HomeFitnessPedaling Backwards: Why Are Fewer Athletes Taking on Triathlons?

Pedaling Backwards: Why Are Fewer Athletes Taking on Triathlons?

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My friend, who works as the event coordinator for Life Time Fitness, told me this week that their business had recently sold the rights to the Chicago Triathlon.  It was their final triathlon competition, ending Lifetime’s involvement in the discipline.  I was shocked to learn this. 

Life Time Fitness is renowned for planning and hosting the well-liked Life Time Tri Series, which consists of numerous competitions across the country.  They ran some of the largest Olympic and Sprint competitions in the nation, including those in New York and Chicago.  He cited the events’ abandonment as being primarily caused by costs and the sport’s declining popularity.

Triathlons have a long history of representing grit, perseverance, and pushing the envelope of human endurance. They have developed a reputation as one of the most difficult and rewarding sports in recent years, drawing athletes from all over the world. The once-burgeoning multisport discipline, that peaked in 2013, has seen a decline in participation over the past several years, which is a worrying trend.

Sport Business Journal reports that “Membership in USA Triathlon grew from 21,341 in 2001 to 174,787 in 2013, then declined to 130,470 by the start of [2015].”  According to USA Triathlon, there were 21,341 members in 2001.  By 2013, this number had risen to 174,787.  That number was reduced to roughly 130,000 at the beginning of 2014 and has continued to decrease.  

Why might this be happening and potential actions we can take to reignite the passion for this amazing sport.  It should be noted that many of the factors about to be covered were identified by athletes before any effects could be felt; however, despite corporate America and the governing bodies being aware of the problems, little was done about them because the sport was still very lucrative. 

One of the biggest challenges is the cost of competing in triathlons.

A good bike, a wetsuit, running shoes, and other accessories can be expensive when it comes to triathlon gear.  Unsurprisingly, the sport has one of the highest average yearly salaries for its participants.  When U.S.A. Triathlon surveyed its participants in 2016, it discovered that the average household income was over $100,000, or about $40,000 more than the country’s median income at the time.

Even though swimming equipment is typically the least expensive, the swimming segment still calls for a wetsuit (typically needed for open water swims), goggles, and a swim cap. Swimwear typically ranges in price from $30 to $100, while wetsuits can range in price from $100 for entry-level models to $800 for high-end suits with cutting-edge technology.

Cycling in a triathlon can be the most expensive event due to bike costs alone. From $800 for entry-level models to over $10,000 for highly specialized, high-performance models, bikes made for road or triathlon use can range in price. If you need specialized gear like a helmet, shoes, shorts, or safety eyewear, the cost of cycling may increase. Purchases of shorts range from $50 to $150, footwear from $100 to $400, and helmets from $50 to $200. For extras like sunglasses, water bottles, bottle cages, a flat tire repair kit, and a bike pump, budget between $100 and $400.

Running shoes typically cost between $70 and $200, with higher end models typically including more features like added cushioning and support. While running-related clothing like shorts, tights, shirts, and socks can range in price from $20 to $100, hats and visors typically cost between $15 and $50.

Accordingly, the average cost for an athlete to compete in a single triathlon ranges from $1,300 to $10,000. 

In addition to those figures, triathlons can be unaffordable for many aspiring athletes, especially young ones, when you take travel expenses and race entry fees into account, which have significantly increased since the early 2000s.  The average entry fee of $90 remained stable during the early 2000s, according to industry insiders and a recently released annual report on race trends, though some registration fees could exceed $300. Not anymore.  As of 2022, the average cost for a race entry is $250.  The Escape From Alcatraz triathlon is one of the most expensive in the nation, costing $750, is up $300 from 2015.  2001 was the first year I finished Ironman, and the entry fee was $360.  I spent over $800 on my most recent Ironman in Wisconsin in 2010.

Young athletes, who are needed to replace us old goats who find ourselves too damaged to continue racing, suffer most when cost is a barrier to entry.  U.S.A. Triathlon is therefore developing initiatives to boost participation among young adults. Less than 40% of the athletes in the U.S.A. Triathlon’s membership were women in 2015, and even more startlingly, only 4% of them were between the ages of 18 and 24.  There are currently 30 varsity teams, ten short of what is needed for the sport to be fully sanctioned at the conclusion of the five-year testing period after the NCAA designated triathlon as an emerging sport in 2014.

Costs are not the only problem, though.

Another important consideration is the time commitment required to train for and complete a triathlon. Physical activities like swimming, cycling, and running can be challenging to fit into a busy schedule, especially given the dedication required to be competitive. 

