The Complete Book of Triathlon - Mark Kleanthous - ebook

The Complete Book of Triathlon ebook

Mark Kleanthous



The Complete Book of Triathlon is for all athletes who want to improve in or convert to the fascinating sport of triathlon. It shows among other things how to construct a training program, how to approach a competition and offers an Encyclopedia that covers all aspects of triathlon. This book shows the triathlete and aspiring triathlete everything they need to know about triathlon, whether a sporting novice or an accomplished athlete in another sport. It tells you how to get started, what equipment to buy, the diet you will need, how to devise a training routine and how to arrange your busy life in order to accommodate it, and then explains how to finish a race, as well as how to recover from it. The Complete Book of Triathlon will tell you how to be the best that you can be in triathlon; not necessarily by training harder, but by training smarter. Every aspect of your life has the potential to affect your mental and physical performance, and you need to take this into account when devising your training in order to avoid both over-training and under-training. Mark Kleanthous system for monitoring training-stress levels which he has been successfully using for many years is unique to him but is revealed in this book. Use it and you can achieve your optimum performance.

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Mark Kleanthous

The Complete Book of Triathlon

Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd.


ForewordSection 1 THE FIRST STEPS INTO THE SPORTChapter 1 Getting StartedEquipmentWhat type of athlete are you?Fitting a training schedule into a busy weekWhat is fitness?Overcoming initial problemsChapter 2 Basic Diet and NutritionNutritional requirements for a healthy dietMaintaining a healthy bodyHydrationGeneral pointsChapter 3 The First CompetitionNutritionTraining for your first triathlonHow to determine your training effort14-week training programmeRace daySelf-analysis of your first raceThe recoveryPreparing a new training programmeSectrion2: SERIOUS TRAININGChapter 4Preparing Yourself for TrainingMental preparation and visualisationTime managementHydration and nutritionSleepWarming up, stretching and cooling downSetting goalsKeeping a diaryCompeting for charityEquipmentChapter 5 The Theory of TrainingThe five factors necessaryfor triathlon fitnessTraining stressHow to quantify your training stress level (TSL) using the Mark Kleanthous Training Points systemHow to schedule progressTraining stagesChapter 6 Types of Training RoutinesTechnique training – drillsOther technique sessionsBase-with-appropriate-pace (BAP) sessionsLong, slow, distance (LSD) sessionsOther endurance sessionsOver-distance trainingStrength trainingMuscular endurance sessionsBrick sessionsBack-to-back (B2B) sessionsInterval trainingNegative-split sessionsFartlek sessionsSpeed developmentThreshold sessionsHigh-intensity sessionsRace-pace trainingAnaerobic threshold sessionsAbove-anaerobic threshold sessionsChapter 7 The Training ProgrammeTraining cyclesRolling training routineThe six-minute fitness testStage 1Stage 2Stage 3Stage 4Stage 5Stage 6Stage 7Open-water swimmingTriathlon wetsuit informationTransition trainingRace day nutritional requirementsTwo sessions on the same dayTimes when you can’t trainAlternative sessionsMissed sessionsTirednessOvertrainingGadget-less trainingMassageSection 3: PREPARING FOR THE R ACEChapter 8The Run up to the RaceEntering the raceHome preparationFinal week – seven days to goArriving at the event – one or two days to goThe evening before – 14 hours to goChapter 9 Race DayWake up early – 3-4 hours to goArrival – 90 minutes to go50 minutes to go30 minutes to go25-20 minutes to go20-15 minutes to go15 minutes to go8-4 minutes to go30 seconds to goGo!Transition 1Cycling10 minutes to the end of the cycle segmentTransition 2RunningFeeding stationsThe final 800 mThe finishChapter 10 Post-race PeriodRecovering from the racePost-race nutritionDelayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS)Post-race analysisThe post-competition transitional periodSection 4 FULL- DISTANCE TRIATHLONChapter 11 PreparationTraining philosophyEquipmentNutritionChapter 12 A General Training ProgrammeFull-Distance Triathlon trainingA 24-week training planHalf-Distance Triathlon 14-week training planChapter 13 Half-Distance and Full-Distance Triathlon RacesUsing International Standard distance race information to prepare for a Half-Distance Triathlon RaceGeneral guidance for trainingThe training programmeBeing race readyFrom half distance to full distanceChapter 14 The RaceStrategy for finishing a full-distance TriathlonMood and attitudePre-race scheduleRace day scheduleImmediate post-race periodGastric problems during a Full-Distance TriathlonChapter 15 The Post-Race PeriodSelf-analysis of the raceTrainingGeneral problemsPost-Ironman® bluesLife after a Full-Distance TriathlonUsing a triathlon coachTraining campsUltra-distance triathlonsTHE ENC YCLOPAEDIA SEC TION: A-Z of TriathlonAppendix 1 – Suggested Weekly Nutrition PlanAppendix 2 –Examples of Mark Kleanthous Training Points System TSL CalculationsAppendix 3 – Sprint and International Standard distance Triathlon ChecklistAppendix 4 – Full-Distance Triathlon ChecklistAppendix 5 – Triathlon Race/season ReviewAppendix 6.1 – Swim Pace GuideAppendix 6.2 – Cycle Pace GuideAppendix 6.3 – Run Pace GuideAppendix 7 – Spectator’s Check ListAppendix 8 –Must-do Triathlons Around the WorldCredits


