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Dear Coach: How do I make sure my kids stay healthy while pursuing their own triathlon goals?
While research shows that child and adolescent athletes can improve strength and cardiovascular conditioning, young triathletes simply can’t adapt to training stresses in the same manner an adult can to see performance gains. Also, kids mature and develop at an individual rate, which plays a significant role in readiness and ability to competitively train.
The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that up to 50 percent of all pediatric sports injuries are related to overuse. Youth athletes can be susceptible to unique injuries, particularly to the growth plates, which can result in impaired growth. Additionally, young triathletes may be more susceptible to cartilage injuries, bone overload and heat stress.
Jim Vance, founder and head coach of the Southern California-based Tri Juniors program, organizes the training of his young athletes according to the following guidelines.
Youth (11 and younger): It’s mostly about fun and skill. Actual “training” should be very limited. Competitive demands don’t require much volume, and the changing bodies of the youth athlete necessitate a cautious approach to development. Train 3–4 days a week.
Junior (12 and older): A training load can usually begin to be applied. If they have already developed triathlon skills, it only enhances the training response and competitive experience. With more competitive goals, these athletes can train six days a week.
A good rule of thumb is that young triathletes should not run, ride or swim greater than the distances required for their race. Although a lot of junior triathletes complete half-iron and even iron-distance events, USA Triathlon (and many health professionals) recommend that young athletes keep their race distance to an Olympic event or shorter.
In addition, athletes should have 2 to 3 months off per year from triathlon during which they can recover and work on strength, general conditioning and skill training. A 2009 study in the journal Sports Health concluded that it is not only safe for children to engage in strength training but also advisable from an injury prevention perspective.
Vance’s Tri Juniors program implements foam rollers, massage balls and stretching several times a week for recovery and injury prevention. “With youth triathletes, if you’re dealing with a lot of injuries, chances are the training is too aggressive, and should be more skill based,” he says.
When it comes to those aches and pains that won’t go away, caution is the best approach. “Young athletes need to listen to their bodies so injuries can be caught early, before they become a bigger problem,” emphasizes Dr. Cordelia Carter, a pediatric sports orthopedic surgeon at Yale. “Kids and their coaches and parents need to use common sense and stop when it starts to hurt.”
Ian McMahan is a sports medicine professional in the San Francisco Bay Area.