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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) Principles for Ironkids Triathlon: Part 1

That kid looks awfully familiar! 

The Ironkids Triathlon series comes to Oro Valley, Arizona this weekend.  Katherine was one of the early Ironkids competitors about twenty years ago when triathlon was a decidedly counterculture fringe activity.  One thing that hasn’t changed in twenty years has been the relative disorganization of youth triathlon training in the United States.  Certainly there many cultural aspects that impede triathlon’s meaningful growth at the youth level.   Many kids won’t be exposed to the sport unless a parent is also a multisport athlete (although no one in Katherine’s family was a triathlete before her).  Triathlon exists outside the mainstream without well-known role models for kids to follow.  With the costs of college education reaching unprecedented heights, kids with excellent running or swimming ability generally stay within those sports.  It makes sense that kids would choose to focus on single sport development when those sports have a greater chance of helping pay for college.   

Having little, if any, defined training parameters can actually be a very good thing.  Specificity at a young age deprives kids of the movement skills needed to excel throughout their entire careers, particularly in a late development sport like triathlon.  Training in the youngest age groups should be little more than mildly structured playtime.  Overzealous early specialization has thwarted countless promising careers in many different sports.  Ironkids should exist as more of a sampling activity than as a start of a formal pipeline.  Nevertheless, there are certain principles that should guide training, regardless of what the child’s ultimate aspirations are. 

One of the worst ways to approach youth training is to simply water down an adult program with shorter distances.  There are discreet windows of opportunity during which kids are most adaptive to certain traits, some of which may not seem directly relevant to triathlon but which are critical to developing sound movement skills.  At certain ages kids are best suited for speed training, at certain ages they are best suited for stamina training, and at certain ages they are best suited for a strength emphasis.  Kids can miss priceless opportunities to develop fundamental movement skills if they are given watered down volume-based adult training programs.  With so many injuries and bad habits developed through years of repetitive use under stressful loads, it is imperative that kids develop movement literacy at a young age.

The preeminent model for youth triathlon development is the Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) model created by Canadian Sport for Life.  Compared to the United States, you’d think Canada has no business being competitive on the world stage.  The weather is cold and snowy for half the year, everyone plays hockey, and Canada doesn’t have an enormous population.  However, Canada along with other forward thinking athletic federations has reverse engineered the backgrounds of the world’s finest athletes and combined qualitative observations with formal research into the neurodevelopment process.  LTAD emerged out of this multidisciplinary approach.     

Before parents and coaches get fired up about setting their kids on the path to greatness, it is critical to realize the process takes time.  LTAD has classified triathlon as a late-specialization sport.  Kids need to be kids first.  In fact, the early stages of LTAD focus on raising general activity levels and creating the support infrastructure for a generally healthy lifestyle independent of athletic goals.  Get the early parts right and the rest of the career progression should flow smoother.   In the soon-to-come Part Two of this blog, we’ll address the four stages development in the LTAD model in the Ironkids age range of 6-15: Active Start, FUNdamentals, Learning to Train (Sampling 1), and Training to Train (Sampling 2).  

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