From swimming 100 m to completing triple-Ironman® triathlon races, Mark (pictured right) has done it all with pride, passion and perseverance. His knowledge and experience of the wonderful sport of triathlon is best described as encyclopaedic. From the latest training advances to the best way to prevent chafing, Mark is the person to ask. Over the past 33 consecutive triathlon seasons, he has amassed a wealth of information that will help any triathlete, regardless of whether you are a first-time novice or a top professional. Indeed, I frequently receive good-luck messages from Mark that always contain useful pre-race information and advice. Mark has his finger well and truly on the pulse of triathlon; moreover, he is passionate about sharing that information to help all triathletes achieve their personal goals in the sport.

Catriona Morrison

Fastest debut Ironman® athlete ever.

Current holder of the seventh-fastest female Ironman® athlete finishing time in the world – 8 h 48 min 11 sec.

Ironman® Lanzarote champion. Even though she lost 35 min due to a broken chain, out of 1,284 finishers, she still came 58th overall and won the women’s race.





So you’ve been watching triathlon on the television and maybe even seen an event live. It looks fun, but it also looks difficult: a multi-event marathon that will test you to the limit. Nevertheless, despite its tough reputation, anyone can do it so long as they know how. You’d like to try triathlon at least once, just to see what it’s like, and possibly even take it up more seriously later, but it seems complicated, with so many things to consider. The question is – where do you start?

The first section of this book will tell you exactly where to start. It will lead you through the fundamental processes necessary to get you into the sport and will explain how to prepare yourself for your very first competition. If you follow this section to the end, you will then be able to decide whether or not you want to continue in triathlon.

Triathlon races can be of varying length, but the main international distances are the Sprint (400 m or 750 m swim, 20 km cycle, 5 km run), the International Standard distance (1.5 km swim, 40 km cycle, 10 km run), the Half Triathlon Distance (1.9 km swim, 90.1 km cycle, 21.1 km run), and the Full Triathlon Distance (3.8 km swim, 180.2 km cycle, 42.2 km run). There are also Ultra Distance races that are the double and triple distance of the Full Triathlon Distance. The International Standard-distance event is covered in Sections 2 and 3, and the Full Triathlon Distance competitions are covered in Section 4.

© Nigel Farrow

Chapter 1 Getting Started

Having made the decision to train for triathlon, your first requirement will be to obtain the necessary equipment.


Although you probably feel confident at this point, you do not yet know whether or not you are suited to the sport or, in fact, whether or not the sport suits you; and you will not know until you have competed in your first race. Consequently, it might not be wise to spend a great deal of money on triathlon equipment at this stage, only to find that it may later become redundant.

The first piece of equipment you will need to consider buying is a bicycle, as you cannot compete in triathlon without one; but this will present you with your first dilemma. Do you spend a great deal of money on the best bicycle possible, money that might then be wasted if you decide not to continue with the sport, or do you buy a mid-priced bicycle that might have to be replaced anyway if you become competitive? Only you can make that decision, but it will probably depend upon your aspirations and the sort of success that you have been used to in other sports.

The ideal situation would be to have a racing bicycle as well as a training bicycle, but if you do this, then purchase the cheaper bicycle first (at least until you have competed in your first triathlon). If you then decide not to continue with the sport, you won’t have wasted your money on a racing bicycle. If two bicycles are too much for you, then consider purchasing a racing frame first but with cheaper components and general-entry wheels for training. You can then buy the more-expensive equipment later if you decide to continue in the sport.

It is also worth noting that there are three pedal-and-shoe arrangements that you can adopt in triathlon, and this might also affect your choice of bike. See the equipment section at the end of Chapter 4 for more information on this.

The following is a list of the minimum equipment you will need to complete your training programme. If you wish to buy more than this, or if you wish to spend more on it than is necessary, then that is up to you, but the following should get you to the point where you can make an informed decision as to whether or not you are going to continue in the sport.

The three types of cycling pedal (from left to right): pedal and toe strap, platform and clip-less.

© Mark Kleanthous

swimming costume or trunks

swimming goggles


bicycle repair kit and air pump

bicycle safety helmet

running shoes that can also be used on the bike

jersey, vest or singlet, plus shorts and socks, both for cycling and for running


either one 750 ml water bottle or two 500 ml bottles

The main point to note here is that, as your first competition will be a Sprint triathlon in which the swim segment is always held in a pool, you will not yet need to do any open-water swimming. Consequently, you will not require a wetsuit at this stage.

