Girls in Triathlon

By Mary Kelly

Girl exiting transition at triathlon

Iʼm a triathlete, a coach, and a mother of two children (Branson and Lucy). Lucy is girlie, but sheʼs also sporty and tough.

The Influence of Sports
Itʼs not that I think being girlie or feminine is wrong, itʼs just that I prefer the influences of sports over those of pop stars and princesses for my daughter. Recently, I ran across the book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” by Peggy Orenstein. This led me to research from the American Psychological Association that asserts the “emphasis of the ʻgirlie- girlʼ culture on beauty and play-sexiness can increase girlsʼ susceptibility to depression, eating disorders, distorted body image and risky sexual behavior.” On the other hand, participation in sports assists girls in developing a healthy body image, enhancing their self-esteem, and doing better at school than their non-sport-playing peers. In short, sporty girls develop strong bodies and strong minds.

Why Triathlon?
Clearly sports have many positive influences on girls. What about triathlon? Well, I believe the effects go even deeper. Training for three sports in one requires excellent time management skills, consistent hard work, resilience, and balance. Triathlon training encourages healthful eating as well. Triathletes learn how the quantity and quality of food affects their training and racing. Also, if you participate in triathlons, your daughterʼs participation in the same sport may enhance your relationship with one another as you train and compete together.

Getting Into Triathlon
What kind of girl should consider taking up triathlon? Maybe she is already involved in playing soccer, swimming competitively or running track or cross-country. For the sporty girl, triathlon training can provide cross-training for her main sport, enhanced cardiovascular endurance, and a new avenue for developing mental toughness. Maybe she is not sporty because she was cut from a sports team last year, or sheʼs self- conscious because she carries a few extra pounds. The great thing about triathlon is that it welcomes all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities. Everyone can become a triathlete. How can you encourage your daughter to take up triathlon?Girl cycling at triathlon

Plant the Seed
Begin by setting a good example. Be active yourself. Ask your daughter if she might be interested in trying a triathlon. If you are a triathlete yourself, let your daughter see you training and racing. Better yet, take her with you to train. Even if she is young, push her in a jogging stroller while you run or let her ride her bike beside you while you run. I love bringing my kids to the track with another parent and taking turns running repeats while the other parent watches the kiddos. Sometimes the kids even join us for a lap around the track during warm-up or cool-down.

If youʼre not a triathlete yet, consider taking up the challenge alongside your daughter. Last year, I trained a mother and her two teenage daughters to complete their first triathlon together. They spent the whole race working together and encouraging each other side-by-side, and ultimately crossed the finish line arm-in-arm, flashing their three enormous smiles! Talk about bonding!

Choose an Event
Search for events that fit with your daughterʼs schedule, goals and fitness. Consider your daughterʼs age, goals and endurance when selecting events. It is critical for that first experience to be successful and positive. While many adult triathlons allow children to compete, the distances may not be appropriate for all ages. Youth triathlons are a great place to start, especially for younger children. Each age division has age-appropriate distances, and for the most part, the swimming leg takes place in a pool. If your daughter is looking for something more challenging or competitive, consider an adult triathlon, such as a womenʼs-only event.

Girls running at triathlonSet Goals
Ask your daughter to think about what goals she has for her triathlon. Encourage these goals to be realistic and focused on the process (i.e. things that are under her control) rather than the outcome (i.e. things like placement). Some realistic and process- oriented goals are:
• Swim, bike and run at least once per week during training
• Work up to cycling for 45 minutes continuously by June
• Complete a triathlon without walking
• Eat healthy meals and limit sweets to once per day

Try to steer clear of outcome-based goals such as, “I want to win my first triathlon.” For young children, the main goals should be participating in the event and having fun.

Prepare for the Event
If your daughter is young (under 10), and the event has very short distances, keep training sessions brief and fun (no more than 10-15 minutes). Focus on games to build a bit of conditioning, but donʼt be too rigid with sticking to a schedule. At a minimum, aim for 1 swim, 1 bike and 1 run session per week. If your daughter wants more structure and guidance, help her to find an age and distance appropriate training plan. Let her post the plan on a bulletin board or the fridge so she can cross off each session as she completes it.
Aside from basic conditioning, itʼs important to practice skills like setting up a transition area, putting on a helmet, using her water bottle while riding her bike and running next to her bike.

Pacing is a critical skill, even for short distance triathlons. Have you ever watched kids start a 5K fun run? Most of them sprint as fast as they can for 30-60 seconds, and then have to stop and walk to catch their breath. Teach your daughter how to start conservatively so that she can run the entire distance and finish strong.

If itʼs possible, take your daughter to preview the race course. You can swim, bike and run the actual course if itʼs safe. If itʼs not closed to traffic, driving the course in a car may be a better approach. If you canʼt physically see it ahead of time, many race web sites also post the course online. The more familiar your daughter is with the course, the more confident she will be while racing.

