Many athletes rely on a coach for their triathlon training plan, but it’s a safe bet that many times more do not. Coaching yourself is given short-shrift — but you can actually do a great job of writing your own with just a little work. Actually, from what I’ve seen from many “custom” coaching programs it can actually be far superior in a lot of cases — that many coaches think of most of their athletes as easy revenue streams is another article altogether.
There are a lot of benefits to going it alone:
- No one knows you like you
- It can make you very in tune with your body
- You learn a lot about how you respond best to training
- You get to save a few hundred dollars a month
- There’s a satisfaction that comes with getting to the finish line on your own
If you’re in the ‘self-coached’ camp here are 13 things to help you write a triathlon training plan like a pro.
1. Set Goals
In my experience, most people skip over this part, and that’s a shame. Even if you’re “not someone who writes their goals down” you need to make an exception here. From a purely logistical perspective we need some basic goals to set the pace of the plan and keep us on track.
Make some of the goals very attainable, but don’t hesitate to set a few moonshots. Reach for the stars and set some goals that might take you a year or two or more to reach. Revisit them at least monthly to check in and set new weekly, daily, or monthly goals.
2. Start Slow
There’s very little penalty in starting your triathlon training plan slow, but there’s a huge penalty if you do too much too soon. Begin with easier and shorter workouts, especially considering that you’ll likely be doing them in the colder months. Don’t force things too much at this point because that is a surefire way to get burned out.
Contrary to popular belief you don’t have to spend hours on base miles this winter in the cold and wet weather. (You can read more about this in my article about the base training myth). If you’re motivated to get out for a long workout some days, that’s great, there’s no problem with that — just don’t let too many of these turn into death marches.
3. Build Frequency first
This is the safest and best way to increase any training metric — but especially intensity and distance.
If you’ve been doing a cycling workout with 6 X 3min intervals each week, add a second day of intervals but do 4 X3min one day and then 2-3 X 3min another day.
You’re doing less each day, but more cumulatively for the week and having that second day now provides huge opportunity to increase the weekly intervals moving forward.
4. Honestly assess the time you have for training throughout the year
This is where most people screw up. Either through best intentions, over-zealous motivation, or simply wanting to “go big” — most people over-estimate how much free time they truly have for their sport. In experimental psychology this is called ‘discount delay’ where we say to ourselves ‘sure I’m busy now, but I’m going to have more free time next month.’ There are hundreds of research studies looking at this — how we make this leap, why we make it, etc.
Here’s a simple way to avoid it: keep a record of what you’re doing every hour or two during the day. You don’t have to write down every little thing, just enough that you can reconstruct your day a few weeks from now. Do this for at least a week. If you absolutely can’t do this then look back at your calendar on your phone. Having this actual day-to-day data will make it more likely you won’t over-estimate your free time. (A side benefit of doing this is seeing the inefficiencies in your schedule.)
You can do a lot with only a little time, but you don’t want to build a plan around 14 hours/week and train that way for only 8 hours/week. We can do lot with 8 hours, but we have to plan things differently
5. Plan in recovery time
Take your available training time and subtract off at least 10% — set this aside for recovery. This is something that always gets over-looked and if you do it is the surest way to get hurt or burned out.
I’m not saying you have to plan a massage every week. The most effective recovery strategies are simple and cheap. Sleep. Stretching/mobility work. Self-massage. Hydrating. Fueling properly.
Pro Tip: Recovery begins before the workout:
A slow and effective warm-up is an over-looked form of recovery. If you begin a workout on inadequate warm-up it puts more strain on tendons, fascia and other collagen-based tissues which can lead to more damage to them which requires more recovery time after the fact. So plan in warm-up and warm-down period — yes, even when you’re short on time.
6. Honestly assess your current fitness level
This goes along with starting slow. Don’t jump right into 3 hour rides if you’re not there yet. If you’re not running regularly, you shouldn’t be heading to the track in the first few weeks. Start slow and build. Don’t fret; it doesn’t take long to build up to some significant workouts even when you’re adding a conservative amount of training each week. Having training blocks sketched out will make it easier to see this which takes us to ….structuring your plan:
7. Begin with the end in mind
For structuring your plan, start with the end in mind — take the race/event day and work backwards from there. You will be amazed at how much clearer your path is when you do this. I always compare it to how much easier a maze is when you start at the end and work backwards.
8. A Triathlon Training Plan Should Start “Big-Picture” then Zoom
Start by blocking off the last three weeks before the big race.
This is traditionally the time when athletes enter their sharpening or tapering phase. But you don’t have to think of this as a taper per se.
I like to think of it in a different way: in these last 3 (okay maybe 3.5) weeks you can’t really make a positive impact on your race day fitness by training more or harder…but you sure can have a negative impact. So block it off for now and you can plan it later.
Now, take the remainder of the time between now and then and start carving them into four- or six-week blocks. Four weeks if you have less than 6 months to your target date and six if you’re over 10 months away.
