How Low Intensity Triathlon Training Works

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Low-intensity triathlon training consists of swimming, biking or running at below race pace.

Training for a triathlon isn't easy. Whether you're looking to complete a sprint, Olympic, half Ironman or Ironman triathlon, you'll spend a lot of time at the track, on the bike and in the pool. But these hours of pavement-pounding, heart-pumping workouts can actually be counterproductive if you don't incorporate enough low-intensity exercise into your training regimen.

Put simply, low-intensity triathlon training consists of swimming, biking or running at below race pace. It's a critically important part of any triathlete's workout routine because it helps increase the body's aerobic fitness level without significantly contributing to overuse injuries. Beginners will find low-intensity exercise particularly helpful as their bodies adjust to a level of activity to which they're not accustomed. Even elite triathletes, who often train for 40-plus hours per week, include low-intensity training in their routines.

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There's considerable controversy among triathletes and coaches about exactly what the balance should be between high and low intensity training, especially when it comes to running. Proponents of low-intensity workouts contend that running as many miles as possible at a slower pace is most beneficial, while those who support high-intensity exercise feel that it's better to run fewer miles at a faster pace. There are valid arguments to support both points of view. High intensity workouts help train your body to pick up the pace when passing someone on the bike or jockeying for position at the end of the run. Low intensity workouts aren't as physically demanding, so they allow an athlete to train for longer periods of time, thus generating greater overall aerobic fitness. An ideal triathlon workout program contains both types of training, with the majority being low-intensity.

Signing up for a triathlon is a big commitment, so you want to be sure not to overdo it as you train. Read on for more specific guidance on exactly how intensely -- or moderately -- you should train.

Low-Intensity Triathlon Training Workouts

Triathlon Distances

Triathlon races are usually one of four distances:

Sprint: 0.5-mile (0.8 km) swim; 12.5-mile (20.1 km) bike; 3.1-mile (5 km) run

Olympic: 0.93-mile (1.5-km) swim; 24.9-mile (40-km) bike; 6.2-mile (10 km) run

Half-Ironman: 1.2-mile (1.9 km) swim; 56-mile (90.1 km) bike; 13.1-mile (21.1 km) run

Ironman: 2.4-mile (3.9 km) swim; 112-mile (180.2 km) bike; 26.1-mile (42.2 km) run

Training programs for triathletes vary greatly depending on the competitor's previous fitness level and what race distance they plan to run. Because low-intensity triathlon training is especially important for those who are new to the sport, this section will focus on the training necessary for the shortest distance: sprint.

Most training programs will not work for people who have been inactive for a number of years, so it's a good idea to build a base level of fitness before beginning a triathlon workout schedule. If you're already working out, just two-and-a-half to three hours of aerobic exercise per week for a two- to six-month period should be enough to begin training for a sprint triathlon. Once you've established a healthy aerobic baseline, expect to spend about 12 weeks training for your sprint triathlon.

The following table is a good example of a training program for sprint triathletes:


Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5

Week 6

Saturday: Run

15 minutes

20

25

30

35

40

Sunday: Bike

30

40

45

50

55

60

Tuesday: Swim

15

15

20

20

25

25

Wednesday: Run

15

15

20

20

25

25

Thursday: Bike

20

20

25

30

30

35

Friday: Swim

15

15

20

20

20

25


Week 7

Week 8

Week 9

Week 10

Week 11

Week 12

Saturday: Run

35

45

50

55

60

40

Sunday: Bike

45

65

70

75

80

80

Tuesday: Swim

25

30

30

35

40

20

Wednesday: Run

25

30

30

35

35

15

Thursday: Bike

30

35

40

30

40

20

Friday: Swim

15 to 30

15 to 30

15 to 30

15 to 30

15 to 30

OFF


While the time spent on each activity is more or less fixed, the intensity at which you perform them can change. Triathletes categorize intensity into six levels that range from "recovery" -- a comfortable pace -- to "sprint" -- a maximum effort. The table below rates these levels from one to 10 (where 10 represents your maximum intensity), and suggests what percentage of the running, biking and swimming advanced triathletes should do at each stage.


Intensity Level

Percent of Bike and Run

Percent of Swim

Recovery

4

10 to 15 percent

5 to 15 percent

Aerobic

5 to 6

60 to 70 percent

40 to 55 percent

Anaerobic Threshold

7

8 to 12 percent

10 to 15 percent

VO2 Max

8

3 to 5 percent

10 to 15 percent

Speed

9

3 to 5 percent

5 to 10 percent

Sprint

10

1 to 2 percent

5 to 10 percent


If you're a beginner, most, if not all, of your workouts should be performed at the recovery or aerobic levels; if you can't hold a comfortable conversation while running or biking, you're probably training too hard. More advanced triathletes, however, should vary the intensity of their workouts, using the percentages suggested above to design a more beneficial exercise program.

As the table indicates, even advanced runners should do most of their training at low-intensity levels. The benefits of this focus on low-intensity training are explored in the following section.

Benefits of Low-Intensity Triathlon Training

Whether you're a beginner looking to run your first triathlon or a seasoned veteran of many races, low-intensity training should be a central part of your workout routine. These workouts, performed at or below race pace, form the basis of any triathlon workout for good reason. First-timers and experienced racers alike benefit from low-intensity training because it helps prevent injury while efficiently increasing aerobic fitness.

Overuse injuries are common among athletes training for endurance races. These are caused when a racer increases his or her activity level too fast, putting more stress on the bones and joints than they can handle. If the athlete doesn't ease into training, or take enough time to rest, injuries like shin splints, swimmer's shoulder, biker's knee, tennis elbow and stress fractures of the leg or foot can occur. Unfortunately, little can be done to remedy these injuries except for rest, which can take a triathlete off his or her feet for six or more weeks and derail the training schedule and subsequent race. Low-intensity training is critically important for preventing such injuries. With this type of workout, beginners are less likely to hurt themselves as their bodies adjust to an increased level of activity. Advanced triathletes can train longer without injury by incorporating a significant amount low-intensity training into their higher-intensity workouts.

Injury prevention isn't the only benefit of low-intensity training. This method is also the most effective way to build your aerobic fitness level because it allows you to exercise longer than if you just trained hard all the time. Such long, moderate workouts increase the body's ability to use fuel efficiently and continue working even when it begins to feel tired.

With enough low-intensity triathlon training -- and maybe a little high-intensity exercise -- you'll be out of the pool, off the bike and running across the finish line in no time.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Fitzgerald, Matt. "Complete Triathlon Book." New York: Warner Books, 2003.
  • Fitzgerald, Matt. "Crank It Up: Inject Some Intensity to Avoid Becoming a One-Speed Triathlete." Triathlete Magazine. March 18, 2010. (Sept. 2, 2010)
    http://triathlon.competitor.com/2010/03/training/crank-it-up-inject-some-intensity-to-avoid-becoming-a-one-speed-triathlete_7691
  • Fitzgerald, Matt. "Easy Does It." Triathlete Magazine. Dec. 10, 2009. (Sept. 2, 2010)
    http://running.competitor.com/2009/12/training/easy-does-it_7197
  • Fitzgerald, Matt. "Jumping In: Obeying the Hard-Easy Rule." Triathlete Magazine. March 10, 2010. (Sept. 2, 2010)
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  • Jonas, Steven. "Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals." New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.
  • Metzl, Jordan D. "Avoid Overuse Injury by Staying Within Your Limits." June 20, 2009. (Sept. 2, 2010)
    http://triathlon.competitor.com/2009/06/training/avoid-overuse-injury-by-staying-within-your-limits_1989
  • Murphy, T.J. "Guide to Finishing Your First Triathlon." New York: Sky Horse Publishing, 2008.