Early Junior Development and the Un-making of a Champion Cyclist (and what we do to avoid it)

In America the youth sport is often performed under an alarmingly high level of competitive stress and pressure to perform. Ironically, emphasis on early success and performance is the perfect catalyst for limitations capping performance when the young athlete reaches the age of physical maturity-just at the time when to performance really matters.

In the U.S. the only requirement to become a coach is some basic knowledge of the sport and perhaps no criminal background. Many coaches are competitors or former competitors and their coaching methodology is derived from what “works when I’m riding”. Additionally, throw in America’s obsession with “no pain no gain” or “harder is better” , as evidenced with Crossfit, P90X, Insanity, Rocky movies, boot camps and a myriad of other influences and the concept of what it takes to be a world class performer becomes terribly misconstrued and misrepresented. I witness it often, coaches and mentors taking youngsters for long rides in the hills, or blowing whistle after whistle to signal the beginning of the next “high intensity sprint interval” after only a few brief seconds of rest. After all you’ve got to suffer to improve, right? You’ve got to pay the price, right?

Though these coaches and mentors mean well, their very practice will put an impenetrable ceiling on the ultimate development of the young cyclist. The process of attaining excellence in sport is hugely complex, multi-year undertaking, and perhaps the most critical time period is during the early formative years for the athlete.

One of the things we must grasp and understand is the concept of “The cumulative effect of imposed demands”. (readings by Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky are excellent to learn more about this concept). Very basically this concept states that all physical training has a cumulative effect on the state of the athlete. What was done years ago, coupled with what is being done today, coupled with what will be done in the future is what molds the athlete. For a coach to prescribe training based on the perspective of “what will be effective now” without considering and analyzing the long term cumulative effect is irresponsible. Yet I often hear “if you suffer this much in training, the racing will be easy” or “I have never had an athlete injured from this type of training”. These statements are both in the “now” and do not reflect what may manifest itself on the athlete years down the road during the later stages of development. Any “results now” logic is poor justification for choosing a training means for anyone other than an athlete who was reached the state of athletic maturity and is competing to win the world title. For the developing athlete an astute choice will take in considerations of the past history of the athlete, training age, psycho-emotional state of the athlete, the current and future demands of the event, and of course, the cumulative effect of the imposed stress.

As an example let’s take a look at the bio-energetic structure of a young developing pre-pubescent or pubertal stage athlete. We know that during these formative years the aerobic system and the short-term alactic systems are the dominant energy systems. The glycolytic system during this stage of development is immature, does not function well, and therefore is highly un-trainable. Yet, how often do we see coaches blowing the whistle, signaling a group of athletes to begin another bout of sprinting after a limited rest period. After all, “that’s what you will need to do in racing”, it’s the ability to sprint while the legs are loaded, and hurting that determines the winner”. Let’s take a better look at what is happening below the surface, what may not be immediately apparent, but what will surely re-surface years later-when the races really matter.

Since the glycolytic system is immature and not trainable at this age, the athlete’s immature physiology reacts and adapts in a very different way, as a mature athlete would. One of the early adaptations that will have an effect of performance later in the athlete’s career is the conversion of transitional muscle fiber types. During this period of pre-pubescence/pubescence these transitional fiber types will take on characteristics determined by the training demands imposed upon them. Since the glycolytic system will not respond and adapt as it would in an adult, the body adapts by having the transitional or intermediate muscle fibers take on the characteristics of the highly oxidative slow twitch fibers. Unfortunately for these misguided athletes this period of athletic formation represents the “once in a lifetime” window of opportunity when the traits of speed and power are highly trainable. Never again in the lifespan of an athlete will the opportunity to develop speed and power manifest itself to the degree as it does during the stage of athletic formation. The development of the neuro-muscular system, in regards to, speed and power development is severely compromised by utilizing concurrent methods that place very high demand on the aerobic system, whether it is long duration or higher intensity aerobic training. To develop the world class athlete, careful planning must be in place to take advantage of every opportunity and not compromise development. The rush to create immediate performance at a young age will put a ceiling on the capacities of an athlete at the age of sporting maturity.

