An Introduction to Short-Course Triathlon

The Triathlete Guide to Sprint and Olympic Triathlon Racing by Chris Foster and Ryan Bolton TRIGUIDE cover green 1080x1080

This excerpt is from the Introduction to The Triathlete Guide to Sprint and Olympic Triathlon Racing by former pro triathlete Chris Foster and with training plans from coach Ryan Bolton. This complete guide will help you discover the speed, thrill, and challenge of short-course triathlon racing.

Knowledge Is Power

I went into my first race not knowing much aside from the distances I had to complete and the order of events. I had no training plan, just an idea that I should do the distance of each leg a few times each week if I wanted to survive.

Had I known a little more about training, I certainly would have performed better, and probably had a lot more fun. It took me years to understand that having a plan was more important in triathlon than any other sport I’ve done before or since. But I needed more than just a plan. With swimming, biking, and running all acting as moving targets bouncing off each other, getting the formula right is a little bit like playing with a chemistry set—you get the mixture wrong, and boom you’re in trouble.

That challenge and balancing act are also what makes triathlon so fun. Great swimmers get humbled on the run, great runners get humbled in the water, and great cyclists sometimes get humbled in both. You push a little too far in one, another gets out of whack. You don’t do enough in any of the three, and you suffer on race day. You overdo it in all of them and you run the risk of burning out completely—the human body can only handle so much. Still, it’s possible that we can learn to get better—excel even—at three very different sports. This is why triathlon is worth doing and worth doing with your best foot forward.

Solving this multisport Rubik’s Cube is what bonds triathletes together. Yes, we’re racing against each other when the gun goes off, but there’s really only a handful of triathletes in the world at any given moment who have their body’s magic formula figured out. Ask anyone in the transition area how their training has been going, and there’s always something: “My run has been going great, but I’ve got this shoulder thing . . . ” Or, “I’ve been putting in tons of swimming, but I haven’t had as much time to bike as I’d like.” (Time is the great enemy of triathletes, and we’ll get to that later.) Figuring out how to balance swimming, biking, running, strength training, nutrition, hydration, rest, recovery, overall health, motivation, family, and work life is a monumental task, but it’s also the thing that binds this weird tribe together.

Finding a healthy balance among those 12 things is one of the main reasons I opted to go faster rather than longer. I believe in the healthy, well-rounded version of the multisport lifestyle that exists in short-course racing. Training and racing in relatively shorter bursts, and eschewing six-hour rides for shorter, more intense workouts, not only keeps energy levels up and a body’s structural integrity in check, but it also allows the athlete to have a life outside of the sport—with the time and energy to enjoy it.

Triathlon can open many doors—whether it be to personal satisfaction, overcoming fears, meeting new people, changing a lifestyle, becoming healthier, or conquering new challenges. But triathlon can also become physically and mentally isolating if approached the wrong way. Just like the chemical reaction described earlier, triathlon can have dangerous outcomes, or it can create something beautiful. If you want to learn how short-course triathlon can positively transform all aspects of your life, this book will be your guide.

You’ll be joined on your journey by experts with a deep, wide knowledge of short-course racing and how to excel at it.

Ryan Bolton, one of the experts featured in this book, coaches the entire range of triathletes and runners, from Olympians to age-groupers to first-timers. The former pro triathlete and Olympian has degrees in exercise physiology and human nutrition, and in 2018, he was named USA Triathlon’s high-performance technical adviser.

Though he coaches both short- and long-course athletes, his true passion lies in short-course racing because he believes the shorter time commitment and increased intensity are a healthier fit for today’s athletes.

Ryan is responsible for much of the technique work in the book and also designed the training plans, which are rooted in a coaching philosophy that prioritizes three key ideas: periodization, polarization, and race-day specificity. Periodization is progressive, systematic cycling of a training program with different phases at different times in the season. Polarization is the focused combination of very easy efforts and very hard efforts. And race-day specificity is the idea that we should train as we intend to race. Underlying it all is Ryan’s foundational belief in the well-rounded athlete, where a balance between life and training is struck in a way that sets up success in both.

You’ll also benefit from the wisdom of Casey Maguire, a physical therapist, former triathlete, and current cyclist. His career is devoted to getting people—athletes and nonathletes—back to doing the things they enjoy. Some of his favorite patients are triathletes because they’re rarely lacking in motivation (although unfortunately they’re often lacking in restraint!).

