How to Train for a Sprint-Distance Triathlon!

A beginner's guide to finishing their first triathlon, injury free!

copyright Max Wettstein 2013

Welcome to the sprint-distance triathlon, which is more appropriate for first-timers, and I actually have completed about 6 sprint-distance triathlons, mostly trail events, so I know a thing or two about preparing for them.  A sprint-distance is an introduction to triathlons, yet very much so the full experience.  It is shortest in distance, less than both Olympic distance and The Ironman.


New Year Resolutions Love Races


What better way to kick off your New Year’s fitness plan than by signing up for a race?  Signing up for a race accomplishes something that most other weight-loss programs don’t:  It provides a looming deadline and the accountability that comes along with it, especially if you post that you registered on social media – now you have to do it or you will look like a scared, flake!  Completing a race also provides a huge feeling of accomplishment and pride, because you passed a mental & physical challenge the moment you step across that finish line.  You just can’t get that feeling from your ‘Weigh-Watcher’ or ‘biggest-loser’ group.  What’s important is not necessarily what type of race or event you choose, but sticking to the specific training plan and completing it.  It can become addicting – in a good way!  Almost all diet-plans focus on calorie reduction and food elimination, which just plan sucks.  When you are preparing for a race, you are focusing on the training, and food becomes fuel instead of your enemy.

Photo by Patrick Giardino

Endurance Athlete vs. Fitness & Aesthetics

    You may want to take a moment to consider if getting fitter and leaner is your primary goal, versus simply just checking off triathlon from your ‘bucket-list’.  Because we now know that longer endurance workouts are no longer necessary to improve fitness or lean-body mass:  High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and CrossFit-generation workout principles have proven that there is just as much if not more fitness value in exercising at a higher intensity in a shorter amount of time, than there is in going slower for longer.  Keep this in mind before you choose a particular race or a fitness program, especially if you have limited time to train.  You can become uber fit and fitness-model-lean in just 30 minutes a day, but you absolutely cannot prepare for triathlon or marathon in 30 minutes a day!  Because when you choose an endurance-type of race, at some point you have to put in the hours and the miles, because slower, longer races use the aerobic energy system and slow-twitch/type-1 muscle fibers, and therefore they require longer workouts to become aerobically fit, with shorter anaerobic workouts mixed in, to raise your lactate-threshold.  Bottom line, to become aerobically fit for an endurance race, you will need to dedicate one day a week for your ‘long workout’, where you go at a slower pace for up to 2 hours.  The once a week, long training day is pretty much unavoidable to reach your aerobic potential, but if you are lucky, you will discover the legendary ‘zone’ which all endurance athletes come to know and love.

 Something else to consider is the type of physique you desire.  Look at the builds of endurance athletes and triathletes.  They are long, lean and slender.  Excess vanity-muscle mass to an endurance athlete is almost as worthless as carrying around extra fat weight – every unnecessary pound is a hindrance.  If you are okay with being a skinny-but-lean guy, (who is very aerobically fit), then by all means you may want to eventually consider training for a full Ironman.  But if you prefer more of a muscular, buff beach body look, than sprint-distance triathlons and half-marathons may be more appropriate distances for you, so you can still develop and retain muscle-mass.  And it is more than just aesthetics:  the more muscle-mass you carry, the higher your resting metabolism will be.

Unfortunately Ironman-distance triathlon training and endurance training in general will not build physiques like this.  You have to add in Resistance/Weight-training too.  Even this amount of aesthetically pleasing muscle mass will burden and hinder the endurance-athlete.  Photo by Cory Sorensen.

The .5 Mile Swim


When it comes to triathlon, the swim tends to be the most difficult, yet least important phase.  It is the most difficult because many folks are just not as comfortable in water as they are on land.  They are usually open-water swims, so the water may be deep with low-visibility, cold, and there could be waves and current.  Also, most people are used to training in heated pools with nice black lines along the bottom to follow, ensuring you swim in a straight line.  In your open-water swim you get a buoy to sight off of!  So this means every few strokes you need to crane your neck way up out of the water, breaking your rhythm and sight the buoy.  Or you can draft off a peer swimmer and sight off of them, if you trust them!  Then there is the initial chaos of the ‘washing-machine’ start of the swim, where you are likely to get kicked in the face multiple times, have your goggles knocked off, and if you are too slow, the pack will simply swim over top of you!  Not kidding!  So yes, you had do some of your training in a lake or ocean and get used to being immersed in Mother Nature.  The more waves the better.  Training in a pool of course, with a Masters group or class, is ideal as well, to get some kind of coaching on your technique and develop your stroke and breathing rhythm.  Some of your laps should be done by holding a buoy between your feet so you can really work on your stroke.  Streamline your body by fully twisting your torso with each stroke.  Get some coaching for your swim technique.  Trust me on this one!  The other two phases you can wing it, but swimming technique does not always come naturally.  Lastly, don’t give up if you get out of the water last – your race is only one third over and you will be surprised how much ground you can make up during the bike and run.  Note:  The race director will let you know in advance if the water/air temperature combination is cold enough to allow for wearing wetsuits otherwise you are not allowed to wear them as they tend to increase buoyancy and reduce drag, allowing for an advantage.


