In May of 2019, after completing a 100-mile ruck march, I decided I wanted to challenge myself by attempting a new sport. I had a background in bodybuilding, powerlifting, and “forced” endurance from my time spent in the military, but I wanted to learn something new. I remember always hearing about this thing called an Ironman, and before really knowing what it was I decided to sign up for one.
I jumped right into the biggest triathlon that I could find – a full distance Ironman. This consisted of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run – a full marathon. I trained for 6 months, learned a ton, humbled myself and finished Ironman Florida in 2019 with a time of 11 hours and 28 minutes.
Fast forward a few years, after learning a whole lot more about endurance sports and training, and I decided it was time for another triathlon. I recently completed Challenge Cancun in 5 hours and 2 minutes, which was a 70.3 distance race and learned so much more during this 7 month training prep. We introduced new training techniques on the swim, bike and run that provided me with a treasure chest full of information.
Now, I want to share with you my top 10 triathlon tips I wish I knew before getting started.
Tip 1 – Utilize Proper Fueling During Training
When I first entered the endurance world this was something that I really didn’t understand or know how to harness. Coming from a military background, with a military mindset, I wanted to push my body as hard and long as possible with as little fuel as I could. The train harder and not smarter approach didn’t work out too well for me. I often found myself completing triathlon specific workouts, that would last hours, with very little nutrition and wondered why I wasn’t progressing.
When I started fueling properly for workouts, I made massive improvements, recovered much faster and was able to complete multiple workouts each day with no issues. As I talk about nutrition and fuel I’m referring to easily digestible carbohydrates and electrolytes. During my second triathlon prep I had the opportunity to train with some elite level athletes. I noticed some would fuel properly and some wouldn’t fuel at all. The athletes who fueled before, during and after workouts would make consistent progress, show up to workouts fresh and rarely have issues with injuries. On the other hand, the athletes who didn’t fuel properly were always complaining about low energy, lack of recovery, nagging injuries and not making any progress.
I recommend fueling for each and every workout during a triathlon build. Your body needs the carbohydrates and electrolytes, not only for specific workouts, but also to replenish what is lost during training so that it can recover afterwards.
My fueling strategy changes based off the workout, duration and intensity, but I usually stick to around 40 grams of carbohydrates and 700-1,000 mg of sodium per hour. If the workout is more intense and longer in duration I will aim to consume 60-80 grams of carbohydrates and 1,000 – 2,000 mg of sodium per hour.
The fuel that I use is G.1.M Sport by Bare Performance Nutrition. It provides 20 grams of carbohydrates and 350 mg of sodium per serving. The carbohydrate source is from Cluster Dextrin, which is very fast gastric emptying, easy on the stomach and provides a clean source of energy.
Tip 2 – The 80/20 Rule
The 80/20 rule refers to the split of your weekly training in terms of low heart rate, aerobic based training and higher intensity, anaerobic based training. If you train too hard, at a high heart rate, too often, you will not build the aerobic systems required for endurance races like a triathlon.
The concept applies to the swim, bike and run, however for this demonstration we will break down the 80/20 rule in the run. In order to build an aerobic foundation and base we need to train in an aerobic state, which requires a lower heart rate. About 80% of my runs throughout a week are done at an easy/slow pace and 20% of my runs are hard/intense sessions. This 20% may include tempo workouts, threshold paces, track workouts or anything else that increases your heart rate above an aerobic state.
How do you know if you are in an aerobic state? By tracking your heart rate. You will need a GPS watch and heart rate monitor, but you can use the Maffetone Method. This method calculates your max aerobic heart rate. By knowing your max aerobic heart rate you will know what you need to keep your heart rate below in order to train aerobic conditions.
MAF 180 Formula:
180 – Age = Max Aerobic Heart Rate
Example: If I’m 30 years old (180 – 30 = 150), my max aerobic heart rate is 150 beats per minute. For my easy/slow runs I will monitor my heart rate through my watch and heart rate monitor to ensure my heart rate stays below 150 beats per minute.
Tip 3 – Use Block Training
Block Training is a technique that I used a lot during my last triathlon prep and made some very good progress. Because there are three different sports being training at once, you get some crossover in terms of cardiovascular conditioning and strength, but in order to really dial in one specific sport, you can use block training.
During the middle of my triathlon prep, we put a huge block of training focused on the run because I was preparing to race a marathon below 3 hours. Mission accomplished, but during the run training block we reduced training volume and intensity of the swim and bike. This focus on the run allowed me to improve run form, cadence, foot turnover and comfort in holding 6:45 minute miles for extended periods of time.
We used the same principles on the bike and swim throughout prep to dial in a focus on each specific sport and make huge improvements. A training block can last anywhere from one week to multiple weeks, but the focus is improving on specific parts of one sport, while sill maintaining volume of the other two.
Tip 4 – Have A Race Day Strategy Plan
When I completed my first triathlon, which was a full distance Ironman, I had zero plan going into the race. I didn’t track my heart rate, bike power or cadence. I had my nutrition dialed in, but that was about it. Looking back, after the fact, I realize I could have raced at a much more intense pace, which would have resulted in a better time overall.
You live and you learn.
I once heard a coach say, “you can either run it or race it, you choose”. It’s very true. You can go through the motions, with zero plan and give your best effort, or you can show up with a plan and execute to get your best time possible.
I’m sure we both can agree that after months of training you are better off racing it. When you’re building a race day strategy plan you need to consider the race distance, terrain, weather conditions and your fitness level. The first thing to do is establish your nutrition plan. This should have been dialed in and used during training, but have an hourly goal for carbohydrate and electrolyte consumption. Also have a plan if you need more fuel or more likely, more sodium.
