By: Suanne Kowal-Connelly, MD, FAAP
As more and more parents are pushing their bodies in fun and healthy ways—from running 5Ks to taking up cycling—they are inspiring their kids to want in on the action. Youth triathlons are growing in popularity across the U.S. primarily because they are based on the sound principles of personal fitness, safety, longevity, and overall fun.
Here are 8 reasons why sprint distance triathlon should be considered as an outstanding athletic pursuit for your child (and for you)!
1. There are many options for racing.
There are four possible race distances for triathlon:
Sprint: The distances of Sprint Triathlons are the most variable from venue to venue. Generally, the bike and run portion can vary. A typical sprint race would be 750m swim, 20km bike and 5km run.
Olympic: Yes, you guessed it—Olympic distance races are what the athletes race at the Olympics! The Olympic distance races consist of a 1.5km swim, 40km bike, and 10km run.
Half IronMan: The Half distance or 70.3 is a 1.9km swim, 90km bike and 21.1km run, although the bike distance can vary just slightly.
IronMan: These tests of endurance consist of a 3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42.2km run for a total of 140.6 miles!
Preparation and training are key, but keep in mind that a young athlete won't be training for an IronMan race. Triathlon distances tend to increase with the participants' age. While all the distances have merit, the sprint distance is an attainable and healthy training distance for children and teens.
Swimming is the most dangerous stage of a triathlon for kids and adults. Therefore, swim lessons are the best training program if your child can't swim more than a short distance. As an athlete grows and matures, the other race distances may be more desirable goals. A teen can choose to race individually or as a member of a team. Recently, women's triathlon was recognized as an NCAA-sanctioned sport and men's triathlon will likely follow. There are various opportunities available to athletes at any age—including the most competitive paths, such as the Olympics (triathlon was added in 2000).
2. Boredom and burn-out are less likely.
Involvement in any sport too young and/or specializing in that sport can lead to psychological burnout. A triathlon, however, combines three things kids like to do: swim, ride their bikes, and run around. This makes the possibility of boredom that comes from constant repetition of sport-specific workouts unlikely. Kids who aren't natural athletes or like traditional sports such as soccer, basketball, softball and even football might find triathlons a great option and activity they enjoy, as well.
3. This sport has great longevity.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that physical education programs in schools emphasize lifetime sports (i.e., running, swimming, biking). With almost half of American teenagers reporting they do not engage in regular vigorous activity, and nearly that many classified as overweight, getting involved in a lifetime sport—such as triathlon—is a simple solution to staying active as they transition from childhood to adulthood.
4. Sensible short distance training may have an impact on the risk of overuse injuries.
Sports injuries in children account for more than 3.5 million events annually—at least half are overuse injuries. Overuse injuries in teens, for example, can be much more serious than at other ages because of the specific vulnerability of their bones while going through the adolescent growth spurt. Maintaining a healthy balance of activities can be accomplished with triathlon training, and varied training has the potential to reduce the risk of overuse injuries. However, there's always the risk of overtraining. It's up to parents to put realistic limits on their child and reduce potential damage to growing bones.
Athletes may also benefit from varying their endurance workouts to include different activities. Triathlon training inherently includes three complementary sports, so it offers kids a broadened physical portfolio. Cross-training is a factor to consider in the prevention of overuse injuries. However, proper guidance for your child's training hours is necessary to keep balancing school and training and avoiding overuse/burnout.
5. Specialization in one sport before puberty is avoided.
The AAP recommends avoiding specialization in a single sport prior to puberty. Focusing on the three disciplines of swimming, biking, and running has the potential to alleviate a multitude of sports-related health issues connected with specialization in a single sport. Further, multi-sport participation can lead to better long-term performance at any age, and lifelong enjoyment and participation in sports. Chrissie Wellington, for example, discovered her remarkable talent late in life and went on to become an Ironman World Champion within a few years!
6. No one sits on the bench.
How often do children participating in team sports end up just sitting on the bench? Sure, there are lessons to be learned by just being part of a team, but let's face it, sitting the bench isn't nearly as rewarding as playing. In a triathlon, there is no bench—everyone participates and everyone has the opportunity to experience the thrill of winning the moment he or she passes the finish line. The sport contributes to overall physical fitness, the development of motor skills, leadership skills, and self-confidence, and teaches athletes the importance of teamwork, sportsmanship, and how to deal with success and failure. Unlike other sports where only the top athletes experience this, triathlon allows 100% of the participants to have the same rich experience.
Triathlon can accommodate athletes of all ages and abilities, including those with physical and mental disabilities—no one is excluded from competition. Having everyone on the race course at the same time is something unprecedented in the majority of other sports. Both parents and children can even participate together.
7. Training regularly and consistently can assist with the maintenance of a healthy weight.
It is an alarming realization that today's children and teens may be the first to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. The AAP firmly believes that increasing opportunities for all children and teens, regardless of athletic ability, to participate in sports should be a priority in obesity prevention efforts. It is important for schools and parents to reinforce lifetime sports, such as those involved in triathlon. Interest in these activities makes it easier to train, compete, and maintain a lifelong healthy weight.
8. It's so much fun!
Children and teens need to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, so why not make it fun? Water activities and water sports are enjoyed by so many and are a wonderful playtime activity for families. Likewise, riding bikes together down a beautiful bike path is exhilarating. Running, playing tag, laughing and enjoying one another is a form of pure family joy. These activities can transition into the technical world of triathlon training.
Ready to find a race near you?
The USA Triathlon (USAT) is an excellent resource to identify USAT certified coaches and training groups, as well as USAT certified races. Visit https://www.teamusa.org/usa-triathlon.
Additional Information & Resources:
About Dr. Kowal-Connelly:
Suanne Kowal-Connelly, MD, FAAP is a pediatrician with 30 years group practice experience and is a voluntary faculty staff physician at Nassau University Medical Center mentoring residents. She also cares for private patients at the Long Island Federally Qualified Health Centers (LIFQHC) in Nassau County. Within the AAP, she sits on the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, the Council on School Health, and the Section on Obesity. Dr. Kowal-Connelly is a USAT (USA Triathlon) Level I Certified Coach and a USAT Youth & Jr. Coach. She is also founder of www.HealthPoweredByYou.com, where families and organizations can learn strategies for successful lifelong health and wellness and read her blog. She is also the very proud mother of three grown sons. Follow her on Twitter @healthpby.