Iron Kids

Q: My 11-year-old daughter expressed interest in participating in a youth triathlon, but I’m worried that it might be too much for someone who is not yet a teenager. 

A: Triathlons specifically for children and adolescents began in the mid-1980s and have grown steadily in popularity. In our area, the Silicon Valley Kids Triathlon held its 10th annual race last year and drew 1,000 competitors. 

Because adult triathlons typically market themselves as the ultimate test of physical fitness, many parents are understandably concerned that a triathlon for children could be dangerous. Since there is little documented medical research, my advice is to evaluate the training program the same way you would any sport.

Make sure your child is in the proper physical condition and knows how to swim well.

Take your child to the pediatrician for a physical exam before the start of training.

Equip her with the necessary equipment to participate safely. For example, a triathlete at any level must have a properly fitted bike helmet, a well-tuned and safe bicycle and high quality shock-absorbing running shoes in the correct size and width. 

Stress the importance of warm-up and cool-down exercises and listening to your body. If a child is very tired or in pain, even during a competition, she should stop. 

Learn about the specific triathlon your daughter wants to participate in. Is the emphasis on safety, fun and fitness rather than competition? Are proper safety procedures in place, especially during the swim portion of the race? In general, a triathlon for children should have:

  • An appropriate number of lifeguards during the swim portion.
  • First-aid certified staff trained to handle medical emergencies.
  • A swim portion in a pool, not open water.
  • A bike portion on a course closed to motor vehicles.
  • Mandatory use of safety equipment, such as bicycle helmets.
  • Appropriate race distances for different ages. 
  • Plenty of opportunities to stay hydrated. Dehydration is one of the biggest risks in endurance events.


Q: My 13-year-old son wants to take up weight lifting to help him grow bigger and stronger faster. Is this a good idea and should I buy him a weight-lifting equipment to use at home?

A: The pressure to catch up to earlier maturing peers can be intense during adolescence, especially for boys. In general, weight-training just to gain size is not a good idea. Neither is starting a weight-training program on your own without proper training in techniques. 

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission tracks injuries connected to strength-training equipment and most injuries occur on home equipment in unsupervised settings. 

That said, when done with appropriate equipment and proper supervision, weight-training is no riskier for injuries than other sports. Help your son set realistic expectations about what weight-training can do for someone his age. While it will help him become stronger, it will not make him reach puberty sooner, nor will it create a bodybuilder’s physique in someone who has not yet gone through puberty.


Encourage your son to work with an experienced coach who can teach him the proper techniques. 


Q: My daughter’s soccer coach is recommending strength training for the children participating on the team to reduce injury risks. Can strength training really reduce injury risks?

A: When proper strength training techniques are used, there is some evidence that they may reduce the risk of overuse injuries. However, the scientific research is still limited and strength training will not prevent catastrophic injuries, such as those that come when two players run into each other.

Ask your coach how much strength training is being recommended and if he or she is certified in the specific qualifications necessary for pediatric strength training. Anything more than four times per week has not been shown to improve strength and may increase the risk of overuse injuries.


Sally Harris, M.D., MPH, is a specialist in pediatric and adolescent sports medicine at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and a clinical instructor of pediatrics at Stanford Medical School. She has authored numerous clinical and patient articles about pediatric sports medicine and served as an editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ second edition of the Care of the Young Athlete.

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