The Rule of Threes in triathlon

I’m not a triathlon coach. No certifications. No real credentials except the fact that I regularly podium in my age group.

But that’s the objective of most triathletes, is it not? As in any endurance sport, especially the three involved in triathlon, the category of ‘elite athlete’ is reserved just for those with the talent, time and drive to lead races.

The rest of us find our goals in the many layers of achievement well below those of the world’s elite. Yet even standing on the podium isn’t possible for many. So how do we measure the relative amount of training we should legitimately apply to reach our goals?

The rule of threes

IMG_6118A few years back when I was struggling with Achilles tendon problems, I managed only ten miles a week in training. That usually consisted of three three-mile runs during the week. One of these I would do fairly quickly, actually spending time on the track doing intervals. These I did fast, usually at 6:00 per mile pace. A typical set would include 6-8 X .400 at 90 seconds each.

If that type of workout sounds contradictory given the tight and sore Achilles issues, all I can say is that it didn’t hurt any more running fast than it did slow. Ultimately the Achilles problem was cured by a fortuitous change in shoe models. I was given a free pair of Saucony Triumph ISOs whose heel counter did not dig into my Achilles. That was largely the end of that.

Along with all the riding I was still able to do, I ran 43:00 for 10K that fall. About 7:00 per mile pace. That’s pretty decent on 10 miles of running per week.

So my formula was simple: three runs each week with 30% of it done faster than race pace.

Applying the Rule of Threes on the bike

The same system can be applied to racing on the bike. Getting out the door for three rides a week is often sufficient to race a Sprint, Olympic or duathlon. Two longer rides of 2-4 hours on the weekends and one hard and fast ride during the week is a minimal yet still effective strategy. I personally use a 20 mile distance to do a hard ride. My goal is to ride a 20 mph average. That includes some very hard intervals where the speed is over 25 mph for stretches of 800 yards or so.

The average speed naturally drops when hills or wind impinge, and that is part of the gig. You have to learn to deal with those issues in a race, so there’s no better way to practice than riding hard and fast in all types of conditions.

If you’re fortunate enough to have time for a second weekday ride, a nice strategy is to ride quite easy overall but choose a few Strava segments to really blast and try to beat your best effort. That way you get empiric feedback, much like running intervals on a track. But the overall ride from 25-35 miles should be easy.

The rule of threes in the pool

It seems the theories on how to swim faster and longer are shifting toward doing longer sets of short, fast intervals. I read the swim magazines and online stuff and that strategy, along with form drills focused on efficiency, are the current trusted method for swimming better.

And speaking from personal experience, swimming three times a week really can build fitness quite fast. I haven’t done that much all that often. Even two times a week if the swimming is done hard really helps. But the goal of threes in all three sports is a wonderful way to transfer overall aerobic training with far less risk of overuse injury than bulking up in one sport or the other.

Specificity is important, and doing intervals hard and fast in the pools is important to making yourself a faster swimmer. Choose one day a week to push yourself past your normal limits and “swim to fatigue” even if it means a bit longer rest intervals between.

That’s it. The Rule of Threes is a dependable and sustainable approach for most triathletes. It’s easy to plan and track your efforts, and know you have three hard workouts built into your swimming, cycling and running each week is a true confidence builder.

I may not have coaching certifications and this system of threes requires a bit of upward tweaking to achieve proper Half-Ironman training, but frankly there are only so many hours in a day and so many days in a week. If you live by the Rule of Threes you won’t likely die in the race.

Ironman reality

An Ironman training program requires considerably more  volume in each of these categories. The weekend rides need to build to 6-7 hours and cover 80-110 miles. Longer runs of 15-20 miles are necessary for marathon training. Open water swim training must be incorporated to prepare for the two-mile distance.

Most people planning to compete in a full Ironman distance event hire a coach for perspective and application of training principles. The fatigue and commitment are considerable, and the depths of training render athletes unable to judge for themselves how much they should do.

But you honestly could depend on applying the Rule of Threes if your goal is to finish. Allow 16-20 weeks to prepare.

Or enjoy yourself a Sprint. You’ll recover three times faster. (LOL)

About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at, and Online portfolio:
This entry was posted in 400 meter intervals, 400 workouts, triathlete, triathlon, triathlons and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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