How to Use Interval Training for Triathlon

May 10, 2024
interval training

(Credit: Adobe Stock)

Interval training is an effective and versatile way of improving your fitness as a triathlete. It allows you to fit high intensity sessions into any type of schedule, no matter how demanding. This article will look at some of the different types of interval training, what it is, the benefits, and how you can apply the training methodology to each of the three disciplines in triathlon. 

What Is Interval Training? 

Interval training is a style of training that combines bouts of high-intensity activity (working period) with short periods of complete or partial/rest (recovery period). It’s a popular training method among athletes in various sports, and can yield many benefits to the triathlete if performed properly. Some of these include…

Increased Speed & Power

Interval training sessions are going to be quite different from regular triathlon training. You’ll be working at a higher intensity for a shorter duration of time, recruiting more of your fast-twitch muscle fibers (responsible for explosive action). This can crossover to produce faster sprints off the start, through the transitions, and across the finish line in your triathlons.

Better Cardio

By alternating between periods of sustained high-intensity activity and short periods of rest, you force your heart to work extremely hard while doing an interval style workout. It has no choice but to learn how to deal with the large amounts of stress followed by only a brief reprieve after each exercise or round. This can offer an amazing advantage while out on course during a race.

Time Management

Interval workouts don’t last for hours the way that a swim, bike, or run might—you simply will not be able to do one for that long (and if you can, you’re not doing it properly). This frees up a lot of time in the schedule and/or gives you a tool for when time is running short, be that because of work, family, training, or otherwise.

Mental Toughness

You’re going to have to develop a different type of grit when it comes to interval training. While swimming in open water, cycling 100 kilometers, and running a half marathon each have their own mental hurdles, it’s amazing just how much a 15-20 minute interval workout can make you want to quit. These kinds of sessions will prepare you for the worst and train you to be the best.

(Credit: Adobe Stock)

Types of Interval Training

There are many ways you can structure an interval training session. Here are a few. 

Triathlon-Based Interval Training

You can easily structure intervals that are adapted to each of the three triathlon disciplines. For example, you can do swim intervals by sprinting 100 meters, followed by 30-45 seconds of rest, repeated 4-5 times. The same can be done with cycling and running. When time is crunched, and you want to focus on intensity over volume, an interval setup is a great option to consider.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

HIIT training is extremely popular among triathletes and athletes in other sports. These sessions are typically performed in 30 minutes or less, and involve intense bouts of exercise followed by short periods of rest. An example would be picking 4-5 exercises, performing each for 30 seconds at maximum intensity, and resting 15 seconds between each exercise; 3-4 rounds total.


Tabata training is a specific type of HIIT training with a standardized format. It consists of 20 seconds of maximally intense exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated for four minutes (eight cycles total). Many triathletes will use the tabata as a finisher after more strength-specific workouts that focus on muscle building and/or power.


Fartlek means “speed play” in Swedish. It’s a blend of continuous and interval-type training, with a much more unstructured and spontaneous style. You can do Fartlek training with swimming, cycling, or running. An example would be sprinting from one light post to another while running, jogging between the next two, sprinting between the next two, and so on.

Pyramid Intervals

With pyramid training, the duration or intensity gradually ascends to a peak and then descends back to the original set parameters. For example, you might have a 10 second run at 90% of your maximum speed followed by a short rest. The next set is a 20 second run. You continue all the way up to a 60 second effort. Then, you move back down until you’re back to a 10 second set.

Interval training is always a great way to burn calories and stay lean. (Credit: Adobe Stock)

How to Use Interval Training for Triathlon

Incorporating interval training into your current schedule is easy to do and can have a huge impact on your performance as a triathlete. Since the natural disposition of interval training is inclined towards efficiency, making time for these routines is hardly ever the issue. Instead, they act as filler workouts when you need to work on things but don’t have much time to do so.

To start adding interval-style workouts into your training, ask yourself the following questions…

What do I need to improve?

The answer to this question will determine where you might want to start integrating more interval-type training. If you start to peter out on the run, while biking up hills, or when you have to pass someone in the swim, you could add specific workouts to up your intensity and output doing those activities.

How much time do I have?

Taking the time to really understand your schedule and see where you could add in interval training is extremely important for maintaining overall balance. If Monday-Wednesday is super heavy, maybe you could add in a HIIT workout on Thursday or Friday. There are many variables you can play with to get your training in, regardless of the schedule.

(Credit: Adobe Stock)

How does my body respond to high-intensity training?

If pushing the limits of your body is uncomfortable for you, starting to add more interval training into your regimen could be a great addition. It will teach you to be comfortable being uncomfortable, which will certainly come in handy on race day and/or during any particularly difficult training session.

Where am I weakest in triathlon?

Interval training can be used as a scalpel to fine-tune what it is you need to get better at. Analyze your past races and how you feel/perform during training. Wherever you’re lagging behind, build an interval workout around that, and start integrating it into your training. Build up your weak areas to make yourself more well-rounded.

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Written by Eric Lister – Certified Personal Trainer & Corrective Exercise Specialist

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