For those of you looking to train smarter, let me start with a plug for USA Triathlon's thousands of certified coaches. If you are not working with a coach, I strongly encourage you to explore the opportunity. While you may be able to study up on the sport and learn the fundamentals of building a training plan, the value a coach has in serving as a sounding board, evaluating technique and providing accountability is invaluable.
An alternative to hiring a coach is finding a triathlon mentor. If you have an established triathlon club in your community or region, chances are you would be able to find someone willing to give back to the sport in the form of guiding another multisport athlete through the basics. However, buyer beware: even though someone has completed a few triathlons or duathlons, it does not make them a qualified coach.
Should you still wish to go at this alone, or perhaps learn a bit to keep your coach honest, I will outline some important factors to consider when preparing your training plan.
Naturally, this all begins with race selection. Ideally, you will select an event that provides you ample time to prepare. Assuming you come into this journey with a base level of fitness (say, 30 minutes of cardio five times a week), I recommend a minimum of three months for sprint distance preparation and four months for the international distance.
Choosing a course well-suited to your strengths will also increase the probability of success. How do you handle the heat/cold? Do you expect to perform better on hilly or flat courses? What is your comfort level with open water? Some water is flat, some rough, and a few races are even staged in pools. There are many unique factors to multisport events, so be sure to do your research and select an event that you know will keep your interest and is a good fit for your strengths.
Now that you have a race to target, pull out the calendar. Make a note of schedule conflicts (travel, family obligations, etc.) and any other roadblocks known to training availability at this time. It will be essential to plan around these commitments and limit new additions that will impact your ability to fit in your planned training.
What are you aiming to achieve with this race -- what are your goals? If this is your first event, it may be simply to finish--or not to walk during the run. If you have competed in an event before, perhaps you want to improve your time. When goal-setting, be "SMART" by setting specific, measureable, attainable, realistic and timely goals. In short, don't just set a goal of "I want to do well." Share this goal with others to hold yourself accountable. Write it down in a prominent place as a reminder of your commitment and personal expectations.
In the creation of this goal (or goals), you should be able to identify the building blocks that make these goals possible. If you know you are in shape for a 25-minute 5K now, how do you plan to run sub-24 off the bike? If you can barely make it down to the end of the pool and back without gasping for air, how do you plan to build up the endurance to tackle a continuous 500-meter swim? Identifying the frequency and type of workouts necessary to build the fitness required to achieve your objectives is critical.
So, if you are looking to compete in a sprint distance race three months from now, how do you map the course between now and that date 12 weeks in the future? First, you need to identify your starting point. What training load can you handle now, without risking injury or over-training? I recommend looking back at the past four weeks. Week one should target a volume similar to average per week during the prior month. Some individuals may be able to push this slightly higher if there is a strong recent history in the sport and an anomaly in training over the prior month. Each week you can make progressions (build volume slightly), however I recommend not exceeding a 10 percent increase over a period of 2-3 weeks.
A general principle in physiology is that of adaptation. When you place a certain load of stress on your body, especially repeatedly, your body will begin to make adaptations to handle these stresses more efficiently. The challenge is that the body often times needs a period of reduced stress to be capable of facilitating these adaptations. Thus, after a period of two to three weeks in which training is constant or includes small progressions, a week of reduced stress is needed for adaptation purposes. This does not mean that you take the week off, or only do recovery paced workouts, but the stress and volume need to be dialed back enough to allow for the physiological benefits of your prior training to take effect.