Choosing a Triathlon Training Plan

author : Ron
comments : 2

What training program is best for you given your background? Is it a Sprint, Olympic or an Ironman Program?

Where does one start? We all come from a myriad of backgrounds, prior injuries, different genetics, etc.  Selecting and starting with an appropriate training plan will be a very important decision that will allow you to reach your goals if selected properly or end in injury or burnout, if that plan is chosen incorrectly. 

Do any of these following questions fit your profile?  If so, read on.  We definitely have some training plans with several options for you.

Do you come from a background of purely running, cycling or swimming and you wish to minimize injuries and add some flavor to your program?

Maybe you come from the couch and want to lose weight and make a positive change to your life?

Have you trained in all three sports or triathlon casually and are now looking for more structure, speed or improved performance? 
Perhaps adding 'triathlete' to your resume will sound totally cool?


Well, this article will just give you some pointers on choosing a triathlon training plan to fit your lifestyle and goals.  Note, the recommendations here are based on my conservative background.  See the 'Restrictions and Terms of Use' before using the resources on the site.  Print this page out before continuing!  It will serve as a worksheet in choosing your training plan.

The following questions are very important and require special consideration in determining a plan that is appropriate for your current level to minimize risk and injury:

  1. Coming off the couch? 

  2. What are your goals?

  3. How much time do you have per week to train?

  4. Right now, do you have a base in running, biking or swimming?

  5. Do you have any prior injuries that could pose a problem?

  6. Are you overweight?

  7. Your revised training plan assessment

  8. Available plans

Coming off of the couch?

OK, you're probably still deciding whether you will or can make a big lifestyle change for the better.  And you are probably somewhat intimidated by the 'triathlon' idea.  You probably have tried unsuccessfully several fitness and diet programs.  You need something that will motivate you and instill a lot of pride as you will be a very small percent of the population training as a triathlete.  But getting started can be very intimidating.  You have the jargon to get used to, probably a hundred questions plus you have to train in all three sports at once!  That can be daunting to the beginner.  By following the rest of the article, I hope to get you thinking about the do's and dont's of triathlon training as you figure out a plan for yourself.


What are your goals?

Most of you will be starting at the Sprint level-even if you already have been doing another sport for awhile.  This will allow you to try it out.  Perhaps you aren't even thinking about the longer distances and like training for the short stuff. Maybe some of you are starting your journey to completing a Full Ironman someday. 


Before we get started, let me get inside your head a little. Check your initial first-year goals and your long-term goals (if any yet) below.  Also indicate if you want to do two distances in one season.



 Sprint  --->  Olympic  --->  1/2 Ironman  --->  Full Ironman


Goals are great to have but only if they are realistic.  If you set your goals beyond your capabilities, you will be inviting injury and failure.  With that in mind, triathlon is a sport where, ironically, moderation is the key.  Rest and patience is very important to the training plan for recovery allowing you to build to new levels and intensity later. 


I cannot tell you how many times I hear the following story: a total beginner starts out on a 'couch-to-5k' program or something similiar, they come to a point where they are feeling great on the runs and feel like they can take on the world.  So what do they do?  Well, more appropriately, what do they NOT do.  In their endorphin-flooded state of euphoria, they decide to NOT follow the structured programs written here, they are feeling good one day and decide to 'go as long as they can'.  You can't do that in this sport because that is the recipe for injury.  And that is usually what happens to them. 


Unlike several other sports, doing every workout at maximum intensity and duration will cause over-training leading to fatigue, sickness and injury. Don't get me wrong, in a detailed training plan, there is a time for maximum intensity-but not all of the time.





1/2 Ironman

Full Ironman


.5 mile

.93 mile

1.2 miles

2.4 miles


13 miles

24.8 miles

56 miles

112 miles


3.2 miles

6.2 miles

13.1 miles

26.2 miles


Looking at the above common triathlon distances spectrum and noticing that overall, the next level doubles in distance, it is a safe assumption that you should only cover two consecutive distances per season.  The rationale is that we just can't keep building our endurance base without proper rest and maintenance phases.


Some examples:


You are a total beginner having no endurance experience for the last 2 years+.  It would be wise to start training for a sprint race and upon re-evaluation and no injuries, you can safely progress to the Olympic distance with a race by the end of that same first year.


You have established your endurance base of the Olympic distance last year and have maintained it over the winter.  Since you have already been operating at the Olympic distance level for at least 4-6 months, you can progress from the Olympic distance to the 1/2 Ironman distance and even possibly the full Ironman distance the next year.  Likewise, an established Sprint base can take you to an Olympic and perhaps a Half Ironman the next year.


