Training Distribution for Triathletes

If you’re new to triathlon, equal training among the three sports may be all you need. But for advanced athletes, a more sophisticated approach involves unequal distribution between the disciplines.

legs of triathletes
Photo: Ashley de Lotz on Unsplash

Triathlon is a demanding and complex sport, requiring a true multi-disciplinary approach. While on the surface triathlon appears to be a three-sport event, some argue that there are four, five, or even six areas that athletes need to focus on.

With so many potential areas to dedicate your time to, how should triathletes determine the ideal activity distribution to arrive at the start line feeling ready? In this article, we will examine some of the options available to athletes driven by insights from two highly experienced triathlon coaches.

Equal training distribution

As a brand-new triathlete, or for those still in the beginning phases of training, an equivalent approach—in which you train equal time in each of the three sports—may seem like a great way to start. As with most forms of exercise, if you are starting from square one, almost anything you do will help you see progress.

So, if you’re entering the sport with little to no experience in swimming, cycling, and running, a balanced approach can be a simple way to get into a routine and explore the sports. If you have six hours available per week to train, you’d simply train two hours in each.

The six-hour week

That six-hour week isn’t simply composed of a two-hour bike ride, a two-hour run, and a two-hour swim. When designing a more specific distribution of your training sessions, there are a few options to consider. (Note that we are simply focusing on the distribution among the three sports in a theoretical sense. You will also need to consider including strength and/or mobility training when designing your plan.) This is where working with a coach or specialist can help guide you with ongoing feedback and support.

Let’s look at three ways to distribute that six-hour week:

Option 1

  • 2 days of swimming, 1 hour per session
  • 2 days of cycling, 1 hour per session
  • 4 days of running, 30 minutes per session

Note that total training days is greater than seven. This means certain days will contain more than one sport practice. This has its advantages, since learning to fuel between sessions and complete different activities in close proximity are hallmarks of triathlon racing.

Option 2

  • 3 days of swimming, 40 minutes per session
  • 1 day of cycling, 2 hours (e.g., one long ride)
  • 4 days of running, 30 minutes per session

Option 3

  • 4 days of swimming, 30 minutes per session
  • 3 days of cycling, 30 minutes per ride + 1x 60-minute ride
  • 4 days of running, 30 minutes per session

The 15-hour week

What if you have a lot more time to train? Let’s say 15 hours.

Now, things are looking more interesting. An equal distribution across all three sports with more volume starts to raise some red flags. This is when we need to consider factors like how much time is spent in each activity on race day, and how the volume distribution might increase the risk for injury.

We need to consider an unequal distribution of our training, and prioritize certain sports depending on our needs and the time of year.

Unequal training distribution

Coach Raeleigh Harris, director and head coach of Elite Triathlon Performance America, who also holds an Ironman 70.3 age-group world championship title, suggests that we look at the race itself to inform our decisions.

“When we look deeper than just the gross sport breakdown, we see variances in time spent when racing in each discipline,” Harris said. “The variations in stress that each discipline puts on our systems—and, as a result, how putting the three sports together impacts each of us differently, both during training and racing—are critical considerations that determine sport distribution.”

Let’s take this further by diving into the science. Interestingly, there isn’t a lot research on this topic, but there are some good articles that support the notion that it helps to account for both the variations in race time and the training impacts of each sport when determining distribution.

A study led by Dr. Grant Landers in 2008 suggests that to achieve a successful finishing position, you need to exit the water early and run well after cycling. [1]

So, for the athlete who has 15 hours per week to train, an equal distribution starts to look less beneficial. While it seems reasonable to train swimming abilities in five hours per week, the same cannot be said of five hours for running and five hours for cycling. Such a distribution leads to questions about injury risk and whether your goals could be met with level of overload and, thus, adaptation.

Sure, for some athletes, it may work. However, in my experience, I’ve found this to be more the exception than the rule. So, let’s explore how and why an unequal distribution is likely more effective.