Transitions and Hydration


The transition from swim to bike is maybe the most logistically challenging.  For one thing you are all wet, and your feet maybe muddy or sandy.  Well plan from the start, that you get one outfit!  Usually a high-tech, triathlon-specific racing singlet, made of lycra or other fancy, wicking, synthetic materials.  It needs to be form-fitting and go to at least mid-thigh to prevent chaffing, so sorry fellas, you have to leave the board-shorts at home and reveal your skinny legs.  There is no changing clothing – you simply ditch your goggles, step into your clip-in cycling shoes, and ride away on your bike.  You will have a chance to stage your transition area before the race start and lay everything out accordingly and nobody will mess with it – that is a triathlete’s code!  So have your water bottle already loaded into your bike if you think you need one.  Most sprint-triathlons are completed in under an hour and to be honest as long as you are properly hydrated before the race, you can save drinking and eating until after the race is complete if it is under an hour.  Veteran triathletes actually train for the transition phase too, believe it or not, believing that 2 smooth transitions can shave minutes off their race time.


Photo by Patrick Giardino

The 12.5 Mile Bike


What I’m not going to do here is attempt to get into which bike or which brand you need.  First-timers should use their own bike they currently own, (after a tune-up and maybe new tires of course), or borrow their friend’s bike.  What you should not do is go out and drop $5,000 on a new state-of-the-art ‘Tri-bike’, that you only use once and can’t even ride because it is so uncomfortable.  Or, you could even opt for an off-road, trail triathlon and use a mountain-bike, where the terrain-factor slightly evens out the bike playing field.  A fast guy on a slow bike will always be faster than a slow guy on fast bike, end of story.  Does that make sense?  So for your first few races, just know that YOU are the weak link and not your bike!  When you start losing to your age-group consistently by only a few minutes, then maybe you can start blaming your old, heavy bike.  And even before you buy a new bike, consider things like, shifting more to keep your RPMs steady, between 85 to 100 - which equates to more efficient pedaling.  And learn about drafting, (though this is illegal in many triathlons.)  But at least you can master body position and aerodynamics.  Reducing drag can save you a lot of energy for the run phase, and being properly fitted and sized for your bike will ideally allow you to incorporate your glutes and hamstrings more, sparing your quads for the final run phase.  They say that the bike phase is the where you can make up the most ground and make the most gains – something to keep in mind.


Wearing a Heart Rate Monitor


This is a good time to mention that you should be wearing a heart rate monitor so you know where you stand, effort-wise.  This is not just for heart-safety reasons, but also to know which energy-system you are primarily operating in.  Your goals is to remain mostly aerobic, or below 80% of your maximum heart rate, throughout the race, or you may exceed your lactate threshold and ‘bonk’ (low blood-sugar crash), or you may go so far into oxygen-debt that you cannot recover properly.  This is more important of course the longer the race becomes, as most of us have enough stored muscle glycogen to get us through an hour of exercise not matter how intense.  If you don’t want to race wearing one, then at least train with one.  They provide real-time effort and exertion feedback and make you more aware and able to train smarter.  Many of them can even calculate your VO2 Maximum (maximum oxygen consumption heart rate) and your Lactate-Threshold heart rate (the heart rate at which you are recycling lactic acid as fast as you are producing it), as well as track calories burned (energy management).


The 3.1 Mile Run


Alas you made it to the final phase and you are feeling surprisingly strong!  Well be wary and stay on your planned pace, if you have one.  Do NOT go chasing down the 5 guys that just passed you during the transition.  If you are unsure about pacing, find somebody near you who seems to be running at a pace that suits you and hang with him until you assess how much gas you have left in your tank.  There will be plenty of time to execute your final take down of opponents during the last mile.  There is no rule against drafting during the run.  Concentrate on your breathing and get control of it.  If you are huffing and puffing in oxygen-debt, slow down.  So save your kick for the last mile.  The running phase is deceiving for many, as this is where you may hit the proverbial ‘wall’ (…of muscle cramping), though this is not typically a problem for shorter, sprint-distances.  If you ate and drank well the night before, there should be no wall standing between you and the finish line, where you will bound across in full stride, looking studly for your post-race photo with your finisher’s medal proudly hanging around your neck.  And if you picked a good race, the beer garden will not be too far away!

I tend to develop and maintain my physique through high-intensity sports that involve both cardio and resistance, such as surfing and beach volleyball, along with weight-training 1 to 2 days per week.  Photo by Blake Little

The 12 Week Plan


Just about every first-timer race-completion, training plan requires 12 weeks minimum.  This means beginning with a basic fitness level, if you start 12 weeks out, that you will be able to finish the race with a respectable age-group time, injury free!  So, yes, endurance racing is not for spontaneous types.  Of course it depends on your current baseline fitness level – some may need only 10 weeks and others may need 14.  On a less daunting note, since swimming, biking and running are all forms of cardio training, they all count towards your over all cardio fitness improvement.  So you don’t need to do each of them every workout.  Each discipline needs to be trained at least once per week, with a long, slow, purely-aerobic workout accomplished once per week as well.  Most weekend-warriors do their long workout on Sunday.  I recommend one day of week for pure strength-training too, (weight training is most practical) to preserve your muscle-mass and fast-twitch muscle fibers, which will carry you during any hills or sprint sections.  And lastly you should have one rest day, or active-rest day, playing a fun sport or at least cross-training other muscles.  So that is 6 days of training weekly, with one of those days being 1 to 2 hours long – yeah…you are going to get into shape!  All this being said, I’m going to direct you to Active dot com’s website, which has some amazing, free training plans and a race directory to sign up for a race near you.  They have one of the best sprint-distance triathlon, 12 week training plans I found during all of my research, with a weekly break down of the specific workouts, all free.  So check it out for further info at and good luck!


This article was originally written by me for Four EL magazine, JAN 2014 issue.

























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