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Guidelines for Moving Up in Distance From Sprint to Olympic

Want to step up from the sprint distance but not sure where to start? Here’s what to consider before doing an Olympic-distance event.

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You’ve done a triathlon (or two!) and are thinking about what’s next. As you progress in the sport, it’s understandable for some athletes to be drawn to longer and longer distances. It’s also completely understandable if that’s not your goal and you’d rather go faster, or shorter, or try something new.

As a coach, I view it as my job to guide and help athletes achieve their goals, whatever those are. I believe that if you want to make the jump from a sprint to the Olympic-, half-, or iron-distance, then you should. Most of us are in this sport because we’re looking to push ourselves and step outside what’s comfortable. Challenging yourself is important (and worthy), but first make sure you’re excited about the journey—not just the destination—and that you’re able to balance your life with whatever your big goals are. Triathlon should fit into your life, not the other way around.

As you consider extending from a sprint to Olympic-distance triathlon, think about the time and training commitment, your motivation and goals, and the race-day differences.

Looking for guidance moving up to 70.3 or full-iron distance? Coach Matt Hurley will be back with those plans in the coming weeks.

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Training guidelines for moving to Olympic distance

In terms of training load and total training time, the jump from sprint- to Olympic-distance is often negligible. I think any athlete who won’t struggle in the swim is going to do fine in an Olympic.

To reframe in swim, bike, run terms: As a base, can you swim comfortably for 1 mile at once? If yes, then great, let’s move to the next step. If maybe or no, then building up your skills at your current distance will help you build a base before you move up. Apply this same rule to the bike and run.

For many busy triathletes, the weekdays are relatively similar regardless of the distance; the weekends are really where you can see large jumps in training volume. The question is: If that’s when you can train (1 hour/day on weekdays, plus 2 hours/day on weekends), then does that prepare you for an Olympic distance?

To be successful at Olympic-distance racing, you’re looking at 7-10 hours of training per week. I like to see two swims, three runs, and three rides, some of these being brick sessions. As a general guideline: Be comfortable swimming 2,000-2,500 yards within a session, riding well over Olympic distance (~40 miles), and managing a long run of 8 miles (which could include a walk-run strategy).

Swim Bike Run Total
Training hours per week 2 3-4 3-4 7-10

RELATED: How Much Time Does it Take to Train for a Triathlon?

The biggest difference between a sprint and Olympic is that the swim is almost a mile—which is much closer to a 70.3 swim distance. If you’re a newer athlete who doesn’t have a background in swimming, I would want to prepare you most for that. You can get through a sprint with semi-poor swimming skills, but you should be very comfortable with the swim distance for an Olympic.

If you’re doing an Olympic or your first sprint with no open water experience, find a friend or a group and swim the race distance in open water. The pool is one thing, but an open water environment can bring new challenges with waves, murky water, and environmental conditions. If you wait until race day, then it can be sensory overload. Having exposure to open water from a safety perspective is very important.

I think having some longer bike rides, where you’re comfortable being out for a few hours, will set you up to have a good experience. You could go do an Olympic and finish it, but in order to run off the bike and go beyond surviving it, you’ll need those longer rides.

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Fueling guidelines for moving to Olympic distance

I prefer using carbohydrates as the measurable intake because it’s what we need for racing (over fat and protein). A good target is to aim for 60g of carbs minimum and 90g maximum per hour on the bike. Fluid intake depends on conditions, but 20oz minimum and 30oz maximum is a good target. This should include 300-700g of sodium, per bottle. But be sure to practice it.

The bike is where most of your fueling will take place and is the time to set yourself up for success on the run. Some people have lower heart rates, but a lot of people are red lining on the run so it’s hard to digest. During a two- or three-hour Olympic-distance race, fueling properly becomes paramount. If the event is going to take longer than three hours, the limitation will be fueling because you don’t have enough glycogen stores.

RELATED: Triathlete’s Complete Guide to Nutrition and Fueling

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Race day: Sprint vs. Olympic

Athletes dive in to start their triathlon race after moving up from sprint to Olympic distance.
(Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Pacing-wise, in a sprint you can kind of red-line it even if your fitness isn’t great—i.e., you often end up just going as hard as you can for an hour to two hours. For Olympic-distance racing, however, pacing becomes more important it. I like to frame pacing like I would for a 70.3: Try to build each discipline.

Excitement is always highest at the beginning of a race, and even as a lifelong swimmer, I’ve started to hyperventilate and had to roll on my back at the start of a race. If you start to panic in the swim, roll over and catch your breath. Do some breaststroke and calm your mind and body, and then get through the swim. Don’t go as hard as you can in the first 100m.

