How to Train for a Triathlon (From Scratch)

Training for a triathlon is easier than you might think—even if you currently have zero fitness. Yes, that's right, with no current fitness you can be ready to do your first triathlon in only 12 weeks. And you don't have to give up your life, or your bank account, to make it happen.

Here's how to train for a triathlon when starting from scratch:

The Essential Gear

You do need some basic equipment for your first triathlon. This equipment doesn't have to be expensive and it can be borrowed to save money:

  • Swim suit, goggles, and I recommend a cap if you have long hair.
  • A bicycle that fits you and is in good working order. This can be a road bike, a mountain bike or a hybrid. You can use a time trial bike if you have one, or have access to one, but a special triathlon or time trial bicycle is not necessary.
  • Cycling shorts for training. A decent pair of cycling shorts, worn sans underwear, can make riding more comfortable, and they help prevent saddle sores.
  • You can use clipless pedals and cycling shoes, but they are not a "must have" item.
  • A water bottle for use on your longer bike rides.
  • A good pair of running shoes. You don't have to spend $200 to get a great pair of shoes, but you do need a pair of shoes that are made for running and that fit your feet. The best resource for shoes is a local running store.

More: Beginner's Triathlon Gear List

The Time Commitment

If your fitness has been dormant for quite awhile, it's good to give yourself about 12 weeks to get in shape and minimize the chances of injury. In 12 weeks you can condition tendons, ligaments and your endurance so that you can enjoy the race. If you can commit to training five days per week—two and a half to four hours per week—that's plenty of time to get in shape.

Yes, that's right, no more than around four hours in the biggest training week.

Weekday workouts need only be 30 to 45 minutes and weekends can be used to build your endurance. Your longest workout, a bike ride, only needs to be between one and a half to two hours.

Out of the five weekly workouts, make two of them swim workouts. If you need help building your swimming endurance, take a look at the column I wrote containing a 12-week swimming plan.

Make two more of the workouts run-to-bike combination workouts to build endurance and minimize injury risk.

More: How to Find Time for Triathlon Training When You Have Kids

Sample combination workouts for the first week:

  • Combo Workout #1: (Run 1 minute, Walk 1 minute) x 5, then ride a bike for 30 minutes at an easy, conversational intensity. (Zone 1 to 2 for those with a heart rate monitor.) You can even do this workout at the gym.
  • Combo Workout #2: (Run 1 minute, Walk 1 minute) x 7 or 8, then bike ride 30 minutes at an easy, conversational intensity.

More: How to Choose a Beginner-Friendly Triathlon Training Program

For the fifth and last workout in your first week, ride your bike for 45 minutes at an easy, conversational intensity.

From here, you can build out your own plan or take advantage of a ready-to-use plan that takes the worry out of planning.

More: How to Train for a Sprint Triathlon

As an example, the beginner sprint tri plan available on Active Trainer will help you go from a current fitness level of zero to the following workouts after just seven weeks of training: 

  • Workout #1: Swim 5 x 100 (20 sec RI), easy to moderate (Zones 1 to 3)
  • Workout #2: Combo: Run 25 minutes, Zones 1 to 2, Bike 20 minutes Zones 1 to 3
  • Workout #3: Swim 5 x 100 (20 sec RI), easy to moderate (Zones 1 to 2)
  • Workout #4: Brick: Bike 25 minutes, then transition right into a 20-minute run at Zone 1 to 2 intensity. Include 30-second accelerations               
  • Workout #5: Bike: Long bike ride of 1:30 at Zone 1 to 2 intensity on a rolling course.

Plan to Rest

When learning how to train for a triathlon, it's tempting to add more and more volume, but the body makes advances in fitness with a balance of stress and rest.

If you're planning your own training schedule, be sure to add recovery days and reduced volume rest weeks to allow your body to rebuild and get stronger.

Get Moving

With the basic equipment in hand and a path forward planned, there's nothing to do except get started. There's no better time than now, so get going.

More: 11 Tips for Your First Triathlon

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