Also, most triathletes now wear one-piece tri suits instead of vest and shorts. They are quick drying, can be worn under a wetsuit if you decide to progress to open-water-swim triathlon, and are specifically designed for both cycling and running. However, they are much more expensive than conventional clothing.

You will need to select your running shoes with care, as you will require a pair that supports your running gait, whether that be neutral, underpronation or overpronation (see A-Z Section).

There are other relatively inexpensive items that would be useful if you have some spare cash:

latex cap for pool and open-water swimming;

cycling gloves for cold days;

running hat for sunny days;

food-and-water belt for long cycling and running sessions; and

spare inner tubes, plus bike tools, such as Allen keys.

What type of athlete are you?

If you are to construct a meaningful training programme for yourself, you will need to decide what type of an athlete you are. There is no point in setting training goals that your body is simply unable to achieve at present, but if you set yourself a training programme that is too easy, you will not progress. So, into which of the following categories do you fit?

1 The first-timer

You’re making your first attempt at sport, so you should hold back because your mind will want to go faster than your body will allow. Initially, you should concentrate on developing your technique, an area where you can probably make large advances. Attention to fitness should come second, and when that happens, your fitness will increase rapidly. However, you will also experience sore muscles and lots of fatigue from a lack of endurance, and as a result, you will take longer to recover from exercise.

If accumulation fatigue occurs during a workout, you should finish the session immediately, recover, and then make changes to your diet so that your energy levels increase. Your training should begin with simple power walking or gentle running, but you should learn to enjoy it. You should also train alone so that you are not tempted to push yourself too soon, and you should take2-3 complete rest days a week. Your effort level should be no more than seven at any time during training (see page 51 for rating of perceived exertion [RPE] table).

2 The armchair athlete

You have a good understanding of sport and are 100 % committed, but you have never really had an interest in exercise until now. As with the first-timer, your mind will want to go faster than your body will allow, so you should first concentrate on developing your technique and be wary of injury.

As you have probably only trained sporadically before, you should constantly vary your training between easy, medium and hard. The hard training will make the easy training feel very comfortable, while the easy workouts will allow the body to recover before you up the pace again. If you start to feel the first signs of fatigue, stop the training session.

3 The general fitness fanatic

You have been exercising all your life, but with no real purpose. You now need to follow a progressive routine, watch for the signs of fatigue and monitor your fitness.

You will have at least some of the necessary skills, such as a good swimming technique, good coordination and/or good general endurance, and you will have an established training routine, but with only a general sporting history, you will probably need to hold back a little as you might not be as fit as you think you are.

4 The once-successful athlete

You were fit once but have not participated in an exercise regimen for a long time. Skills can soon be re-learned, but it will take time to regain fitness. You might still have the enthusiasm of your youth, but your body is not the same, so don’t force it.

After having had such a long break from exercise, you will need to take at least one or two days a week to rest. Our minds don’t forget what training is like but our muscles do, so build up your fitness and endurance steadily, and don’t forget that a session that was once easy might now be difficult.

5 The all-or-nothing athlete

You have a work-hard, play-hard ethic, and your performances in training are usually good, but you are often injured as you do not know how to go easy or take a day off. You are also unable to hold a reasonable pace for long periods of time, as your tendency is to go too hard initially and then be forced to slow down.

You need to learn to build up fitness gradually, otherwise you will peak too soon and then, by race day, you will have tailed off. Avoid going hard in every workout because this will lead to a plateau in performance midway through your training programme, which could be difficult to break out of.

6 The brief enthusiast

You do short bursts of daily training, usually because of a New Year’s resolution, in preparation for a holiday or for a certain sporting event, but then you do nothing for ages. You never really give fitness a chance because you give up before it becomes enjoyable.

You should train slightly less than you feel you ought to because by holding back you will avoid the mental problems you experience with burnout. However, 15min before the end of a workout, you should pick up the pace or do short bursts of increased intensity so that you feel you have achieved something from the session. You should refrain from going hard in every session, otherwise you will get tired and become dispirited.

7 The gym fanatic

You have a strong build, you look fit, and you like the thrill of going hard and pushing against resistance. However, while you can swim a few lengths, are good in short, fast bursts, are comfortable with indoor bike spinning and can run fast over 5 km, you lack endurance and are poor at runs of 10 km or more. You will need to work on your swim-bike-run pace judgement and improve flexibility, as fitness, not strength, is the key to triathlon. When cycling, you will need to learn to use the handlebars as levers. It is always easy to spot people who train mostly on a gym spin bike because they ride with stiff, straight arms.

While you will have good strength, a good understanding of how your body reacts to resistance training, and a good knowledge of sport, you will need to completely break your training habits. It is a common mistake to simply tag on three other sports to your usual gym training and expect to improve in all three by race day.

Initially you should work on your weakness, which is probably endurance. Once you have reached a certain fitness level you will easily be able to maintain it while focusing your energy on the new sports. Don’t forget that you will improve rapidly, as your body will already be accustomed to repairing itself after muscle breakdown. If you already have a swimming or running background, all you need to do is fine tune this with relatively few workouts per week.

