How to Train for a Sprint Triathlon

Posted On:
Friday, May 17, 2024
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Triathlon Plans for Beginners

So you’ve decided that you want to train for a Sprint Triathlon.  Hooray!  Triathlon is a wonderful sport with so many benefits: a fun community of athletes, decreased injury potential due to the built-in cross-training that triathlon provides, and increased overall fitness.  But how do you prepare to do a Sprint Triathlon?  In the eternal words of Julie Andrews when she portrayed Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music: I’ve found that it’s best to start at the very beginning; it’s a very good place to start.

What is a Sprint Triathlon?

A Sprint Triathlon is a multisport event.  Multisport events are endurance events/races that consist of two or more sports within the same event.  A Sprint Triathlon consists of swimming, cycling, and running (in that order); each of these individual components is referred to as a “discipline” or a “leg” of the race.  Distances of Sprint Triathlons can vary, but the most widely accepted standardized distance for a Sprint Triathlon is a 750-meter swim, a 20-kilometer bike, and a 5-kilometer run (for a total of 25.75 kilometers or 16 miles for the entire event).

In addition to the three sports that are contained within a Sprint Triathlon, athletes need to Transition from one sport to the next.  Athletes store their gear and any necessary supplies for a Sprint Triathlon within a defined boundary called a Transition Area.  The Transition Area is not part of any of the legs of the triathlon (so it is not part of the swim course, bike course, or run course).  In a Sprint Triathlon, there are two Transitions; the first (called Transition 1) is in between the swim and bike legs and the second (called Transition 2) is in between the bike and run legs.

Along with the time spent swimming, biking, and running, the time in Transition does count toward an athlete’s total race time.  An athlete’s total final time in a Sprint Triathlon is comprised of:

  • Swim Time
  • Transition 1 Time
  • Bike Time
  • Transition 2 Time
  • Run Time

What Gear & Equipment Do You Need to Train for a Sprint Triathlon?

With three different sports/disciplines to contend within a Sprint Triathlon, you might think that you need a lot of gear in order to be able to train for and race at a Sprint Triathlon.  However, the list of what you need to train for a Sprint Triathlon is actually (perhaps surprisingly!) short.  Here is what is necessary to train for and complete a Sprint Triathlon:

  • Goggles
  • Bathing Suit
  • Bicycle Helmet
  • Bicycle (any kind of bicycle)
  • Water Bottle
  • Running Shoes

Some races may require additional equipment (for instance, the rules at some races don’t allow a bare torso on the bike and the run, so athletes must have a shirt to wear for those legs), but this is the list of what is necessary in most race situations.

Seasoned and experienced triathletes may disagree with this list, and declare other items in addition to these to be “essential.”  However, I maintain that anything else not included in this list is “nice to have”, not necessary or essential.  Even if a particular piece of gear is really nice to have or an athlete has gotten used to using it, that doesn’t necessarily make it essential.  Here are just some on the items that commonly make it onto the “Nice to Have” list when training for a Sprint Triathlon:

  • GPS Device (preferably with structured workout capabilities and navigation features)
  • Heart Rate Monitor
  • Wetsuit
  • Tri Kit (a special type of apparel specifically designed to be worn for all three legs of a triathlon)
  • Cycling Shorts
  • Power Meter
  • A Hat or Visor
  • Sunscreen

Distinguishing between essential gear items and “nice to have” gear items is really important because doing so highlights the fact that while triathlon certainly does require more gear than other sports (such as running events), the barrier to entry isn’t as high as some people might imagine or as high as some people make it out to be.  For example, I did my first triathlon using those six essential gear items plus bicycle shorts, a shirt, and socks (so a total of nine gear items) and I was able to train very successfully and happily for that race.

How Do You Train for a Sprint Triathlon?

Trying to determine the best way to train for a Sprint Triathlon can definitely be confusing and/or intimidating, especially for athletes who are new to the sport of triathlon.  But truly, training for a Sprint Triathlon isn’t as complicated as one might imagine it to be.

Type & Frequency of Workouts

I generally recommend that athletes try to swim, bike, and run twice each in a training week, meaning that they complete two swim training workouts, two bike training workouts, and two run training workouts (for a total of six workouts).  These workouts do not need to be particularly long; consistently and frequently getting in swimming, biking, and running sessions is the objective here.  Starting with just 15-20 minutes of each discipline is perfectly okay!  As you build your training week over week, you can gradually increase the total duration of each workout you’re doing (and therefore the total amount that you are training in a week).

