Building a Foundation: Training Tips for Beginner Triathletes and Young Runners

Many training discussions often revolve around experienced athletes, but it’s equally important to address the needs of beginners. This post is tailored towards novice triathletes and young runners, especially those in middle school or high school, who are just starting their athletic journey.

Unfortunately, many beginner athletes, including young triathletes, are often introduced to anaerobic intervals as a primary training method. While these workouts can yield quick improvements and are convenient for coaches managing large groups, they are not ideal for long-term development.

And here is why in my humbled opinion: 

Form Breakdown —> Intense interval training can lead to compromised form, especially in developing runners. Constant strain reinforces poor form habits, which can result in injuries as they progress in their running journey. There is more, namely the long term damage, because if the same athletes begins to train (run) at some point in their athletic/running life and try to ramp up their training volume (milage) they will have all sorts of form issues that can cause injuries. 

Lack of Aerobic Development —> While short-term gains may be evident, focusing solely on anaerobic training neglects the development of the aerobic engine, crucial for sustained progress in the sport. Aerobic improvement can take a little longer but it is virtually limitless which you can peak up with anaerobic training later. On the other side if you develop anaerobic fitness first and then layer on aerobic training you actually lose that “top end”, get slower for a time because you’re training down that anaerobic development (sharpness) while slowly increasing the tried and tested aerobic fitness.

Limited Longevity —> Athletes relying heavily on interval training may struggle to transition to a sustainable individual running-triathlon lifestyle outside of team/school settings, potentially leading to decreased motivation and engagement in the sport post-competition. When high school runners-triathletes finish racing for their school or club they either continue to join a team at the next level, club or university but for the middle of the pack athlete who will not compete at the next level they most often stop running a short while after their competitive days are over.

So, what could be the solution?

In my view for beginner runners & triathletes (young and adults)  prioritize three key training sessions:

Easy Steady —> Lay the foundation with consistent, relaxed runs & bike rides on a fairly flat training loop will help to build general endurance and develop a strong aerobic base. 

Strides —> Incorporate strides into daily training routines to improve running mechanics, speed, and efficiency.

Tempo —> In my opinion a true tempo run is pretty challenging to nail down in the beginning. It takes time and practice to get it right. Therefore, I think tempo runs should be rather short for the young developing & inexperienced athlete. Focus on effort rather than pace, are valuable for developing (strength-) endurance as well as teaching runners & triathletes the meaning of effort and how to maintain control at faster speeds. I’ve seen athletes gain an enormous amount of momentum by going a bit slower. I don’t think harder is better for the younger and beginner athlete. (Note: a blood lactate testing is a great way to inform the athlete about their training zones (Pace, Wattage, HR) which will help to gauge easy steady or tempo workouts, for example).

—> Click here to learn more about a blood lactate threshold test.

Here’s how I would structure your tempo run if you’re a beginner:

Effort Level —> Run at a pace where conversation is possible but not preferred, pushing to the edge of discomfort without crossing it. It should feel comfortable hard, you are working but not going over that edge. 

Duration —> Tempo runs for the beginner should be quiet short, around 10,15 to 20 minutes, to maintain quality without compromising form or endurance. Problem is if your aerobic endurance is lacking quality (+ weak core & hip stability) then this will have a direct negative impact on the quality the longer the tempo ‘block’ and your running form (gait).

Progression —> Increase the duration gradually, aiming for consistent effort rather than speed. Focus on improvement over time rather than immediate results. You’ve probably noticed that I am using duration rather than distance because some beginner runners might be struggling to cover one mile in 15mins. And, you know what, that’s totally fine, because what matters is the internal load. 

Consistency is key. I would encourage young athletes to incorporate tempo runs into their weekly training regimen year-round, alongside steady mileage increases (they need aerobic development) and form-focused drills. Once you’ve completed 20-25 min long tempo blocks return to 10-15mins but now you’re probably running or riding faster for the same effort. I think this approach of layering tempo on easy aerobic steady miles is a sustainable path for success in the future, where the athlete can do more training, thus layering on more fitness on top of your current fitness. 

So there you have it. Thanks for reading and I’m happy to hear from you in the future.