Youth is wasted on the young. As someone who is on the cusp of not being young any more, I am acutely aware of the advantages of being young and time is running out. Fortunately for me, race walkers have a long and generally late peak, with world leaders competing well into their thirties. However, at the age of 25 if I were a middle distance athlete, a swimmer or a BMX cyclist I would probably be starting to decline. In most other sports I might have another couple of years. Were I a gymnast, I would have retired years ago.
With this in mind, young people with ambitions of sporting success need to start early. It takes a long time – many hours of training, accumulation of experience and knowledge and adaptation to all the specific demands of the sport – to get to this level. This doesn’t mean that you’re stuffed if you’re not a child prodigy, and it’s important that children and teenagers take part in a wide variety of exercise. However, the earlier you start with serious, athletic training the better.
It is necessary, therefore, to go from simply practising the sport to becoming an athlete. This means getting the body and mind in the best condition for competition. The striking difference between amateur and elite is that the elite spends so much time not doing sport but getting themselves fit and physically ready for it. Athletes realise the value of deliberately building specific attributes to improve, rather than just playing and hoping to get better.
‘Strength and conditioning’ is a key component of every elite athlete’s training. The idea is to work on anything that will allow the athlete to perform their sport faster, stronger, more accurately or for longer and simultaneously to improve resilience to hard training and reduce the risk of injury. As such, it is involved in extending the career of an athlete as well as heightening the level. This work usually involves a wide range of exercises, requiring special techniques and occasionally weights and other specific equipment. One of the many advantages young people have is that they can respond to this training incredibly effectively, both in terms of muscle growth and neurological conditioning.
Muscular growth occurs naturally during puberty and fitness increases rapidly. This is due to the surge in hormones, which also results in growth spurts. This is much more noticeable in boys, who gain an average of 1 stone in muscle mass and a 40% increase in heart muscle. In girls the experience is more varied and any muscle growth is usually accompanied by more fat deposits. Regardless, adolescent hormones mean that appropriate muscle loading will result in greater gains than at any other time.
The nervous system also matures at this time and brain plasticity is higher than in adults. This means that young people are able to quickly learn skills and what they learn is likely to remain with them. This includes fast and accurate muscle contractions, so that appropriate training can improve force production even without any gains in muscle mass. It should also be noted that many adolescents struggle with coordination following growth spurts, so technical refinement is especially important.
Strength and conditioning training can therefore have a very positive impact on long term athletic development for young people. On the other hand, there are certain risks – especially risk of injury. Improper exercise technique at any age can result in injury and a popular theory is that injuries in adolescents could stunt growth (though there is little evidence of this happening in practice). Given the significant neurological benefits just mentioned, technique should be a main focus in adolescent strength and conditioning. Expert supervision is crucial to ensure appropriate training and safe technique, in which case the risk of injury is low.
I have been race walking since the age of 9 and from this early age I developed a habit of doing press ups and core stability exercises. I first used a gym when I was 13 or 14, after a helpful induction from a knowledgeable instructor. Whether or not I was training ‘seriously’ at this point is difficult to say but by the time I began competing at a high level and training with other elite junior athletes I was at a clear advantage. However, though I benefited from what I did, I later learnt that my training was not nearly as effective as it could have been and I then spent several years learning how to train most effectively. This has not just made me better at doing my sport but it has made me a better athlete. I now specialise in helping young people to become better athletes and to get the most out of their training.
Adolescence is the ideal time to start training like an athlete. Increases in strength are greatest following the growth spurt (peak strength gains typically occur roughly 14 months after peak height growth). As long as it is done correctly and appropriately, there can be long-lasting benefits. This is too good an opportunity to miss. You don’t get to be young again.