Equipment Considerations
Triathlon can quickly become an expensive sport, but a child doesnʼt need expensive equipment to participate. The minimum equipment your daughter needs for her triathlon is:
1. A swim suit or fitted shorts and shirt for swimming
2. A swim cap to hold back long hair (Note: Have your daughter try out various ponytails and braid combinations that fit under a swim cap and a helmet.)
3. Goggles (optional)
4. A safe, properly-sized bicycle (rainbow streamers and bells are perfectly acceptable)
5. A helmet with a snug-fitting chin strap
6. Supportive running shoes

Beyond the above list, there are plenty of additional items and services that can make your daughter more comfortable, more aerodynamic, or slightly faster, such as tri shorts, a road bike or tri bike, an aero helmet, cycling shoes with clipless pedals, aerobars, a race number belt, a wetsuit, private lessons or a coach. Consider your own budget, your daughterʼs interest and her abilities when deciding what equipment and services to purchase. Remember that an expensive bike may only shave seconds off her bike split. Her “engine” is the most important factor in determining how fast she can go, so focus on conditioning.

Make it Social
Itʼs no secret that girls are social. They possess a strong desire to belong, and to fit in. There are a few ways you can encourage a healthy social component to your daughterʼs triathlon quest. Have her encourage her friends to sign up for the same event, and to train with her. If her friends arenʼt interested, find a local training team to join. If no local teams exist, look online. There are plenty of great Twitter feeds by female endurance athletes, web sites with great information, and even virtual teams to join. Be sure to inspect these sites first to ensure they are safe and that the content is age appropriate.

When possible, take your daughter to meet the stars of triathlon. Whether itʼs an Olympic Distance event with a pro division, or an Ironman, the stars of our sport are incredibly accessible. Many of them work at their sponsorsʼ booths at the race expo, or make themselves available to sign autographs before or after the race. I had the great pleasure of meeting the “Queen of Kona”, four-time Ironman World Champion, Chrissie Wellington, at a local fundraising event last month. She spoke with everyone in attendance, and paid special attention to the teenage girls in the room, asking them about their goals and humbly imparting her wisdom. I imagine those girls are incredibly inspired to break gender barriers, records, and any other perceived limits, just like Chrissie.

Practicing good nutrition and adequate hydration are key for your daughter to fuel properly for her sport. Ensure that she eats enough nutritious food and drinks enough water to meet her increased fueling needs as she begins training. Ask her to limit saturated fat, sugary and heavily-processed foods. She should focus instead on consuming lean meats, healthy fats (i.e. nuts, avocados, fish), a variety of fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates and plenty of dairy products. Girls can be particularly body-conscious and sensitive about their weight, so please focus on food as fuel, rather than the numbers on the scale.

On longer training days, ensure that your daughter fuels before, during and after sessions. If she plans to use a gel or sports drink during her race, make sure she practices with it prior to race day to make sure it doesnʼt upset her stomach. These “quick fuel” products contain a lot of sugar, so limit their use to sessions lasting longer than 60 minutes.

Make sure your daughterʼs bike is in good, working order. All of the bolts should be tightened, the tires inflated to the recommended pressure, the brakes should work and the frame should fit your daughter. If youʼre unsure, take it to a bike shop for a tune-up and/or bike fitting. Her running shoes should be in good condition, and fit her properly. If you are unsure, take her to a specialty running store for some expert advice.

While training, ensure that your daughter understands the rules of the road or path where she is running or cycling. Take extra care if she cycles on the road with traffic; ensure that she obeys traffic laws and avoids high-traffic areas. Helmets must be worn and securely fastened any time she rides a bike, even within the neighborhood.

Children should avoid exercising in extremely hot or humid conditions, or in extreme cold. Ensure that your daughter wears the appropriate clothing for the weather conditions, including a moisture-wicking layer (i.e. CoolMax) closest to her skin. Apply sunscreen to all exposed skin, especially on hot and sunny days.

The Female Athlete Triad
Female athletes, especially competitive ones, are susceptible to a combination of health conditions known as the Female Athlete Triad. The triad consists of disordered eating, osteoporosis and amenorrhea (the absence of a menstrual cycle, or delayed onset of menstruation). As a parent, you can help to prevent this harmful combination by ensuring that your daughter is eating a balanced diet and not allowing her weight to drop too low. Please seek professional help if you suspect that your daughter is in danger of any of these conditions.

On the subject of menstruation (not my favorite topic, but it deserves mention), there are a few additional points to remember. In order to train comfortably swimming, biking or running, the use of a tampon is recommended during menstruation. Some girls may need to reduce straining volume or avoid racing during this time of the month, so please be aware while scheduling events and training.

Race Day!
Ensure that your daughter eats a nutritious meal and gets a good nightʼs sleep before race day. She should eat a light, nutritious breakfast, and arrive to the venue with plenty of time to set up and become familiar with the course. Help your daughter to remain calm, and give her plenty of encouragement before and during the event. Celebrate her victory and make sure you get plenty of pictures of your new triathlete crossing the finish line!!!

Mary KelleyMary Kelley is an All-American Triathlete, USAT Certified Coach, Personal Trainer, Wife and Mother. With over 17 years of triathlon experience, and over 25 years of competitive swimming and coaching experience, she has 9 first-place overall finishes to her name, dozens of age group wins, and proudly served as a member of Team USA in 2005 and 2006. Mary Kelley is the Founder and Head Coach of AIM4TRI & Mary Kelley Coaching, offering online triathlon coaching, training plans and video analysis for swimming and running. She can be reached by email at, twitter @aim4tri