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Introducing Your Child to Triathlon

by Matt Russ

youth triathlonCompared to traditional sports, triathlon is the new kid on the block. Participation in a youth event represents some new and perhaps unique challenges for the youth triathlete and parent alike. There are very few “little league” style programs for youth triathletes, triathlons are not part of most school PE curriculums and parents may not even have a working knowledge of what a triathlon is — as they do for basketball or tennis. To top it off, tri parents may find themselves attempting to manage three sports instead one. Where does a tri mom or dad begin?

First and foremost — relax, junior is still a long way from Kona. It helps to have a parent that participates in triathlon, but if you are being introduced to the sport yourself, take some time to get to know the distances, rules, the flow of the race and equipment needs. Most youth distances are designed for participation with a minimum of preparation involved for the active child. A good place to start is in the pool by determining if your child can complete the distance of the swim leg. If your child cannot swim more than a short distance without difficulty, beginner swim lessons or instruction may be appropriate. Not only will this enhance his or her fitness, but it will give you greater peace of mind for general safety in and around the water.

If your child participates in other sports that involve running, do not be overly concerned with physical preparation for the first event. If your child is sedentary, a very gradual progression is warranted. Start with an easy bicycle ride of about half race distance, adding a bit more each week. Run progression should be about the same, and perhaps walk the remaining distance. Each week add a bit more (easy) running and a bit less walking. Acknowledge the progress your child makes: “We stopped at this point last week, but today you are running farther!” A swim lesson, a bike ride and a run with mom or dad each week is enough to prepare a child for his or her first event. The focus should be on having fun, learning, quality time and building self-esteem.

I often field calls from enthusiastic parents that want to know “where to go from here.” Their child may have participated in a few youth events and now desires either a more formal training program or guidance on how to progress in the sport. At this point it is important to understand what is “age appropriate” preparation or training for triathlon. Children are more susceptible to cartilage damage, heat illness, stress fractures and tendon/ligament injuries. More importantly, some injuries, such as damage to growth plates or cartilage, can result in permanent damage. There has been a dramatic increase in overuse injuries following the rise of participation in organized sport programs. For the developing youth athlete, a “first do no harm” approach is warranted. An overzealous parent or coach, even with good intentions, can quickly sideline a child. It is important to recognize that children do not have the same complex motivations to compete as adults. This is something that develops with maturity. For children, their main motivation is to HAVE FUN. They will quickly lose interest or enthusiasm if it becomes drudgery.

Training three sports simultaneously can be difficult at best for the athlete and parent. Of the three, the swim will take the longest to develop and require the most technical coaching. The great news is that swimming is the least likely to injure the developing athlete and promotes incredible aerobic fitness. I often advise the tri parent to start by getting their child into an organized swim program. It is ok to train the sports individually and seasonally, such as an organized cycling or running program with an overall focus swimming.

Although there are few hard and fast mileage guidelines for youth running and cycling, there are some good common sense approaches. For starters, a child should not be running or cycling much over the distance required to complete their race, and this rule is even more important for running mileage. Keep in mind that running is the most likely to injure the developing athlete; three sessions per week is enough, and soft surface running (crushed gravel, grass, or trail) is preferred. Safety should be the foremost consideration when getting the bike rolling. Teach your child how to perform a pre-ride safety check, how the bike works and basic maintenance such as tire inflation, chain lubrication and washing their bicycle. Road skills should focus on the rules of triathlon, passing, braking, manners and safe riding.

With the huge surge in the popularity of triathlon, more youth camps and programs are forming. If there is not one in your area, consider starting a youth tri club. As long as children are properly introduced to triathlon and progressed they will stay engaged. You may be the parent of the next world champion, but remember that the race is not tomorrow. 

Matt Russ has coached and trained athletes up to the professional level, domestically and internationally, for over 15 years. He currently holds the highest level of licensing by both USA Triathlon and USA Cycling, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is head coach and owner of The Sport Factory. Email coachmatt@thesportfactory.com