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March 12, 2010 | Triathlon Training Blog

Getting Ready for Your First Sprint Triathlon

The sprint triathlon distance (0.47 mile swim, a 12.4-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run, or a 5K run) isn’t only the most popular race in the triathlon world, most coaches see it as the perfect beginner's race.

That is for the following reasons: With a solid 12-week training plan and one workout a day (excluding recovery or off-days), even people without a swimming, biking or running background will be able to complete this distance in about 90 minutes and have lots of fun along the way.

Ask Yourself: What is my Current Cardio Fitness Level?

If you’ve been training in any of the three sports, you are already one step ahead of many beginners. That’s because you already established a ‘base’ in one or more of the three sports. If you need to get started in all three sports, build an endurance base by focusing on distance first. To train safely and effectively and prevent injuries, build gradually and progress your weekly distance by no more than 10 percent. This rule applies to all three sports.

Starting Your Swim Training

If swimming is your weakness, consider hiring a coach or entering a swim program to develop proper swim technique. Swimming is the most technical sport of the three sports and for many beginners remains the biggest challenge.

Ask yourself these questions: Can you swim one length of freestyle in the pool without stopping? How many lengths can you complete without feeling winded? How would you evaluate your swim technique? How comfortable are you swimming in open water? If open-water swimming is unnerving or uncomfortable for you, consider joining your local triathlon club to train with others or hire a coach before embarking on your first race.  

Starting Your Bicycling Training

If you haven’t been bicycling much and plan to enter a road race, ask yourself how comfortable you are riding on the street. Participating in group rides or joining a bicycling club will be a great motivator for you to bicycle regularly while making new friends. If you have a history of injuries or a physical condition that makes it difficult for you to bicycle, visit your doctor first.

Starting Your Running Training

If you’re an experienced runner and have completed a 5K race or even a longer distance, practicing running off the bike (or bike-to-run brick workouts) will give you a new appreciation for running.

If you’ve never run before, joining a local running club or entering organized training runs will allow you to learn about proper technique, pacing and how to avoid running-related injuries from more experienced runners and coaches. If you had a previous injury or a physical condition that will make running hard, visit your doctor first.

Training in Phases (Periodization)

When people start training for a race, they often get very excited and tend to want to do too much, too soon. Safe progression is critical to avoid burn-out and injuries. The best way to condition your body for the rigors of an endurance event is to approach training in cycles or phases (also known as periodization training).

Let’s look at the individual phases:

Base Phase

This phase is designed to create a foundation of safe and gradual progression to build aerobic fitness and endurance. Most of the training is done with moderate intensity where you can hold a conversation. Some beginners who merely want to cross the finish line keep training in this phase until race day, which is perfectly fine.

Build Phase

Once you’ve established a good base, your body can handle more high-intensity training to build sport-specific strength and power. During this cycle, you’ll also focus on increasing your aerobic fitness and ability to resist fatigue at higher speeds in all three sports. Warm up before long or hard sessions and perform a cool-down.

Peak Phase

In this phase, the top-training priority is on workouts that are highly race-specific. You also want to practice transitioning from one sport to another, which is best done via brick workouts.


During this cycle your training load is steadily reduced to give your body time to rest and ready for maximum performance on race day.

You will find that coaches often have different philosophies on the duration of each training cycle and how they approach variables, such as how often you train, how long as well as volume and intensity. This can be tricky, because every athlete is different and what works great for one person may not work for you.

You can find multiple solid sprint distance training programs online. Great book references: Triathlon 101 by John Mora and The Triathlete's Training Bible by Joe Friel.

Race Simulation

For many beginners, putting all three sports together is often the biggest concern.

The best way to know what it will feel like to ride a bike after swimming 500 yards and to run off the bike is to practice transitions. Some ideas for transition workouts (two to three weeks prior to race day) include swimming for 500 yards (preferably in open water) and then riding your bike for 30 minutes near race pace; or a 45-minute easy bike ride followed by an immediate transition to a 20 minute run.

Preparing For Race Day

  • Practice setting up your race gear prior to race day
  • Make a check list of all of your equipment to ensure you have packed everything on race morning (There is nothing worse than showing up on race day and missing your running shoes or goggles)
  • Don’t do any hard workouts in the week prior to race day
  • Get plenty of sleep, eat healthy and rest the week prior to race day
  • Hydrate well prior to race day and carbo-load the night before
  • Review the race course and rules  
  • Don’t try anything new on race day, including gear, nutrition or clothing
  • Don’t clutter the transition area (this could hinder you and other athletes from entering/exiting the area)
  • Be respectful of others on the race course (for instance, by staying to your right on the bike course to let athletes pass you on the left)
  • Thank the volunteers and your supporters
  • If you get lost on the race course or didn’t finish the entire course, let the race director know
  • Have fun!

 Next week, look for my blog post on how successful triathletes fuel on race morning.

By Marion Webb
Marion Webb

Marion Webb is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. Webb has worked as a longtime award-winning business journalist, covering fitness, small business, health care and biotech issues. A competitive age-group triathlete and two-time ITU Long Distance World Championship qualifier, Webb competes mostly in the Half Ironman (70.3 miles) and (140.6 miles) Ironman distances.