of time without exercise—usually during periods of injury or illness.
Taper: A period of time preceding a race where activity is scaled back (though not usually discontinued altogether) to allow the body to refresh and recover.
Adjust as Necessary
“General training plans are written for the masses,” explains Lueb. “It’s important to know that sometimes it’s okay to make adjustments to those training plans to fit your lifestyle and also to make adjustments if you need more work in an area. If you’re not a great swimmer, you may need to add on a swim during the week, but in order to not overwhelm your body and your training, you may need to cut a different workout elsewhere. Also, sometimes life gets in the way, and that’s okay. We only have one stress bucket, so if your personal life or work life is overwhelmed, you may need to take a day or two off of training to get back on track.”