An up and coming triathlon coach recently wrote in asking about distance racing for developing and junior athletes. He'd just borne the brunt of some pretty fierce criticism after entering talented members of his squad in Olympic and 70.3 distance races to compete with the pros. The criticism being these races were well above the ITU ordained 'correct' distance for U19 and U23 athletes.
My position on this is pretty simple. If you are good enough, you should be allowed to compete against the best regardless of the distance. I also believe the oft-repeated assertion that one risks 'burning out' a developing athlete with the occasional distance race to be unfounded from a coaching perspective and not grounded in the history of the sport.
When I first started triathlon coaching in Australia, I remember hearing about a 14-year-old Brad Bevan getting his first pro podium in a non-drafting, longer than Olympic distance race. They said he'd burn out too. He didn't. He went to become a superstar over not just the next two years, but the next 18. An obvious exception?
Not really. Around the same time a young athlete from Victoria, Stephen Foster, got on the pro podium at Ironman Forster at the age of 17. 17! That must have fried him! No, Stephen was the first man to defeat Mark Allen, before a horrific car crash that broke his ankle and slowed his run forever. However, he was still good enough to go on to win 7 Australian Olympic distance Championships and race well into his 30s in France becoming a tri legend in that country.
Similarly, Miles Stewart emerged in the non-drafting era and won the ITU World Championship in 1991 as a 20-year-old. He went on to have a long and highly decorated career. Spencer Smith from Great Britain was even younger than Miles when he won the World Championships in 1993. He would go on to win everything before he was 21. His compatriot, one of the all-time greats, Simon Lessing, took out 4 ITU World Championships and should have won six. His first victories came while terrorising the 'pros' at an age that would make him a junior today.
These guys started competing in non-drafting and distance races very early in their careers and all went on to continue producing great results into their 30s.
Nor are they just second-hand anecdotes. I've seen it first-hand within my own squad for the last three decades. Ben Bright won his first pro race at 15, and his first 70.3 distance Australian Championship at 16. He defended it for the next 2 years and a decade later he was competing at the Olympics. Reinaldo Colucci of Brazil was top 10 in IM Brazil as an 18 year old, also finishing 6th and 2nd at Embrunman in the next 2 years. They tried to stop him competing because 'You will cook him for sure. He'll never race ITU again.' Over the last 10 years, he represented Brazil at 2 Olympics and has won the Pan American title over a drafting ITU short course.
So, my advice to the up and coming coach is this:
Don't be fooled by the myth that longer races, where your athletes learn to handle a bit of pain, condemn them to a short career. The great ones were all racing long as youngsters and doing a great job. The athletes who typically burn out early are the protected, speedy ones. Very few of these guys going around after 30. Not having an early stamina base will do that to you.