Data show an influx of youth triathletes and a gender gap among older members
Kim and Ryan Frost started racing in triathlons nearly 20 years ago. When their kids were old enough, they bicycled alongside them as they trained.
Now, the whole family races in the three-part events that combine swimming, biking and running.
As the Frost family has grown, so has the sport.
USA Triathlon — the national governing body of the sport — has seen an overall increase in membership in the past decade, but those numbers have tapered since its peak in 2012. As part of the organization’s attempts to ramp up participation, it plans to target youth, who make up a significant portion of USAT’s membership. It also wants to increase the number of women, who make up only 39 percent of members.
Data provided by USAT to GateHouse Media show athletes younger than 12 constituting the largest age group among its members. In 2006, they numbered 13,700; last year, they grew to more than 30,000.
The data also reveal a gender gap, which increases as athletes age. Among 10 year olds in 2018, there were nearly equal numbers of boys and girls. For 75 year olds, there were nearly 11 men for every woman.
But USAT is working to change that.
“We definitely know that that gap is there,” said USAT communications manager Caryn Maconi. “It’s part of our strategic plan for 2020 to work towards closing that gap.”
Fifteen years ago, USAT had some 53,000 annual members and sanctioned more than 1,000 races. Three years later, its membership more than doubled, and its race count more than tripled. USAT sanctions most, but not all, triathlons.
The organization had more than 134,000 annual participants at its highest count. It dropped slightly to less than 130,000 last year.
“Similar trends were reflected in the endurance industry overall,” Maconi said, “with fewer participants entering cycling and running races than in years past.
The organization attributes that decline to the growing popularity of other fitness trends, like CrossFit, mud runs, and boutique studios like Orangetheory Fitness and SoulCycle.
Still, the sport has gained popularity across all ages since it first began more than four decades ago. On-road triathlons reached a peak of 2.5 million participants in 2015, according to the Sport and Fitness Industry Association.
“It used to be there were three to five women in my age group. Now there’s so many women in all of these age groups,” Kim Frost said. ”But it’s just kind of been the evolution of the sport. And to have kids and watch them do it, and to go to these events and see these 70 and 80 year olds competing. It’s amazing. It’s so humbling.”
More kids racing
Athletes that register for events sanctioned by USAT are required to purchase a one-time or annual membership with the organization. Data provided to GateHouse Media includes only annual memberships.
The organization sanctions a variety of events for all ages and endurance levels. Its shortest events are youth triathlons, which are a minimum of a 100-meter swim, 1.9-mile bike and .6-mile run. The longest race is an IRONMAN, where athletes swim 2.4 miles and bike 112 miles before running a full marathon. It also sanctions other events, like aquathlons — run-swim-run — and duathlons — run-bike-run.
Its most popular events are the sprint and Olympic distances, which usually consist of a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike and 3.1 mile run, and a 1-mile swim, 24.9-mile bike and 6.2-mile run, respectively.
In addition to the USAT events, some 1,100 triathlons are organized annually across the country by a host of other groups, including universities and local YMCAs.
Of athletes that participate in USAT-sanctioned triathlons and are annual members, one in three live in either Texas, California or Florida.
For per-capita participation, the highest numbers go to Alaska, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
Triathlon season lasts from March to November and varies depending on the state.
Now in the height of the season, the Frosts are preparing to travel the country with their three children — Hope, 15; Tate, 13; and Eve, 10 — who are all old enough to race themselves.
“Now I ride my bike with my kids when they run because I can’t run at their pace,” said Kim Frost, who lives in Virginia with her family. “Our kids are kind of getting to the age that its way more about them than it is us, so we train with our kids. Although, they’re all faster than me.”
When the oldest of the Frost children was 7, she entered her first triathlon.
When her two younger siblings were old enough, they started racing, too.
Kim, 44, and Ryan, 43, are now USAT-certified youth coaches for the sport.
“It’s been really neat to be a part of this since my kids were 6,” Frost said. “To see it grow and grow has been awesome.”
Ages 12 and under make up the largest age group of USAT members. Ten year olds alone number around 4,500. Some attribute their large ratio to the low cost of youth membership at just $10 a year compared to the regular adult price of $50.
To keep pace with the growing number of child athletes, USAT sanctioned 700 youth races in 2016 alone, more than double the number from one decade prior.
“I’d say a large majority of our youth members’ parents or a member of their family runs triathlons,” Maconi said.
When removing youth, the largest five-year age groups are those spanning 30-54. The largest single age group is 48.
“It’s a different demographic than it was even a decade ago,” said Chris Moling of Florida, who has been running triathlons since the 1980s and now organizes them. “We’ve seen a growth in female participation. Back when I started, it definitely was a male-dominated sport. As it became more mainstream, women started participating more.”
Despite the increasing number of women triathletes, men still make up a 60 percent USAT members — even though women constitute a majority of non-triathlete runners and swimmers, according to the Sport and Fitness Industry Association’s most recent annual report.
The greatest gender gap is among those living in Puerto Rico or outside the country: For every woman, there were three men.
Within the United States, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Rhode Island have the greatest gender gaps, with nearly twice as many men as there are women.
Only Alaska and Nebraska flipped the trend: Female triathletes outnumber males in both states.
USAT is actively working to close that gap by marketing to women athletes who participate in other types of events, like half-and-full marathons. It wants to boost their ratio to 42 percent by the end of the decade and eventually get equal numbers.
To do that, it must overcome the biggest barrier for many women: open-water swims, which are especially intimidating for first-time racers.
“The pool swim is a little bit more approachable,” Maconi said. “We’ve seen a couple of really successful womens’ triathlons that have a pool swim.”
The Women’s Philadelphia Triathlon and the Mighty Mujer, which includes races in El Paso, Austin, Miami and Tucson, are among them.
And women are more likely to sign up if there’s a sense of community around the race.
“The biggest thing is just providing options for people,” Maconi said. “We know that not every woman wants to wear a pink uniform, drink wine, eat cheese and hold hands. We want to provide a full range of options of competitiveness level. Some people want that flexibility.”
As USAT works to grow the sport as a whole, the Frosts experience the sense of community the organization is striving for when they race.
“My favorite thing about the sport is the camaraderie of it, within our family and between families,” Frost said. “I love that my kids have friends from all over and are meeting all types of people. It’s a fun environment.”