12 Reasons All Kids Should Try a Triathlon

By Mary Ryerse | Nov. 17, 2015, 1:33 p.m. (ET)

This article was originally published on Getting Smart.

youth triathlonWe’ve heard the story too many times – the kid who gets cut from a team never tries out again, or worse, shies away from physical activities altogether.

How about writing a different ending to that story – one that is actually a beginning? Tony Schiller did. He was cut from seven different teams as a kid only to become a six-time world champion amateur triathlete and a finalist for USA Triathlon’s Triathlete of the Year award.

Tony and his colleagues wanted to make sure all kids had a chance to enjoy physical activity so they founded Cycle Health and the BreakAway Kids Tri. They are partnering with schools, families, foundations and pediatric clinics to make a difference.

In doing so, they urge kids to be active, help others and prove to themselves what they can do. Most kids (some with adaptations) can participate in swim, bike and run events where it’s not about “who got picked,” instead it’s about “personal best.”

It’s hard to find many more authentic ways to teach a growth mindset. Health and fitness teachers (and governing bodies such as SHAPE), parents and administrators should take note.

While I’ve done a few triathlons myself over the years (don’t ask me about the time when I was in my 20s and got passed on the bike by a 75 year old), it was even more enlightening to step back and reflect on this process as a parent while watching our eight year old participate in the BreakAway Tri.

One of the featured speakers at that tri was 91-year-old triathlete and double Purple Heart recipient, Bob Powers. In his words, “Through a tri, you get to have fun, be healthy, be a better student and get off of a screen.” We’ll unpack each of those and a few more. Through a tri, kids can learn to:

1. Have fun! In addition to having fun swimming, biking and running, at this particular tri, kids got to traverse an obstacle course, run through bubbles, go down a slip ‘n slide, participate in a dance party, climb on jungle gyms, eat and more!

2. Be fit. Benefits of exercise are well documented – improved sense of wellness, fitness, mental health, sleep hygiene and lower obesity rates (a growing epidemic) to name a few. Yet, according to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, only 1 in 3 kids are active every day. Training for a triathlon can help.

3. Follow your doctor’s prescription. Dr. Shelly Strong, of Central Pediatrics, along with many of her colleagues across the Twin Cities (where I live), prescribed the triathlon to patients using an “Rx” form. This first-in-nation prescription partnership is referred to as SweatRx. In the BreakAway, 24 percent of participants signed up as a direct result of a prescription. I bet that’s an idea The American Academy of Pediatrics will latch on to. 

4. Be a better student. We’ve long heard a healthy mind depends on a healthy body. This has been underscored by research – Amsterdam researchers reviewed 14 different studies from across the world that all show a significant positive relationship between physical activity and academic performance.

5. Get off a screen. Screens can help exercise with tracking, music and more. At the same time, we know too many kids are sedentary, in part as a result of the trend toward increasing time on screens.

6. Make a difference. Many triathlons raise money. For the BreakAway tri, kids raised $65,484 to save Camp VIP for kids with cancer, and to purchase therapy equipment for the new pain clinic at the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. One boy set a concrete goal of sending two kids to camp – at $500 a pop. That’s no small feat.

7. Be encouraged. Fans and families did a great job encouraging kids for their hard work. The same doctor who was prescribing training was also there to organize and support kids. When your pediatrician is there volunteering you see a direct connection between exercise and overall health.

8. Serve as hope for the future. In the words of Bob Powers, “These kids are our nation’s future. They’re doing the right thing by learning discipline. They will be better citizens because of it.”

9. Set and meet goals. I talked to one of our high school age sons who said that participating in triathlons at an early age taught him the role of regular training in meeting larger goals – a concept that is easily transferrable to other areas of life. The SweatRx process also included a fun way to set goals and track progress. Across the nation, the YMCA also does a great job promoting such processes and events.

10. Develop perseverance. Both in the micro sense (finish the leg of the race) and in the macro sense (Tony’s example about bouncing back from seven cut teams to become six-time world champ).

11. Hear the untold stories. Through a conversation with a boy my husband has coached through youth football, we learned that he was running the triathlon with his older sister – a 13-year-old who’d been diagnosed with leukemia at an early age. The younger brother is literally his sister’s lifeline. He is a perfect marrow match. Doing the triathlon together was yet one more opportunity for them to partner as siblings.

12. Do math. While they train, kids can learn to calculate distance, speed, split times, heart rates and overall improvements.

Given these benefits and more Cycle Health co-founders Tony Schiller, Betsy Grams and Mark Walinske now have a vision to partner with schools. If you are in the Twin Cities, consider reaching out to them to build the benefits in school environments.

If you are elsewhere, find a local triathlon or start one of your own. It doesn’t have to be complex to make an impact. Schools can do this as part of PE classes. The PTA could sponsor the event and turn it into a fundraiser. Neighborhoods can organize one as well.

Why stop at the kids? Let’s all try a tri.

For more check out:
-How to Create Student Fitness Opportunities & Physical Education in Online Learning
-Parenting for Powerful Learning: 35 Tips

Mary Ryerse serves as director of strategic design for Getting Smart and has extensive experience in K-12, higher education and EdTech. Mary, her husband and three boys live near St. Paul, Minnesota, and have competed in a variety of triathlons, including two of her sons participating in the USA Triathlon Youth National Championships several years ago.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.