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By Letshego Zulu


How to: Training for a triathlon

Excluding professionals, it’s often rare to find an individual who masters all three disciplines of swimming, running and cycling.

For those that are not in the know, triathlons include three disciplines, swimming, cycling and running, performed back to back at one go. We often speak of the
three disciplines separately but there are some “super athletes” that take it one notch up and do all three at once.

The most well-known international triathlon races are the Ironman 70.3 and the full Ironman. The distances for the 70.3 events  are 1.9km ocean swim, 90km
road cycle and 21km run. The distances for the full Ironman are 3.9km ocean swim, 180km road cycle and 42km run.

There are other triathlon events with shorter distances to cater for those that are either breaking into the sport, or those that simply don’t have the time to train for the standard 70.3 or full Ironman. There are also offroad triathlons where the swim takes place in a dam, the cycle is a mountain bike leg and the run is a trail run.

I took up the challenge of training for an Ironman 70.3 triathlon three years ago so that I could understand what goes into preparing for all three disciplines at once. Over the years I have become quite the keen runner and cyclist but never quite took to swimming. With that said, swimming became the discipline I needed to master
more than the other two.

Excluding professionals, it’s often rare to find an individual who masters all three. I have often come across athletes who say swimming is the easiest and running the hardest. In principle, I agree because, functionally, swimming is not weight-bearing, therefore it is more forgiving, whereas the impact of running is hard on the body.

Personal struggle

My personal struggle was in the reverse with swimming being the discipline that I needed more work on. So I found myself a swimming coach. My training programme started off with shorter training distances. For example, I started off with swimming three times a week for an hour, cycling three times a week for 90 to 120 minutes and running three times a week, ranging between 10 and 15km and one full rest day.

In a dream world that would mean I need 10 days in a week in order to achieve that but that’s not the case. On some days I did double sessions. A training session in the morning and another one that same day in the evening. I also had to add at least one session of strength training.

This amount of training can take its toll on one’s body so adequate sleep is necessary, so is proper nutrition, a good recovery routine and regular massage. Just as in other sports, preparation is key to success. Triathlon preparation is a bit more intense where the athlete must juggle all three disciplines and add in all the extras.

Planning or scheduling the training sessions in the diary is part of the success. I schedule my training sessions the same way I schedule work meetings in my diary. The biggest advantage that I experienced from training and preparing for the Durban 70.3 Ironman event in 2016 was that I had never experienced my body being as balanced, strong and conditioned.

The three disciplines all target different body parts, even though they do overlap and as such, the body becomes fully conditioned. Not once did I have to visit my physiotherapist or chiropractor because I did not sustain any injuries.


Taking part in triathlons requires an initial investment in the form of specific equipment that is required.

Swimming equipment:

A tri-suit (one piece triathlon outfit), swimming cap, goggles, flippers and other accessories for training, a wetsuit for race day.

Cycling equipment:
Bike, helmet, cleats (cycling shoes), sunglasses, heart race monitor.

Running equipment:
Running shoes and a cap.

Most of these items are once off and if you buy good quality, they can last for a good two to three years.

Annually, SA has three Ironman races on the calendar. Two 70.3 events, in East London (January) and Durban (June) and a full Ironman event in Port Elizabeth (April). There are a host of other triathlon events and entries can be secured online.

Zulu is a qualified biokineticist and cofounder of PopUpGym.

Follow her
on Instagram: @letshego.zulu

Twitter: @letshegom.
Facebook: Letshego Zulu

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