Casey urges all athletes to make a consistent commitment to a flexibility program—which you’ll find in these pages. He believes passionately in a training program that creates a strong base of core stability, general flexibility, and strength to allow speedwork to flourish. His emphasis on not overdoing volume and always respecting recovery makes him the ideal PT contributor for a short-course racer’s guide.

Becoming Three-Dimensional

The expert knowledge in this book is useful for athletes across the ability and experience spectrums, from new to seasoned. Though you may want to use the book as a reference, dipping in and out of sections to find the information you need the most, we recommend reading the chapters in order, as information early on serves as a foundation for the building blocks that come later. Beware of shortcuts. Unequivocally, the best way to excel at triathlon is to take the time to learn about the ancillary stuff: refining technique, devising a race-day strategy, warming up and cooling down effectively, and committing to a solid, consistent strength training routine, alongside the nitty-gritty execution of the mileage in the training plan itself. We strongly believe in the concept of a “whole triathlete” when approaching training and racing—another reason to love short course: It gives you time to work on these details!

We want to help you fill in those gaps you might have had in your training, or maybe areas you never knew you needed help with. You’ll work smarter by not just following the plans but also learning about the ancillaries required to put your best foot (or arm or pedal) forward.

Here’s a quick overview of how this book is organized:

  1. THE BACK STORY. Triathlon is relatively new, and the original pioneers of multisport were far from the kitted-out pros you see today. We’ll take a quick trip through triathlon’s origin story, as well as look at all the reasons why short-course racing is a smart choice.
  2. THE GEAR. Triathletes love stuff. And while you can easily amass a houseful of gear if you choose, here we will break down the essentials that will help make you fast as well as ease your journey on race day.
  3. THE TECHNIQUE. Form and technique are vital to becoming a good triathlete, and entire books are dedicated to learning the form that is required to do just one sport. We’ll focus on the keys to winning technique and common tri-specific problems that can lead to injury or underperformance.
  4. THE SUPPLEMENTARY WORK. A successful triathlete needs to do more than just swim, bike, and run in order to improve and stay injury-free. Here we offer advice and tips on strength training and injury prevention, which will help strengthen the glue that holds your basic training together.
  5. THE STRATEGY. Different triathletes at different stages of their racing career need to approach race day with very different plans. Here we will lay out some simple strategies that will help keep surprises at bay and prepare your mental game.
  6. LEVEL 1 16-WEEK PROGRAM. This training recipe will take you from day one to the finish line. The plan is broken out into a calendar with each day’s workouts organized into four key “phases.” Each phase has an introduction to arm you with an understanding of why you’re doing what. We’ll also talk about next steps after your race—how to transition from “completing” to “competing.”
  7. LEVEL 2 16-WEEK PROGRAM. This plan is for those who have done a few races and want to improve their times. You’ll find more advanced concepts, such as different ways of measuring effort that are more precise than in the Level 1 Program. We’ll also discuss what it means to be shooting for performance rather just finishing. This program has more volume, more intensity, and different workouts than in Level 1. While we keep time manageable in Level 2, this plan will require more commitment than in Level 1 without getting to the pointy end of Level 3.
  8. LEVEL 3 16-WEEK PROGRAM. This is a roadmap to lead you to finish at your very best. The plan is also intended for those looking to get the most performance out of their body at a shorter distance, in order to become a more well-rounded person and make triathlon a more manageable time and energy commitment. You’ll learn how to go fast, not just far. We’ll look at how to “change gears” from simply doing triathlon to focusing on fast and discuss what will look different if you are dropping down in distance. We’ll explore the new sensations that short-course-specific training will bring and how to approach a proper short-course taper. Finally, we’ll discuss race-day strategy and how to get ready for your fastest short day ever.
  9. APPENDIXES. Here you’ll find more detail on test sets for swimming, biking, and running; swimming drills; running drills; and strength training.

Now we know where we’re headed. It’s time to start putting the pieces together. Let’s go!

The Triathlete Guide to Sprint and Olympic Triathlon Racing, by former pro Chris Foster and with training plans from coach Ryan Bolton, is your complete guide to discovering the speed, thrill, and challenge of short-course triathlon racing.