How to Balance All Three Triathlon Sports

Triathletes in wetsuits head into the water, beginning the most dangerous leg of the race.
Triathletes in wetsuits head into the water, beginning the most dangerous leg of the race.

Balance can be beautiful. After all, what athlete wouldn't want to have a swimmer's upper body and a cyclist's or runner's legs? When it comes to competing in triathlons, balance in a triathlete's life and training is essential.

Few races are more grueling than the triathlon, the ultimate test of endurance. Although they can vary in length, all triathlons consist of three sections: swimming, running and cycling. The cycling leg is the longest; the swimming is the most dangerous, and for many, the running leg, which comes last, is the most painful.


Common sense tells us that the key to succeeding in a triathlon is swimming, riding or running as fast as possible -- but only up to a certain point. Unless you're competing in a sprint triathlon (a fraction of the length of an Ironman triathlon), you can't possibly go full-tilt for the entire race. Learning to pace yourself is therefore a critical element of triathlon training. Over-exerting yourself in one of the three legs will likely cause you to burn out for the rest of the race, while taking it too slow will leave you in the back of the pack.

Achieving balance means more than just performing well in all three sports; it also extends to balancing your life with triathlon training and finding mental balance. The variety of multisport training can help to break the monotony of training for just one sport, and this helps keep athletes interested and engaged. However, most triathletes naturally favor one of the three sports, making them weaker in others. Seasoned triathletes will agree that you can't afford to overlook any of the three sports, and figuring out how to juggle all three is key to competing in a triathlon.

Read on to learn how to balance your training schedule, your body and your budget when training for a triathlon.


Balanced Triathlon Training

As with other long races, like marathons or Grand Tour cycling races, the main difficulty of competing in a triathlon is building up the physical and mental strength and endurance needed to finish the race. Triathletes have an added challenge: balancing the three different legs of the race.

Because each triathlete has different strengths and weaknesses, achieving balanced triathlon training doesn't necessarily mean giving each component of the race equal importance. Successful triathletes must constantly self-evaluate to figure out which sport they need to train for the most and to make sure that their performance in any one sport isn't much weaker than the others.


For beginners, experts recommend training for each of the three sports at least twice per week to increase your familiarity and comfort level with each. As the race approaches, your training schedule is subject to change, as you will likely gear up to longer training sessions for each sport in an effort to simulate each leg of the race and the transitions.

Mental balance is also important to becoming a successful triathlete. Professional triathletes sometimes refer to a triathlon as two races: the one that takes place in the water and on the street, and the one between your ears. Overcoming the physical challenges of competing in one of the world's most intense endurance races requires extreme mental toughness and fortitude. Mental balance helps athletes stay focused while training, performing under pressure and, most of all, racing through pain.

The first step toward achieving mental balance is knowing what role the triathlon plays in your life and its level of importance to you. This will help keep your emotions in check and prevent the mental peaks and valleys often associated with triathlete life. The next step is learning to overcome physical challenges, tune out pain and maintain motivation, confidence and intensity on race day.

In order to make it there, you'll need the right gear. Read on to learn what equipment you'll need and how much it costs.


Balancing Your Triathlon Budget

Actress Teri Hatcher rides a bicycle while training for the Nautica Malibu Trialthlon in Malibu, Calif. on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2009.
Actress Teri Hatcher rides a bicycle while training for the Nautica Malibu Trialthlon in Malibu, Calif. on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2009.
Dan Steinberg/AP Images for ABC

Most triathlon training involves extensive physical preparation, but you'll need to prepare yourself mentally and financially, too. There's no two ways about it, training for and competing in a triathlon isn't cheap. You can spend as much or as little as you please on triathlon equipment, but as your emotional investment in the race increases, so will your financial investment in pricey racing gear. Regardless of what triathlon gear you use, the size and fit of the equipment -- the bicycle, wetsuit, running shoes and even goggles -- will be more important than how much money each of those items costs. Since you want to give your best showing during the race, you'll need to be physically, mentally and even financially balanced. Being prepared means that, once the race starts, you can fully concentrate on running, swimming and cycling your best.

The bicycle is almost always the most expensive single piece of equipment that any triathlete will own, and it can range from a basic no-frills road bike to a top-of-the-line racing bike made specifically for a triathlon. Most beginning triathletes can expect to spend about $750 for an entry-level road bike. A triathlon-specific bicycle (or tri bike, as they're commonly known) puts the rider in a lower and more aerodynamic position than a typical road bike, which is ideal for racing, but less comfortable for recreational riding. New tri bikes typically start at about $1,000 and can cost more than $4,000. Less expensive, used tri bikes are fairly easy to find in most areas.


The second most expensive item used by most triathletes is likely the wetsuit. Triathlon organizers allow athletes to wear wetsuits in most open water races, and many triathletes opt to wear them even when the water isn't especially cold because they make them more buoyant. Some suits, like the speedsuit, have a coating that helps athletes swim faster.

In addition to the cost of the equipment and gear, many triathletes invest in fitness club memberships, so they can swim regularly and train indoors in inclement weather. A fitness club membership can range from $30 per month to more than $150 per month, depending on the club.