Interestingly, it is rather easy for an athlete in the mature stages to train so that these transitional fibers take on oxidative capacities. Paradoxically, the conversion from slower twitch oxidative trait fiber to one with traits of greater contractile speed and higher anaerobic capacities is more difficult. Thus, at maturity, strong sprinters can add specific endurance training and become capable enduros (with a fast finishing kick to boot). Conversely, enduros that spent their formative years developing high levels of endurance with prolonged and intensive endurance training means will find it much more difficult to develop a great sprint.

So what do we do to avoid building this training induced sub-optimal ceiling on developing athletes? Here is what we do, and recommend.

1) Focus on long term development. Coaches, teacher, athletes, and parents must understand the principle of cumulative effect of imposed demands. The program must be willing to sacrifice immediate results, giving regard to the potential long term development of the athlete. If you don’t find this in a program, find a new one.

2) Focus on developing the nervous system by choosing activities that require high speed limb movement and coordination. Session should be short to ensure that the CNS is not overtaxed.

3) Most activity should be alactic in nature. Limit the length of sprint work to 7 to 8 seconds, with a minimum of several minutes of rest between sprint efforts. Aerobic activity should be kept at a low intensity level and very modest volume. In this manner, we can properly stress the neuro-muscular system without inducing negative adaptations such as pre-mature fiber conversion.

4) Compete infrequently. While developing racing tactics and skills is important, frequent exposure to competition and the higher demands associated with racing the traditional races will cause permanent shifts in muscle fiber type. Better yet, special races and competitions can be devised to be very short, limiting competitive distances to 7 to 8 seconds up to 15 to 20 seconds maximally. BMX is a great example, the professional peleton and track scene is full of riders who “played BMX” as youngters. There was no formal training program, just fun, full gas riding for less than 30 seconds at a time.

5) Since the aerobic system is always dominant in the young athlete, absolute intensity of exercise will always be limited. Since the intensity is inherently limited, more repetitions can be completed than for an advanced athlete. Repetitive movement will provide sensory feedback necessary for skill advancement. Because the anaerobic capabilities of the young are lowered the rest periods between sprint efforts can be shorter. However, rest should be several minutes in length, as opposed to advanced athletes of a high capability, who may require 30 minutes or more for adequate recovery.

6) Speed of movement is ultimately controlled by the CNS. The pathway to speed and power is best paved during the early formative years pre-pubescent, during puberty, and early post-pubescence. Take advantage of this window of opportunity. Later in the development this window is shut and factors that affect speed development are much less available. Don’t miss this opportunity and don’t compromise it by placing too much emphasis on other training means such as endurance training. This point cannot be emphasized enough.

As coaches, mentors, and parents it is our responsibility to ensure that our youngsters are exposed to proper activities at appropriate volumes. The monitoring and availability of these activities is often inadequate in the U.S. schools. Typically, the American child is bombarded with multiple physical loading during the day. At school, they follow the P.E. class regimen. Returning home they have free time in which they play with friends or enjoy a pick-up game. Later in the afternoon they may be at the velodrome for cycling practice. The next day is swim practice. It is very important to realize that the entire load of all of these activities must be accounted for. Excessive loading during these formative years places a great risk on the young athlete. Ideally, the entire process could be managed by a central coach or organization as it is in the sport schools in China and Europe. However, in the U.S. this is very unlikely. At the very least there must be communication between the parent, athlete, all coaches, and teachers so that the loading may be harmoniously distributed to the young athlete. All on board should understand the principles of athletic development and must cast aside desire for immediate performance.

Or perhaps we should just let very young kids play, immersing themselves in unsupervised activity which was once the foundation of American sport culture. Seems kids are pretty good auto-regulators of activity. Left alone, do you think we would find kids organizing a two hour ride with 5 1kilometer hill repeats, or 10 second sprints with 10 second recoveries until they are blue in the face? We’re more likely to see them playfully racing their buddies to the big tree at the end of the block, spend a few minutes talking about their new sneakers, stuff at school, cool motorcycles, sports heroes, and whatever they enjoy before they climb the tree, jump down and playfully sprint off again. Seems they already know a thing or two about training.

However, as adults, if we do choose to be in the game, it is extremely important that we further our knowledge of developmental physiology and ensure that our young athletes are doing the right thing at the right time. Otherwise, get out of their way and let them regulate themselves at these very early stages. What they choose to do will be far less harmful than what an overzealous coach or mentor will draw up. Let’s give them what they need, only when they need it, and watch them mature into potential champions.