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Triathlon Training With Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee

Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee at the Grand Prix de Triathlon, 2011

Triathlon is one of the hardest sports as it requires you to master three disciplines, including running, swimming and cycling. Triathlons always start with a swim, then cycle and finish with a run.

Triathlons are held in all environments. If the water temperature is below 20 degrees Celsius wet suits must be worn, but other than that the same rules applies everywhere.


The length of the course varies between competitions, and are as follows:

Triathlon Training

Alistair and Johnny Brownlee are currently (2012) the top two triathletes in the world. They are brothers and train together. Jonathan Brownlee (age 22) has won the World Sprint Triathlon Champion twice and was the British youth champion in both triathlon and duathlon in both 2006 and 2007. Alistair Brownlee (age 24) is the ETU European Triathlon champion and a two time Triathlon World Champion. Alistair came 12th in the Beijing Games.

The Brownlee brothers train for around 6 hours a day. Training involves a combination of running, swimming and cycling training with some weight training and plyometrics to increase power.

Many triathletes train twice a day with a morning and evening session of swimming and then running or sometimes just cycling. The key is to increase distance each week to build endurance.

Swimming sessions are usually between 500 and 1500 metres, cycling can range from 10 miles to 30 miles and running from a few miles to up to 10 miles per session.

Recovery periods, ice baths, weight training, stretching and active rest are all incorporated into training.

Swimming Training

Triathletes swim a little differently than sprint swimmers in two ways. Firstly, some conservation of energy is needed so the legs are not excessively tired before the cycle and the run. Perfect technique is needed, rolling the body to maximise the power of the stroke, while keeping the kicking relaxed but powerful. The timing of the breathing is also a vital skill to learn.

Rather than breathing on even strokes, triathletes sometimes breathe on odd strokes so that they breathe on both sides. This is used to allow them to look in both directions when swimming to keep an eye on the whole field. Unlike in pool swimming, triathletes often push and shove in the water to get the best position. It is not uncommon for a swimmer to lose his goggles during the swim as another pulls them from their face.

During training, perform a range of interval swims every 1 or 2 weeks. Perform lengths with just the legs and then just arms. Then perform sprint intervals with 30 seconds at maximum pace, followed by recovery swims, or perform one length of a pool at max pace, then 3 lengths at slow recovery pace.

Finally, swimming may be done with a wet suit on cold days, so it is important to train while wearing a wet suit too. Wet suits tend to aid weaker swimmers as they increase buoyancy, therefore more energy an be used to swim forwards as opposed to stay afloat.

Cycling Training

The cycling and running parts are both endurance events, so training focuses on building up distance as the competition approaches, with interval training forming part of the earlier training to help increase VO2 Max levels (increasing lung capacity and cardiovascular fitness).

When cycling, start with a 20 minute warm up at a gentle pace to ensure that the legs are fully warmed up before the more strenuous cycle workout. Perform 2 minute intervals, with 2 minutes cycling at race pace followed by 2 minutes at a recovery pace. Interval training has been shown to be the most effective way to increase fitness. Repeat the intervals several times, usually 3 to 6 times.

Then perform some higher intensity sprint intervals by cycling around 10% faster than a race speed for 60 seconds, followed by a recovery cycle. These intervals are repeated 3 to 6 times also.

The final series of interval training involves full on sprints for 30 seconds, followed by 30 seconds of total recovery, free wheeling. Stand on the pedals for the first half of the sprint to build up as much speed as possible.

Running Training

Start with a 10 minute jog to loosen and warm up the legs. Perform a series of running drills such as high knees, heel kicks, long skips and small fast steps. Then perform intervals of 100m sprints, followed by recovery runs to develop speed, then 400m intervals to help build up lactic acid tolerance.

Longer runs must also be done throughout the week for improve running endurance.

Sleep in an Oxygen Tent

Alistair Brownlee sleeps in a tent which reduces the oxygen concentration of the air to help improve VO2 levels while he sleeps. This produces a similar effect to altitude training as it reduces oxygen availability, so the body responds by increasing efficiency, possibly by increasing the production of red blood cells.

Underwater Treadmill

The brothers also own an underwater treadmill in their garden. This helps to improve endurance by creating resistance to running. It is hard to know if this is just a gimmick or if it really improves their performance, but they are currently the best triathletes in the world and something must be given them an edge.

Photo of the Brownlee brothers by Martin Putz.