Sample 15-hour week

  • 4 days in the pool: 1 hour per session + 1 session of open-water swimming
  • 2 bike rides, 1.5 hours per session
  • 3 run days, 1 hour per session
  • 1 “brick” day: 2-hour bike ride + 1-hour run

Delineating the breakdown of workout type (high vs. low intensity, for example) is beyond the scope of this article. This example is written based on the assumption that there would be a mixture of intensities depending on the training period, and would include recovery sessions, higher-intensity efforts, technique and skills sessions, nutritional sessions, and LSD/base training.

According to Coach Alonso Macias, owner of ZoneTri and a professional triathlon coach, athletes thinking about an equal training distribution across the swim, bike, and run should instead consider their individual strengths and weaknesses to help determine priorities and training structure.

Determining your ideal training distribution

Both Harris and Macias stress the need for athletes to start with an accounting exercise. Add together the total hours you have available for swim, bike, and run training per week to understand your maximum available time.

Let’s use two example athletes to walk through this process.

Athlete A is an accomplished road racer but wants to get into triathlon. She raced as a Cat. 2 on the road and has done some running to cross-train over the years. Swimming for her has been mostly leisure swimming while on vacation.

Athlete B has been performing well in sprint and Olympic triathlon national championships for seven years. He performs consistently well across all disciplines but wants to use his time to improve his run so he can stay with the faster runners over longer distances.

Coach Harris might break the distributions down like this, based on each athlete’s limiters:

Baseline DistributionAthlete AAthlete B
Max hours available per week8 hours8 hours8 hours
Swim1.531.5
Bike 42.53.5
Run2.52.53

In this arrangement, Athlete A can redistribute some of her time from the bike (since this is a strength of hers) and dedicate more time to developing and refining swim technique by spending twice as much time in the pool.  

It is important to remember, however, that the time spent running and cycling during triathlon has been shown to be significantly related to overall finishing time. Running and cycling have shown correlation of 0.97 and 0.81, respectively, when compared to finish time. [2]  

For Athlete A, it would make sense to develop and refine her swim technique early in the season, and get to the build and race phase with as much efficiency in the water as possible. At the same time, because cycling and running have a greater impact on finish time, she would benefit from focused development of her physiological capabilities as her races approach, while simultaneously taking a long-term approach to her swimming development.  

Athlete B, being a well-rounded triathlete already, could increase his focus on run training, effectively training more like a single-sport runner for a few training blocks. This would allow him to take advantage of his swim experience to maintain technique while dedicating a greater amount of time to the physiological, technical, and tactical development as a runner.  

By moving toward an unequal training distribution, Athlete B could better manage the training stress load by creating a larger stress in a sport in which he would like to generate larger adaptations, while reducing training stress in other aspects of his approach.  

Many ways to slice it 

There are many ways we can distribute training volume to achieve a desired outcome. The examples detailed above might effectively apply to some athletes, but likely not to all. The beauty of training is that you can take your accumulated knowledge of your strengths and limiters, or connect with an experienced coach for more help, and devise a strategy to build blocks of time dedicated to a single or double-sport focus.  

Whether you’re new to triathlon or seeking ways to eke out the last percentage points you need to reach the podium, taking a long-term approach and beginning the planning process far from your goal event(s) will provide the time necessary to test and refine your training—and, ultimately, find the best solution for your lifestyle, physiology, and goals.  

References 

  1. Landers GJ, Blanksby BA, Ackland TR, Monson R. Swim Positioning and its Influence on Triathlon Outcome. Int J Exerc Sci. 2008 Jul 15;1(3):96-105. PMID: 27182300; PMCID: PMC4739296. 
  1. Dengel, D. R., Flynn, M. G., Costill, D. L., & Kirwan, J. P. (1989). Determinants of Success during Triathlon Competition. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 60(3), 234–238. 

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