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Which Sport Should You Focus on Most?

One of my friends, doing her first sprint triathlon, had a theory that basically states that since she will be on the bike a lot longer than she will be swimming or running, she should devote a lot more of her training time to the bike. Is this a good philosophy to go by?

The question of “which sport should I focus on most in my triathlon training” is very common, and a difficult question to answer. More often than not an athlete will want to focus on their favorite sport, which is often the bike, by justifying most of their time during the triathlon will be spent on this sport. This seems the logical and obvious, but it’s not quite that simple.

Triathlon is an interesting sport to coach. Triathlon coaches are challenged with a sport that consists of three very different individual sports, and inevitably athletes who have varied needs and wants in terms of how to train each of these sub-sports while properly addressing triathlon as the stand-alone event for which the athlete is preparing.

We can’t simply look at each sub-sport through the narrow perspective of duration. Yes, during any triathlon the greatest portion of time will be spent on the bike, but, not necessarily the greatest portion of effort.

While there is no proven formula to compare sport-to-sport demands, a basic rule of thumb is that cycling effort is about a 3:1 ratio when compared to running. Meaning, an hour of running is roughly equivalent to 3 hours of riding. Obviously nutrition, hydration, and athletic background are factors as well, but, for most athletes a 3:1 bike-to-run-effort ratio is pretty dependable.

Therefore, when looking at sprint triathlon, a mid-pack athlete might expect to spend 45 minutes on the bike and 25 to 30 minutes on the run. So, the run represents more than our 3:1 ratio and closer to 2:1. Also, the run is the final event which drives up its energy demands.

Thus, we could argue triathlon training should focus more on the run, right? Ah, but here we run into other issues.

Triathlon run training has two primary challenges. First, running is a more structurally demanding sport than cycling or swimming. Meaning, the fatigue and injury risk is greater. Many triathletes don’t come from a running background which exacerbates this. In the end running demands respect and you have to be careful about overdoing it. Being able to supplement cycling and swimming helps prevent run overtraining.

Second, many triathletes view cycling as fun and social, while running is hard work that must be done. While two people of differing abilities can easily ride together and still get in a good training session, running will more widely divide abilities and can become a more solitary sport.

That’s not to say that running can’t be fun and social, but it takes a bit longer to develop “easy running” fitness and often a paradigm shift in approach to training. I often see athletes who are convinced they’re too slow to run with other people. This is rarely true.

Finally, triathlon is a single sport made up of three pieces. None of those pieces stands alone when it comes to training. Rather, strength in any given sport can benefit the other two. If you focus on bike training you may be fresher coming into the run and thus run better. Focusing on your run will improve your run fitness and often improve your power and efficiency on the bike as well. The trick is to look at each sub-sport as a part of the whole.

Usually the answer to “which sport should I focus on most” is, focus on the sport of triathlon. Design a training plan that not only helps you develop as an athlete but is fun and interesting. Often this will be a plan which alternates “focus weeks”. One week may be more cycling, the next more running, the week after that may have more swim focus.

I often have my athletes pick small goals or single sport races to aim for during a focus week or block of training. Triathlon is still the primary goal but doing single sport races can build single sport confidence that will complement triathlon performance.

Most importantly find a balance that works for you and keeps you motivated and excited about your training.

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Jimmy Archer

Founder and Editor at DirtTRI.com. Jimmy has been a professional athlete for over 18 years as a runner, cyclist, mountain biker, cross country skier, and primarily, triathlete. Jimmy has a degree in exercise science from the University of Colorado and is a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling certified coach. Jimmy became a freelance writer in 2000 while competing and covering the ITU Winter Triathlon World Championship. Since that time Jimmy has been head editor at two magazines, been published in numerous publications within the endurance sport, recreation, and travel segments. Currently Jimmy is competing professionally in off-road multisport. In his spare time Jimmy passionately follows Formula 1, Moto GP, and is an avid cook.

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