Last week we held a panel discussion with prominent female triathletes to discuss the state of women’s participation in triathlon. If you missed that discussion, no worries! You’ll find our takeaways below. We still highly recommend listening to the on-demand webinar to hear the stories we didn’t have room to include.
(Jump to the end of this post for full bios)
- Michelle Draper, Sales Director/Co-founder Spark Beauty Bar, Practice Fusion
- Jenn Garnand, Registered nurse, Oshner Health Systems
- Susan Haag, Civil Traffic Hearing Officer, State of Florida
- Alice Hector, Professional triathlete, self-employed
- Natalie Justice-Dearn, Director of Delivery, British Triathlon Federation
- Donna Rubin, Talent Acquisition Consultant, Carolinas Healthcare System
- Eric Koenigs, moderator and Senior Strategic & Global Accounts Manager, ACTIVE Network
WHY IS THERE A GAP BETWEEN WOMEN RUNNING AND WOMEN IN TRI?
In the United States, women represent 62% of runners, yet only 38% of triathletes are women. (Panelist Natalie Justice-Dearn with the British Triathlon Federation reported 30% female membership in tri, but a slightly above 50% female participation in Go Tri starter events associated with gyms and leisure centers and smaller events like duathlons.)
She and our other panelists identified the top 3 reasons and potential solutions for this significant gap:
1. Hurdles to Entry: Ease and cost of running vs. triathlon
It’s (relatively) easy to pull on your shoes and go running. Almost anyone can find a way to squeeze it in. Triathlon’s significant expenses (gear, race fees) and training time commitments, on the other hand, can be daunting. Popularizing the life-enriching benefits of triathlon outside the course is key to overcoming this barrier.
SOLUTIONS: With an age span of 19-60+, triathlon is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Our panelists recommend:
- Focus groups that shed light on younger generations’ motivation for participation.
- Industry-wide marketing messaging that promotes the value of tri for different subsets of women.
- Charity-based runs, which connect women to the event through causes that have special interest to them.
2. Intimidation Factors
This topic came up time and time again. Safety is the #1 issue; open water and even pool swimming are common sources of anxiety. Women are also often self-conscious about their appearance, skill and even their gear, especially as newcomers and especially in the swim segment. These factors, along with the overall rigors of training, can be deal breakers.
SOLUTIONS: Panelists agreed that easier or gradual entry through new channels can help, including:
- Women-specific events
- Recognition of complete vs. compete mentalities
- In training, start in quiet settings and gradually increase complexity of course and rules of the road
- Tri training opportunities at gyms and fitness centers, where fitness often begins
- Programs like the YMCA’s “Y Not Tri” that puts the swim portion in a pool
- Bob Babbitt’s reverse tri (where the swim portion is last and/or held in a pool, thinning out congestion for the most intimidating portion)
- Maximizing the social aspect
3. The Guilt Factor
The largest group of female triathletes is made up of women in the 40-49 year range. Most women who are in “full mom mode” and heavily involved in their careers struggle with the guilt associated with achieving balance and of taking time for themselves.
SOLUTIONS: Many of the panelists balance family commitments with their endurance schedules. They discussed the truths that help keep them grounded:
- Taking care of their needs and interests is important to their health.
- Viewing this challenge as an opportunity rather than a detriment can make all the difference in the world.
- Bringing family members into the triathlon journey has positive results for children, including passing on a legacy of running, taking on new adventures, and moms taking care of themselves. Your kids will look up to you for this!
- Coaches can hold family meet-ups after trainings, allowing women to see they’re not the only ones balancing training and family.
- Women will make time for what is important to them – it can be done!
- Some women can more easily justify cause-based triathlons because it’s easier to sacrifice for others than for themselves.
- You don’t have to train constantly or kill yourself. One panelist who competes every weekend doesn’t have to train at all and therefore, has no conflict with her job. It’s also okay to have a complete vs. compete mentality.
- There are rewards to be had – women just have to find the reward they want.
PROS AND CONS OF WOMEN-ONLY TRIATHLONS
Our panelists shared a number of reasons to love women-only events but they recommend against them as an exclusive model.
- More likely point of entry for some women. Many women started tri simply because a friend or group of friends dragged them into it. They often stay for that camaraderie.
- Fewer intimidation factors. Women in tri are naturally supportive, nonjudgmental, and less aggressive. Female coaches who understand can help women overcome their fears.
- Helps create loyalty to the sport. Finishers report feeling no pressure, strong, powerful, likely to take the next step.
- Less competition. Running with men can encourage faster running. However, one panelist reported joining a men’s group for training and eventually felt discouraged by continually coming in last in every session.
- Less “scenery.” There are various reasons women like participating with men.
- Fewer options for distance. While accomplished female triathletes often return to smaller events to enjoy the social atmosphere and to be an encouraging presence to other women, these events tend to be sprints. They recommend Race Directors provide more distance options, including super sprints and Olympic women-only triathlons.
- May not represent millennial preferences. We know that millennials often have a one-and-done mentality rather than a loyalty to the sport. We need to discover whether they prefer women-only or co-ed triathlon. At the same time, Race Directors must take care not to lose loyal triathletes while trying to reach younger generations with trendy approaches.
