Training

Ask Pete: What Training Will Improve My Daughter’s Track Times?

Timing training is crucial in young runners' growth cycles, but the most important thing you can do is help them build a love for the sport.

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QUESTION

What training will improve my 12-year-old daughter’s track times? My 12-year-old daughter dropped her 800-meter time from 3:01 to 2:38 during her first track season. What kind of offseason training can we do to build her running body? – Brian

ANSWER

The most important thing you can do for your 12-year-old’s running career is to shift the focus from building her running body to helping her build a love for the sport.

I’m not saying your daughter shouldn’t train hard and compete. And it’s terrific that you’re supporting her participation in a sport she can embrace for a lifetime.

What I am saying is that if she loves the sport, she’ll keep training and competing. And if she keeps training and competing, she’ll improve. Same goes for all the other sons and daughters out there.

I think track and field is a wonderful sport for youth athletes. Some of my fondest memories are of running the sprints—40 through 440 yards (back in the time of T-Rex, we ran yards, not meters)—when I was in elementary and middle school. But some of my other fondest memories are of playing football, soccer, basketball, dodgeball, whiffle ball, capture the flag, poison, tag, and zing-toss (the latter being a game we made up that involved chasing, tackling, and throwing things at one another, all without the benefit of rules or scoring).

girls enjoying training
photo: 101 Degrees West

Discovery, Play and Growth

My point is that youth athletics should be a time of fun and discovery. It should be a time of play. Indeed, play is an integral part of the physical and mental development for most species—from humans to cats to dogs, and also from crocodiles to turtles to wasps (yes, wasps!) and more. Gordon Burghardt’s s scientific definition of play for animals requires an activity to be “repeated, pleasurable behavior done for its own sake … It must be seen when the animal is healthy and not under stress.” Emphasis on that last part: healthy and without undue stress.

And this brings up a second point about training for youth athletes. To be healthy, it must be age-appropriate. And some types of intense training are simply not age-appropriate for young athletes.

There’s a science-y term, “Peak Height Velocity,” (PHV) for that period in life when adolescents experience their fastest growth—what most of us remember as “puberty.” Girls experience PHV around age 11, suddenly sprouting 2–4 inches per year, while boys begin a little later, around age 13, growing 2.5–5 inches per year. This spurt is driven by increased levels of growth-related hormones (e.g., HGH and testosterone) that signal our bodies to build muscle, strengthen bones, and increase height.

Studies have shown that PHV is a good time to introduce more intense training, such as weightlifting, resisted running, sled push, hill sprints, and other strength-driven activities.

But—and this is a big but—the same studies recommend limiting pre-PHV athletes to nervous-system-oriented training, like drills, plyometrics, and unresisted running.

It’s Gotta Be Fun

So what should you do with your daughter? She dropped 23 seconds from her 800 time in one season. Her current training obviously works pretty well. As to what comes next, there are multiple considerations. What does your daughter want to do? What’s her PHV status? Has she been exposed to other sports? Is she enjoying herself? Are you, as her parent, laying the foundation for a healthy fitness approach that will benefit your daughter for a lifetime?

When I wrote an article on running longevity for Running Times magazine in 2012, I asked Dr. James Fries, co-author of a 2008 study that tracked about 1,000 runners and non-runners for 21 years, for the key to the runners’ lifelong embrace of the sport. He didn’t hesitate even a millisecond before responding, “It’s gotta be fun.”

WHO ASKED YOU, ANYWAY?

Pete’s freebee training tip: If you’re the parent of a youth athlete and are debating whether to introduce more intense training into your son’s or daughter’s training program, remember that PHV represents a change in biological age, not chronological age—it’s about an increased volume of muscle-building hormones, not an addition of candles on the birthday cake. Just as jumping the gun in a race is a poor strategy, so is jumping the gun on a youth athlete’s development.

Have a question for Pete? Shoot us a note.