Remember in the not-so-distant past (2005-2010) when we collectively witnessed the boom of women-specific triathlons? Incredible events like Danskin, She ROX, Espirite de She—to name a few—helped countless women enter the sport and become lifelong triathletes.
The topic of this boom came up during a recent planning session with the esteemed folks at USA Triathlon and Triathlon Business International—who know a few things about driving participation in the sport. We asked them this: What drove the growth of these great series, and how do we reinvigorate that growth of women pursuing triathlon as a sport?
Let’s start by taking a looking at our running friends. While running enjoys a 62/38 split1 of women to men, the sport of triathlon flips that ratio in the exact opposite direction (37.6 percent women2). Encouragingly, however, Running USA stats indicate a growth in the number of runners indicating triathlon as the event they are “most interested” in for the future (increasing from 11.6 percent to 14.4 percent3). Running USA also reports 17.1 million finishers in 20153. Taken collectively, that’s an audience of almost a half million people who have expressed an intent to “tri” it, of which around 300,000 are likely women looking to join our great sport. As our sport continues to mature, it’s easy to look at these differences and aim our eyes on closing the gap.
What’s driving the difference in participation between running and triathlon?
I took to social media to pose some of these questions to triathlon-focused closed groups of which I’m a member. A collection of the thoughts shared by women who self-identify as triathletes produced some interesting conclusions.
It’s not about the race.
An overwhelming number of women make it very clear: If we want to encourage more women to participate in triathlon, the focus of our efforts shouldn’t be the race itself, rather developing open and accepting training groups. As one contributor noted, an increasing number of events are being promoted as beginner-friendly, which is a big step in and of itself. But an important hurdle remains: helping women get started. Shannon R., another respondent to our informal survey, confirms this thought, expressing the significant role a training group plays in alleviating intimidation and providing a supportive environment as women tackle more fearful aspects of tri, such as open water swimming and cycling. Another triathlete, Donna R., believes this so much that she now coaches with Tri It For Life.
Though individual motivations may vary, the message is clear: What are we doing to foster supportive training groups? More women will toe the line on race morning if encouraging and supportive training groups exist to help them get there. With that in mind, review your participant data and identify where your athletes reside. Reach out to triathlon retailers, clubs and individual athletes to establish women-focused training groups that will feed your participant pipeline.
A victim of its own success.
If the primary draw to women-specific events is a safe space to overcome intimidation, perhaps the decline in participation in such events is a result of their own success. As one respondent, Heather B. articulated, it is a distinct possibility that the races have been so successful at breaking down barriers; they’ve effectively built their own demise. Several others agreed by indicating the fear has evaporated as the sport’s popularity increased (In other words, “If she did it, why can’t I?”).
One respondent even took it a step further, noting the generations coming into triathlon today come from an era of increased participation of women in sports, making them perhaps more fearless than older generations who lacked the same opportunity and participation numbers. USAT data2 supports this hypothesis: The largest women’s age range in triathlon is 40-49, and women represent just 35.7 percent of that age range. However, among younger age groups, the gap closes somewhat, as follows:
- 30-39 age range: female to male ratio is 39.4/60.5 percent
- 20-29 age range: female to male ratio is 41.8/58.2 percent
- 16-19 age range: female to male ratio is 40/60% percent
- Under 16: female to male ratio is 46.4/63.6% percent
It may be easy to start worrying about the participation decline in women-specific events. But is it possible that it is actually an indicator of the health of the sport?
Women-specific events are still relevant.
Women-specific events still play a valuable role in driving increased participation in the sport. In fact, the majority of respondents indicated they’ve participated in one, and many said they will continue to do so. Brandi M. is an excellent example—she started her IRONMAN journey thanks to participating in a women-specific event, and says she would follow the same journey if she had to do it over again. She views these events as a great way to enter the sport for those who find it intimidating.
Similarly, Christina M. has been competing since 2013, and all of her races have been women-specific. She says she loves them for the sisterhood and empowerment—but don’t expect every woman to agree. Some of our respondents reported them to be too “fluffy” and “catty” to be part of their race calendars going forward.
Perhaps a happy medium is an event like Barb’s Race, which one of our respondents highlighted for being women-specific within the context of an open race. Another example came from Kim F., who referenced Nike’s Women’s Marathon for catering to women but not being exclusively about them.
What does this mean for us? Well, as an industry it is time to recognize this isn’t a one-size-fits-all discussion. Rather, let’s collaborate to ensure we offer a diverse set of women-specific race formats that cater to individual interests, rather than just cloning successful events.
Women-specific events will continue to attract new—and current—women triathletes. Let’s ensure we have races that fit each of their individual preferences.
What about other minority demographics?
The data doesn’t lie: Triathlon continues to be a largely segregated sport, with its athletes being overwhelmingly Caucasian. As Michelle M. (a Hispanic triathlete) asked in the discussion, where are the Hispanics, African American, and other minority groups? And more importantly, what are we, the sport’s leadership, doing to encourage participation across diverse groups?
In other words, let’s not take our eyes off encouraging more women to tri, but let’s also not forget about other minority groups as we look for continued growth of triathlon.
If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to sign up for both the Triathlon Business International Conference and the USA Triathlon Race Directors Symposium being held in late January in Dallas, Texas. I’ll be there. Let’s grab our running shoes and keep the discussion going.
Learn more by watching our recorded webinar, “Women in Tri: Discussion Panel.”
About the Author: 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 Executive working with USA Triathlon, World Triathlon Corporation and other leading race directors.