Why Not Try a Tri (Part 2) – Training Basics

After last week’s overview of the basic gear you need for your first a triathlon (or duathlon), it’s time to talk about the training basics. If you have the gear, it’s time to put in the work to cross that first finish line.


Basic Race Distances

Let’s start with the basics. A triathlon is any race that contains a swim, bike, and run of any distance. I often hear people say they didn’t do a “full triathlon” when they have completed the shorter distances. Let me assure you that  race of any distance is a triathlon.

A duathlon eliminates the swim and is any race that contains a run and bike. Typically you’ll see these planned as a run, bke, then another run. It’s fun and challenging to run twice.

There are four basic distances in racing:

1. Sprint Distance

The shortest distance of triathlon is called the sprint or mini-sprint distance triathlon. The distances are not standardized for this category, but are typically around 400 – 800 yard swim, 8-18 mile bike, and 5K run. If you complete a race of this distance, you are a triathlete!

For those who don’t enjoy swimming, there is a similar duathlon in this category. Like triathlon, the distances are also not standardized, but are typically up to 5K run, 8-18 mile bike, and up to 5K run. If you complete a race of this distance, you are a duathlete!

2. Olympic Distance

The second distance of triathlon is called the olympic distance. Most races in this category follow a standard distance, which is the same distance you’ll see in the Olympics every 4 years (hence the name). The distances are 1600 meter swim, 40K bike, and 10K run.

In duathlon, the Olympic distance is slightly different. Although not seen in the Olympics, the distances are typically a 5K run, 40K bike, and 10K run.

3. Half Ironman (or 70.3) Distance

The third distance of triathlon is the half ironman, which has been branded as 70.3 Ironman when put on by the WTC. The distances are 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run. Completing this race is quite an accomplishment, but don’t make the mistake of calling yourself an ironman athlete. That honor is reserved for the final standard distance.

Although not very common, there is a half ironman distance in duathlon. The distances are a 5K run, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run. This is the only distance that I find the duathlon comparable or slightly easier than a triathlon.

4. Ironman (or 140.6) Distance

The final distance is the one many people are most familiar with, as it has been made popular from the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. The distances are 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run. The peak of the standard triathlon distances (there are ultra events longer than this),

There is no duathlon equivalent at this distance that I am aware of.


Training Basics

To get started training for your first race, start with a plan. Training for a multisport race is very different than just running, so you’ll want to find a plan that is tailored to your event.

  • Beginner Triathlete: A very active website with discussion forums, online tracking of your training, and training plans (both free & paid options). I met a great group of athletes that I trained with in Atlanta thought this site – it’s a great resource!
  • Tri-Newbies Online Training Plan: With a little searching, I found the plan that I used for my very first race. I printed it out, stuck it to the fridge, and started training. To get across that first finish line – it worked for me!
  • Coaching: If you want a training plan customized for you, a coach builds a plan that fits your abilities and schedule. Look for one that is certified by USA Triathlon if your goal is a multisport race. We offer some very affordable online coaching packages that you should check out!

What can you expect from most beginner training plans?

  • 2-3 days of running
  • 2-3 days of biking
  • 2-3 days of swimming
  • 1-3 days of strength training (not found in all plans)
  • 1-2 days of recovery

Strength Training & Flexibility

One thing that is frequently missing from pre-built training plans is strength training and stretching. I recommend keeping at least two days of strength training and at least one day of flexibility (like yoga) for injury prevention.

Don’t Forget to Practice Transitions

When completing a duathlon or triathlon, you will transition (or switch) between different sports. As you probably know – the clock doesn’t stop during this transition time. Make sure you practice these transitions in your training.

One of the best ways to practice this is by including bricks in your training. A brick is two sports performed back-to-back with minimal rest between. At a minimum, you want to practice the transition from bike to run, as it tends to be the most difficult for most people. Set up your running gear before the bike, so you can replicate the race scenario. When you finish you bike, switch to your run gear as quickly as possible and start the run.

You’ll notice when practicing the bike to run brick that you legs feel….well, like bricks! The more you practice, this will get a bit better, or your legs will at least know what to expect.


Nutrition is often called the 4th discipline in triathlon, as it can be a tricky thing for many people. Practice your nutrition plan during your training – starting from what you will eat the night before the race.

  • Try out meals and foods the night before longer and harder training sessions. You’ll quickly learn if there are foods you should avoid.
  • What breakfast works best for you? Many people like to find a standard meal that they eat before weekend training sessions and each race.
  • How often will you drink water during the race? If you plan to take in calories, what will you eat or drink? How often?

There isn’t a perfect formula that works for everyone, as our bodies are all a little different. You can find some tips on what your body needs during training and racing in this post on fueling for metabolic efficiency.

Now that you have the basic gear and understand the training basics, it’s time to pick a race. What are you waiting for?

Don’t miss the other posts in the Why Not Try a Tri series:

Editors Note: This post was originally published in April 2012 and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and the latest information.


Questions for you:

  • What other triathlon/duathlon questions do you have that I can cover in an upcoming post?
  • Any other tips you would add to the list?

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    • says

      A triathlon is any distance of swim, bike & run — I think when you say full tri, you mean the Ironman distance, right? I always recommend people start with sprint triathlons (or duathlons), then move up to Olympic, then Half, then Full — and only if they are still enjoying eat increasing distance. Each one has plenty of challenge! :)

  1. says

    My advice would be to actually follow a training schedule! Even though the tri I did was extremely short, I trained each sport in isolation because I had trouble finding time to train two sports back to back. I only did a couple of training sessions with two of the sports, and the tri was a lot more difficult than I anticipated! I still had a blast though and learned my lesson for next time. :)

  2. training says

    Some great resources here. I think I’m still a ways off from triathlon shape but hopefully this time next year I’ll be more than ready.

  3. SusanFaber@spin shoes says

    Is there any specific footwear for Triathlon shoes, brands that you recommend. Thanks for the information-really helpful.

  4. Aura says

    Great article! This is totally true. I agree that it requires strength and enough training at the same time not forgetting to eat foods that has a nutrition and vitamins.


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