It Is Time For Younger Athletes To Stop Doing Slow, Long Distance Running
I realize this is going to seem blasphemous to many coaches and athletes. But it is not meant to offend, insult, or anger those who believe strongly that you need to get out and do distance work to be in shape.
There is only one purpose to that statement – to give our kids the best.
The reality is the younger the athlete, the more potentially negative consequences a long distance, slow paced conditioning program can have on their future athletic career (unless of course, they are training to be distance runners).
There are logical, big picture reasons why distance running can be detrimental to athletic development for team sports and other sprint-based athletes..
Here are the biggest ones to consider if you are a coach implementing a good amount of steady-state conditioning for your players.
1. Jogging Screws Up Sprint Mechanics & Makes You Slower
Consider the differences:
The sprinter has more powerful arm drive compared to the jogger The front shin of the sprinter is optimal for good landing, but the jogger heel strikes and takes longer to get into their next stride The sprinter has much more powerful knee drive on the front leg, and better hip extension on the trail leg. This is how you increase stride length, which helps you to cover more ground faster Now you can of course say that if the jogger picks up the pace and begins sprinting then those issues will go away.
The problem is we’ve worked with hundreds of youth athletes on their sprint technique the last few years, using video analysis to break down their stride.
And guess what?
Those 3 issues are what we spend almost all our time fixing with athletes who are considered ‘slow’, or are injury-prone.
Learning a movement skill like jogging, with enough repetition, will ingrain habits that become very hard to break when you add a little more intensity to it.
So even when you want to run faster the jogging movement pattern becomes dominant, and it causes you to make all the mistakes that limit your ability to sprint to your true potential
2. Jogging Mechanics Applied To Sprinting Creates More Injuries
Youth sports injury rates are at an all-time high, and continue to climb.
Are we just going to continue to accept the spread of knee braces, costly surgeries, painful recoveries, and lost development time? Or are we as a coaching profession going to start taking a good, long look at what we might be doing to contribute to this?
Certainly sports injuries are a complex issue, and cannot entirely be solved by any one method.
But there are clear links between poor sprint mechanics and either minor joint pain or major injury for kids playing sports.
Here are the two biggest examples.
The jogger’s heel strike is just brutal to the knees, ankles, shins and hamstrings. This position creates a shock wave of ground reactive forces through the lower body, instead of allowing the foot to act as the primary shock absorber it was intented to be.
Secondly, the lack of hip extension in the trail leg does a poor job of strengthening the glute muscles that are so critical to stabilizing knee movements. PT’s will tell you that weak glutes can lead directly to knee issues and hamstring problems.
Taking mechanics designed to absorb low levels of force, and then applying them to sprinting where ground reaction forces are many times higher, is a recipe for disaster. The hand-held brake on my Big Wheel worked well enough to stop at the pace I pedaled around at as a kid, but there’s no way I want that same braking system in my car when I come to a sudden stop on the highway. The system just isn’t designed to handle the higher forces.
3. Even If 1 & 2 Weren’t True, Jogging Still Does Not Work The Key Energy Systems Needed For Game Conditioning
It is entirely true that having a solid aerobic base of fitness is important for athlete success and your health in general. It allows you to recover faster between games, keeps your body growing and functioning at full capacity, and allows you to play longer without a performance drop off.
The debate is not whether having a good aerobic base is important. The question is, do your athletes need more of it?
An aerobic base is developed at heart rate ranges roughly between 60-75% of maximal heart rates.
If your practices are fast paced, with minimal time standing around in lines or between reps then you are likely doing a lot of aerobic work just by going through your regular routine. And once you have a good enough aerobic base, adding more is not going to have a major impact on your team’s success.
Strength coach Mike Boyle suggests a simple test for determing aerobic fitness. Lie down on the floor for 5 minutes with a heart rate monitor on. If you drop to a 60 beat per minute heart rate or lower you almost certainly are not in need of more aerobic development.
Of course if you’re above 60 BPM then more aerobic work would help you, but for most active kids this is not reality.
What is needed is higher intensity conditioning, the kind that gets your heart rate between 75-90% of maximal effort.
4. If You Want Your Team To Show Elite Conditioning In Games, Train Just Like The Pace You See In Almost All Team Sports
This means higher intensity bouts followed by complete rest. And perhaps concidentally, this is how kids used to exercise when left to go out and play on their own. Back during an era where non-contact sports injury rates were far lower.
With careful planning, you can steadily increase volume throughout the off-season and pre-season until you match the typical game output a player will see at their position, and at their level of competition.
Hard sprinting, tempo runs, agility drills, these are where you should be focusing your team sport conditioning efforts. They mimic the metabolic and movement pattern challenges kids face when they are playing all out, so their bodies will adapt and improve at the exact things you want to see them do later in games.
You’d think it couldn’t be that simple, but it really is.
Between implementing team tactics, practicing sport skills, and doing your work in the weight room, coaches have precious little time to devote specifically to conditioning. When you do focus on it, you’ll want what you do to be maximally effective.
It is time to end decades of well-intended, but submaximal conditioning practices for kids. Give them a plan that doesn’t stifle their speed potential, lessens their injury risk, and better prepares them for the specific demands of their sport.