Know the course, familiarize yourself with locations and be ready for race day. You can start by building a swim plan based off the swim conditions and route. Make up any lost time by moving through transitions as fast as possible. I like to think of the bike as the meat of the day, especially when it comes to distance. While your on the bike you should have a goal for power output (watts), cadence and if all else fails – heart rate. This is also where you need to get a lot of your nutrition in and if you fall behind you will feel it on the run. During the run monitor heart rate and don’t skip the water check points. These can be a great spot to hydrate, consume some more salts and cover yourself in cold water if it is warm out that day.
At the end of the race you will feel much more accomplished if you went in to a race, executed as well as possible and crossed the finish line knowing you had a strategy to attack the day!
Tip 5 – Use Sweet Spot and Big Gear Work On The Bike
Two techniques that I incorporated into my last triathlon prep were sweet spot work and big gear sessions on the bike – and they paid off big time! The intent was to build leg strength during these sessions. In most cases, athletes will fatigue on the bike because lack of leg strength and not cardiovascular conditioning.
Sweet spot sessions are spent at about 90% of your FTP. During sweet spot workouts you can get a very effective workout in a relatively short amount of time. It is spent riding right below threshold and is a great balance between volume and intensity.
Big gear workouts start by putting the bike in the largest (most difficult) gear possible and holding that power for a select amount of time, for multiple rounds. I started my training block with 1 minute rounds and ended 7 months later holding that same power for 7 minute rounds.
Tip 6 – Triathlon Is A Strength Sport
This may seem counter intuitive, and trust me when I first heard that triathlon is a strength sport I thought it was a joke – but it’s true.
There is no denying the fact that triathlons are endurance races and that you need cardiovascular conditioning, both at aerobic and anaerobic capacities. However, just like we previously mentioned, most athletes fatigue due to muscular conditioning (especially on the bike) and not cardiovascular conditioning.
You can build leg strength through big gear and sweet spot sessions on the bike, through intense run workouts and my favorite – in the gym throwing around some iron.
Triathletes should not be afraid to step into the gym and it should 100% be a part of your weekly training program. Not only does lifting weights build size and strength, which improves performance, but it also prevents injuries and improves your ability to recover faster.
Don’t skip the strength.
Tip 7 – The Essential Equipment You Need For Triathlon Training
Triathletes are notorious for buying a million different pieces of equipment for a million different things. When I signed up for my first triathlon I was overwhelmed with everything I was expected to buy and didn’t know what I needed or what I didn’t. After my first one I realized that I really didn’t need too much to get started. My best advice is to get the bare bones and find out what you need as you start training. Here is a list of what I think you NEED to get started:
- Swim Cap
- Swim Suit if in cold conditions
- Bike Computer – Helmet
- Cycling attire
- Cycling shoes – Sunglasses
- Heart Rate Monitor
- GPS Watch
- Fuel Source (Carbohydrates and Electrolytes)
Tip 8 – Your Equipment Really Doesn’t Matter
I’ve seen it in many different areas of my life. People get more interested and passionate about the equipment and gear than it’s actual purpose itself. I’ve seen videographers care more about the camera they own than the shots it can capture, military service members caring more about how cool their kit looks rather than its function and athletes worried more about the equipment they have rather than training. At the end of the day – your equipment really doesn’t matter. Now, I’m not ignorant to the fact that there is a big difference between a higher performing bike and a basic low end model. It is what it is. My point is, and just like mentioned above, you can purchase a lot of triathlon equipment and gear used or refurbished. You can train on a budget and without liquidating your life savings. Training for my first triathlon, with all used equipment, was just as fun and my last one – with high performing pieces.
Don’t let the equipment, or lack there of, hold you back from getting started!
Tip 9 – Have A Post Race Recovery Plan
Having a post race recovery plan is almost just as important as having a race day strategy plan. I have felt the effects of coming back to training way too soon, often resulting in injuries or overtraining. I recommend following the below guidance to lead you into a plan of rest and recovery following a big race.
- Take the first 14 days off completely – if you do train, make sure it is only aerobic and no running.
- Remember that even if your muscles feel better, you have taxed your central nervous system which needs time to recover.
- Place an extra emphasis on sleep, hydration and nutrition the days following the race
- Make a plan and stick to it (as hard as it may be)
Everyone recovers at different speeds and abilities, but generally the more fit you are the faster you will recover. Make sure you take time off and rest up so you can come back to training better than ever!
Tip 10 – Implement Backwards Planning
If you have been following me for any amount of time on any social media platforms you probably already know that I’m a huge fan of backwards planning. This is a concept I learned while in the Army and still implement every single day of my life. Backwards planning is simple, however a way to plan that isn’t often done by many people. Without backwards planning you can go through your entire day, accomplish half of what you wanted and consistently fall short of goals.
Backwards planning starts with a time in the future that is aligned with a specific task or action. You then identify all the things you need to do between now and then in order to accomplish this task to standard. After that, you begin by assigning micro-tasks with timelines to make sure you successfully reach the future goal.
For example: I know that tomorrow I have to run 5 miles in the morning, ride my bike for an hour long sweet spot workout during lunch and perform a recovery swim in the evening. During that time I also have to work a normal day, stay on top of my nutrition and meet my wife for dinner with friends. In order to make sure I accomplish everything successfully I will start assigning time slots to each task to ensure I get everything done that I need to.
Backwards planning is absolutely essential, in all areas of life, but especially when training for a triathlon.