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This past weekend, more than 1,000 coaches, race directors, officials, athletes, and triathlon enthusiasts gathered virtually for the annual Endurance Exchange conference, hosted by USA Triathlon. While we’re all eager to return to the fun of in-person Happy Hours, the upside of the entirely virtual conference was that it was possible for there to be so many more speakers and educational resources than could fit in a conference hall—over 100 speakers and 80 hours of sessions that you can still go back and watch on-demand.
While we didn’t sit in on every session (!), there were some overall themes we were able to glean from what we did attend—trends and questions left to be answered this year and next.
A return to (local?) racing
If 2020 and 2021 was all about “safe return to racing,” then 2022 will be about local races, said USAT CEO Rocky Harris. “In 2020, we saw how important racing was to our triathlon ecosystem,” he said. Without races, there’s nothing to train for, nothing to buy gear for, to rally your friends for. Yes, you can still swim, bike, and run (and plenty of you did, of course!), but triathlons are what make up the heart and soul of being a triathlete. And the vast majority of those triathlons are small, local triathlons. And keep in mind: Only 10% of the races in the country are longer than Olympic-distance, so the vast majority are small, local, short triathlons.
This year, Harris said USAT will focus on getting resources to local race directors and promoting local races to athletes, including with their Find A Race calendar to get triathletes back out there doing triathlon in their communities. That includes a partnership coming with TriFind and the announcement of 50 state championships—a local championship in every state.
Shamless plug and reminder: If you’re a USAT member, you get a Triathlete membership for free. You just need to activate it.
Expand the pool of new triathletes
In 2021, according to Harris, there were 100,000 new triathletes—ie., people who did their first-ever triathlon. Who were those new athletes? They were people who picked up biking or running during the pandemic, people whose friends talked them into trying something new. A lot of them were also people who saw triathlon on TV, probably during the Olympics. Yes, the Olympics always lead to a surge in the interest in triathlon (watch out LA2028), but Harris also credited a number of new formats, like Super League, and opportunities to watch the stars of the sport on TV, like the PTO’s Collins Cup, with helping to spread the word.
The other half of the equation, though, has to be growing the potential pool of triathletes. We can’t keep drawing on the same group of people. This is why USAT is investing in youth triathlon (plus the youth of today are the Olympians of tomorrow) and will be rolling out programs working through and with schools—the center of a kid’s life is their school. USAT is also rolling out a women’s series next year, a brand new para mixed tri relay this weekend (more coming on that), and adding Athena and Clydesdale divisions back to the national championship event.
Let’s be real: A lot of growing the pool of potential triathletes has to do with making triathlon an inclusive and actively welcoming space for more people. On that, Harris was unequivocal: Triathlon should not add restrictions or barriers to competing, especially for kids.
Try new things
We all love triathlon, but we don’t have to limit ourselves to triathlon any longer. In session after session, organizers, coaches, and athletes talked not only about there being more formats than ever before, but about more athletes racing a variety of formats—going from trail run to triathlon to gravel ride to swimrun to road marathon. Under the multisport umbrella, there’s now aquathlon, duathlon, aquabike, swimrun (which is different from aquathlon), winter triathlon, and gravel triathlon. If you can’t find something for you, you’re not looking hard enough.
Sometimes, sure, when a race just keeps adding events to its weekend calendar, it can feel a bit….much. But I think it’s smart for multisport to go ahead and lay claim to all of these multiple sports. If you’re kind of a runner and kind of a cyclist and kind of an adventurer, then you belong with us. And we need to lean into that message: Multisport is about multiple sports, whatever they are.
Everyone is an individual
It also became clear, across different sessions on trends in nutrition and in coaching, that there is a growing acceptance and understanding that one size does not fit all. We’re are definitively and clearly moving away from outdated notions that there is one ideal race weight or body type, or even one model of training that works best for all. We know there are too many other factors and variables at play.
Multiple speakers called out the need for more research on female athletes, specifically, when it comes to their training and racing. And if there’s one theme whenever it comes to nutrition or training these days it’s: test, test, test. Test what works for you, iterate, test again.
What’s old is new again
Of course, that’s not to say trends aren’t cyclical. There may be a renewed focus, for instance, on lactate testing right now—thanks to the Norwegians—but using lactate as a training guide has actually been around for decades. Same with indoor training and mindfulness. What’s changed, said Olympian and coach Ryan Bolton, is how it’s being applied and the quantity of data at times. There’s maybe a renewed appreciation for some of these things and new ways we can learn to apply them from other sports and fields.
But it’s also important, he noted, not to overdo it with all the data and monitors and stats. You still need to listen to your body—a skill that can be lost in all the clutter.
“Is it new? Is it necessary?” he said he asks of each trend, gadget, or tool.