8 The life-long fitness enthusiast

You have either concentrated on a single sport or done a number of sports for many years, and have a good understanding of how your body responds to hard training. You might already have experience in swimming and cycling, say, but be unable to swim long distances.

Your training programme needs to be adjusted so that you simply maintain your ability in the sports in which you are already experienced, while concentrating on technique in the new disciplines.

If you are a specialist runner with a history of injury, you will benefit from cross-training because you will have to decrease your running time in training but hopefully will not pick up too many injuries in cycling and swimming. For you, triathlon training will help you gain strength and improve your cardiovascular fitness. Most runners like to run every day and hate having a day off, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. During triathlon training, it is inevitable that you will not be able to run every day because you will also be swimming or cycling.

However, while the specialist swimmer will have very good cardiovascular fitness and be used to long and hard training, he might experience initial injuries when running and cycling because he will have high fitness levels but will not have built up the relevant muscles sufficiently to be able to cope with his attempted speed.

Fitting a training schedule into a busy week

Anyone with a family and a full-time job will inevitably have difficulty fitting a training routine into their busy lives, especially if you bear in mind that all training will have to be followed by rest and recovery time.

There are 168 hours in a week. If about 40 hours are spent working (more if you commute) and 56 hours sleeping (eight hours per night), then that leaves 72 hours at most for training and all other personal commitments, including family. Because of the nature of training, at least some of it will need to be undertaken during the week, but for the busy triathlete, it is obvious that weekends are very important, both for performing significant training and for making sure that the family does not feel ignored.

It is also important to calculate your recovery time accurately in order to get the full benefit from the training. Steady endurance work will require an equal amount of rest and recovery time, but demanding training will require three times the amount of rest and recovery. Therefore, in order to use your time efficiently, the schedule needs to be arranged so that this rest and recovery time is spent on other commitments, such as family or, if you’re single, completing all the necessary chores that keep your life functioning.

The most important thing to remember is that training is not linear; it should run in cycles, rather like the seasons. In addition, training should not be over-ambitious. You simply cannot increase from 10 to 11 to 12 to 13 to 14 miles each week without considering the rest of your life plus the accumulated training fatigue. Therefore, you should progress gradually and not underestimate the small improvements you make.

The most difficult part of regular, daily training sessions is your commitment to them. If you are hurting then you are training too hard. Triathlon is an endurance event, and your workouts need to be progressive.

What is fitness?

It goes without saying that, in order to compete successfully in the triathlon, you have to be as fit as possible. But what is fitness and how can it be measured?

An athlete might have great speed but if he lacks race-pace training and endurance then his competitiveness in a triathlon will be limited. Athletes who have developed a high level of fitness in other sports might not be as fast in a triathlon as athletes with higher endurance, because the latter will have a greater ability to convert oxygen into energy. However, once an athlete has become adept at triathlon, he will automatically become a specialist in each of the three sports. A fit athlete will also have a high ability to recover from exercise.

A successful training programme will work the sport-specific muscles, but you will also need to train at race-pace intensity often enough to improve without overtraining. In order to achieve optimum fitness, it is also necessary to train at different intensity levels. If you never run slowly, apart from when warming up, then the very nature of going slowly and using muscles you do not normally use immediately before a competition is likely to reduce your chances of success.

However, if you are to get the most out of your training, it is necessary to understand exactly what happens to the body when you exercise.

When you do any form of exercise, whether it be cardiovascular work or the lifting of weights, your muscles improve and you become stronger, faster, etc. You will then able to lift heavier weights, or you will be able to run faster, or a certain distance run will become easier. This increase in fitness is called “progression.”

However, if you continue to run the same distance at the same regular interval, you might find that your performance slowly begins to deteriorate, and however hard you try, you cannot achieve the performance of a few weeks earlier. You might then start training even harder, but your performances only get worse. At this point you begin to become despondent and might even consider giving up.

The truth is that your fitness levels have not been decreasing and you have probably even been progressing, but what you have not understood is the effect of “accumulative fatigue.”

Fatigue usually occurs during a long-distance event when the body simply runs out of glycogen, which it then converts to glucose, which is then burnt at the muscles to form energy. The problem can be resolved quickly by taking a high-energy drink.

However, during a training programme, the body’s glycogen stores can become depleted very gradually, so that the athlete might not be aware of it. For instance, a man has a car with a 48-litre fuel tank and puts ten litres of petrol into the tank every week, but what he does not know is that he consumes 12 litres of petrol every week. The performance of his car is fine for 24 weeks until he suddenly starts running out of petrol, and this is effectively what has happened to the above runner. Accumulative fatigue can strike at any time, but it often happens to triathletes about 20-28 weeks into a training programme.

If this happens to you, the problem is solved by having more recovery and changing your dietary requirements so that your energy intake is greater than your energy expenditure – that is, until your glycogen levels have been built up again. Naturally, this process is assisted by rest.

