If you're aiming to complete a half-Ironman — also known as a 70.3, since that's the total mileage you'll travel on the swim, bike and run — you're probably looking for a free training program to get you to the finish line in one piece.
Preparing for a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run definitely isn't easy, and it's a good idea for those new to the sport to hire a coach or join a group. But some people — especially more experienced athletes— can successfully train using a free half-Ironman training plan.
If you're going to go the free or low-cost route, it's critical to choose the right plan. Here's how to evaluate training programs to find the best fit, and what to expect as you go the distance.
Start With the End in Mind
Your first step? Carefully consider your goals, says Patrick Billingsley, a swim and triathlon coach in Wellington, Florida. If it's your first time tackling the distance, finishing within the cutoff (usually eight and a half hours) represents a remarkable accomplishment. More experienced athletes can reasonably set challenging yet realistic goals to improve their finishing times.
Once you've set a goal, look for a plan that will help you reach it. Some programs are specifically designed to guide first-timers across the finish line. Others take an ambitious approach, incorporating more frequent or higher-intensity sessions. These can improve your fitness and speed, but increase your risk of injury or burnout if you're not ready for them.
Choosing a plan that strikes the right balance increases your odds of sticking to it. That — more than any fancy training technique or magic formula — is what's most critical to success in a triathlon, says Sharone Aharon, a triathlon coach and founder of Well-Fit Triathlon & Training, Inc. in Chicago.
Do a Background Check
Once you've found a plan that aligns with your current abilities and future goals, do some vetting before you commit to it. Check that the coach or trainer who created it has significant experience in the sport and preferably a certification from or affiliation with USA Triathlon, Aharon says.
Consider the coach's own athletic experience; you want someone who "walks the walk but also talks the talk," says Jen Rulon, a San Antonio-based triathlon coach. He or she doesn't need to be the speediest but should at least have some experience racing 70.3 or longer.
Read online reviews and ratings, reach out to other athletes who've followed the program, and even consider interviewing the plan's author, Billingsley recommends. Many coaches will answer a few questions to ensure a good fit, even if you aren't paying for one-on-one service, Rulon says.
Understand What’s Involved
A long-distance race like a half-Ironman requires a significant amount of training to prepare. Find a plan that allows an ample amount of time to ramp up your workouts. If you've never done a triathlon before, you might need four to six months to get ready. Advanced athletes should allow at least three to four months, Aharon says.
Expect to incorporate at least nine training sessions per week, including swimming, biking, running and strength training. You'll likely dedicate six to seven weekly hours at the start of a beginner program, then build up to about 13 hours. If you're aiming for a more ambitious goal, you might need between eight and 17 hours per week to reach it.
A good plan should always include a day off or a recovery day, Rulon says. Not only does a rest day allow your body the chance to recuperate from your hard work, but it's also essential for restoring your mind. "It's all about refueling and reconnecting with your family and the rest of your life," she says.
Work on Your Weaknesses
At a minimum, you'll want to divide your training time into three runs, two rides and two swim sessions per week, plus two strength-training sessions, Aharon recommends.
For the best results, look for a half-Ironman plan that has you spending more time on your least skilled discipline. That's especially true if swimming is your weak spot, Aharon says. It's low-impact but technically challenging, and if you train hard without the right form, it's easy to injure yourself.
While you don't need to swim fast to complete a half-Ironman, you do want to build up your swimming stamina and endurance, Rulon says. "If you come out of the water exhausted, then you're not going to have much left for the rest of the race," she says.
Another important aspect of any good plan: Brick workouts, or back-to-back training sessions where you practice transitioning between disciplines. Aim for at least one to two of these per week. They don't need to be complicated: A few minutes on the spin bike after your swim or a 20-minute run after your long bike ride will help your body learn to adjust to the differing demands, Rulon says.
Race Your Way to Success
No matter how diligently you train, there's still something different about the race-day experience, Billingsley says. For this reason, it's a good idea to sign up for a few shorter-distance races, especially if you've never completed a triathlon before.
Look for a plan that incorporates a few shorter races during your build-up to 70.3, including sprint (a half-mile swim, 12.4-mile bike, and 5K or 3.1-mile run) and Olympic (1.5K swim, 40K on the bike and a 10K run) distance triathlons. Use these as dress rehearsals at which you can practice everything: fueling, changing gear and calming your nerves under pressure, Rulon says.
Make Your Plan Work for You
Finally, keep in mind that even the most expertly-crafted plan may require some adjustment along the way. "Life happens," Aharon says. You might get sick, have a last-minute business trip or develop early warning signs of an injury.
While following a free half-Ironman plan means you don't have a coach to make updates on the fly, know that missing a day here or there won't throw you completely off course; many triathletes complete only 75 to 85 percent of their prescribed training, Aharon says. That said, if you have the option, it's better to sneak in a shorter training session than to skip it altogether. That way, you'll maintain your healthy habits.
Even if you're not paying anyone, you can still seek out a group to support you. Visit a local running or multi-sport store, join an online forum or otherwise seek out athletes with similar goals and plans to connect with, Rulon recommends. After all, a half-Ironman is still a jumbo-sized goal, and most athletes do better with some support and community along the way.