Once on the bike, you have to be very patient, because you’re out there for a long time. The first 15 miles should be controlled, then you start to feel like you’re picking up the tempo. As you get to the run, don’t take it out of T2 like a sprint. Again, take the time to get your legs under you and build up over the six miles.

Internally, think about building your energy through each discipline and start easier than you need to, because if you don’t, you run into the danger of running out of energy. The only decision you get to make at the end of the race is falling apart, so I like to delay that decision as long as possible.

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How do you know if youre ready to go longer?

Whatever your goal, you need to begin by viewing it as a journey. Athletes who are able to commit to the process, rather than the outcome, perform better and tend to enjoy it more. Look at three things: Where are you, where do you want to go, and how much time do you have (both in hours per week and in how much time until the race)?

I also always ask my athletes: Why? Understanding your motivation is important because it helps you understand your why and if you’ll be prepared for the ups and downs.

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Olympic-distance triathlon workouts

Use these as key swim, bike, and run workouts as you prepare to move from sprint to Olympic distance. Then plot out the rest of your week around those key workouts.

Looking for more guidance? Check out our top Olympic-distance training plans:

Swim Workout #1

Don’t fall into the trap of the single gear in the pool. You want to develop range. If done well you should be able to swim faster through this whole set—and, if not, it lets you know what you need to focus on.

Warm-up

300-400 easy, buoy is fine

8 x 25 odds building to sprint, evens easy

Main set

8 x 100-200 all on 15-20 seconds rest as:

[2 at easy or endurance pace,

2 at stronger effort,

2 at race pace effort,

2 fast]

Cooldown

4 x 100-150 buoy, paddles, fins or whatever

aids form, each getting slower

Swim Workout #2

Keys to swim: Focus on making the easy easy and being able to change speeds and find another gear for the 50s. Save your best swimming for last.

Warm-up

200 with a buoy

200 swim

100 kick/swim, alternate by 25

Main Set

200 easy, focusing on form (toys choice)

4 x 50 fast

200 easy, form

3 x 50 fast

200 easy, form

2 x 50 fast

200 easy, form

50 max effort

Cooldown

200-500 choice

Bike Workout #1

Be able to ride about 75% of distance at race pace effort, while practicing fueling.

Warm-up

15-20 mins. easy riding with higher cadence, and a few openers 4 x 30 seconds building effort

Main Set

6 x 8-10 mins. in race position as: Odds race effort, evens slightly below race effort. (You can build this through your training, so you do the full set at race effort two weeks prior to race day.)

Cooldown

Easy 15-20 mins.

*Bonus: 10-15 min easy run off the bike to feel what it’s like to run off that load

Bike Workout #2

Be able to increase pace and effort through the interval and manage energy through the set. Total time ~2 hours outside or 90 mins. on the trainer.

Warm-up

10-20 mins. easy spinning with slightly higher cadence

Pre-Main Set

3 x 3 min. building from easy to strong, wake the body up and get ready for the main set. Easy spin, 5-10 min. before the main set.

Main Set

4 x 8 mins. as:

[4 min. strong, race effort,

3 min. slightly above race effort,

1 min. hard]

4-5 mins easy between intervals

Run Workout #1

Pacing work while practicing fueling. You can build this session to be 3/4-mile at pace and 1/4-mile at easy endurance for 4-5 miles as your last test set.

Warm-up

10 min. easy jog

4-5 x 30 seconds strides

Main Set:

6x:

[Half-mile at goal race pace effort

Half-mile at easy endurance pace]

Cooldown

10 min. walk, jog, and stretch

Run Workout #2

Total run time ~90 mins

Keys to run: Faster running early, then running race pace on tired legs.

Warm-up

15 min easy

Pre-Main Set

4 x 30 seconds building effort from easy to fast, 60 sec easy walk/jog between.

4 x 3 min hard (10K effort or pace). This is a strong pace well above race effort—not all in, but some hard interval work.

2 min easy between

5 min easy walk jog getting ready for main set

Main Set

Target the pace you want to hold for the race. This should be sustainable and six- and 10-minute efforts should be the same. If you fade during the last interval or heart rate rises and it feels too hard, then you’ve likely started too fast. This will help you manage pace/effort realistically on race day.

6 min. race effort

8 min. race effort

10 min. race effort

All with shorter rest, 2 minutes easy between.

Cooldown

10-15 min easy

Matt Hurley has been a coach for countless triathletes, runners and Swimrunners, as well as an athlete himself. He’s the founder of Wyld Endurance.