Also, when you exercise, the muscles that have been used are actually broken down by the body and then rebuilt stronger, which is why we become stronger and faster. However, if we continue to exercise during this time, we can damage our body and even become more susceptible to illness due to a reduction in the effectiveness of the immune system. Consequently, a period of rest needs to be built into any training regimen, and this period is called “recovery.”

Many athletes encounter problems because they simply make too much effort for too long. For instance, if you cycled uphill a number of times at maximum effort, your fitness level would increase rapidly but you would also become more susceptible to illness and injury. Therefore, it might be more productive to cycle up the same hill at a steadier, more controlled pace. The reason for this is because the physiological effects on the body are different for the two types of exercise. In order to excel at triathlon, you need to do both types of exercise, but in a controlled way. Sometimes in this sport, slower is better.

So, fitness for triathlon is achieved by finding the correct balance of exercise, nutrition, rest and recovery, and this balance is different for everyone. This is what this book is all about.

Overcoming initial problems

Because all good triathletes are able to produce relatively even performances across the three elements of the triathlon, those who are new to the sport should first concentrate on improving their weaker elements before considering serious training for competition. This section highlights the common problems faced in each element and describes the simple steps that can be taken to dramatically improve performance. If you currently have a full-time job, the amount of time you will be able to spend on training will be limited, so any changes to technique that produce a leap in performance will be invaluable to you.

In addition, triathlon is not just a question of swimming, cycling and running, as the three elements have to be knitted together into a coordinated race. Your swimming technique could affect your cycling, and the way in which you ride a bike could affect your running.

Many triathletes new to the sport are often already accomplished at one of the three segments, in which case they will need to concentrate solely on the other two segments. However, prowess in one of the three disciplines can sometimes cause problems in the others. Athletes who have been running for years will often have tight ankles that could cause a problem in the swim. On the other hand, swimmers usually have flexible ankles, and these can cause difficulties when running. These problems need to be addressed early.

Therefore, your initial goal when training for triathlon should be to achieve each segment separately: swim non-stop for 750 m, cycle non-stop for 20 km and run non-stop for 5 km. At the end of each separate segment, you should feel comfortable. Then all you need to do is to combine the three sports together.

In addition, you should also learn how to eat and drink without losing too much time when cycling and running.


At this stage, all of your swimming training should be performed in a swimming pool. Open water swimming comes later, after you have competed in a novice triathlon.

Triathletes with either very dense leg muscles or long legs often find that their legs sink during swimming, and individuals with both of these traits will have even more difficulty. Body pressing, which entails deliberately pressing the head and upper body into the water, will help lift the legs and reduce resistance.

A triathlete with a fast stroke and an energetic kick will also create extra drag and therefore waste valuable energy. Consequently, economy of movement is important in order to reduce turbulence in the water. Improved streamlining will make you go faster.

In order to achieve this, the body position is a vital consideration. Try and achieve a high elbow position when lifting the arms out of the water plus a relaxed kick action driven from the hips. When training, it is important to measure the stroke count as well as the time for a certain distance in order to determine your efficiency in the water.

You should also be fully conversant with all the phases of the swim stroke in order to achieve the correct technique: hand entry, catch, press, pull, push, glide and recovery. Your swimming stroke can be improved by performing drills – training sessions that concentrate on a specific part of the swimming action. In addition, learn how to breathe without compromising your stroke technique. By turning your head too much, you will throw your body out of balance and create a scissor kick. Therefore, learn to breathe out when your head is under water, so that you only turn your head out of the water to breathe in, thus reducing the amount of time that the head is in the twisted position. Do not vertically lift the head out of the water to breathe.

It is also important to swim in a straight line. This might seem like an obvious consideration, but swimmers who train in a pool will automatically follow the line painted on the bottom. However, in open water, straight-line swimming can be difficult for some individuals. Ask someone to watch you swim across open water to find out whether or not you have a natural drift to the left or right, and then try to address this.

In addition, try to establish how often you need to raise your head above the water in order to swim in a straight line (every 4, 6 or 8 strokes, etc). When you do this, try to line up the next buoy with a large tree or building in the distance, and then use this as a more-easily-visible reference point. It should then be possible to check your swimming line with quick glances before checking for the buoy as your next target.

It is also important to be able to assess how far you have swum. The placing of marker buoys in the water at regular intervals is obviously the best solution, as this will simulate race conditions, but most individuals will find this solution impractical. As an alternative, try counting your strokes over a set distance. This will help with interval training in open water.

Do not stand up to exit the water until you can easily touch the bottom. If the water is above your knees it is quicker and easier to swim than to run through it.


New triathletes can rapidly improve their performance in this segment by paying attention to their bike-handling skills. It would therefore be beneficial to train as part of a group once a week, but don’t do this every session. You will also benefit by learning to change gears smoothly in order to avoid losing your rhythm while keeping your cadence at 90 revs per minute or more.

