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by Erica Slaughter

June 17, 2019

Tailoring your workouts to suit your goals

There are many types of triathlons you can do this season, ranging from sprint distance to Olympic distance to Ironman distance. Planning for different race distances can be challenging, especially in the pool. Here’s what you need to keep in mind.

Sprint Distance

With swims that are up to half a mile long, you’ll want to focus your training on speed as well as endurance. When the race begins, you want to be able to respond to the quick start and stay with the pack.

In order to do this, you need to be deliberate in training to expand your anaerobic capacity, at the same time that you’re building your overall aerobic capacity through your cycling and running workouts. Your training specific to swimming should be all about repeated bouts of short bursts of speed. This is when interval training will be your friend in the pool.

Instead of jumping in the pool and swimming exactly the length of your swim leg, break up your workout into shorter sets of 50s and 100s. Create challenging intervals for yourself so that you need to swim at 80 percent of race pace in order to make the interval. Proponents of the 1:1 work/rest ratio suggest that you should allow yourself to rest for the same amount of time that it took you to swim the repeat. It’s important that you rest just enough between repeats or the adaptations you make will be more aerobic (endurance) than anaerobic (speed).

An example of a workout for a 500-meter swim in a sprint triathlon might look like this:

  • 200 easy pace warm-up
  • 4 x 50s @ 60 percent race pace
  • 4 x 50s @ 80 percent race pace
  • 4 x 100s @ 80 percent race pace
  • 200 easy pace warm-down

Olympic Distance and Half-Ironman

An Olympic distance triathlon can sometimes seem to be more heavily weighted toward the swim. The swim portion is only 0.27 miles shorter than in a half-Ironman!

Training well for this distance (0.9 miles for the Olympic distance, 1.2 miles for a half-Ironman) will require focus on building both aerobic and anaerobic capacity specific to swimming, divided between sets in a workout. For example, you could do all of the sets in the sprint workout given above, interspersed with some endurance sets. Considering the overall demands of these two races, it might be a good idea to weight half-Ironman training more toward endurance sets.

To achieve the desired adaptations in aerobic sets, it’s important that you limit your rest. Maintain a steady rhythm to encourage more time spent in steady state.

A workout for middle-distance triathlon swims might look like this:

  • 300 easy pace warm-up
  • 6 x 50s @ 80 percent of race pace, with 1:1 work/rest ratio
  • 6 x 100s @ 50 percent of race pace, with 20 seconds rest
  • 6 x 50s @ 80 percent of race pace, with 1:1 work/rest ratio
  • 2 x 300s @ 50 percent of race pace, with 30 seconds rest
  • 200 easy pace cool-down

Ironman and Longer Triathlons

Not surprisingly, effective training for long swims within the context of a long triathlon are going to be all about building aerobic capacity.

That doesn’t mean that training needs to be dull or tedious. On the contrary, the work you’re doing in the pool to develop endurance is an opportunity to discover your perfect, sustainable pace per 100 yards or meters. Using this valuable information, you can monitor your progress and plan your race strategy accordingly, because you’ll know how much you can do for how long. A set of 10 x 100s should always be included in your workout plan at least once per week. Try to lower your intervals to determine how much you’ve gained in endurance.

A great endurance workout might look like this:

  • 500 easy warm-up
  • 5 x 100s @ 50 percent of race pace on 30 seconds rest
  • 3 x 200s @ 75 percent of race pace on 20 seconds rest
  • 10 x 100s @ 100 percent of race pace on 10 seconds rest
  • 2 x 400s @ 75 percent of race pace on 20 seconds rest
  • 400 easy cool-down

And Always Remember

To keep moving forward in your progress, you should always try to swim at least three times per week, regardless of the swim distance. Frequency is the most important training variable in swimming!


  • Triathlon


  • Training
  • Triathletes
  • Triathlon