Endurance and the young athlete
Brian J Grasso explains the factors to be considered with respect to the development of endurance in a young athlete
Endurance training and young athletes is an often-misunderstood topic. On one hand, there are strength coaches who tend to disregard developmentally sound elements of endurance training in lieu of producing stronger and faster athletes via strength and power type exercises exclusively. On the other hand, there are over-zealous coaches and trainers who equate endurance to long distance/duration activities, often with little regard for the athlete's stage of development, ability or current level of conditioning.
What is endurance?
Endurance can be defined quite simply as one's ability to withstand fatigue or the ability to control the functional aptitude of movement in lieu of external stress. The latter definition lends itself well to the concept of athletic development and training young athletes. As I have stated many times in both print and lecture, when working with youngsters, the key ingredient to producing a successful training program is the ability to recognize that quality of execution is profoundly more important than quantity. Having said that, I still see coaches, trainers and parents opting for more difficult training sessions that include high volume or high intensity activities rather than concerning themselves with how correctly the exercise is being performed. Poor execution results in habitual patterns that are difficult to break and could result in injury. With respect to endurance training, proper mechanics are often compromised for higher volumes or intensities and this is very much a mistake.
One thing to consider is that the term 'endurance' has application to varying lengths and types of effort:
There are several factors to consider with respect to the development of endurance in a young athlete:
Efficiency of movement is a paramount factor with respect to the endurance capabilities of a young athlete. Poor mechanics (which are only reinforced with repetitive training) lead to higher degrees of fatigue. To truly increase the ability of a young athlete (in all facets), coaches and trainers must exercise patience and teach proper movement habits rather than prescribe endless numbers of sets. A critical point here is that by perfecting technique, you can effectively improve endurance without increasing training volume.
The more overweight a young athlete is, the less endurance they will likely have. Excess bodyweight (particularly in the form of body fat) will serve to decrease endurance due to an increased energy cost. Additionally, being overweight often leads to poor mechanical efficiency. According to Joseph Drabik, "each 5% of excess weight penalizes a child approximately 89 meters in a 12 minute run test". Conversely, "in a 10 mile run, each kilogram reduction of body mass improves performance by 30 seconds". Drabik did not indicate how bodyweight was determined to be excessive.
Many young athletes do not poses significant amounts of mental toughness (but they are kids so why would they?). To combat this, many over anxious trainers and coaches opt to make drills and exercises purposefully difficult in order to produce some sort of perceived mental strength. Given that both the physical structure as well as mental potency of youngsters is tenuous, this often leads to little more than burnout or injury. A more prudent approach to this factor is to systematically present challenges to young athletes that respect their individuality as well as the stage of development they are in and offers positive feedback at the conclusion. By offering challenging yet achievable forms of exercise, you will progressively improve their endurance and develop their self confidence to attempt new and more challenging things.
It is important to understand that endurance training with young athletes is critical for long-term development and not immediate results. Developing good endurance allows the young athlete to tolerate an increased amount of exercise stimulus in the future and this alone is the key point. Do not become pre-occupied with immediate effects. Like any other aspect of athletic development, endurance training is part of a continual, multi-tiered effort.
Developmentally speaking, from the ages of 3 to 7, general endurance increases due to the typical activity level of kids in this age range (which has become a crucial issue of our time - kids do not 'play' as much as they used to, and this fact has a potentially damaging effect on their future athletic abilities and conditioning). For young males, endurance increases are best seen between the ages of 8 to 11 and then again between 15 and 16. For young females, increases are shown best between the ages of 8 to 10. After the age of 13, endurance capabilities of young women stagnate and actually regress. These numbers illustrate that the young female sensitive period for endurance development is shorter than it is with young males. Because of this, young females should begin their endurance training at a younger age than should young males.
There are several key points to remember when designing endurance-based training programs for young athletes. The most crucial aspect is to always start with a broad aerobic base. This will serve to raise the anaerobic threshold of the young athlete (delay needing to use anaerobic sources of energy during activity) and allow them to tolerate increased loads in the future.
Begin this aerobic-base phase however, with low to moderate volumes. Children, although physiologically more fit than the average adult, still must begin their training programs gradually, working up to longer durations and higher intensities. As typical with the entire athletic development science, it is advisable that you alter the stimulus of endurance training you do with young athletes. Think in terms of seasonal activities. In the summer, enjoy swimming; in the autumn, change to hiking or cycling; in the winter, offer stimulus such as snow-shoeing or cross country skiing.
Notice how the suggestions are movement based activities and NOT going to the gym to run on a treadmill! In our fixation for 'the perfect body', it seems we have forgotten how important movement and coordination-based activities are for young athletes. Do not train kids on single function pieces of fitness equipment. Understand that there is a definitive crossover with all exercise stimulus and young athletes. Yes snow-shoeing is a perfect endurance building exercise for young athletes, but it also involves coordination and skill - IDEAL for the young, developing athlete.
Another key factor is training load increases. Coaches, parents and trainers must remember that increases in volume or duration must precede increases in intensity. In short, make things longer before you make them harder. Lastly, wonderful progress can be made by altering the surface the young athlete is performing their endurance training on. For instance, if you are incorporating long walks or jogs into your training program, switch the training surface periodically to add variety and improve progress; sand, shallow water, forest trails, pool. Quick point of reference - by jogging or walking on sand, forest trails or shallow water, you will also add to lower compartment strength and stability. Ankle proprioceptors, picking up varying degrees of balance-point change, will become stronger and more efficient.
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About the Author
Brian Grasso is the President of Developing Athletics which is a company dedicated to educating coaches, parents and youth sporting officials throughout the world on the concepts of athletic development. Brian can be contacted through his website at www.DevelopingAthletics.com
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: