How to train for the Gravel Triathlon – Triathlete

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The rolling country roads, ever-changing conditions and welcoming gravel community have attracted riders from all sporting backgrounds and all levels of experience in the world of gravel cycling. Now, with the growth of USA Triathlon’s new gravel triathlon series, triathletes have the chance to experience the challenge and excitement of racing on mixed terrain surfaces.

What is gravel tri and how to train for it?

USAT’s new gravel triathlon series will feature a national championship and will focus primarily on Olympic distance and sprint races. The main difference with the off-road triathlon (commonly called XTERRA) is that the gravel tri bike stage is much less technical: it is done on gravel roads, canal paths or non-technical dirt trails. This means that you can use any bike except a time trial bike. The main rule differences between the regular triathlon and the gravel triathlon are that aerobars are prohibited and it is legal.

To train for your first gravel triathlon, you’ll want to use a regular Olympic distance or sprint training plan and then make some training adjustments to practice the basics of gravel cycling. Gravel riding combines elements of on-road and off-road cycling and typically includes non-technical, hard-packed gravel or dirt surfaces. Here are some training tips, skills to practice, and nutrition and hydration details to consider to help you run faster and finish strong.

Use an Olympic Distance or Sprint Training Plan to prepare for your Olympic Distance or Sprint Gravel Triathlon, with key tweaks and additions below:

Which formation to adapt specifically for gravel

Since the biggest difference in a gravel triathlon is in the bike segment, your swim and run training doesn’t need any noticeable changes from your typical road triathlon training. However, the bike segment of a gravel triathlon offers new challenges thanks to the rougher road surface and variable terrain. This is where it will be important to add a few gravel-specific training days into your regular bike training to be ready for this new challenge.

First, get out there and practice riding on gravel. Although it seems obvious, the more experience you have on gravel surfaces, the more comfortable you will be during a race. Start by doing some of your easy or basic riding on gravel or dirt roads and gradually incorporate your harder or faster riding on gravel. The more you can simulate driving at race pace in practice, the easier it will feel on race day.

Also, since these gravel triathlons are permitted (meaning athletes can be indoors or near each other when riding their bikes), it’s a good idea to practice to roll around other people. Join a ride to a local store or round up your workout buddies to practice riding together as a group on mixed terrain surfaces. The more you practice group riding skills, the less stressed you will feel on race day.

Finally, add some low-pace exercises to your workout to help prepare you for the different physical demands of gravel running. Dirt and gravel surfaces increase rolling resistance, which means it will be noticeably harder to pedal your bike at a given speed compared to riding on the road. Add moderate intervals to your workout plan where you ride at a low cadence (50-60 rpm) for 4-8 minutes to help simulate that extra resistance. You’ll increase your strength and endurance for the type of high-resistance riding that gravel demands.

RELATED: Gravel Cycling 101: A Triathlete’s Guide to Gravel Basics

What gravel tri skills to practice

Honing your technical skills can also play an important role in your success on the gravel. Gravel roads can have bumpy, rocky, loose, sandy or rutted sections, requiring extra caution and navigation. Spending a few minutes during each ride working on specific gravel riding skills can make a huge difference in your ability to navigate technical sections with confidence and speed. Here are some skills to practice:

stay loose

The more relaxed you can keep your body when you encounter technical terrain, the more likely you are to get through that section without crashing or having to walk. A relaxed body absorbs shocks and jolts and keeps your bike moving forward smoothly. Tightening or trying to control the bike too aggressively will create a jerky, unpredictable ride that no one enjoys. Take a deep breath, relax your shoulders and hands, and let the bike move a little under you.

look ahead

Scan the road in front of you, so you can easily navigate around obstacles or avoid unstable parts of the road. The farther you look, the more time you’ll have to gradually steer your bike through those technical passages, and the faster you’ll get around the obstacle in front of you.

Wedge gently

One of the most intimidating aspects of gravel riding and racing is turning into a loose or sandy corner. Sudden or erratic movements will likely catch your front wheel and make things unstable or possibly cause you to crash. Instead, approach the bend slowly and take the straightest line you can safely take without disturbing the cyclists around you.

Smooth braking

Even a well-packed gravel road is looser and less predictable than a paved road. When braking on gravel, think of a smooth and controlled action to prevent your rear wheel from locking up on the loose surface. Plan ahead so you can start braking early and avoid last-minute panic stops that often cause your rear wheel to skid.


A good body position can make a huge difference in confidence and control when descending gravel. Start by moving your hands into the drops of your handlebars for a more secure grip on the bar while descending bumpy, rocky terrain. Then lift yourself off the saddle a bit so the bike can move under you. Next, be sure to bend your knees and elbows so that you can absorb shock while keeping your body stable above the bike. This is what people often refer to as the “attack position,” and it helps keep your center of gravity low and stable while helping your body handle bumps at higher speeds on the descent.

RELATED: What gravel equipment and gear do you need for your first gravel ride?

Gravel tri nutrition & hydration

Like any other race, your nutrition and hydration plan is key to your success in a gravel triathlon. A major bonk can derail anyone’s run, no matter how experienced you are. Unlike road triathlons, however, gravel races present a new challenge by making it harder to eat and drink on the bike when navigating uncertain roads.

Removing your hands from the handlebars to grab your water bottle or open an energy bar can be difficult on rough terrain. Choose easy-to-open snacks or try to open your food before the race so you don’t have to worry about packaging while you focus on the road ahead, or stick with easier water bottles and less packaging complicated. (Perhaps don’t open gels early because they can leak and make you very sticky.)

If you still don’t feel comfortable taking your hands off the handlebars to drink, consider carrying a hydration pack on your back for the bike segment. Yes, it’s less aerodynamic and adds weight to your setup, but keeping your body hydrated and properly fueled is far more important than the aero sacrifice you make.

RELATED: Triathlete’s Guide to Fueling Up Running for Every Distance

The Gravel Triathlon is an exciting new way to test your swim, bike and run strength, and offers a unique experience for triathletes looking for something a little different. While mixed road surfaces present new challenges and can seem daunting, a few essential skills and some gravel practice will help you feel comfortable and confident for your first gravel run.

Just like preparing for any triathlon, the key is to have fun, challenge yourself and stay consistent with your plan. Put all those pieces together and you’re sure to enjoy that finish line feeling of accomplishing something new.

Kristen Legan is a former professional triathlete, elite gravel and podium runner, and trainer and founder of Rambleur Coaching.

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