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

Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) Principles for Ironkids Triathlon: Part 3

Old school multisport...Triathlon hadn't yet appeared in the Olympics when this picture was taken!

If you haven't done so, please see the first two installments of this blog series at:



Between the ages of  8 to 11 for girls and 9 to 12 for boys, training may become more structured.  This period is called Learning-to-Train or the first “Sampling” stage.  Prior to this stage, “training” should be mildly structured playtime incorporating a variety of activities and movements.    Learning-to-Train means just that: kids can learn to train, though it need not be strictly as triathletes.  Use these years to develop a love of effort and cultivate an appreciation for the training process.  It’s important as adults that we not take the love of effort for granted.  Our standards of effort as adults who have already bought into the sport may seem downright masochistic in the eyes of a nine year old!  Again, it is imperative that training programs NOT replicate adult training but with shorter distances.  Even though the FUNdamentals stage may have passed, FUN remains a primary consideration (sidenote: that’s an important message for adult training too!). 

The Learn-to-Train phase is also known as a “Sampling” phase.  The term sampling means the same thing it implies: kids should already be active in multiple activities but during this stage more defined preferences will emerge.  The idea of specialization should not enter the equation.  While in the sampling stage, kids may learn that failure is acceptable.  The concept of personal identity becomes more poignant during these years and being given the freedom to mess up on the field helps prevent kids from attaching their identity to athletic outcomes.  As many of us know from dealing with older athletes, there’s a fine line between full commitment and attaching one’s identity to race results.  Better to cultivate the right perspective at a young age than to spend valuable resources cleaning up a mental mess decades later.  Athletic sampling is one element of a prophylactic approach to building not only a physically hardy athlete but also a mentally hardy one.   

For both girls and boys, the Learn-to-Train phase is ripe for suppleness and stamina development.  Note that stamina need not be addressed by long distance efforts alone.  It’s still a bit early to introduce “long” runs and “long” bikes as we think of them as adults, but we can de-emphasize the short bursts of the previous stage and start lengthening the training sessions. Remember, you can lay the base for kids to go forever if you hit this window of opportunity correctly!  Gymnastics class is one of the best ways to develop suppleness, although kids don’t need to be on a competition pipeline (and at some gyms they’re better off staying FAR away from that scene…).  It is far easier to reduce flexibility in a hypermobile kid than to add it later.  Better to acquire suppleness at this age and subsequently learn to control it when growth is more complete. 

Although there should be minimal emphasis upon results, kids should be exposed to formal competition at this stage.  Ironkids undoubtedly serves as a valuable introduction to multisport.  Kids enrolled in swim clubs and/or gymnastics will also experience the competitive atmosphere.  Again, the goal here is not to put up stellar times, but rather to expose kids to global concepts of rules and ethics.  Competition requires that you balance your own moves with an awareness of what's happening around you.  Self-exploration is to be encouraged much of the time, but you can’t “Go” until the race official tells you to go and when the gun goes off you still must tailor your own moves to the rules of the game. 

Nevertheless, a healthy balance of competition and training/play is important.  The standard LTAD recommendation is for a ratio of 30% competition to 70% practice.  This ratio is one of the major differences between American youth sports and the highly successful international federations that have done more with less.  A common refrain we often hear is “Games are fun…practice is boring.”  If that’s the case, then you need to rethink how your practices are organized!   In the forthcoming final installment of this blog, we’ll address the second Sampling stage, also known as Train-to-Train, and address competition-to-practice ratios in greater detail.


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