If you’re involved in the triathlon community and have kids, you may be wondering how and when to safely get them involved in the sport. Let’s start off by assuaging your fears about the rigors of triathlon training on a young and developing body. The CDC recommends that children ages 6 to 17 have 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily, with “vigorous-intensity” at least 3 days a week. In addition, children and adolescents should include “muscle-strengthening” and “bone-strengthening” physical activity at least 3 days a week. The guidelines for those terms specifically state that swimming, running, cycling, and even working with weights or resistance bands are all appropriate for children ages 6 and older. However, some websites recommend that kids wait to participate in structured triathlon races until they’re 9 or 10. Triathlons are unique in the skills and mental tenacity involved in switching between sports, and cannot be treated like a kid’s run or similar one-sport events. And, until they are 12 or so, kids should limit triathlon-specific training to 3 or 4 days a week, of moderate duration.
To choose a race, google “kid’s triathlon (your city)” or visit TriFind.com’s Kid’s Triathlon calendar. While children are usually welcome in all triathlon’s, a kid’s race may be a great maiden voyage into the sport and allow them to feel more comfortable and less overwhelmed on race day. I would highly, highly recommend that their first race be a sprint triathlon or even a super-sprint. Picking a race that’s too long can turn them off to the sport entirely. After doing a few sprint triathlons, kids may be able to take on an Olympic distance, a race that can take 3 to 4 hours to complete. Do not enter your kids in a half-Ironman or Ironman distance until they have done triathlon-specific training for at least 3 years and have completed multiple shorter events.
As mentioned above, triathlons are unique in the skill-set required, and just riding a bike around the neighborhood with friends doesn’t count as developing these skills. Kids should practice layout out and performing their transitions, just as adults do. It is very very easy to get overwhelmed with this on race day. In fact, you should make sure that your child has actually attended a triathlon before race day, as it can be a sensory overload Go to a local triathlon to watch the athletes, and point out the different aspects of the race: the body-marking station, the swim start, the transitions, etc. Maybe even volunteer with you and your child to hand out water – races always need volunteers and it’s a good way to directly interact with the athletes and see a race up close and first-hand.
As far as training plans go, any beginner triathlon training plan will work for your child. Make sure that they don’t ramp up the duration or intensities too quickly; kids have a tendency to get excited and impatient. Below is an sample training week for a sprint triathlon.
Monday: 30 minute swim (intervals of 50 to 200 yards), optionally followed by a short (10-20 minute) run
Tuesday: 30-45 minute bike ride
Wednesday: 20-30 minute run
Thursday: 30 minute bike ride, or rest
Friday: 20-30 minute swim (intervals of 50 to 200 yards)
Saturday: short brick (45 minutes to 1 hour)
Remember that this obviously isn’t a starting point, but something that they should work up to.
Here are some other resources for parents and kids looking at youth triathlons:
The Triathlon Parent’s Training Manual
Top Ten Triathlon Tips for Youth and Parents
Triathlon Training Tips for Kids
8 week Beginner Youth Triathlon Training Plan
What you need to know for your kids’ first triathlon
Triathlon Training for Kids
Triathlon workouts for kids (at the bottom)
Introducing Your Kids To Triathlon
And I know I don’t have to say this to you, but have fun. If your child is going to make this a lifelong endeavor, pushing them too hard or bemoaning their lack of progress will only upset and discourage them. To me and many triathletes, there is only one competitor when racing a triathlon: ourselves. I don’t care if I reach the podium, if I know I performed my best. Your child doesn’t have to win to be a winner.