By Nenad Rodic
posted 04/05

Triathlon is like cycling, in that it’s an endurance sport; it resembles swimming in it’s technical nature; and like running, body type is certainly a factor, but triathlon is not just a composite of swimming, cycling, and running. It is a completely unique sport that requires specific training, and it brings new issues and controversies to the table.

1) How long is triathlon? Many people look at the Olympic distance triathlon as 1.5 km swim 40 km bike and a 10 km run and they try to train like that, meaning that race pace and everything they do is geared toward those distances. In reality in terms of pace Olympic triathlon is more like 3000 m swim, 60-80 km bike and a half-marathon run. Better you get in training and racing closer your race pace will be to the actual distances of a particular leg of the race.

2) Importance of a particular sport is proportionate to its length. Somewhat true, I agree. Nobody has ever won a triathlon in the swim but 95% of all competitors loose any chance of having a decent race during the swim. Don’t forget that if you are swimming in the 80 F ocean water for ninety minutes you are likely to be completely dehydrated and exhausted upon finishing. So, for some people (many), swimming is the most important leg of triathlon.

3) The best approach to training is to work on your weakness and eliminate it. Probably true, but not always. Sometimes athletes come from strong background which gives them serious advantage in races and training. I believe that they need to keep doing what works for them and slowly pick up other sports. Perfect example is Steve Larsen, possibly the best cyclist ever to compete in this sport. He was so fit and fast on the bike that with very little running and swimming he was able to win big races. Olympic distance triathletes with strong swimming background should keep up the serious swimming training for the anaerobic benefits of it that will yield results in other two sports. Strong cycling background Ironman distance triathletes should stick with big cycling volumes since it’s easier to get fit and acquire efficiency that way. Background will always give you a way to train little harder in a specific sport and you should use this to your advantage .Considering that triathlon is a simple endurance sport it is logical to assume that training and conditioning for it is not any different than for any other endurance sport. Differences are limited to race specific training since racing is the only area where triathlon differs form distance swimming, time trial cycling or road running. Back to top


Brick is probably the single most important workout you will do in your triathlon training. These workouts are highly stressful and should be performed more frequently in race specific mezzo-cycle.
A typical brick workout for an Olympic distance racer would look like this: BIKE warm up 30 min (progressive warm up) 3*(10 km or 15 min at 90-100 % AT with 5 ‘ rest) + RUN immediately after at 90-100% of AT for 20 min + 20 min easy jog warm down.
Ironman racer might want to try something like this: BIKE 20 min warm up + 100-150 KM at maximum aerobic function or maximum aerobic heart rate ( 180 bpm - your age; for most people between 150 and 160 bpm) + RUN immediately after the bike at same HR for 45-90 min.
Olympic distance racer might also want to try multiple bricks (very useful when it’s raining or snowing and you’re stuck indoors on a trainer and treadmill). 3-4*(10-15 min bike @90-100 % AT + 1 mile run @90-100 % HR) Back to top


Open water swimming is unique to triathlon and masters swimming. I strongly recommend practicing this since swim is the most stressful part of the race even for someone who always finishes top ten. I would advise you to go to pacific masters swimming web site and check the list of open water swimming races and do one. These races are far more civilized than triathlons and will give you an idea how to do it.
Other than that you can go with your friends, especially those who are faster than you and practice open water swimming and tactics (drafting and such). Back to top

Here are some tips about open water swimming:


Swimming and racing open water is very different form doing these activities in the pool. Major difference being the absence of walls which can be used to rest if not the cardiovascular system then muscles, especially those of arms and back musculature. This, of course will emphasize the importance of stroke tempo and breathing rhythm. Other big difference is the absence of lines to guide you in the right direction. Tactics that do not involve just the distribution of effort throughout the race are another thing unique to open water swimming. Sometimes, by being smart you can beat a swimmer who you’ve never beaten in the pool. I’ll try to address all these issues with simple tips on how to utilize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses in a form of a simple answer and question essay.

1) Q: How should I warm up?
A: That depends on few things. If water is warm enough I would recommend up to five minutes of easy freestyle followed by some no board kicking and stroke lengthening drills (catch up and similar). After that, a set of four to six repetitions of 40-50 strokes in built manner on 1’ send off is useful to start the lactate production and elimination process so you do not seize up within first 200 meters. If you are a swimmer who possesses superior speed in comparison to the rest of the field and you are confident that easy start that would serve as a warm up will keep you in the top five positions you can skip the warm up all together and stretch instead.
Make sure you time the end of your warm up well so you have 3-5 minutes to rest but not get cold before the start.
If the water is cold you can do as mentioned above in a wetsuit and take it off right before the start (if wetsuits are not allowed). Make sure you try this before you do it in the race since wetsuits change the body position dramatically and you may struggle with the feel for the water after using them.