GROWING WOMEN TRIATHLON
RUSA reports that 14.4% of respondents to a recent survey indicate that tri is the sport they’re most interested in trying. That’s a half million people. What can we do to hasten this interest to our sport, especially with women? Our panelists cited 4 areas of focus:
All our panelists agreed that support is crucial. For women especially, the social aspects of training for and running a triathlon are what make it possible and life-changing – indeed, it is often the very reason they join up. The training may even play a bigger role in success than actual race day.
2. Positive Race Experience
The race itself can be lonely. That’s why it’s critical that the finish line accommodates family, friends and community. If sponsors are set up at the finish line, it helps provide the best experience for finishers and families – and it helps the sponsors, too.
Breaking down the finish line before the race is over is guaranteed to provide a disappointing finish for anyone, but especially women. Every finisher deserves the same celebratory experience at the end. Additionally, an abundance of port-a-potties may not, on their own, create loyalty, but a lack will definitely be remembered.
Some races are appealing to women with finisher necklaces, rather than medals (even better when they’re presented by good-looking men!). Women also tend to prefer wine or champagne to beer, women-specific shirts, and family-friendly races that allow them to run with their children.
3. Business Partnerships
Several panelists mentioned partnerships with bike shops for social gatherings (read: wine!) for tire-changing or bike maintenance workshops, or running shops for gait analysis, sports bra fittings, and fit-fests.
4. Charity-based Tris
For a while now, we’ve seen the popularity of nonprofits such as Human Training, the Scott Rigsby Foundation, and Challenged Athletic Foundation attracting significant numbers of women to their events. These are frequently the entry point for women, as the cause attracts their attention (often at a time when they are at vulnerable points in their lives and searching for something greater than themselves). As stated earlier, taking on a triathlon for someone else can take away the guilt women sometimes feel about the commitments required, so hopefully, the charity-based trend will continue.
WHAT INSPIRES WOMEN TO TRY TRI?
Women will always be drawn toward new experiences, adventures and challenges, especially those with a predominant community, cause-based and social focus. In addition, they are likely to find inspiration through figureheads such as Chrissie Wellington, former professional triathlete and four-time IRONMAN® Triathlon World Champion, Sister Madonna Buder, 86-year old nun with 340 triathlons and 45 IRONMANs® under her belt, and Gwen Jorgensen, 2014 and 2015 ITU World Triathlon Series Champion, all three of whom took unconventional routes into tri.
In the end, our panelists are passionate about their sport and about bringing more women into it. They believe it’s all of our responsibility to promote the benefits of triathlon, stay abreast of industry trends, and provide inspiration to newcomers.
GET TO KNOW OUR PANELISTS
Michelle Draper is a mother, wife, professional sales director, triathlete, and most recently the co-founder of Spark Beauty Bar. She has worked in the health and wellness space for over 15 years, she is a 5x Ironman finisher, 8x 70.3 finisher, completed 20+sprint and Olympic distance triathlons, (too many to count) running races, including the Boston marathon and is passionate about mentoring and building up the community of women and youth in sport.
Jen is an 11-time IRONMAN®, 13-time 70.3 finisher, and has completed 80+ sprint and Olympic triathlons. And that’s when she’s not hard at work as an ER/Flight nurse or raising a 7-year-old future triathlete, who has even been to Kona. In addition, Jenn is an IRONMAN® World Championship finisher, a certified coach and likes to inspire others to achieve things they didn’t think were possible.
Susan is the first woman to complete 100 IRONMAN® events. An attorney by profession, Susan enjoys being the cheerleader out on the course helping encourage everyone she encounters to keep it moving towards the magical finish lin.
Alice has been racing as a professional triathlete since 2014. Coached by Hywel Davies (www.tri-becoaching.com), she is an IRONMAN 70.3 champion and 2* Israman champion and has collected wins and podiums at several 70.3 and full IRONMAN® distance races. Over the past 2 years, she has been both Scottish Triathlon and Duathlon Champion. Alice was World Amateur Sprint Champion in 2013. She also enjoyed an unbroken run of ultramarathon victories, a sport which she plans to return to with full force in the future. Alice is a freelance copywriter and fitness model, and is available for both written and photographic work.
Previous to her role at British Triathlon, Natalie managed the strategic leadership and development of British Cycling’s award-winning Breeze programme, the biggest ever initiative to get more women in the UK cycling for fun. Her role has included team, project and partnership management, funding and budgeting, and volunteer development.
An HR professional by day, Donna’s passion for this sport lies with motivating other women to live a healthier life through Tri It for Life. She started as an athlete with an all-female triathlon organization and moved into the mentor role in 2013. She motivates her fellow athletes to challenge themselves in small ways to reach their bigger goals. Donna has also been coaching computrainer classes at TotalCyclist for the past year and loves seeing the cyclists and triathletes getting strong outside on the pavement. Among her peer group, she is known as the athlete who always goes home with the coolest finish line photo.
Eric Koenigs has been addicted to triathlon since his youth. After racing competitively for many years, he now enjoys participating in triathlons for fun while representing ACTIVE Network as a Senior Strategic Account Manager working with USA Triathlon, World Triathlon Corporation and other leading race directors.