Should You Train All Three Sports Equally?

Pushing it in all three sports, all the time, is a recipe for injury and burnout. Here’s what to do instead.

Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images

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To get to the finish line of a triathlon, athletes have to swim, bike, and run. It makes sense, then, that training for a race involves lots of swimming, biking, and running. But that doesn’t mean you need to spread your time or energy equally across all three sports all of the time.

“One of the common pitfalls that I’ve seen over the years is training all three sports equally, with key training sessions in the swim, bike, and run on any given week,” said Ryan Kohler, head coach and physiologist at Fast Talk Laboratories. “But this can backfire.” 

Many athletes, especially beginner triathletes, feel pressured to master all three sports. To achieve this, they train each discipline separately, assuming it will all come together for a better performance on race day. But that’s not quite the case, Kohler said.

“Some triathletes are unaware of which components of triathlon contribute to a final finishing position, and thus where to focus their efforts,” explained Kohler. “Studies show that time spent running and cycling during triathlon competition was significantly related to overall triathlon time. They did not find swimming to be significantly related to overall triathlon time.”

In short, giving each sport equal importance in a training plan doesn’t always pay off on race day. It also can create major problems in training. Each discipline creates fatigue in its own ways, and applying an overload equally puts strain on an athlete’s body and mind. Swimming is a very technique-dependent sport and can be very energetically draining for an inefficient swimmer. Now, move to the bike, which can require intense efforts (when preparing for a shorter distance) or extremely long rides (as is the case for longer races). Finally, running is the sport that puts the heaviest muscular demand on the body and comes with additional stress to the bones and connective tissue. Pushing it in all three sports all of the time is a recipe for injury and burnout.

A better approach is to train your weaknesses. Every athlete–even one who has been racing for years–has areas where they can improve. Some triathletes are excellent runners, but struggle in the swim; others have years of a swimming background, but lack endurance on the bike. Your weaknesses might not even be physical: you might be a competent pool swimmer, but fears of open water can hold you back on race day. Instead of training all disciplines equally, determine your personal strengths and weaknesses and let that guide your training plan. 

“Time your focus blocks in training so you can build your weaker areas at the right time, then top off your strong areas so these all complement one another,” Kohler said. “That way, you can go into a race feeling like you can give your best effort across all disciplines.”

Focus blocks allow athletes to enhance specific skills to build endurance and confidence. For example, early-season training for one athlete might focus on swim skills to improve comfort in the water, and an athlete might spend 50% of their training time in the pool developing this. Thirty-five percent of the workout schedule would be maintaining fitness on the bike, with the final 15% going to running. After four to six weeks, the swim volume declines gradually, while running takes over as the primary sport to develop the connective tissue strength and resiliency required for a strong performance late in a race. An athlete who is already a skilled runner might require more of an emphasis on bike training to come into the run feeling strong.

“Over time, my goal is to help enhance specific areas of fitness depending on the strengths and weaknesses of each athlete,” explained Kohler. “There is always a give-and-take in our fitness, and when we are training three sports, we have to acknowledge that. This can help us come to the starting line feeling like we have the ideal balance for our individual needs.”

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