By cycling in a group you obviously keep yourself shielded from the wind and therefore save energy (drafting), but this also increases the possibility of a crash that could put you out of a race for which you could have been preparing for months. Therefore, always keep an eye on the road surface ahead for such dangers as potholes and watch for other cyclists making sudden movements or weaving across the road, or for items such as drink bottles falling from another bike.

Drafting is fine during training, but remember that it is not allowed in age-group triathlons. It is only permitted in professional triathlon races.


When you come to the run segment of a triathlon, you will already be fatigued, dehydrated and mentally worn out. It is therefore useful to train in this state in order to learn how to cope with these feelings. It is also important to know when and how much to eat and drink during the run, with the usual rule being little and often.

As a triathlete can dehydrate at the rate of more than two litres an hour in extreme conditions, the consumption of an electrolytic or carbohydrate drink, or plain water with a gel or food, is an absolute necessity.

Chapter 2 Basic Diet and Nutrition

© Mark Kleanthous

Diet and nutrition have to be correct before any athlete considers serious training and competition, but in triathlon, nutritional requirements will differ depending on whether the triathlete is in a training period, a pre-race period, a competition, or a post-race period. Even when just in training, the athlete will eat and drink different things before training, during training and when in recovery.

Consequently, the sections of this book that look specifically at each of these elements will also look at the diet necessary during that period. The diet required when training seriously is in Chapter 4, while the diet necessary in the run-up to a race and on race day is in Chapters 8 and 9. This chapter explains why a healthy diet is necessary and provides a general understanding of how to achieve one.

The benefits of a healthy diet for a triathlete include an increase in the amount of energy available, improved stamina, improved recovery after exercise, improved concentration, greater agility, improved suppleness and reduced repair time after injury.

Obviously, triathletes will need to train for more hours every week than those training for a single sport, so I consequently recommend you eat more protein than a single-sport specialist, especially as you will be using many more muscles throughout a training week than just a runner, swimmer or cyclist.

Nutritional requirements for a healthy diet

The following nutritional requirements are necessary for a healthy diet.

Carbohydrates – 4 to 6 portions a day are required to maintain your energy levels. It is found in whole grain food, whole wheat bread, beans, breakfast cereals, rice, pasta, porridge oats and potatoes. One portion is equivalent to the amount of food you can hold in the palm of your hand.

Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver, but about three times its weight in water is also needed to store the glycogen. Therefore, when loading carbohydrates, it is essential to drink extra fluid. A well-trained athlete will be able to store about 1,500-2,000 kcal of glycogen, equivalent to about 15-20 miles of running. By increasing your muscle mass, you will also increase your glycogen-storage capacity.

Protein – 2 to 4 portions a day are required. Protein is found in fish, meat (including poultry), pulses, tofu and quorn. One portion is equivalent to a piece of meat the size of a playing card, two eggs or a handful of pulses. Protein is necessary for every living cell but is found mainly in muscles, organs, tendons and body tissue. It is especially important after exercise. The larger you are, the younger you are and the more exercise you do, the more protein you require.

There are two types of protein: complete proteins, which contain the amino acids necessary to build tissue and are found in eggs, cheese, meat, milk and sea food; and incomplete proteins, which do not contain amino acids and are found in beans, grain, nuts, peas and seeds. Aim to eat low-fat proteins. Vegetarians can take their protein requirements from low-fat, dairy, protein-rich plants.

Fat – 2 to 4 portions a day of healthy fats are required to increase endurance, aid recovery and help avoid heart disease. Low-fat diets can result in protein breakdown and therefore loss of strength after exercise, as well as reduced blood clotting, dermatological problems (such as flaky skin), poor blood pressure, and poor control of inflammation. Healthy fats are found in flaxseed oil, nut oil, olive oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil and fish oil.

One portion is equivalent to half an avocado, two teaspoons of oil, two tablespoons of nuts or seeds, and a piece of fish about the size of a deck of playing cards. About 15-30 % of your total intake of calories should come from fat.

Although fat contains more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates or protein, the energy is yielded more slowly because fat is harder to break down.

Calcium – 2 to 4 portions a day will produce strong bones and teeth. It is found in milk, cheese, vegetables and yoghurt. One portion is equivalent to a glass of milk, 125 g yoghurt or 40 g cheese.

Vitamins and minerals – These are vital for good health and well-being, but always try and obtain them from food rather than from tablets because the body absorbs them better from the former. However, if you do take vitamin supplements, their absorption will be higher after meals.

As human beings are unable to synthesize vitamin C or minerals, you will require a daily supply of them in your diet. As vitamin C is excreted in 2-3 hours, small but regular doses are better than a single, large dose. Large amounts of vitamin C can result in the production of kidney stones; to avoid this, take a magnesium supplement. There is no set dose for vitamins as individual requirements will depend on lifestyle, etc.

