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Six Guidelines for Youth Endurance Sports Participation

In the United States, running is the second most popular athletic activity amongst girls and boys 12-15 years old. As a youth running coach, I love to see kids enjoying the sport. Every season, I see young athletes reaping the benefits of participation in track and field. A few of these benefits include:

- Building self confidence and self-efficacy

- Fostering strong relationships with peers and mentors

- Developing a lifelong enjoyment of running and exercise

However, kids are not just small adults. When introducing your child to endurance sports, there are some key concepts to heed. Just how much running is safe for kids? Although there is no definitive research to dict

ate cut and dry parameters, let’s unpack what we do know in order to shape some helpful guidelines dictated by a combination of research and clinical expertise.

The Low Down on Early Sport Specialization

Over the past decade, early youth sports specialization has become nearly ubiquitous. This occurs for a variety of reasons. Often, the level of commitment required to keep up with one’s peers in the sport demands a high level of year-round participation. Youth athletes and their families feel the pressure to “keep up” in order to continue competing at successive levels of play. Additionally, the desire to obtain college scholarships, and “intense desire for talent recognition by parents, coaches, or media appear to fuel interests in specializing in a single sport” (2).

This drive for youth specialization is contrary to what the research does tell us.

Early specialization can result in reduced motor skill development for children. By focusing on just the motor skill set required for their preferred sport, many other valuable motor skills are neglected. It is easy to see how focusing on just running, a repetitive motion without a lot of movement variability, can be at the demise of other valuable movement skills. It is important to remember that practicing a wider array of motor skills contributes to the development of a more diverse and durable movement system. “Without direct movement practice and exposure to a variety of skill-building games and activities early in life, children are less likely to maximize their physical development and capitalize on their athletic abilities later in life” (2).

Healthy bone development is another aspect of adolescent development that is compromised when a child specializes early on. Repetitive injuries, such as bone stress injuries, are seen amongst youth athletes. Research shows us that participation in “odd impact sports” that require movements in different directions, are most advantageous to avoid this. Bone grows and develops in response to stimulus, and just as practicing the same motor pattern over and over neglects the development of a diversity of patterns, performing the repetitive movement of running without incorporating other types of movement can put a child at an elevated risk of bone stress injury throughout their life. Variety of activity is essential to stimulate bone growth during a child’s crucial developmental years.

Interestingly, despite popular belief, early specialization doesn’t precede the attainment of professional level athletic success. In fact, a study of elite and sub-elite athletes actually found that these highly successful individuals specialized at a later age, with only a modest amount of specific sport training in childhood.(2) In fact, a study of Olympic athletes found that the average age for introduction to their chosen sport was 11.5 years old, and that high intensity sport specific training was not necessary for the attainment of high level athletic success later in life.

Ingredients for Youth Athlete Health and Success

Although injury in youth endurance sports is common, it is not inevitable. Your child, like many of the youth athletes I have worked with, can develop a healthy relationship with running while avoiding the pitfalls of early specialization and elevated injury risk.

Here are some helpful guidelines to heed:

  • 1. Unstructured Play - A 2:1 ratio of sports participation to unorganized free play has been presented as the optimal ratio to reduce injury risk. As engagement with electronics contributes to more sedentary lifestyles for kids and adults alike, it's important to remember that sports participation alone does not fulfill a childs’ activity requirements. Free, active play is essential for children outside of their selected sports.

  • 2. Monitor Motivation. It is important to note where motivation is coming from as it pertains to youth athletes. Your child should be both physically prepared for participation, AND internally motivated to participate to reduce the likelihood of injury and burnout.

  • 3. Offseason/Rest is Essential - It is recommended that youth athletes take one complete day off from sport per week, take 1-2 weeks off every 3 months, and limit competition to less than 9 months a year. As noted earlier, children are not just small adults. They NEED adequate rest, recuperation and reflection time after training to allow psychological and physical recovery and adaptation. (3)

  • 4. Age-Appropriate Participation Levels - Intense hours of sports participation per week should not be greater than your child’s age. In fact, significant increases in injury risk were noted when hours/week in specific sport participation exceeded 16 hours. (4)

  • 5. Periodized Strength and Conditioning - Sources recommend that all youth athletes participate in age-appropriate strength and conditioning that focuses on both general strength development and more specific motor control training in a supervised environment. Like adult runners, youth runners too should be developing foundational strength and coordination beyond simply running.

  • 6. Opportunity for “Sports Sampling” - Youth athletes should be given the opportunity to “sample” a variety of different sports in order to build the foundational physical, psychological, and cognitive skills required for successful sport participation.

I have many years of experience working with youth athletes as both a doctor of physical therapy and as a coach. Whether you are looking to improve sport performance safely and effectively, or need help managing an injury, I am happy to help. Feel free to reach out here to learn more.

(1)Walters BK, Read CR, Estes AR. The effects of resistance training, overtraining, and early specialization on youth athlete injury and development. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2018 Sep;58(9):1339-1348. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.17.07409-6. Epub 2017 Jun 8. PMID: 28597618.

(2) Myer GD, Jayanthi N, DiFiori JP, Faigenbaum AD, Kiefer AW, Logerstedt D, Micheli LJ. Sports Specialization, Part II: Alternative Solutions to Early Sport Specialization in Youth Athletes. Sports Health. 2016 Jan-Feb;8(1):65-73. doi: 10.1177/1941738115614811. Epub 2015 Oct 30. PMID: 26517937; PMCID: PMC4702158.

(3) Thein-Nissenbaum, PT, DSc, SCS, ATC J. Rehabilitation Considerations for the Young Sports Specialist. In: ; 2023.

(4)Jayanthi N, Kleithermes S, Dugas L, Pasulka J, Iqbal S, LaBella C. Risk of Injuries Associated With Sport Specialization and Intense Training Patterns in Young Athletes: A Longitudinal Clinical Case-Control Study. Orthop J Sports Med. 2020 Jun 25;8(6):2325967120922764. doi: 10.1177/2325967120922764. PMID: 32637428; PMCID: PMC7318830.

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