Triathlon periodisation

Triathlon Periodisation


The process of planning a training programme over time is known as periodisation. Whilst it can be used with any programme it is particularly pertinent when getting ready for racing. As a personal trainer who has caught a case of the triathlon bug, I’d like to share some tips on how to get to that start line.

Triathlon periodisation can be used for most endurance events, half marathons, a long distance swim, night walks or whatever you want to apply it to. Just take the basics and format it to suit your event. In this post we will base it on a sprint triathlon but you can tailor your event to this skeleton. Typically you want to allow yourself 12-14 weeks pre event to train and be ready for the big day.

To start with, if you are working with shorter distance races I would advise to test where you are now in terms of timing. It is wise to establish how long it takes for you to perform each discipline fully so you can programme your training and tailor it to meet your fitness level with your ultimate goal. You won’t know where you’re going till you know where you’ve been.

For the sake of convenience, you can test each segment in the gym environment. If you were doing a sprint triathlon your distances would be 750m swim, 20km bike and finally 5km run. Test each discipline on separate days so you’re at your physical best. Take notes of your time and effort level and that’s where the programming comes in. You won’t be testing disciplines together until the build phase so focus on the individual sections for now.  


The base phase is the first period of training and is dependent on your current fitness level. If you are starting from scratch this phase is a must for you, if you are a more experienced athlete this stage can be overlooked and you can move to the building phase. Beginners should aim for 25 minute sessions to start with.

During the base stage this is where we work with high volumes of aerobic training to build that level of fitness up. You will be in the aerobic zone around 70-80% of your max heart rate. You will be getting short of breath but it should be maintainable. If you cannot keep up the work rate, you’ve gone off too hard.

You need to start getting comfortable on the bike, swimming longer distances than you’ve potentially done before and obviously running. A typical week might include an individual swim, bike, run and a strength session on top. This should be your minimum. After 3-4 weeks of a similar training plan you will have a solid platform and you can now progress onto the building phase of the programme. The sessions can become more specific.


The first thing to do in the build phase is to test again. This time I would recommend testing as a brick, a brick being all three components together – either test the whole distances together or if that seems too much do a chunk of time for all three. An example would be a 10 minute swim, 20 minute bike ride and finally a 20 minute run. Once again using the gym would be fine for testing - write down the individual breakdown of segments plus total time of completion.

By this stage all three disciplines should be achievable in every session, the building phase will look at decreasing work load but increasing that intensity. Aim for 80% of max rate, which should feel a lot more achievable than it did during the base step.

In the initial stage we were looking at trying to complete distances for general aerobic fitness, the build phase should be looking at speed and power sessions. These may include intervals of maximum speed or similarly intervals with power. Once 3 weeks of this phase in under your belt you can move onto the speed phase.

We are coming up to week 6-8 of our training programme, your base level of fitness is a lot higher and your weekly training sessions have become a lot more specific. This is your penultimate phase before you taper off before your race, so if you’re slightly losing that motivation and you feel as if your life has been triathlon training and the end is never in sight, DO NOT GIVE UP! You’ve just got to think of that first pint or (and this is my preference) the glass of champagne after the race.


The speed phase is about finding your realistic pace for the big day. It only needs to last 2-4 weeks and this is where you focus on your race pace, being comfortable with it and learning what time and performance to expect. Each session is an opportunity to learn and the feedback from those sessions is vital to progress. This is also the phase to experiment with different speeds, to work out limits and learn what can be sustained on race day. It’s better to make the mistakes now rather than on the big day. That machine of a body you’ve been building is now being fine-tuned.


The tapering period involves reducing your training in the lead up to race day. Taper periods can be adjusted to the length of the race, half ironman’s and above may need up to two weeks of de-loading whereas for a sprint I would tend to stick to a week before. It can often feel counter intuitive, you might assume that you need to work as hard as possible to the race but essentially you want to peak on race day and the hard work is already done. Overdoing it now can cost you so it’s important to train smart. 


You’ve done the hard work, you’ve put in the hours, there’s no time to stress on that training session you missed (or a few in my case.) Stick to your strategy and enjoy yourself. Focus on each discipline alone, don’t worry about the run as you get out of the swim and biggest tip of all – don’t forget the baby oil.

Good luck!