Coaching youth sports can be a challenging task in this digital age. Constant stimulation and quick information is the norm for kids today, which can make it difficult to keep today’s youth interested and excited about sports.
As triathlon coaches, we have three sports to train, so there is greater potential for constant stimulation, success and ultimately, sport retention and lifelong fitness.
Youth triathlon workouts should be safe, organized and fun. A well planned out workout with games and variety can meet the needs of several individuals of varying ages and abilities at one time. These workouts described below require little or no equipment and, importantly, are fun!
Swim Specific Workouts
These swim workouts can be done in pools with or without lane ropes.
Lane Snakes: Have the kids start in a line on the deck and jump in about three seconds apart. Swim down one lane, go under the lane rope (if present) and swim back the opposite direction in the next lane. You can add variety to this by having kids do wall pull ups or up and out exercises at each end. Passing is permitted — have the faster swimmers try to catch the less experienced for competitive fun. This can continue for an allotted period of time or a specific distance. Just walk (or lunge, hop, side step) back to the start at the end of the pool and keep going.
Up and Outs: Swimmers form one or two lines side by side at one end of the pool. Swimmers dive or jump in, swim one length of the pool, jump out quickly and get back in line. Add a strength or cardio exercise at each end for variety (ie. jumping jacks, squats, push ups, leaps).
Mass Start: Group Swimmers in packs of 3-6 with one group in the water in one lane, holding onto the wall in a row and one group out of the water standing on the deck, ready to jump in. On the GO command, the group in the water takes off fast. At the second GO command, the group on deck jumps in after them and chases them to the end, drafting along the way. Switch the groups around to come back.
Bike Specific Sessions
Biking takes the most space and equipment so be sure to find a course that is free of cars, driveways and pedestrians. Grass fields, paved trails and unused parking lots are good options.
Ups and Downs: These are best done in a hilly grass field. Have the kids start at the top of the hill and ride down, practicing safe braking, distance and gearing. At the bottom, loop around the hill and ride back up the back of it. This is best done where coaches can keep an eye on kids as they loop. Kids love riding downhill and the reward makes them forget the tougher uphill part.
Obstacle Courses: Set up various bike stations with obstacles or bike handling challenges that they ride to. One station is bucket (or several in a row) where kids can toss pennies as they ride by, riding straight with quick glances. Another can have them pick up water bottles that are upright along a course. Challenge kids to ride straight and then also stash the bottle in a cage or place them upright in a designated area.
Slowest Rider Race: Start in a line and have a “race” to see who can get to the finish line the slowest without stopping on the bike.
Red Light Green Light: Cyclist spread out along a line with the coach(es) at a distance across a lot or field (can be further or closer depending on ability and age). The coach yells and signals Green Light for GO and Red Light for STOP. Who can make it to the end first? This game is great for practicing proper stopping and starting skills.
Right or Left: Set up two cones about 20 feet apart and a coach standing to the side just in front of the cones. Have your cyclist pedal towards the middle of the cones. As the rider approaches the cone, the coach yells RIGHT or LEFT and they must make the proper turn in the correct direction with a signal, then loop back to the end of the line. Speed can be picked up as the riders get better at turning.
Run Specific Workouts
Scavenger Hunts: Divide kids into teams that include varying ages and abilities. Send them on a scavenger hunt. It can be as simple as making a list of items to bring back to BASE (acorns, red leaves, rocks, twigs are some examples). More elaborate hunts can include the team leader (a coach or older participant) who takes cell phone pictures with the team in various areas as designated on their TODO list (ie. Take a picture with all triathlete team members by a statue, with a dog, in a pyramid, by a water fountain). Kids log miles of running without realizing it and teams are judged on both creativity and speed.
Add a Kid: Start with teams of four to 10, each lap (or line), you pick up another kid. The entire team must finish with all participants holding hands by the end.
Telephone Line: The coach whispers an uncommon inspirational or funny sentence to the first team member. They run to the next member and whisper the saying, and so on. The last runner repeats his version and winners are picked by speed and translation of the original sentence.
Draw a Picture: Have a clipboard with a piece of paper and marker at a line on one end of a field. Give the kids a drawing challenge (ie. snowman, girl on a bike, house…) and 60 seconds to discuss the strategy. Each kid will sprint to the paper, draw part of the picture and sprint to tag the next teammate. Winners are based on speed AND creativity. This is fun in the pool as well with a dry erase board or shaving cream (if your pool allows). Relays with Skipping, Hopping, backwards running, wheel barrow, fireman carry
Swim to Bike: Set Up T1 (keep it simple) and have kids swim short distances, run to bike, transition and bike a short loop. This is best done in open water settings with an empty lot of field to ride, but can also be done at pools if bikes are allowed on deck or close to an entrance that can be swiftly walked to. Be sure to set up a mount line with chalk or duct tape.
Swim to Run: Very similar to up and outs, but with a running distance between them. Shoes can be set up or not, depending on terrain. If not outdoors or able to swiftly walk to an exit, speed walking to the other side of the pool and jumping back in is a fun and challenging workout.
Bike to Run: These can be incorporated into almost every tri session. Set up T2 with a designated line or bike placement and ride bike intervals with run intervals at end. Tracks can be used for this if there is a field or place to the side that bikes can be placed.
Flying Mounts and Dismounts: Kids can learn at a young age how to quickly mount their bike while pushing it in a forward motion and dismount the same way. Again, set up specific mount and dismounts lines and start without clipping in pedals. Advance to clip in as kids are ready, safe and well trained to leave them on bike and jump on.
Triathlon workouts for youth can be a blast and provide lifelong love of the sport. When games, fun and variety are incorporated into each session, fitness is eagerly gained.
Heather Jorris is a USAT and OutRival Racing Coach from The Woodlands, Texas. She has her BS in Exercise and Sports Science from Penn State and was the Director of Youth and Junior Services for OutRival Racing. Heather has been coaching Endurance athletes of all ages and levels for over 30 years. Heather is also a USA Swimming Coach for The Woodlands Swim Team (TWST) in charge of the Developmental 9 and Under swimmers. Heather has been a competitive athlete herself since age 8 and continues as a former collegiate runner and swimmer, Kona Age Group Champion, former professional triathlete and current Age Group triathlete. Heather has a passion for getting youth involved in sport and watching them develop a life long love of fitness!
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.