Youth Training for Triathlon

By Todd Wiley, former USAT Regional Junior Coordinator

Youth exiting the water at a triathlon

When I was in middle and high school I focused on swimming and running. I would watch the Hawaii Ironman each year and tell my parents I wanted to race triathlons. My parents didn’t know what to do for me since back in the ‘80’s there weren’t many triathlons, let alone triathlons for kids.

Fast forward to today and one of the fastest and largest age groups with USA Triathlon not only in our region, but nationally is the age groups of 7-14 year olds. Regionally there are more than 7,000 youth members. With these numbers there are youth races popping up all over the region giving kids a lot more opportunities to get involved in the sport. Race distances for youth range from a 100m swim, 5k bike and a 1k run for 7- 10 year olds to 200m swim, 10k bike and a 2k run for 13-15 years olds. These are obviously not ultra-distance races, but for these age groups, they are still considered long distance events.

Now that I work with athletes of all ages and abilities, I receive a lot of questions from parents about working with their children. “My child has done their first triathlon. What should they be doing in terms of training?”, “My child is placing in their age group, are they ready to have a triathlon coach?”, are just a few of the questions I receive. One of my first questions to the parents is, “How old is your child?” The reason I ask is because the needs of an 11 year old is very different than a 14 year old. The reality is most kids train for triathlons on a daily basis…they play little league sports where they are running…during the summer they swim at the local club or a backyard pool…they ride their bike up and down the street or to a friend’s house. Now that we know they are training for triathlons, what we need to do is help them perfect each sport, and learn the skills that they need to have in order to excel and improve in triathlons.

The goal is to not have the child focus solely on triathlons. Instead it is to have the child use triathlons as a means to enhance their other sports, and use the other sports as a means to gain fitness and the technical skills they need for triathlons. Developing daily practice skills that are involved in other sports and staying fit, will only aid in the child’s longevity in the sport of triathlon. Training and participating on sports teams will not only help them develop properly, but it will allow the child to set both short and long term goals. In this day and age it is viewed the only way to be successful in a sport is to focus on it solely year round. This is not the case when your child is interested in triathlons. Encouraging a child to go out for a swim team, cycling program and a sport that helps develop their running will make them a stronger triathlete.

When I have a parent telling me they want their child to get into running at a young age, I will usually tell them to sign the up for a sport like soccer. Soccer is a great place to have a child learn the skills of running rather than just send them out for a distance run. During soccer practices they are doing drills, sprinting up and down the field, and learning the techniques of running while making it fun. I contribute everything that I have done as a runner to how I trained in middle school where I focused on the 400 and 800, training more as a sprinter than a distance runner. One of the worst things a parent/coach can do is have their child go out and run distance runs all the time.

Some of the things to focus on when working with a youth triathlete:
Youth running at a triathlon
Swimming – Focus on freestyle swimming with a horizontal body position, effective streamlining, effective body roll, and efficient breathing patterns. Try other sports that will enhance swimming such as water polo. If you are part of a swim team throughout the year, cut back a bit on it during the triathlon season, and get only a few swim workouts in each week.

Cycling – Each ride should emphasize aerobic training, rapid pedaling, shifting to maintain even cadence, use of safe routes, and following local cycling regulations. Ride in a straight line with a balanced body position on the bike with a smooth (80-100 RPM) cadence; participate in one to three cycling sessions per week with each totaling 20-30 minutes. As you get older, into the 13/14 age group, you can look at increasing your rides up to 1hr in length. Start to incorporate the use of specific riding drills and techniques designed to improve balance, pedaling skill, cornering, descending. See if local cycling clubs have a youth division and look into programs that USA Cycling has to offer.

Running – Run with rapid, light strides and integrated movements. Focus on one to two running sessions per week, incorporating different efforts and paces such as walking/sprinting/jogging/walking/running, with each totaling 20-30 minutes. Each session should emphasize aerobic fitness, short speed drills/games to develop sound technique.

Transitions – Complete with a minimum of wasted movements or clothing exchanges in 1 minute or less. Practice transitions throughout each week.

One of the worst things that I see is allowing the child to race and train longer events too early. These youth distance races are set at those distances for a reason. A child’s body is still developing at these ages, so allowing them to race and train longer distance will result in overuse and injury. Longevity in the sport is very important, so allowing them to hone their skills at a young age and develop the proper techniques of swimming, cycling, and running are the most important things to pay attention to. Once the child gets into the older youth age groups of 13- 15 and junior age groups then they can start thinking about increasing their volume and intensities a bit and focusing more on the skills of triathlon racing and training.

Probably one of the most important items to remember with the youth is to have fun. Some of the things that we do during our youth triathlon team practices are, fun relay races going through different drills, freeze tag and balancing drills on the bike. Trying to produce a game like atmosphere is very important to keep the child involved in endurance sports. We introduce the youth to the importance of a warm up and warm down, stretching and using functional movements to further develop different muscle groups. Most youth athletes have one gear all the time…go hard until you can’t go anymore. It is important to introduce pacing at this age, working on short sprints and easy jogs.

I would never have the success in the sport of triathlon if I didn’t train the body properly at a young age. Over 30 years of endurance sports and 20 years of triathlons I am still having fun. It is important that the future athletes of this sport have success and fun for a long time.

Todd Wiley is a former Elite Level Athlete and a lifelong triathlete. Todd has been involved in Triathlon in multiple capacities, a Team In Training triathlon coach, USA Triathlon Regional Athlete Development Coordinator, and a current Race Director. He is also a successful coach and you can find out more about Todd by visiting