Youth Triathlons: What to Look for in a Well-run Event and How to Prep & Encourage Young Athletes

By Jo Garuccio

What Should a “Kids” Race Look Like?

Over the last several years, there has been a huge upsurge in triathlons billed as a “Kids Tri.” They are everywhere, but the big question is how do parents choose a race that fits the skills and needs of their child? How do they know if the race is safe and easy to follow?

The first thing that race directors and parents alike need to realize is that in the world of youth triathlons, one size does not fit all! USA Triathlon (USAT), the governing body of the sport of triathlon, has put forth age-specific distance guidelines. When choosing a race, look for age appropriate distances commensurate with the chart below. Six-year olds should not be running a mile with an 8% grade in the middle of it and twelve year olds are capable of riding farther than a mile on their bike or running just ½ mile.

Accepted distances for youth and adult triathlons generally have a distinct ratio of swim, bike and run. Run legs are roughly ¼ the length of the bike. Swim legs are about 3-5% of the race although it’s not always possible to operate exactly within the ranges suggested below. Some races, especially on the bike leg, will vary slightly from recommendations in the interest of safety and course layout. However, the race should be staged in the best interests of the child, not simply for the ease of the race director. Having just one distance for all youth ages 7-12 or expecting all youth over 12 to do an adult sprint distance race is unacceptable. Experienced thirteen year olds who have participated in the sport for several years could consider doing a sprint, but otherwise, athletes should be encouraged to race recommended distances for their age.

Recommended Competition Distances for Youths and Juniors

Source: USA Triathlon (USAT)

RACING AGE1 CATEGORY DISTANCES

SWIM BIKE RUN

7 – 8 Youth 50m to 100m2 2k 1k

9 – 10 Youth 100m2 3k 1k

11 – 12 Youth 200m2 5k to 7k 2k

13 – 15 Youth 200m to 400m 8k to 10k 2k to 3k

16 – 19 Junior 400m to 750m 15k to 20k 5k

13 – 15 Youth Elite3 400m 10k 2.5k

16 – 19 Junior Elite3 750m 20k 5k

Organization of Youth Events

It’s not that easy to put on a youth triathlon event or any triathlon for that matter. Remember, the race director is essentially organizing three races, a swim, bike and run. That’s a lot harder than staging an out and back 5K with a mass start. In a pure running race, it’s pretty easy to figure out where the race is going. Follow the crowd. Triathlons are different. A short pool swim isn’t hard to understand, but bike courses often follow a winding path. Adults are responsible for “knowing the course” (USAT rule). Not so with kids.

If young triathletes can’t see something that defines the course within a reasonable space, they will inevitably keep asking, “Is this the way to go?” Hence, youth races are labor intensive. It takes more time to mark the course and many volunteers on race day. You can’t just throw out a cone at the turn-around and hope that young athletes will get there. Courses should be marked so that it’s next to impossible for an athlete to get lost. There should be a volunteer at every single place where someone could make a wrong turn. A well-run youth event will have many cones that are within line of sight or close to it. Both the bike and the run should have enough volunteers, including impartial roaming cyclists on the bike course that a child never feels like they are alone. There should always be a volunteer on sweep. Plus, only athletes should be allowed in transitions. It’s chaotic enough without adding extra bodies. Rather, there should be “neutral” support in transition to help kids who may be struggling more than necessary.

Parents on the Course

Race directors who choose to put on youth events should be knowledgeable in best practices for those events. If courses are laid out with the guidelines suggested above, parents don’t need to be on the course with their kids. Plus, it’s a safety issue (and against USAT rules). One hundred kids on a race course, all accompanied by a parent only spells danger. Besides, self-esteem upon completion of the race is much greater when the athlete has accomplished the feat on their own as opposed to having Mom or Dad at their side, often barking directions throughout the race. It’s also distracting for other competitors who are racing on their own.

Race Prep

Teach Skills!

Put kids in swim lessons. Teach them how to ride a straight line, brake safely, shift gears. Run short distances similar to the race distance and coach pacing. Practice transitions, one of the most fun aspects of learning to be a triathlete.

Most kids are capable of completing a youth distance race if they are active and swim, ride and run at least once per week. Certainly more can be helpful, but too much makes racing look like work. Kids will gain enough fitness to complete the race by simply practicing skills. As they mature and gain experience in the sport, they can begin to learn to train and can increase the time spent in each discipline over the course of a week. Eventually, they can begin to train to compete but that is a multi-year goal. First, keep it fun!

Equipment

Triathlon is a somewhat equipment oriented sport. You need swim, bike and run gear. Goggles should fit without major leaking problems. Helmets should meet safety guidelines and sit properly on the forehead. Bikes should be sized appropriately for the child’s height and skill level. Athletes should be running in a run-specific shoe, not a skate shoe or a pair of Vans. Equip shoes with stretch laces so that athletes can put them on quickly and they will not come untied half way through the race. If they ride clipless pedals, it will be a much easier transition if the shoes have Velcro straps versus laces. Aero bars and aero helmets are not allowed (USAT rule) in youth races. Young triathletes should learn to ride a road bike before progressing to a tri bike.

To ensure a successful day, have bikes serviced by a reputable bike shop several days prior to the race. Flat tires, chains that fall off, and brakes or shifters that don’t work are issues that do not spontaneously resolve themselves and most certainly should not be a factor in someone’s inability to complete the race. Put bikes in good working order well ahead of time.

Preview the Course

Even though youth courses should be well-marked and easy to follow, it’s still important to preview the course with your child. Practice a serpentine swim (swimming down one lane, under the rope line and back down the next) or circle swimming depending on how that discipline will be organized. Ride the bike course and run (or bike ride it if time is short) the run course. Having some knowledge of the course and knowing that they can complete the distance is a great confidence booster.

How to Cheer Your Athlete On!

When cheering for young and old athletes alike, it is best to keep your encouragement as just that – inspiration, praise, or reinforcement for doing well. The minute cheering changes to instruction, spectators put athletes on a slippery slope. It’s not uncommon for parents to be shouting directions to their child, only to have that child turn around to listen while still riding or running and promptly crash into something like a barrier, cone or another athlete. Instruct and coach before the race. Cheer during the race! It’s a safety issue!

Now, let the racing begin!

Jo Garuccio is race director for the Murray Youth and Family Triathlon held every Labor Day & always looking for more volunteers. You can reach Jo at www.greatbasincoaching.com, [email protected], or 801 557-6844.

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