Balancing Swim-Bike-Run in Triathlon Training

Thursday, March 15, 2012 | By Nicole Odell
 
 
 
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Endurance athletes, especially triathletes, are often pressed for time. If you have a family, a full-time job, or other key commitments in your life, it can be tough to fit in 8-12 hours of training each week. But once you find the time, how do you manage that time between swim, bike, and run? Here are some easy guidelines to determine the schedule that is best for you.

Step 1: Set your season goals and write them down. Three key goals are usually plenty.
Step 2: Identify your strengths and weaknesses and write them down, about 1-3 for each sport. Joe Friel’s book The Triathlete’s Training Bible has several checklists to help determine your limiters.
Step 3: Based on the answers to step 1 and 2, identify your “needs improvement” sport and write down specifically what you want to improve in that sport. [Example: "Improve my hill climbing ability so I don’t fatigue on the rollers at the end of race XYZ."]
Step 4: Write down when you have available to train. 
Step 5: Fill in the training times with your swim/bike/run (and possibly strength) workouts. Aim for at least two per week in each sport, with one or two extra on your “needs improvement” sport.

Some things to consider for extra workouts

  • If you are working on technique, high frequency and short duration workouts are best. This means do several workouts each week, but keep them short. 
  • Swimming is very technique-oriented but is low (no) impact. You can swim often and if swimming is your weakness, I highly recommend getting in the pool as much as you can. 
  • Cycling is low impact and the biggest percentage of time in a triathlon is usually on the bike, so adding in more sessions if this is your weakness can really boost your performance. Keep in mind that more intense time in the saddle can fatigue your legs, and you might notice this during some of your running workouts. 
  • Running is hard on the body. My recommendations here are to add frequency, and not volume. Keep the same total time you are running each week, just split the runs into shorter runs on different days. This allows more sessions to work on technique, but total “pounding” on your body is the same.
  • Consider the extra workout(s) to be there for technique and efficiency improvements (drills, short power sessions like a fartlek runs or spin-ups on the bike for cadence improvements). Use the rest of your training plan for your endurance and “quality” workouts such as Lactate Threshold intervals.

An Example of Time Allocation Between Swim, Bike, Run

Let’s use an Olympic-distance triathlon (1500m swim, 40k bike, 10k run) as an example target A race with an athlete who has 10 hours a week to train. This athlete consistently places in the top 15% in the swim, has bike splits in the top 60%, and run splits in the top 30%. The bike would be the identified “needs improvement” sport, and we’d want to make sure this athlete is on the bike 3-4 times a week working their specific weaknesses to help them perform at their A race. The athlete would swim twice a week and have three run sessions each week, two being run-specific and one just being a short run off the bike.

With 10 hours a week to train, one week of the schedule in their training calendar might look something like this:

To give an additional example, here is how you might break down a 10-hour per week Olympic triathlon training schedule for various sport weaknesses:

The balanced athlete
3 hours swimming / 5 hours biking / 2 hours running

The bike-weak athlete
2 hours swimming / 6 hours biking / 2 hours running

The swim-weak athlete
4 hours swimming / 4 hours biking / 2 hours running

The run-weak athlete
3 hours swimming / 5 hours biking / 2 hours running (broken up among more run sessions)

This is just an example, and every athlete’s needs will be different. There are other variables to consider to determine a training schedule and what kind of training session to do based on what training phase you are in, your current skill and fitness level, and other limiters, just to name a few. A coach can certainly help you get your training plan in order. If you are using a pre-built plan that isn’t specifically designed to help in a specific sport, take one workout of your strongest sport and replace it with one for your weakest sport.

Happy Training!

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