Stepping Up: How to Go Longer in Triathlon


, by Emma-Kate Lidbury

Photography by: Adam Hodges

How do you know when you’re ready to 'step up' in your triathlon distance—and what exactly will it take? Emma-Kate Lidbury explains.

Triathlon is a highly addictive sport, so it’s not at all uncommon for an athlete to test the waters with their first sprint distance and soon after want to jump into an Ironman. The iconic Ironman World Championship, which until recently was always set in Kona, Hawaii, also does a masterful job of luring people into wanting to “go long”—but should you? What does it take to jump from one distance to the next—and how do you know when you’re ready? Let’s find out. 

Going from Sprint to Olympic distance Triathlon

A sprint distance triathlon involves a 750m swim, a 12-mile bike, and a 3.1-mile run, while an Olympic distance race is double that. Of all the “jumps” in distance to make, this is the most straightforward, so if you’ve completed a few sprint distance events and find yourself being tempted to step up, then signing up for an Olympic distance should feel like a fun and achievable endeavor. 

RELATED: How to Get Started in Triathlon

The training required to undertake a sprint distance race does not differ too greatly to that needed for an Olympic distance event. You’ll want to be comfortable covering ~2K in the pool each session and be able to swim two to three times a week. You’ll need to have slightly more time available to ride, ideally logging three bike sessions per week with the longest one being 30-40 miles. 

Sarah Haskins at the 2018 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. Photography by: Adam Hodges

It’s also advisable to run three times a week, with the longest run being 7-8 miles. And while it’s possible to make it through a three-mile run at a sprint distance race with little to no brick training (the name given to sessions where you combine two disciplines, e.g., swim to bike, or bike to run), it will be all the more painful on a six-mile run course with legs that have never run off the bike. For this reason, it’s wise to use one of your weekly run and ride sessions as a bike-run brick, even if the run off the bike is very short (just 10 minutes can have the desired training effect of getting your leg muscles acquainted with the jelly legs feeling of running after riding). 

RELATED: Triathlon Distances: From Sprint to Ironman and More


When it comes to fueling for sprint and Olympic distance triathlon, it doesn’t need to be too complicated. Of course, before racing either distance you want to make sure you’re well-fueled and hydrated. In a sprint distance race you won’t need to take on many (if any) calories, simply sip from a bottle of water or electrolytes on the bike, whereas in an Olympic distance you’ll want to have a bottle of electrolytes on the bike plus a gel, and a gel or two for the run. Make sure you’ve tested all fuel in training prior to race day.

In Olympic distance triathlon it pays to make sure you have a bottle of electrolytes on the bike. Photography by: Stefan Holm


The gear needed for a sprint and Olympic distance triathlon shouldn’t differ too much with the key essentials for both being a wetsuit, a bike, a helmet, a trisuit, and running shoes - there's more about the gear you need to get started in triathlon here. Of course, if your heart desires it (and your bank balance permits it) then upgrading your set-up with items such as race wheels, carbon fiber run shoes, or an aero helmet certainly won’t hurt your performance, but they are by no means necessary for Olympic distance. Typically speaking, the longer you’re out there, the more benefit you stand to gain from upgrading items like these. 

RELATED: The Real Reason You’re Not Getting Faster at Swimming

Going from Olympic distance triathlon to 70.3 / Half Ironman

While you might be able to “fake it until you make it” with an Olympic distance event, that’s simply not the case with the 70.3 distance. So-called because that’s the total number of miles you cover across the three disciplines—1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run, this distance will take the average age-grouper upwards of five hours. Now that’s a long time to be out doing something you’re not well prepared for, so if you want to tackle a 70.3 be sure you have the time available to commit to 10-12 hours of training per week. 

While you might be able to “fake it until you make it” with an Olympic distance event, that’s simply not the case with the 70.3 distance.

The longer your race, the more consistency you want to have in your training and the deeper you want your training base to be. Most coaches will advise having a solid base of eight to 10-hour training weeks before building into a more focused race-specific block that involves 10-12 hours of training a week for six to eight weeks. It’s important to be honest with yourself about (a) how much time you have available to train and (b) your motivation for doing it, as both are important factors determining your success and enjoyment at this distance. 

If you’re still reading and still excited by the prospect of training for and racing a 70.3 then you’ll want to hit three swim sessions a week, usually ~3K in distance with a mix of intensity, and three bike rides a week with the longest being approximately four hours. Running three to four times a week (depending on factors like duration versus frequency and injury history) should be your sweet spot, with the longest run being about 90 minutes.

