I’ve been doing triathlons for at least 10 years, have completed two Ironman 140.6 races and many, many sprint triathlons. I started getting my kids involved in triathlons pretty early and I’ve developed some pretty effective tips to get them started. Here are a few things you should think about / remember as you get going:
Tip 1: Join a Swim Team
The kids that are on a swim teams learn a skill that I have wished I’ve had since I joined triathlon. I’m a very average swimmer and earnestly try to get better, but somehow my kids just leave me in the dust (at least for sprint triathlons). The swim is always the most nerve racking part of a triathlon and it’s really a huge advantage if your child has participated in a swim team competitively. This is also a great place for them to learn to be a great swimmer, which is 100% a fantastic life-skill. I meet people trying to learn to swim when they are older and it is just arduous. Learning and being capable at swimming from an early age will not only make you great at triathlon, but also make you safe in the water anywhere.
Tip 2: Identify a Triathlon that Uses a Pool
A favorite race of our family is the J-Hawk Late Bird Triathlon. It’s small, low key, and uses a pool for the swim. This is great because it removes a major impediment to getting the kids going in triathlons. This year my youngest doing an “adult sprint” triathlon was 10 years old and I even considered my 8 year old. He was very comfortable doing the swim in a pool, but would not have been very comfortable swimming in open water with the contact he’d get from other swimmers. This was a great way to introduce him to this distance and not have the stress of the open water, high contact, super stress experience.
After you’ve gotten used to doing triathlons in a pool, you’ll want to move to open water. This is where you’ll want to have a wetsuit (for safety) and likely cut off at a later age. My youngest doing a sprint triathlon in open water was 13, a super-sprint potentially younger. I’m not counting “kids triathlons” which are sort of a crap-shoot given many have “fake swims” where kids can walk in the water. If you must do a “kids triathlon”, I’d suggest finding one that uses a pool and requires just smaller numbers of laps vs. open water where the kids can wade. My kids did one kids triathlon where it was a four lap swim, 4 mile bike, and 1 mile run, which was ok when they were 6 – 8 years old, almost amounting to a “super sprint”, which can be an ok approach to get started too.
Tip 3: Get them a bike (not expensive) and ride with them
The most fun thing about getting your kids into triathlons is riding with them. You get away from all the stuff in the house and you can enjoy time with your kids. They talk to you, work out, play in a stream, etc. Don’t forget to bring snacks and enough water. I usually try to have a “destination” we’re going to in order to make it fun.
In order to manage the car situation I typically ride behind my kids, a bit kicked out into the road so a car has to go around me. Technically you have a couple feet out into the road, so use it. Make sure your bike has a flashing light on the back so cars see you.
So, yes, you can do a triathlon with ANY bike. That shouldn’t be an impediment to you getting them going. But if you want to make it a family sport and really enjoy it, I’d look around for a cheap and small road bike. I got a kid road bike used for about $300, which looks and feels like an adult road bike but without the size. For my 10 year old, he road the Felt F-24 and then I started to move them into my old road bikes as they got older. Again, you can get cheap road bikes pretty accessibly if you look in the right places.
Tip 4: Throw in a couple practice runs
I’m consistently amazed by how kids can run 3.2 miles without much trouble. The biggest challenge is teaching them to run slow enough to keep a consistent pace. They always want to start off booking it and then get side cramps, etc. As long as you keep them a moderate pace and give them good encouragement, they’ll do it and do it well. I’ll send my kids out for nightly runs around the block, run around the house, etc. The idea is to get them used to running, but I haven’t found that for a 5k I’ve needed to be really aggressive and regularly train the distance. They do participate in a swim team and bike, which certainly helps the run fitness, but I wouldn’t claim it’s particularly special to their ability to run a 5k. That said, I’d still do a practice run of some sort. My general rule of thumb is that you can almost always run twice your longest run.
Tip 5: Make if Fun and Rewarding
The whole idea of triathlons is to get competitive spirit and also to have fun as a family. Don’t forget to make this a fun event. Go for ice cream after, encourage each other, make a sign, etc. There may be moments where they say, “why do I have to do this stupid thing”, but after they complete it, they will have a huge sense of accomplishment. They will be interested in doing another one if you make the first one a good experience.
The first one I did with my son, I didn’t participate in myself. I was totally his biggest cheering section. I also ran the bike route with him (this was a lower key triathlon). Again, if you encourage and challenge they will have a great experience. We’ve done triathlons where it was raining all day or cold, but then we made it a challenge and it was a “feather in their cap” afterward. For years we’ve talked about… “remember that triathlon where it rained the whole time and was 40 degrees? YEAH! That was crazy!” You will build resilient but fun kids who can take on bigger challenges in other areas
Let’s get our kids active and into triathlons!