You don’t even need to know at this point what you’re going to do with those block — some you’ll combine into bigger blocks, others you might break up into smaller, but they’re just easier to wrap our heads around when they’re carved up into more manageable chunks. Just seeing them as these chunks makes them easier to figure out what to do with.
Now you can start naming those blocks and giving them purpose. Plans that follow a pattern (even if the pattern isn’t perfect in regards to state of the art design) will be better than schizophrenic or random weekly and monthly training.
No one has all the answers since every athlete is an N = 1 — you have room to experiment to find out what works for you. Typically blocks are often designated for:
off-season/early-season ; initial slow build ; speed ; strength ; distance
All of the periods will have recovery weeks built into them — one about every 3 to 4 weeks depending on training load, intensity, outside stressors.
It should be starting to come together at this point how to fill up these blocks in a logical way. Research doesn’t even have all the answers so don’t worry too much about being “wrong” by putting a strength phase in front of speed or vice versa.
9. Be Polarizing
Knowing how hard or how long to train is possibly the biggest hurdle for most athletes. Combine this with the ridiculous number of training zones that some coaches spell out and you have a recipe for confusion.
I’m going to make it simple: research suggests that endurance athletes will experience more improvement in almost all training metrics using a polarized program compared to high intensity interval training (HIIT), threshold training, and high-volume/LSD training. Plus, polarized training is easier to implement (by removing a lot of variables) and tends to be more engaging and fun as well.
I always stress to my athletes to ‘stay out of the middle’ and this is especially important the less time you have to train. “The middle”, especially that area just below threshold, does little for our fitness but requires a disproportionate amount of time to recover.
10. Stop looking at your power files
We have access to so many metrics of fitness that we can put our training data under the microscope. There are so many opportunities to dig into your training data that many athletes experience paralysis by analysis.
I used to be a “what gets measured, gets improved” believer, but no more. In my experience this is almost always counter-productive, especially for the self-coached athlete. The problem lies in the externality of all this information — it makes us look to our computer screen or phone for an answer versus looking internally and assessing what our body is telling us. Hyper-wired athletes tend to lose the connection to that inner voice. Also, there is so much useless information in all that data which has been shown to negatively affect our decision-making. Ω β Look at your data, get the big take-aways and then leave it alone.
11. Use the off-season to work on your weaknesses
Most triathletes have trouble with one or more of their sports. The off-season and early season is perfect for focusing more of your time on this one aspect.
Some common shortcomings: swim form, bike power, running efficiency
Also, as a PT I’ve never seen a perfectly rounded athlete. All of us have imbalances in our movement patterns, strength, and mobility. Visit a movement specialist for an evaluation, take up yoga, spend more time in the weight room. Find your weakness and chip away at it – it’ll make you less injury prone and allow you to train more and harder when it counts.
12. Swim – begin and end with form
Because there’s less time to be gained in the water, it doesn’t make sense to spend a disproportionate amount of time in the pool.
For those of us that don’t already glide effortlessly through the water — which let’s be honest is most of us — swim form is exponentially more important than hard efforts in the pool.
Cutting 10 minutes off your swim time because you did a bunch of sprints in the pool to improve your swim fitness but your form still stinks is a terrible strategy. You realize this when you leave T1 already a bit gassed. The focus needs to be on swimming easier.
Working on form takes less time in the water because of how we learn new motor tasks. First, drills make great warm-ups so you can begin immediately. Drill for about 8-15 minutes at a time. This brief interval of time is the duration by which we best learn a new motor skill. There are significantly dimishing returns after 15-20 minutes.
When I work with a stroke rehab patient we focus on new tasks or movements for only this brief period and then move on to something else. It allows the neurological system to take a break and we subconsciously ‘absorb’ the lessons learned in the previous 15 minutes.
Swim some easy freestyle laps in between two or three segments of drills and you have yourself a great 45 minute to hour pool workout.
My biggest improvement came when I actually only cut about 2 minutes off my 70.3 swim but I felt like I had just done an easy and relaxing warm-up compared to being very fatigued previously.
The speed will come when you work on form — you will first swim easier and then without extra effort you will go faster as well.
13. Run after almost every bike ride
Getting used to that bike to run transition is critical (admittedly less so the longer the race gets) for every triathlete.
You will, of course, still have some dedicated bike-run workouts — I’m not telling you to turn every bike ride into a brick workout.
Sound cumbersome? This doesn’t have to take a long time:
After almost every bike ride, whether indoors or out, short or long, transition to running shoes and jog easy for 5-10 minutes. That’s it.
The initial 10 minutes after T2 is the awkward period. The more you do this you will begin to actually run better after a bike ride.
Building a pro-quality triathlon training plan isn’t really a mysterious, black-box process. Truthfully, most of it is just common sense and planning ahead — keeping track of where you are and where you’re going. Anyone, yes ANYONE, can do it with just a little work, so grab a pen and paper, pull up your calendar and get planning.
He lives with his wife and two kids and runs multiple businesses in Grand Junction, Colorado.