2) Q: How should I start?
A: That depends on how fast you are. Always be courteous to other swimmers. Leave front rows for the fast swimmers. Unless you’re to be top 20 places in the race do not go to the front row. Swim starts can be brutal since, unfortunately, most swimmers (especially in triathlons) are not courteous. That’s why I recommend starting from a side. If you are fast, start on the inside of the course (if there is an inside). So if the turn around the first buoy is to the left start form the left side, if it is to the right, start on the right. If you’re slower and need to let people go ahead do the opposite. If you breathe to one side only, make sure that you start form the side opposite form the side you breathe on so you can see the field.
Go strong at the start, faster than you will go in the race so you can get in the good position, but do not go anaerobic. Open water swims are long aerobic events, and being anaerobic at the beginning of the race is not very smart. If you are swimming in “clear” water on one of the sides of the field, look for the opening in the field where you can get in and draft. While getting back into the field, be courteous; do not push out someone who was already there. Do not move into the field (drafting position) before you’re sure that the people you’re about to draft are not too fast for you. Do not wait too long either and waste precious energy, that could be easily saved by drafting. Once you’re integrated in the field, enjoy the swim and wait for something to start happening.

3) Q: How do I know that the pace is adequate?
A: Pace can never be too easy. If you feel comfortable and are confident in your finish, stay where you are and wait for the opportune moment (usually around the buoys) to move up in the field. If you are getting all kinds of muscle pain, numbness and fatigue, it’s likely that you are swimming over your lactate threshold and are about to “blow up”. In this case you have two options. First, if the finish is close try to stay where you are and keep the position all the way in. And, second, if it’s early in the race let few people go ahead and try to find more draft so you can recover. High heart rate and heavy breathing do not mean that you are swimming to hard. As long as you’re not accumulating lactate that you can feel in your muscles you’re at the right pace. It is advisable to try different efforts at race pace sets in workout in order to experience these sensations (high heart rate, lactic acid in muscles etc.) so you can recognize what is fast and what is too fast when you race.

4) Q: How should I navigate?
A: If you’re leading I would recommend lifting your head every 10-15 strokes if you swim straight, 5-10 if you’re single side breather and tend to turn to one side. If you really swim crookedly do not try to lead but leave that to someone else. If you get in a good position and are behind someone who looks like they know what they’re doing, make sure you’re close enough to see the bubbles created by his/her kick. This way you’ll avoid unnecessary head lifts. If a person ahead of you tends to swim all over the place, it is up to you to judge whether it’s worth to take a lead and swim the straight line or stay where you are and swim easy in someone’s draft. This depends on your position in the race. If you are in the lead group I would definitely suggest staying with the field. If you’re in the middle and trying to catch up to some other pack it may be worth a try to swim on your own. If you’re off the back you definitely want to swim the shortest way possible.
Another issue is visibility. Often there is at least one leg of the swim that goes straight into the sun and is impossible to see a swim cap of a swimmer ahead of you, and even less a buoy quarter mile away. It is useful to find an easy to spot marker high above the surface of the water (a tall tree, easy to distinguish mountain peak, a house on the hill etc.) and make course corrections in relation to this marker. Sooner or later you will get close enough to see the turn buoy. If it is an ocean swim and the sun is from the east (east coast mornings only) so you’re facing an open see, do your best to stay in contact with the field and hope that the whole field is following a lead kayak (if there is one) in a somewhat straight line.

5) Q: How to finish?
A: Finishing might be the trickiest part of the swim. Almost all open water swims end with a run up the beach, ramp or some other awful and unnecessary addition to otherwise single sport event. It is even worse if you’re doing a triathlon, since the run to the bike can be a decisive part of the race in terms that you can easily go to hard and be done for the day. It is needless to say that these things need to be practiced. Generally it is very hard to stand up straight after laying down in the water for 20, 30 or 60 min and run. Disorientation and weakness of legs are common. Perhaps a little more kicking to stimulate a blood flow in your lower extremities would be helpful at the end of the race, right before the run.
As far as finishing strategy goes, it depends on how hard you swam to that point, who you’re racing, and what your objective is. Lets say that you’re trying to stay ahead of someone who’s been drafting off of you for a whole race and could be fresher for the sprint. Be mindful of attacks from behind you and try to accelerate as soon as the person trying to pass you is out of your draft. Move away to the side so that the opponent is in “clear” water as soon as he/she is up to your knees. Go as hard as you can, your opponent will find it much harder to swim without a draft and is likely to give up. If the attack is far from the finish (400 m or more), you can even exchange places and let the other person lead for awhile. Unlike cycling being in a second position is not favorable for swim finishes. Only if you have much more speed than the competition in a race like 200 free you should attempt to win this way. Once you start your sprint and try to pass do not ease up until you pass the opponent. At this point navigation is irrelevant; look at the opponent and make sure you get ahead of him/her. Once you’re ahead correct your course so you’re at a straight line to the finish. If you’re in a triathlon and you’re not going for the swim premium ease up with your arms and kick little more to force some blood to your legs before the bike; especially important in wetsuit swims, since people tend not to kick at all with them.
As you approach the beach start dolphin jumps as soon as you can reach the bottom with a ninety degree bend in your knees and your hips. This technique, although harder, is much faster than swimming. Avoid this in triathlons unless it is a draft legal race and you’re trying to make the pack.
If you are racing an IRONMAN, take your time and swim easy. Swim is much harder leg of a triathlon than people think. Salt water and hot conditions (wetsuits) can make you dehydrated before you even get to the bike. You will never win a triathlon on the swim but 90% of people loose any chance of doing well before they even get to the bike. Back to top

By Nenad Rodic, founder of