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Training for a Triathlon


It was once regarded as a multi-sport braved only by the super-humanly fit. But recently, the triathlon has become the consummate "me-too" phenomenon, attracting those who crave extra motivation, new challenges or the breathtaking body-sculpting benefits such a competition gives.

When you engage in a program comprising swimming, cycling and running, you won't just get fit. You'll be rewarded mentally, spiritually and socially, and become more confident than you've ever been in your life, says Julie Moss, age 45, a triathlete in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Plus, it's easier and more fun than you may think. You needn't tackle a hyper-distance "Ironman" (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26-mile run); few do. Complete the following program, and in just six weeks you can sail through a "sprint," or short-distance, triathlon -- approximately a 400- to 600-yard swim, 10- to 20-mile bike ride, and two- to four-mile run.

Keep track of how you're doing with our Calories Burned tool!

The swim, which comes first in any triathlon, is the shortest part of the event. Do most of your workouts in a pool, but practice in a lake or ocean at least two times before the triathlon. If you're a poor swimmer, a wet suit can increase your buoyancy and will protect you from the elements.

Swim 1: Drill 50s
What you'll do After a slow 5- to 10-minute warm-up swim, complete 6-12 50-yard swims (50 yards equals 2 laps in a standard Olympic-sized pool) at an easy to moderate pace. Swim with smooth, elongated strokes, rolling side-to-side. Afterward, cool down.
Heart rate 40-50 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR is estimated by subtracting your age from 220.)
RPE 3-4 (Find the RPE here)
Duration 20-30 minutes
Calories burned 120-225 (Calorie estimates are based on a 145-pound woman)

Swim 2: Negative-Splits (Intervals)
What you'll do After a 10- to 15-minute warm-up, complete 2-4 200-yard swims (200 yards equals 8 laps). Within each 200-yard interval, swim the first 100 yards slower than the second: Stop between each 200-yard swim and recover completely by hanging onto the wall (if in a pool) and allowing your breathing to return to a comfortable level. As you gain fitness, mix in easy swimming or treading water as part of your recovery. Afterward, cool down thoroughly.
Heart rate 70-80 percent of your MHR for the work interval; 50 percent during the rest interval.
RPE 6-7 for the work interval; drop down to a very easy 2-3 for the rest interval.
Duration 30-45 minutes
Calories burned 300-450

Cycling comes next in the triathlon, and while it is the longest portion of the event, most agree it's also the easiest. Just remember, you'll still need to run for a few miles after biking, so save something for that finish! You can use a mountain bike, but using a road bike will make things easier because the road bike is lighter and the tires dramatically reduce rolling resistance. If you live in a cold or wet climate, you can perform all of your cycling training on an indoor bike.

Bike 1: The Soft-Pedal
What you'll do Pedal in nice, smooth circles with minimum effort over flat terrain, or with minimal resistance on a stationary bike. You won't need to warm up or cool down (but do stretch afterward).
Heart rate 30-40 percent of your MHR
RPE 2-3
Duration 20-30 minutes
Calories burned 100-180

Bike 2: Cruise Intervals
What you'll do After a 10- to 15-minute warm-up, stretch or shake out any areas that feel sore or tight. Next, ride moderately hard for 5 minutes, and then either pedal at an easy effort (RPE 2-3) or stop riding completely, taking time to recover. Repeat 2-4 times, then cool down thoroughly.
Heart rate 70-80 percent of your MHR for the work interval; allow your heart rate to fall below 50 percent during the rest interval.
RPE 6-7 for the work interval; 2-3 for the rest interval
Duration 45-60 minutes
Calories burned 400-700

Running is the most physically and mentally demanding part of any triathlon. Fortunately, it only lasts 2-4 miles in a short-distance triathlon, and you can walk much of that if you're feeling tired. However, if you're true to your endurance run (which you'll do every week), you ought to have no trouble finishing. Do not work out in walking or cross-training shoes; you absolutely must train and race in running-specific shoes that suit your biomechanics. Go to your local running store (or visit and seek expert help in choosing shoes.

Run 1: Tempo
What you'll do After a 10- to 15-minute warm-up, settle into a moderately hard running pace for 5-20 minutes. Keep your rhythm steady and focus on breathing deeply and maintaining proper running form (torso erect, shoulders and hands relaxed, with arms moving forward, elbows bent at 90 degrees, feet rolling heel-to-toe with a natural stride). Perform this workout every other week, and cool down thoroughly afterward.
Heart rate 70-80 percent of your MHR
RPE 6-7
Duration 15-35 minutes
Calories burned 200-400

Run 2: Endurance
What you'll do After warming up, go for a long, moderately easy run. Long runs forge the physical strength and mental fortitude you need to endure the final stretches of the triathlon. Over the 6 weeks, build up the duration of this run to 1 hour or more, but don't increase the duration by more than 10 percent a week. Pay close attention to your heart rate during your long runs to prevent overtraining. It's perfectly acceptable -- and smart -- to walk portions of your long runs. Afterward, cool down.
Heart rate 50-60 percent of your MHR
RPE 4-5
Duration 45-60 minutes
Calories burned 350-550

THE PLAN: your training schedule
Over the course of six weeks you'll complete 5 of the 6 cardio workouts (swimming, cycling or running) described in this program each week.

2 swims
2 bike rides
1 endurance run

1 swim
2 bike rides
2 runs

2 swims
2 bike rides 1 endurance run

2 swims
1 bike ride
2 runs

2 swims
2 bike rides
1 endurance run

1 swim
2 bike rides
2 runs

Complement this plan with 2 total-body strength workouts a week on nonconsecutive days, and on the same days that you do your shorter cardio workout. Take the other 2 days off.

Begin each workout with 5-15 minutes of easy swimming, biking or walking/running, depending on which workout you're doing. The more intense your workout, the longer you should warm up.

End every workout with another 5-10 minutes at an easy pace, followed by stretches for all the muscles you've just worked. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds without bouncing; repeat 2-3 more times.

Note The duration of each workout includes the warm-up and cool-down.

Triathlon tips
For more information, visit the following Web sites: The inside scoop on training techniques, nutrition and gear. Search and register online for hundreds of fitness events across the country. For women of all levels, this sprint-distance triathlon is the largest multisport series in the world.

The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
In this six-week program, you can gauge your intensity using the Rate of Perceived Exertion and/or a percentage of your maximum heart rate. Here's what the numbers mean:

%MHR: 20-30
Intensity: Very easy; you can converse with no effort.

%MHR: 40
Intensity: Easy; you can converse with almost no effort.

%MHR: 50
Intensity: Moderately easy; you can converse comfortably with little effort.

%MHR: 60
Intensity: Moderate; conversation requires some effort.

%MHR: 70
Intensity: Moderately hard; conversation requires quite a bit of effort.

%MHR: 80
Intensity: Difficult; conversation requires a lot of effort.

%MHR: 85-90
Intensity: Peak effort; no-talking zone