DID YOU READ? How To Get Into Running


The longer the race, the more important fueling becomes, so when you’re stepping up from Olympic to 70.3, focusing on fuel and nutrition is a wise investment of time and energy. Of course, race fueling is a highly individualized practice—what works for one person can be a disaster for the next—but typically speaking there are a few golden rules to follow:

  • Consume 60-90g of carbs per hour (but test this to see what works for you)

  • Drink 20-32 ounces (600-960 ml) of fluid per hour (but this will vary based on heat, humidity, individual sweat rate and sodium loss)

  • Fuel every session and refuel within ~30 minutes of finishing hard workouts with carbs, protein, and good fat.

Having a fueling strategy is essential when racing longer distances. Photography by: Adam Hodges


Similar rules apply with gear as they do with fuel when it comes to stepping up in distance. If your budget allows—and this is something you think you’ll want to do for a while—then investing in a triathlon bike and a good set of deep-rim race wheels will certainly help you feel (and look) fast come race day. It’s also important to ensure your tri suit fits comfortably (chafing for five or more hours is not fun, trust us) and has decent-sized pockets to stash energy gels/nutrition. 

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Going from 70.3 / Half Ironman to Ironman

“You’re an Ironman!”—these are words many of us dream of hearing, and images of pros running down the finish chute in Kona have helped fuel ample long-course dreams, but don’t be mistaken: an Ironman is a major undertaking that requires commitment across all areas of your life (if you’re going to do it well and enjoy the process). For this reason, you’ll want to have a serious conversation with yourself (and your family/significant others) before signing up for a race of this magnitude (it’s no joke that divorce is high among Ironman competitors!). 

Be realistic about how much time you have available for training, the people you can train with, the resources available to you, and seemingly simple yet important things such as work commitments, sleep, and stress. Consistency is the foundation of all good Ironman training programs, so if it’s going to be hard to consistently log eight to 14 hours of training a week for six to nine months then there’s no shame in deciding to stick with racing Olympic or 70.3 distance. Most coaches will advise having done a few 70.3 races before undertaking an Ironman, although there are plenty of people who do jump straight in. 

Ironman Boulder. Photography by: Adam Hodges

When it comes to training, as with 70.3, you’ll want to have a strong block of base training banked before your Ironman-specific training begins. This might look like four to six months of eight to 10 hours of training a week, where you’re swimming three times a week (and comfortable covering 3-4K), riding three to four times a week (with a long ride of four to five hours on the weekend), and running a similar number of times per week with a long run on the weekend or a double run day. Overdoing it is incredibly easy—and reaching the start line feeling fit and fresh can be incredibly hard, so pace yourself with training and surround yourself (if you can) with a good coach and/or experienced, friendly triathletes who have a few Ironman finishes between them. 

RELATED: How to Fuel for an Ironman Triathlon


Good fueling is critical for Ironman, but it requires practice and knowing what works for you. The same rules listed above for 70.3 apply here, but just know that the longer you’re out there, the more chance there is of things going wrong. Practicing your race-day fueling in training is essential for Ironman and will really help you dial it all in. You’ll want to earmark several key workouts/weekends where you put your fueling to the test as there’s plenty of trial and error involved. 

Photography by: Adam Hodges

As with 70.3 racing, comfort and aerodynamics are important in Ironman, so be sure not to chase one at the expense of the other (e.g., a bike fit that is extremely aerodynamic but very uncomfortable). If you haven’t already, consider investing in a triathlon bike (and going for the aforementioned bike fit is also a wise use of time and money). Race wheels and an aero helmet are also worthwhile investments, as is a tri suit that is comfortable, well-made, and aerodynamic. Do your key workouts in your race-day gear so that it is all tried and tested well in advance and you feel confident in your gear and set-up. That confidence will go a long way on race day—hopefully as long as you do! 

RELATED: You’re Not Really Training in Zone 2 (You Just Think You Are)

Step Up, Smartly

Hopefully, by now you feel informed about how and when to step up when it comes to progressing with triathlon racing. Remember that Ironman is a major commitment but it shouldn’t take over your life and consume you; a happy athlete is a healthy, fast one! 

Also remember that successful endurance training and racing is all about consistency, so only take on races and distances that work for you and your lifestyle. It’s far more fun and rewarding that way—and you stand a much better chance of making it to the start and finish lines! 

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