The Bike - For a sprint distance triathlon, the goal is to be able to ride 12.5 miles at a good speed and still be able to run afterward. A road bike is faster and more efficient, and will leave your legs fresher for the run. A triathlon or time trial bike is even faster and is a good investment for a triathlon veteran. You will need to train the bike at least twice per week. Make sure your bike is in good running order (a tune-up at a local shop is useful for this).
For a sprint distance triathlon, I recommend riding 5 to 9 miles mid-week at a brisk pace (85% effort) and then a longer ride on the weekend of 10 to 15 miles (depending on your ability, time constraints, and conditioning). Your cadence (rpm) should be at 90 to 95 most of the time. You will have to shift gears to keep this cadence on hills, etc. The higher cadence leaves your legs ready for the run. If you pound away in a low gear at 70 rpm, your legs will feel like lead for the run.
My “tempo” rides are at a brisk pace (20 mph) on a rolling hilly course and my weekend rides are slower (about 17 mph). Only you know what pace is sustainable for the distance on a given day, but these twice-weekly rides will train both speed and distance. If you want to excel, do “hill repeats” and courses with more hills. The winning bikers ride an average of 25mph in the race, but I average about 20mph.
As you become more conditioned, add in a “bike/run” brick with a practice transition in between. For example: bike 8 miles, get off the bike while it is moving slowly, park it and drop your helmet, and set off to run in about 30 seconds, and run about 1 to 2 miles (to your ability) at about 70% effort. These bike/run “bricks” get your body ready for race day, and get you used to the first mile of the run with “lead legs”.
The Run for a sprint distance tri is a 5K (3.1 miles) and is mentally challenging after the swim and bike legs. You will want to start off slow and do a “negative split” (the second half of your 5K should be faster than the first half). I recommend running a 5K (or two miles if you aren’t up to a 5K) mid-week at 80% effort. This level of effort prepares you for race day and increases your lactate threshold. You should try to keep a high cadence here also with 3 strides per second which prevents “over striding.” Taking long strides increases the risk of hamstring injuries. All of your training runs should be slow at first and pick up speed as your muscles warm up. If you run at a brisk pace during practice (called a tempo run), then you can run at a brisk pace in the race. Your weekend run should be longer and slower, perhaps five miles or so at whatever pace you can sustain comfortably (do three if you can’t do five). Your effort is at 60-70% and you should not be “out of breath” during this run as you were with the tempo run. This builds endurance and conditioning.
Optimally you are swimming twice a week, biking twice a week, running twice a week, and training for roughly 4 hours per week total. The triathletes who place at local events are likely training 8 to 10 hours per week and may have been doing triahlon for years. Of course all of you work, and you will approach this amount of training as time and family obligations dictate. You can finish the race and do fairly well with only one session of each discipline per week if this is what your life allows.
Make sure you get some good running shoes from a local running store where they have staff to fit you properly. This article is about the correct fit for you.
The top picture above is my $259 Amazon.com purchase. It is an entry level aluminum road bike. The bottom two pictures are a recent purchase from eBay. A 2008 Kestrel Airfoil Pro triathlon bike. I was lucky enough to get this gem and added Speedplay pedals and the red Michelin Pro Race wheels.