For beginners or those with little experience, a training schedule of 10–12 weeks is needed for a sprint distance triathlon (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run). Swimming, cycling, and running all take place two to four times a week for between two and four hours each.  For beginners or intermediate athletes, a 12- to 16-week plan is typically necessary to prepare for an Olympic distance triathlon (1.5 km swim, 40 km bike, 10 km run). 3-5 hours are allotted for cycling, 2-3 hours for running, and 6–10 hours are spent on average each week on exercise.  To prepare for a half-Ironman, beginners and intermediate athletes need 16–20 weeks of training. 2-4, 5-8, and 3-5 hours per week are dedicated to swimming, cycling, and running, respectively. A half-Ironman, or 70.3, requires a bigger time commitment and typically calls for a 16–20 week training schedule for new and experienced athletes. 2-4 hours are spent swimming, 5-8 hours cycling, and 3-5 hours running during the typical 10-15 hours per week of training.  Last but not least, completing a full Ironman (3.8 km swim, 180 km bike, 42.2 km run) is a challenging endeavor that frequently necessitates a 24 to 30 week training schedule for beginners or intermediate athletes. 3-5 hours are allotted for swimming, 8–12 hours for cycling, and 4-6 hours for running, for a total of about 15-20 hours of training per week.

Finally, I would contend that there is one more factor, the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs and hormone replacement therapy, particularly among older age groups, which is rarely discussed but is becoming a significant issue. 

In 2017, JAMA reported an increase in the use of testosterone replacement therapy. This pattern persisted through 2013 and started around 2002. The study found that by 2013, there were more indications for testosterone therapy than there were in the 1990s, when the most frequent indication was hypogonadism (low testosterone levels as a result of a medical condition).  The World Anti-Doping Agency forbids the use of testosterone and other androgens unless an athlete can demonstrate a medical need for them. An athlete may be suspended or even banned from competition if a testosterone or other androgen test results in a positive result.

But there is a gap that was largely made because the sport was aware of the issue and had two solutions.  Athletes using PEDs could be disqualified, or they could be given a legal path to continue competing.  The latter was chosen.  In accordance with the World Doping Associations, USA Triathlon has had a Therapeutic Use Exemption policy in place for HRT and other prohibited substances since at least 2015.

The regulations state that in order to be given a TUE, athletes must have a genuine medical need for the drug in question. This suggests that the drug is being used to treat a condition that would seriously endanger the athlete’s health or performance if left untreated.  The paradox is that the most dedicated and diligent athletes also suffer from overtraining syndrome, which frequently manifests as hormonal imbalances.

Less than 1% of athletes are competing with a TUE, according to the US Anti-Doping Association.  Compare that to the information we have on TRT use in the US.  The prevalence of testosterone therapy use among US men aged 40 or older increased from 0.81% in 2002 to 2.91% in 2013, according to a 2017 study published in JAMA, but we are aware that TRT sales have skyrocketed in the US since 2013, particularly after Covid. 

The use of PEDs is generally considered to be unethical and in opposition to the sports tradition of fair play. Athletes who are committed to playing by the rules and competing fairly and honestly may be discouraged by the prevalence of PED use in their sport.  Athletes who do not use PEDs might believe they are at a competitive disadvantage compared to those who do. Athletes may feel that the competition is unfair as a result, which could discourage them from giving it their all or continuing to compete in the sport.

This could be the reason why some triathletes have switched to other sports since 2013.  Over the past ten years, some endurance sports have seen rapid growth. Obstacle Course Racing is a favorite among athletes. Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash, which combine running, climbing, crawling, and other physically taxing activities over a variety of distances, draw millions of competitors worldwide. These thrilling challenges, which put competitors’ physical and mental toughness to the test, are what make the sport so popular.

Likewise, ultrarunning has expanded quickly. These competitions can be multi-day stage races or distances of 50 to over 100 kilometers. As more people seek to push their physical boundaries, ultrarunning is growing in popularity.

Cycling races over long distances and gran fondos have both grown in popularity. 100 miles or more are covered in long-distance cycling competitions through scenic and difficult terrain. Recreational cycling and the desire for more difficult and adventurous experiences have both contributed to the growth of these events.

We can probably all agree that there are a number of factors, such as the popularity of competing in endurance sports, the sport’s perceived difficulty, the time and expense required to train, and concerns about doping, that contribute to the decline in triathlon participation. Athletes who might have considered taking part in triathlons are now more interested in obstacle course races, ultra-running, and endurance cycling. A triathlon can be intimidating to some people, in addition to the time and money commitment required to train for and compete in one. The rising prevalence of PED use in age-group divisions, which may further deter participation, has raised questions about fairness and integrity. To reverse this trend, the triathlon community must adopt a new strategy that places a strong emphasis on developing youth programs, bringing costs down, making triathlon more accessible to a wider range of athletes, and enforcing strict anti-doping regulations to maintain fair competitions. 

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