Training for a Triathlon

The Scientific Way

By Brandt Quick

When training for a triathlon, too many times, triathletes have no specific goal. They proceed aimlessly with no scientific direction of purpose. The first step in having a goal or goals is complete, but knowing how to methodically and systematically go about achieving those goals the right way can be a challenge for some triathletes.

Training for a triathlon is a challenge because not all triathletes have exercise physiology backgrounds. Surprisingly though, many triathletes are so enveloped by the sport, and their performance, that they do educate themselves as much as they can in order to further their training, to be more individual and specific to their goals, needs and the needs of their energy systems; one of the single most important things to understand so that we may develop those systems accordingly, to be both stronger and faster on race day.

When training for a triathlon each energy system in the body uses a unique fuel or fuels to drive that system, and also has corresponding musculature specific to those energy systems as well. Our body is a complex, amazing machine.

There are three energy systems that muscle contractions use as fuel. The one that we use most in triathlon training is the aerobic system, which uses oxygen to deliver both high levels of fats and lower levels of carbohydrates for fuel. Aerobic in Latin literally means “utilizing oxygen”, and in English, means “involving, utilizing, or increasing oxygen consumption for metabolic processes in the body”. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary) Our aerobic system utilizes our red, slow twitch oxidative fibers to drive us continuously for the duration of our event(s) and is used in any continuous activity over 2 minutes. This is also called type I fiber types. When we use this system, we generally do so at a “base” heart rate.

The next muscle fiber type we tap into when training for a triathlon is a type IIa fiber, which utilizes glycogen (sugar, carbohydrate) for fuel. These fibers are a hybrid fiber between aerobic, slow twitch, oxidative, and fast twitch anaerobic fibers and are used in any activity between 8 seconds and 2 minutes.

Our third and final muscle fiber type is a type IIx fiber. This is a white, fast twitch, explosive muscle fiber type. These fibers rely on ATP-CP (adenosine triphosphate and creatine phosphate) for immediate, explosive bursts of energy. When we use this energy system, our heart rate will generally be in its highest zone. This energy system is used from time to time while training for a triathlon, but not as often because of the high aerobic demand.

Training the Three Energy Systems

To get the maximum performance while training for a triathlon, we must exercise the three energy systems. Every exercise physiologist may have a different prescription for training the energy systems, and that prescription could change with each individual being trained. This occurs because someone may have been taking time off and restarting, some are just jumping into triathlon, while some athletes already have a great level of fitness already. When looking at a yearly racing plan, one must look at the biggest event, then plan training, and training races, leading up to that event. By trying to be as specific as possible can and should require a great deal of science in your plan.

One of the ways we can really utilize science is to get a metabolic test done. This is done by performing an EMR (exercise metabolic rate) test on an individual. Within this test, we get several important things: Aerobic Base heart rate (AB), Anaerobic Threshold heart rate (AT), and VO2max (maximal oxygen consumption measured in ml/kg/minute of oxygen consumed). This adds a tremendous amount of specificity to a very individualized plan for someone. There are labs in our area, so if you would really like to get specific, seek one out and get tested.

When starting a plan it is essential to develop a great foundation and platform for your aerobic energy system, thus training your AB (aerobic base) specifically. This is usually done at a conversational pace on the bike and run, and a smooth and steady “comfortable” pace in the water. Basically, your training during this phase becomes long and steady. Strengthening your base will allow you to be stronger, allowing you to drive your engine both harder and smarter in future phases of training for a triathlon.

In our next phase of training, it becomes essential to try and develop some explosive power under the aerobic setting, tapping into our anaerobic system to do so. This would include various forms of Fartlek, or interval training. This is absolutely essential to getting faster. Intervals are not the most fun day(s) of training, but prove time and time again to be one of the best ways to improve. So, although you may not be completely overtaken with joy while doing interval sets, you’ll be extremely happy come race day, when your times consistently and steadily improve.

The last phase of training before your big competition should be race pace training days. This gets our bodies accustomed to the grueling race pace that we would like to endure in order to see our overall improvement. It’s all about finding a pace in all three events that allows you to achieve your greatest potential in your consistent speeds for the duration of the race. This is where all of your base, and interval-power training become quite evident in your race pace, and you are happy because your times and performance are improving which is what we all love to see as athletes; when our smart, hard work and dedication pay off for us on race day

Sample Weekly Plan

When training for a triathlon, a general rule of thumb, try to get 3 swims, 3 bike rides and 3 runs in per week. That’s nine total events, which means you’ll be doubling up on some days to get it in and fit it in. My training week looks like this, but are subject to change based on how I feel, what I have coming up, what phase of training I’m in leading up to my biggest yearly event, etc.

  • Monday: swim, sometimes a bike or recumbent bike
  • Tuesday: run and bike
  • Wednesday: swim, give legs a break
  • Thursday: run, bike
  • Friday: swim, give legs a break
  • Saturday: bike and run, brick
  • Sunday: mostly off to let the body recover from long training weeks and training loads

As you can tell, training for a triathlon that is buttressed by science can become more and more complex, yet smart and specific. Educate yourself on the three energy systems, what works for you both from a time and physical perspective, and listen to your body always.

There is a fine line between training very smart and specific, and overtraining. When this line is crossed and athletes over train, it can cause a host of negative physiological responses, and becomes a detriment to performance. When in doubt, seek the assistance of educated coaches, and your peers. Ask a ton of questions, and what they do specifically in training as well. Remember, train smarter, not harder!

Brandt Quick is CEO/President of BQuick Athletic Development, BQuick Nutrition and BQuick Tri-Dat. He can be reached at 1-855-TRY-BQUICK (879-2784), and website at, or

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Three Energy Systems