Fruit – 2 to 4 portions a day are required to provide the antioxidants, fibre, minerals and vitamins necessary for a healthy immune system, especially if they contain vitamin C. Most fruit is also helpful for detoxification, with the best being fresh apricots, all types of berries, citrus fruit, kiwis, mango, melon, peaches and red grapes. One portion is about the size of a tennis ball, such as two kiwi fruit, a large slice of melon, a cup of strawberries or blackberries, or a medium-sized apple.

Fruit is best eaten 30 minutes before a meal or at least two hours after (longer if protein has been eaten).

Fruit also provides fluid but will rapidly ferment as soon as it is ripe. Therefore, it is preferable to eat fast-releasing fruit that does not easily ferment, such as apples, bananas, coconuts and pears, with slow-releasing carbohydrates such as oats or a wholemeal banana sandwich.

Vegetables – 3 to 5 portions a day are required. A portion is the equivalent of one bowl of salad, two tablespoons of cooked vegetables, one large carrot, one medium-sized broccoli or half a cauliflower. Artichokes, beetroot, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cucumbers, peppers, red cabbage and tomatoes are all good for detoxification. The fresher the vegetable, the higher the nutritional content.

Water – To be properly hydrated, you will require about eight glasses a day depending on the climate and amount of exercise you do, but always remember that water is also found in fruits and vegetables. Natural mineral water is preferable because of its purity and mineral content. Water is necessary for the storage of carbohydrates, digestion, the removal of waste products and the regulation of body temperature.

Junk food, snacks, sweets and cakes – Anyone undertaking serious training should consume no more than a single portion per day of such items as biscuits, cakes, confectionary, crisps and puddings, as they are usually high in fats and sugars but contain no important nutrients. In addition, they can be addictive.

Maintaining a healthy body

Correct body functioning is achieved through homeostasis, which is the body’s ability to maintain the correct balance of carbon dioxide, ions, oxygen, sugar, temperature, urea, water, etc. The organs and glands responsible for this process include the hypothalamus, kidneys, liver, lungs, muscles, pancreas, pituitary gland and skin.

Hypothalamus – An area of the brain responsible for many functions, such as the monitoring of carbon dioxide in the blood, body temperature and water content.

Kidneys – Perform many important functions, such as removing urine from the blood and controlling the amount of water in the body.

Liver – Also performs many important functions, such as storing glycogen and regulating body temperature.

Lungs – Used to remove carbon dioxide and receive oxygen.

Muscles – Used to maintain body posture and body temperature through muscular activity and shivering.

Pancreas – The gland organ in the digestive and endocrine system. It maintains the correct glucose levels in blood by producing insulin.

Pituitary gland – A small gland at the base of the brain that secretes various hormones, including anti-diuretic hormone (ADH), to regulate the body’s water content.

Skin – This is sometimes overlooked when athletes are trying to establish good health, but it is the largest organ in the body and it performs a very important function: that of maintaining a constant body temperature. Healthy skin is therefore important for athletes competing in endurance sports such as triathlon.

While your sweat rate will increase in hot conditions, the evaporation of sweat from the skin will be slowed in high humidity, possibly leading to overheating and hyperthermia. If left untreated, this can lead to brain and organ damage and even death. Factors that increase the chances of hyperthermia include age, dehydration, fever, heart disease, obesity and poor circulation. Other heat-related problems include heat exhaustion, heat stroke, heat cramps, heat rash and sunburn.


Hydration is important for good health, but the amount of water required by humans varies depending upon a person’s size, sweat rate and diet. A small person with a sedentary job in an air conditioned office who eats lots of fruit and vegetables will not need to drink as much water as a large man who does physical work in the heat. Children have a larger surface-area-to-volume ratio than adults and therefore can become dehydrated more easily.

If you fail to drink enough water, your risk of infection increases; your urine becomes more concentrated and its smell intensifies; and your chances of becoming constipated increase, thus increasing your likelihood of bowel cancer.

However, over-hydration can also be dangerous, as it causes the body to excrete sodium via the urine (hyponatraemia) and is the cause of more deaths than dehydration. If you develop hyponatraemia you feel bloated; you develop headaches or pressure around the brain; you have puffiness or pressure around the shorts and sock line; and your skin feels tight and becomes shiny. If you develop hyponatraemia, do not imbibe any electrolyte drink, as this will only exacerbate the problem.

© Nigel Farrow

The best way to remain hydrated is to drink regularly during the day; it sounds obvious but not everyone does this. The average person’s daily consumption of water should be around two litres (excluding that required when training), so if you get up at 7am and go to bed at 11pm you need to drink 125 ml of fluid per hour, although you might want to increase this somewhat in order to take into account the fact that you probably won’t want to drink as much in the final few hours before bedtime in order to avoid having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Also, you might want to drink more as soon as you wake in the morning, such as 330-500 ml of water or 50/50 water and juice drink.

