A Look at the Current and Future State of Triathlon

A Look at the Current and Future State of Triathlon

Several years ago, I started tracking my USA Triathlon Ranking to see how I was progressing.  Like most ranking systems, it is not perfect, but it does a pretty good job of comparing your race performance to your peers, then coming up with an objective “score” for each event. Just because you place high in a race, it may not give you a higher score unless you raced comparatively faster than other athletes in the past. If you are curious about your ranking, check it out at the USAT Results Website.

In the ranking system, every athlete gets a score per race, but you must complete at least three USAT sanctioned events to get a year-end ranking. The system takes your three best race scores, inverts them, averages that total, then inverts that average. This final averaging step smoothes out any significantly higher or lower performances, thus it also values consistently racing well in the final ranking score.

Below is the data I have been keeping in a spreadsheet on my own ranking over the years:


This is not really an article about the ranking system or my ranking over time, but rather about what I noticed on the above data: after I entered the numbers for 2014, it really stood out to me that there was a substantial drop in the “of” number I had been pulling, or the total number of athletes that were ranked in my age-group, starting in 2012. I eagerly waited for the 2015 numbers to be finalized to further validate my thought that overall triathlon participation was on the decline.  

When the 2015 rankings came out and showed another large decrease, I began doing a little more investigation. I went into the USA Triathlon Results website and pulled all the data for each age-group, both male and female, from 2009 to the present.

The data presented below shows the total number of ranked athletes in each age-group, for each calendar year, with a legend to the right as to the color/font coding:

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There is a lot of data to digest there, but a quick analysis of the numbers shows:

  • Overall male, overall female and overall total ranked athletes peaked in 2012.
  • Overall male and overall female ranked athletes have decreased annually each preceding year since 2012, with the lowest overall male count occurring most recently in 2015.
  • We may be an aging sport. Male 16-17 and 20-44 year olds, and Female 25-44 year olds each hit an all-time low in 2015. Simultaneously, Male 55-79 and 85+, and Female 55-85+ each hit all-time highs in ranked athletes in 2015.

Below are the numbers comparing total yearly ranked athletes, broken into both male and female participants:


You can see that we are almost down to the total number of ranked athletes from six years ago.

Now there may be several things that suppress these numbers:

  • Non-USAT sanctioned races do not count.
  • Athletes must have an “active” USAT membership through November 1 of the ranking year.
  • Races outside the US (except those races designated as Team USA events) are not included.

However, even keeping these in mind, they would apply to each year. Thus, I do not believe they would cause any reasonable difference in the numbers year-over-year. The truth is, as a participation sport, triathlon appears to have been on the decline in the United States for several years.

CDA_startAs a participant since 2006 and a coach since 2010, several factors I believe may be contributing to the decline in overall participation may be:

  • Cost – Triathlon, in general, is expensive.  Races, gear and travel all add up.  The triathlon media definitely markets that the most expensive gear is better, and the financial impact of triathlons may be a deterrent to some.
  • Time – Training to do a sport that includes three disciplines, and do them well, takes a considerable amount of time, especially when compared to a single discipline activity.
  • Open water swimming – I used to think the anxiety associated with swimming was the greatest deterrent for many for getting into triathlon.  That still may be true, but I also hear more and more comments on the next item.
  • Bike training – Fear of being hit by distracted drivers is a comment I frequently hear from both non-participants and participants alike when talking about triathlon and training.
  • “Ironman” – The World Triathlon Corporation has done an incredible job of marketing their brand.  They also tend to put on well-run events.  Ironman and Ironman 70.3 are pretty much synonymous with triathlon for most of the non-participant population.  However these races also tend to take the most of the first two points above (cost and time) to train for and compete in.  As I have been writing this article, Dan Empfield has been posting a series of interesting articles on Slowtwitch about the potential long-term effects of WTC branded events on the overall triathlon environment.  
  • Growth in “other” fitness activities – You name it… fun runs, obstacle course racing, Crossfit, mixed martial arts, ultra-marathoning, ultra-biking, mountain biking, climbing gyms and even just regular 5k to marathon runs seem to be on the rise. Triathlon is not the only “game in town” as an endurance participation sport any more, and especially in the junior and young adult groups, interest in other fitness activities seem to be impacting triathlon entrants.