Incorporate Brick Workouts

After you have a bit of consistency under your belt, you should add in short brick workouts.  Brick Workouts are workouts that include two or more disciplines without stopping in between them.  In triathlon training, brick workouts typically are swim-to-bike or bike-to-run.  Using the example of bike-to-run, you complete a bike workout.  Then, as quickly as you can, you transition to running after finishing your bike ride.  Brick workouts do not need to be particularly long; the main objective here is to practice what it feels like to transition from one discipline to the other.  So for instance, you could add on a short 5-10 minute run to one of your bike rides to get a feel for what running off of the bike feels like. 

Practice Transition

When you incorporate brick workouts, it’s also a good idea to practice Transition.  Lay out your gear the same way you would in the Transition Area at a race so you can get used to that layout as well as taking your gear from a designated place like that.  The more you practice this process, the more confident, smooth, and quicker you’ll be when you navigate Transition in both training and in your race.

Incorporate Open Water Swims

If your race is taking place in open water (such as a lake, river, pond, ocean, etc.) and you have access to open water where you live and/or train, I strongly recommend that you start incorporating open water swims into your weekly training 4-6 weeks after you begin your Training Plan.  Open water is much different than swimming in a pool and it’s important to get used to what swimming in a “living” body of water feels like and how to keep yourself oriented/swimming in a straight line while in open water.  You’ll want to practice sighting, which is when you look up from your swimming stroke to identify your surroundings and guide the direction that you’re swimming in (which should be straight/toward where you want to go).  If you’re going to be wearing a wetsuit, it’s also important to get used to the fit and feel of a wetsuit while you’re swimming.

Practice Fueling & Hydration

A Sprint Triathlon is a relatively short endurance event (finish times range from 55-75 minutes for elite athletes and average 1.5-2 hours for age group athletes), but that doesn’t mean that you can skip or neglect fueling and hydration during a Sprint Triathlon.  You’ll want to practice executing a fueling and hydration plan in training that is based on your individual needs, including your sweat rate.  Sufficient fueling and hydration is really important to ensure that you recover well from your workouts, which enables you to feel and perform well in subsequent workouts, which then helps you actually adapt to the stimulus that you’re imposing on your body in workouts (which makes you stronger and fitter over time).

Once race day comes, you’ll want to implement the fueling and hydration plan that you’ve tested and you know works best for you in the race itself.  Doing so will ensure that you are able to feel as strong and good as possible on race day throughout the entire race from start line to finish line.

How Much Time Do You Need to Train for a Sprint Triathlon?

The amount of time it takes to train for a Sprint Triathlon can vary; this is true of any endurance sport.  It depends on a variety of factors including (but not limited to) what your current fitness level is, how much experience you have with each of the disciplines in a Sprint Triathlon, prior injury history, etc.  

Generally speaking, I recommend that athletes new to endurance sports or to the sport of triathlon plan for at least 16 weeks of training prior to their Sprint Triathlon race date.  This may seem excessive or long at face value, but once you get training, 16 weeks isn’t as long as it appears.  I’ve seen time and time again how at least 16 weeks of training really helps athletes (especially those new to the sport) feel confident and well-prepared come race day.  

Planning for 16 or more weeks of training allows for time buffers in case things don't happen as expected.  My experience as both an endurance coach and as an endurance athlete has taught me that things rarely - if ever - go the way we expect.  It’s better to plan for more time than we think we “need”; if everything does go well, then we reap the benefits of the extra time and are that much more prepared come race day.  But if things do not go as expected (which, again, is the more probable scenario…perhaps you get sick, you have a rough patch at work, or something else happens that disrupts your ability to train), then you have buffers that allow for you to take that time away from training without significantly compromising your readiness for race day.

Athletes who have prior experience in swimming, cycling, and/or running can plan for less time (around 10-12 weeks) to train for a Sprint Triathlon, but honestly, even athletes with experience in one or more of the triathlon disciplines benefit from longer lead times and time buffers in training.  

The Bottom Line

Training for a Sprint Triathlon might seem overwhelming or like a lot, but when you break it down, it honestly isn’t as intimidating as it might appear at face value.  If you’re seeking assistance with training for a Sprint Triathlon, we can help you with one-on-one Consultations, individualized coaching, Custom-Built Training Plans, or Pre-Built Training Plans.  By thoughtfully considering each element of a triathlon, putting in the work, and stacking a bunch of individual pieces together over a 12-20 week time period, you will be well-prepared to take on a Sprint Triathlon with strength and a smile.

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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