If you have any concerns in this area then consider keeping a record in your training diary of how often you go to the toilet. The average is 4-8 times a day unless you have a medical condition, and the average volume of urine passed is 1.5 litres per day. In order to train your bladder (very important during a long race), try not to visit the bathroom as soon as you get the urge. If you are correctly hydrated, your urine should be straw coloured. If it is clear, you might be drinking too much.

It’s always a good idea to have drinks available wherever you go: in the car, at the office, by the bed at night, etc. Varying the type and flavour of drink will avoid monotony, although in hotter climates, little to no flavours work best. If you develop regular cramps, you could have an electrolyte imbalance.

General points

Use your appetite as a guide. If you are still hungry after having eaten, you might need to change your diet as your body is still craving certain nutrients.

Eat more protein and fat on your rest days but be careful if you’re training early the next morning, as you might not have fully digested the protein.

It is often difficult to find the time to eat on a busy training day, so on a rest day have foods that take longer to prepare. This will give your taste buds a change and add variety to your nutrition.

The protein requirement of a triathlete in training should be twice that of a sedentary person.

While your caloric intake should be determined by your energy consumption, on days with long training sessions you are unlikely to be able to replace the energy expended with training snacks, so you might have to eat more the following day in order to compensate. You might also find that this applies on days when you do multiple training sessions.

Consider eating more fibre on rest days and snack on fruit and vegetables to aid recovery.

Make sure you are well hydrated on rest days, especially if you did a heavy workout the previous day, but avoid drinking too much water on its own as this can flush valuable minerals and electrolytes from the body. Therefore, drink water either with food or electrolytes.

Chapter 3 The First Competition

© Richard Stabler

Having decided to enter the sport of triathlon, you might imagine that your first move would be to immediately throw yourself into a training programme designed to make you swim, cycle and run very fast, but in fact it isn’t. In order to design such a programme, what you need is information about yourself – how you might react to a 1.5 km swim followed by a 40 km cycle ride followed by a 10 km run; in other words, exactly where you are strong and where you are weak. And the only way to know that is to compete in a race.

So, your first act in the sport should be to enter a race, but you should not begin with an International Standard distance race. Your initial attempt should be over the shorter Sprint distance (400 m swim, 20 km cycle; 5 km run).

Of course, there is no point in entering an event that happens the following day or the following week because, in a completely unprepared state, you would be unlikely to finish, and in that circumstance any data that you obtain on your performance would be practically useless. However, you don’t need to spend too much time on this preparation, so the race shouldn’t be too far in the future.

The optimum time period you should allow yourself to prepare for this race is about 14 weeks. Therefore, the event you enter should be taking place about three months in the future. In the interim period, you should concentrate on simply getting yourself ready for that race, and this chapter will essentially tell you how to do that.

Training for your first triathlon

In order to make the most of the relatively short period of time before your race, you should consider joining a triathlon club. Here you will have access to advice from a coach, as well as more experienced triathletes. However, unless you find it very easy to train with others, the greatest benefit is usually gained by training alone.

If your competence in the three disciplines varies widely, for instance, if you already have experience in one of them, then you should aim for consistency in your weakest discipline; you should train hard in the middle sport; and in your strongest sport, you should train “Smart” (see encyclopaedia entry) – in other words you should do enough to ensure that you do not lose fitness in that sport. As the weeks pass, you should then reduce the time you train on your best sport so that you can realise more rapid increases on the weaker sports.

Mind matters

If you have a track record in sport, you should already have developed a positive mental attitude, but if you haven’t then this is the point at which you should begin that process because it can take time. Telling yourself that you can succeed is one thing, but this always needs to be reinforced by the completion of successful training sessions, an increase in fitness, and good performances in races, otherwise a negative attitude will develop.

At this stage, your most important aim should simply be to finish the race, and so you should try to see yourself crossing the finish line. As your body begins to understand what it might take to complete a triathlon, you should be able to construct images of each part of the race before eventually combining them all together. If you can do this, you will feel more confident and relaxed on race day.

You can find more information about this in my book Triathlon. The Mental Battle.

Developing a routine

Now is also a good time to develop a consistent routine. This is important, because it allows your mind to know when to prepare your body for the training session. If your day is likely to be busy with work, etc, then you should try to do the training session early in the morning. Then, whatever happens during the rest of the day, that box has been ticked.

However, you cannot develop a good and consistent training routine without being organised, so you need to know when the swimming pool is available for lane swimming; you need to find quiet roads on which you can cycle; and your circuits need to include both flat and hilly sections. Work out how long each route will take so that your training sessions don’t overrun. That way you will be able to concentrate on the cycling.

It is also good to have a certain amount of flexibility in your training schedule so that, if you are unable to train on one day, you can reschedule the training on another day.


Make sure your first triathlon is a pool-based event, as you simply will not have the time to build up the confidence and skill needed to compete in an open-water triathlon (this might not apply if your previous sport was swimming). Also, from an overall fitness point of view it might be advantageous to perform all the swimming strokes, but your training should concentrate on front crawl as this is obviously the one used in triathlon.