NCAA_startI have always been one who hates to complain and point out problems without also giving some thought to potential solutions, so below are some items I think could help to address each of the above areas of concern:

  • Cost While you certainly need a certain amount of gear to train and race, you definitely don’t need the “latest and greatest” to enjoy and even race at a high level in triathlon.  When looking at cycling gear (arguably the greatest gear cost), start simple and if you are interested in higher end gear, consider looking at used equipment or even last year’s model through a local bike shop.  You certainly don’t need race-wheels, aero-helmets, premium shoes and top-end wetsuits to play.  When it comes to racing associated costs, smaller, local races often have a much lower price tag and potentially minimal travel costs.
  • Time In North America, the triathlon season typically runs from around April through maybe as late as November. Although it is beneficial to do some sort of training throughout most of the year, you don’t have to go full-bore, training intensely year-round. Look into getting a training plan to optimize the training you’re doing for the events you have on the calendar. This could be a coach, but can also easily be any number of great books or pre-made training plans you can find for minimal or no cost.  
  • Open water swimming Often, anxiety in open water swimming comes from an overall lack of comfort or ability in the water.  Swimming is the most “technical” of the three disciplines, so getting a one-on-one lesson with a knowledgeable coach can reap huge benefits. Finding a Masters swim group can often be motivating to swim more frequently and add the fun and accountability of a group environment. Finally, look for opportunities in your area to practice some open water swimming outside of racing.
  • Bike training There is an old saying, “You can’t stop stupid.” Distracted drivers is a real concern in the modern day. To help keep yourself safe, look to ride on less busy roads that are less frequented by driving commuters. Use high-visibility lights on your bike when riding and wear bright colored kits. Look to ride with groups when possible. If there are not great outdoor riding venues near you, indoor trainers along with apps such as TrainerRoad, Zwift, or ErgVideo can really help make indoor training much more enjoyable and highly effective.  Finally, look at completing a skills clinic with a coach to increase your handling skills…the truth is most cycling accidents happen due to loss of control on the bike for some reason or another, not due to vehicles or other cyclists.
  • “Ironman” I love long-distance triathlon, however, I love short course racing just as much. Racing at smaller, non-WTC events will allow you to cost-effectively hone your racing skills, have fun, and make friends. A great site to find local races that may be within short distance to your hometown is TriFind. They list just about every triathlon and you can search by date, distance and/or state.  
  • Growth in “other” fitness activities There are several things in the works that may help bring triathlon awareness and popularity back up.
    • 2016 Summer Olympics – Professional, draft-legal triathlon is as exciting to watch as ever.  Especially on the women’s side, the USA has many of the top female triathletes in the world.  They clearly have the potential to bring home several medals, and thus increased media coverage.
    • NCAA Emerging Sport – Triathlon has been sanctioned as an NCAA sport. For the time-being, it is only as a women’s event, but it has opened the door for many new young athletes and we may very well see the same for men in the coming years.
    • High School and Junior Championships – USA Triathlon has created National Championships that help to bolster getting young athletes excited about the sport and is sure to bring in more youth in the coming years.

Triathlon participation, like most things in life, will ebb and flow. Even with everything above and the numbers trending lower, it is not all doom-and-gloom for our beloved swim-bike-run sport. Get out there and support your local races, and don’t be afraid to race a sprint, olympic or non-WTC branded race. It is true that racing too frequently can be a deterrent to maximal performance, but it is often impossible in training to completely mimic the emotions, conditions and outputs you will encounter during racing, and many athletes race far too infrequently. So, have fun, race often, and maybe even think about encouraging a friend to join this wonderful sport of triathlon!

Categories: Lifestyle

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Jeff Fejfar

You can contact Jeff at intheair328@hotmail.com