Ask the Coach – Training for both On and Off-Road Triathlons

Ask the Coach – Training for both On and Off-Road Triathlons

Sunny writes: I really got into the road and Xterra triathlons last year. I noticed that I wasn’t as prepared for the running terrain as I’d like to be. What’s your recommendation on splitting training time to make sure I am able to complete either? My main goal is to be in good enough shape to finish and enjoy either terrain.

As the sport of triathlon grows, so does interest in the variety of events that are available, especially here in the state of Colorado, where there are many on and off-road options. However, one might say that Xterra races, your off-road race, are a completely different ballgame than road triathlons, except for the similarity they share in being swim/bike/run events. So how does one train for both and enjoy both the training and the racing? Let’s break it down to the events.

Swim: The swim is probably the most similar between the two events, most likely a lake or river swim. The one difference in the swim is that swim position is a little more critical in the Xterra race. Road triathlons are usually on wide roads that allow you to pass slower cyclists that might be faster swimmers. Xterra races can have technical and single track sections that might make passing difficult. Something to keep in mind when you are swim training.

Bike: One thing in common between races is that if you spend too much energy on the bike, your run will suffer. In my opinion, it is much easier to burn through energy stores on a mountain bike (especially for the newer mountain biker/Xterra athlete) than on a road bike.  Mountain bike fitness can carry over to road fitness so I recommend the following.

  • Work on mountain bike technical skills at least once a week. If you are new to the sport, find a local cycling club that gives lessons. You will learn a lot faster from an experienced mountain biker than by yourself.
  • Get at least two mountain bike rides in each week and one road bike ride. You might alternate weekend long rides, one week being a road ride and the other being a mountain bike ride, depending on how your races are scheduled throughout the season.
  • Practice hydrating/fueling on your mountain bike. It’s much easier to eat/drink on a road bike (and practice this too!), as it’s a necessary thing in both kind of races. Be comfortable refueling!
  • Know it is OK to get off and walk your bike. If a section is too technical or going to get you beyond a reasonable heart rate, then walk the bike. Make sure some of your training routes have technical sections beyond your ability so you can 1) work on skills, and 2) execute judgement on when to get off and walk. 
Run:  Remember, bike pacing in both races are going to determine your run success. Assuming your bike pacing was spot on and left you energy in the tank, are you prepared for the run terrain? 
  • Hit the trails. Trail running will build leg strength that can be used in both road and off road racing, so get on the technical trails at least once a week. If you don’t have access to trails where you live, find hilly terrain (short & steep, and some longer hills) or vary the incline on a treadmill. But most importantly:
  • Do race simulation bricks. Not necessarily race-pace, but race-terrain. Leading up to your off-road race, make sure you practice running a technical trail after a mountain bike ride. If you can, do shorter bricks after your bike rides (both road and off-road) at least once a week. A quick 10-minute run off the bike is enough to help teach your body to run off the bike so when it comes to your longer bricks and races, you will be prepared.
Final notes: Get familiar with the course ahead of time. This is important in both kinds of triathlon. How technical, hilly, flat, or rocky are the bike and run courses? Read the race website. Read race reports from people who have done the races in the past. Talk to athletes who are familiar with those races and learn from them. The more you know, the more you can modify your training to best suit each specific race. 

A coach can certainly help design a schedule appropriate for both kinds of races, but if you are building your own training plan, incorporate the tips above and happy racing!

Do you race both On and Off-road triathlons? Share your training tips in the comment section below.

If you have questions that you would like to see answered in the ‘Ask the Coach’ column you can post them in the comment section. You can also contact Coach Nicole on facebooktwitter or via email at

Coach Nicole is the founder and head coach for NEO Endurance Sports & Fitness, a Colorado-based endurance sport coaching company. She is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach and also coaches triathlon for Team In Training. Learn more at

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Nicole Odell


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