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Focus Periods: When to Concentrate on One Discipline

By Marty Gaal, CSCS | Jan. 11, 2023, 11:16 a.m. (ET)

An athlete runs through the transition area with their bike before starting the bike portion of a race.

Triathlon training is not single-sport training. It is virtually impossible to be the absolute best you could be in one of the three disciplines if you are properly training for triathlon. Athletes can certainly get very good in all three at the same time, but they can’t be their best. As such, it's sometimes advisable to focus on a single sport for a training period or two.

For most age group athletes, time is the limiting factor in training. Between families and jobs, it's virtually impossible to match the schedules of those who can focus primarily or exclusively on athletic performance. So you must approach both triathlon training and single sport training with your goals and time/life limitations in mind.

After a season or two of triathlon, it may be time for you to consider devoting a training block or two to one specific element. Typically, in newer athletes, this would be an athlete's weakest sport. Athletes will reap long term benefits from elevating their weak link sooner than later. If you can finesse the technique of swimming or pump up your cycling legs early in your career, then, long term, you can adopt a more balanced approach to the three disciplines.

Athletes who are further along in their career might switch to single-sport focus for similar or different reasons. They could need a mental break from strict triathlon training or wish to meet some specific milestone/goal that has remained unobtainable to them.

Want to know if single-sport training is right for you? Ask yourself the following questions. If the answer to all three is yes, it might be time to concentrate on just one discipline.

  • Does my poor relative performance in X bother me enough to focus on it?
  • Can I make the time and dedicate a period of training life to this?
  • Is my overall performance good enough for this eventual improvement to make a substantial difference?

Using a single-sport mode could also be seasonally related. Not everyone has the ability or mindset to use indoor trainers most of the time. An easy example here would be for northern latitude athletes to focus on running in the winter.

Focusing on one sport doesn’t mean you’re ignoring the others entirely. Strength and conditioning benefit all sports, while riding, running and swimming all help develop and maintain aerobic volume and conditioning.

An athlete swims during the swim portion of the 2022 Legacy Triathlon.

Single sport training doesn't mean you have to stop your other sports. It just means you're focusing on that sport for a specific period of time with a specific goal. If you time it well with your athletic calendar, this focus can be a great competitive benefit as well as a good way to retain interest in triathlon training long-term.

Some quick examples would be:

  • Road race training in the fall/winter
  • Bike racing/training in the spring or fall
  • Swim training in the spring or summer

Triathlon training structure varies but a typical division of effort is 40-50% cycling, 20-30% running, 10-20% swimming, and 10-20% of strength & conditioning. A single sport focus would be more like 60-80% of your focus on one sport, 10-20% strength & conditioning, and 10-20% on the other two sports. You can and should keep up with maintenance training for your other sports, but be realistic about how much you can do. During a focus bike period, for example, two easy runs and one swim per week would be enough (outside of strength & yoga).

You can do well in all sports while triathlon training. You just are unlikely to do a single one as well as you could if you truly focus on that element for a while. If it’s important enough for you, go for it!

Marty Gaal, CSCS

Marty Gaal, CSCS is a USA Triathlon coach in the Raleigh/Triangle area of North Carolina. You can read more about his coaching business One Step Beyond at www.osbmultisport.com.