Finding the right gear (and making sure it fits) will help keep you from getting injured, but you'll also need to listen to your body and know when to rest.

Read on to learn about resting and avoiding injury during triathlon training.


Resting and Avoiding Injury

They key to achieving physical balance is getting into optimal fitness and health. Many triathletes are not professional athletes; they're hobbyists who embrace the challenge of the triathlon but don't necessarily know how to achieve the highest level of fitness while preventing injury. If you have never trained for a long-distance race, visiting your doctor for a physical, especially if you suffer from high blood pressure or joint pain, is a good idea.

Training for and competing in a triathlon is an exercise in excess. Triathletes have to be masters at testing their boundaries and knowing their own bodies, and they also have to know where to draw the line. Train reasonably rather than pushing yourself to exhaustion. Not only does adequate rest help prevent injuries, but experts assert that well-rested athletes are able to train harder and more effectively, getting more out of training sessions.


Triathletes most commonly acquire overuse injuries from excessive training without sufficient rest between sessions. To prevent injury, seasoned triathletes suggest stretching thoroughly before training and recognizing the importance of warming up and cooling down.

The good thing about triathlon training is that the variety of training for three sports instead of just one enables triathletes to take pressure off certain body parts while training for one of the other three sports. Running, for example, is a high-impact sport that can result in injuries to the knees and feet. If your knees are bothering you from running too much, try spending more time in the pool while they recover.

What should you do on those coveted days off? Many experts suggest doing something entirely unrelated to triathlon training. Pro athlete Brad Kearns suggests doing something you wouldn't ordinarily do, like taking a spontaneous trip to Las Vegas [source: Kearns]. Whatever you do when you're resting, it's probably a good idea to leave the stopwatch and running shoes at home for a change.

Read on to learn more about balancing triathlon training with the rest of your life.


Balancing Your Life

John Harris, who's training for a triathlon, runs in the wind and rain as the effects of Hurricane Alex are felt on the Texas coast on June 30, 2010.
John Harris, who's training for a triathlon, runs in the wind and rain as the effects of Hurricane Alex are felt on the Texas coast on June 30, 2010.
AP Photo/Eric Gay

Balancing three sports is difficult enough, but life doesn't stop for triathlon training, and triathletes need to adapt their demanding training schedules to work, family and rest. In addition to knowing their bodies, successful triathletes must be masters of time management, knowing when to train full-throttle and when to hit the brakes.

Finding time to train for a triathlon while working a full-time job can be the most difficult time-management consideration for many aspiring triathletes. Because the 40-hour workweek places limits on training, many triathletes subscribe to the weekend warrior routine, training very lightly Monday through Friday and going on much longer runs, swims or bike rides on the weekends. This technique can actually be quite beneficial in preparing for a triathlon. Those long training days can push you to the limit, simulating the physical and mental stresses of race day.


Training for a triathlon can be just as taxing on loved ones as it can be for the triathletes. Some common complaints are that triathletes are cranky, tired, self-absorbed and generally difficult to be around in the weeks leading up to the big race. Getting support from family and friends is a vital component of training for many triathletes.

Triathlon training can be lonely and alienating at times, which is why experts suggest training with a partner (many husband-wife teams train together) or hooking up with a local triathlon club. Training with a partner or a group can help motivate you to get out of bed and train, even when you don't feel like it, and it can help push you to reach your goals. However, if you choose to train alone, numerous national organizations, Web sites, forums, books and magazines exist to help you become part of the larger community.

Triathletes are like acrobats, walking a tight rope while juggling three demanding sports. The challenge can seem daunting at times, but the key to success is approaching each sport methodically, getting proper rest between training sessions and balancing the other aspects of your life.

Continue reading for some useful links and lots more information about balanced triathlon training.


Lots More Information

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  • Drozd, Shelley. "Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome ('Runner's Knee')." Runner's World. Aug. 2004. (Aug. 2, 2010),7120,s6-241-285--7773-0,00.html
  • Fitzgerald, Matt. "Starting Out In Triathlon: Balancing All Three Sports." Triathlete Europe. Mar. 9, 2010. (Aug. 2, 2010)
  • Kearns, Brad. Breakthrough Triathlon Training. McGraw-Hill, 2005.
  • Mallett, Jef. Trizophrenia: Inside the Minds of a Triathlete. VeloPress, 2009.
  • "Plantar Fasciitis." (Aug. 2, 2010)
  • Medicine Plus. "Rotator Cuff Tendonitis." Aug. 24, 2009. (Aug. 2, 2010)
  • Mora, John. "Triathlon 101, Second Edition." Human Kinetics. 2009.
  • Murphy, Sam. "Triathlon Start to Finish." Firefly Books, Ltd. 2009.
  • P., Jim. "Common Triathlete Injuries & How To Treat Them." (Aug. 2, 2010)
  • Pitney, Deirdre and Donna Dourney. "Triathlon Training For Dummies." Wiley Publishing, Inc. Dec. 2008.
  • Taylor, Jim and Terri Schneider. "The Triathlete's Guide to Mental Training." VeloPress, 2005.