Ideally, and more conservatively, you would like to build up to a certain distance (example: Sprint or Olympic) and maintain those training distances for an entire season before building up again to go to the next distance. The last thing you want is to get too excited and go from the couch to a 1/2 Ironman in one year. Oh, it can be done by some with certain backgrounds, but not by the majority. 


There cannot be enough said on building and maintaining a solid base for a period of time before building up to the next level. A deep base such as this will drastically reduce injuries. One can't keep building without some maintenance phases. Strong, solid foundations are what's going to get you to an Ironman distance safely or whatever your goals are.  There is no hurry in this sport.


Have your goals changed by this initial assessment so far?  Indicate if you still want to do two distances in one season.




 Sprint  --->  Olympic  --->  1/2 Ironman  --->  Full Ironman

How much time do you have per week to train?

Think about it this for awhile and write down a number of hours you have to commit.  Think about your family, work and other obligations.


I have ________ hours per week to train.

I have ________ days per week to train.

I have on average ________ hours per day to train (will be variable depending on the day)


Here are some training hours per week of our training plans.  Based on your answers above, circle the options that are available for you depending on your goals and your available training time.





1/2 Ironman

Full Ironman






Min hours per week





Max hours per week






Note: the minimums are usually recovery/rest weeks while the maximums are the highest volume achieved by a particular plan.  There is also additional variability within the various plan types for a particular distance.  Example, all Ironman plans will not max out at 18 hours per week, some will max out at 15.  Likewise for the other distances.


See the training plan list, select the plan you are interested in and hit the 'total volume' button to see precisely the hours involved per week/per plan.  You can also see the min and max times for individual workouts for the plans and the 'calendar' will show you total workout times for the entire plan.  The '2 weeks detail' will show you any additional information that comes with the plan at that level. Several plans include additional strength exercises which are optional.


Have you revised what you can do for your first year?


Revised assessment:


 Sprint  --->  Olympic  --->  1/2 Ironman  --->  Full Ironman


Remember, talking to your family and friends on your goals and getting the support will significantly help your training and overall family life. You need to get your family to understand your goals and be able to support you since your training will be taking a little time away from them-especially the long rides. But hopefully you can galvanize your whole family and set a good example. It's just a balancing act that you must work hard to maintain to stay in tune with your family so that they can be supportive.


Right now, do you have a base in running, biking or swimming?

Single sport background

Do you come from a running (or cycling or swimming) background?  Depending on what distance and training volume you repeatedly do over the course of a normal week, you have established some base already and may be able to jump into the Olympic level right off the bat if you can meet the first week's requirements with little problems.  But most likely, keeping the sport you're good in at your current level and training for the 'new' two sports at the sprint level would be a safer bet. 


If you come from a marathon or cycling background, you most likely will have to cut back the number of times per week you used to train in the single sport so you can fit in the other two sports.  Training your single sport 4-6 times per week will not work anymore.  You may be surprised to find that cutting back and making time in the other tri-sports will improve the single sport that you were used to and eliminate some over-use injuries.  Most training plans average each sport 3 times per week, usually no more than 4 and no less then 2.


Multiple sport or prior triathlon experience

Let's first assume that you have been training for at least 6 months.  You may have done some triathlon, biathlons or duathlons already.  Or perhaps you already train for all three sports but in a relaxed or non-regimented fashion?  Do you just want a 'template' plan where you are given the minutes in each sport and it's up to you to figure out the workouts?  Our free plans will do just that. But if you want to improve upon your previous training with specific drills to improve your efficiency and speed, then look into the silver or gold member plans as each workout is detailed and provides a specific purpose.  The gold option includes online coaching to answer all questions.


Prior Injuries?

Even without any prior injuries, I definitely recommend you to see a doctor or sports physician to discuss your issues and your goals. If you have a history of injuries or being overweight, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE discuss your plans with a physician, coach or other sports related practitioner of medicine. They will work with you to develop a plan that is right for you and any shortcomings you may have. We want to remain injury free people!


The sport of triathloning will offer many benefits to your body and mind BUT only if you start up appropriately for yourself. If not, then starting up incorrectly will just give your body problems. So, the take home lesson is: besides the advice contained here, definitely get a second opinion from a qualified individual.


See this article in considering your risks: Medical Clearance


Are You Overweight?

A lot of us will be having goals of weight loss. How much weight? If you're a couple 10 pounds overweight, then starting out with any of these programs here should be OK - especially the couch-to programs. If you have a lot to lose, starting out running may very well be NOT the best thing to start up with...example: couch to 5k or couch to sprint. This will be too much impact on your unconditioned knees and could bring on injuries. The safest route would be to start a biking or swimming program combined with some strength training and along with a good diet to start preconditioning yourself so that when you add running in, you will not be prone to injury. Again, please read:  Medical Clearance


As an aside, a doctor told me that in a study of several cadavers, many of them pure distance runners, that the biggest cause of joint degeneration or problems IS NOT caused by distance running itself BUT by improperly starting a running program too quickly or with weight to lose. Its just too much pounding and the body can't adapt fast enough.


So if you have weight to lose, definitely talk to a specialist, get on a good diet and start on a bike or swim program. Depending on how overweight you are it just may be feasible to start one of the couch-to programs which is just a conservative walk-run program that runs the course of several months. Just approach this smartly and get a doctors opinion.


See a simple Beginner Exercise Program for the overweight to pre-condition your body before starting a triathlon program involving running.  The beginning of this program focuses on utilizing the bike for cardiovascular exercise and moderate strength training for low-impact training-especially good for starting out and/or having weight to lose.


Your possible training plan distances

So, after all of this, have you revised your initial assessments of what distance to start with and possibly to end the season with?


Revised assessment: 


 Beginner Exercise Plan ->


 Sprint  ->  Olympic ->  1/2 Ironman ->  Full Ironman


Available training plans

You have most likely arrived at the appropriate level of training for your first season.  Congratulations!  We offer two levels of training plans: Free and Subscriber-based.  There are big differences to the plans.  It basically now comes down to these five questions:


Do you want to just do the minutes and cross the finish-line?

---> Use the free plans.  There are dozens.  They will do the job.  My first triathlon was an Olympic triathlon based on a free, template based plan such as these.  I crossed the finish-line with a smile using a free plan!

Do you want a reliable template of build, rest and taper weeks to build your own workouts into?

---> Use the free plans.  There are several 5k, Sprint and Olympic templates to choose from.

Do you want to use the free plans but be able to customize them?
--> Our  Bronze membership will allow you to send free plans to your training log, customize them with start and race dates, allow you to move workouts around and even access them on your mobile device with our apps.

Do you want to gain efficiency, extract the most performance out of your training minutes and place a lot better racing? 

---> Then read more about the  Silver and  Gold detailed plans.  Depending on the level, you almost have your own coach with dozens of plans but at a fraction of the cost.

Do you want to improve the way you train, get faster while sticking to the same distance?

---> Read more about the  Silver and  Gold detailed plans.  If you have been following a 'minutes-only' plan, you will see much athletic improvement on a plan with detailed workouts designed to make you faster.


 Use our free plans

All of my free programs here are just a slow buildup in minutes.  They give you the minutes to train while offering general training guidelines with a 'tried-and-true' method of buildup and rest weeks.  You can certainly build-in your own specific workouts and/or use all of the other articles to supplement.  Click on the link above to see the plans.  These programs will work fine for your first year to get you across the finishline.

31 Detailed Plans with our Performance Membership

Silver or Gold members can start with instant access to all of our 31 detailed plans designed by one of the few USAT Level III coaches, Mike Ricci, with daily-specific workouts built to maximize efficiency and build-in solid training principles for better technique. All of these plans can be 'zipped' together for a complete annual program from the off-season to racing season. 


There is no guesswork, all workouts are given.  Many of these plans serve as intermediate / advanced plans too. Click on the above link for details on this memberships and to see why this may be a better option for you and your goals.


With your Silver or Gold membership, you will have access to ALL of these plans types for the flexibility you need during your season:

  • 1/2 IRONMAN
  • 1/2 MARATHON

 over 20 VIDEOS of drills and tutorials with your Silver and Gold Membership.  These videos are for the drills that are specific to our plans.  See the video library for a sample and a listing of all videos.



All of these plans can be additionally found in: Training Plans

Make training an 'appointment'

In the words of Sally Edwards, Ironman competitor "Set aside a certain time of day, 3-6 days per week, and call that an appointment, an appointment with your workout. It is just as important as an appointment with your banker, doctor or hair stylist." Do you still find you may not have enough time? Sally Edward also mentions that the minimum threshold for triathlon fitness is a minimum of three workouts per week, minimum 30 minutes each...that's six hours a month? 

How often do you watch television a month, read or play on the internet? You may find that you have more time than you think.

You can do it

I firmly believe that anybody can run a triathlon...even if you haven't worked out in years. All it takes is patience and must make it a priority in your lifestyle. Once you do this then the training will come easy. 


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date: August 28, 2004


I started this site 10 years ago after doing my first triathlon in 2001. My goal for this site is to get people healthy and happy. I firmly believe that triathlon is the best 'sport' for your body as it has less impact then the more popular single sport(running) while incorporating your upper body from swimming allows for a balanced-body approach to fitness.


I started this site 10 years ago after doing my first triathlon in 2001. My goal for this site is to get people healthy and happy. I firmly believe that triathlon is the best 'sport' for your body as it has less impact then the more popular single sport(running) while incorporating your upper body from swimming allows for a balanced-body approach to fitness.

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