Back to School Fitness
It’s Fall Training time, and not just for adults but for kids and teens who are going back to school and gearing up for their favorite sports. From soccer to X-C, to field hockey and lacrosse, kids across the country are preparing to join the team.
The downside to all of this excitement is that many, if not most, of those students are ill prepared to meet the demands of coaches trying to whip them into their best shape before their first big game or meet. Coaches are notorious for handing out hard workouts to hopefully bring their charges into competitive shape in the shortest amount of time. And, this means that many of those summer bodies will crash under the load. Most early-season injuries in running sports happen because of overuse injuries, meaning that many teenage bodies are being asked to work way beyond their current capacity… to an unsafe degree.
This wouldn't present itself as a systemic problem if a few good safety measures were put into place at the beginning of the season. Of course, nothing does more good for Fall sports than doing regular running of some sort throughout the summer. But, hey, they're kids and teens… and although they may have been active, they were not training in the same way that coaches will have them train for their sports.
Since I'm a big proponent of technique as a way to ensure safety, I would like to see every football, X-C, tennis, soccer and field hockey coach start each training season with a few lessons on proper running techniques. I'm talking about requiring students to begin their cardio/aerobic running workouts at least one month before the first day of practice. I'm also talking about going beyond the traditional anterior/posterior strength training, which does little to prepare a field athlete for lateral movements. Instead, I'd like to see coaches and trainers teaching these young sportsters how to move in a unified and balanced way in order to reduce their team's injury rates, so that no one has to sit out the season.
The reasons why I would go to greater lengths to have kids prepare more is because of the obvious… their young bodies are going through one of the biggest growth periods of their lives; their bones are lengthening, their ligaments and tendons are less stable and their musculature is growing at a rapid rate. But, none of this means they're necessarily getting stronger. If anything, all of this teenage and pre-teen growth leaves them more vulnerable to injuries than at any other time in their lives. This holds more true for girls than boys because of the natural structural instability going on as their pelvis changes shape during these years.
This isn't about being the strongest so your team can win. It's about training well so that every player gets to enjoy their sport, to their fullest potential… for the entire season. It’s also about protecting their long-term health.
Whether you're a coach or a concerned parent, here are a few ideas to help your field sport kids get past the early season injury window:
First, it means spending preseason and early-season time training with a shorter stride length and a quicker leg turnover.
Start with 100m-200m repeats going from slow to fast during each interval and working from slower to faster throughout the set… meaning that your first intervals are your slowest and they gradually get faster as you loosen up. Take a 1 minute recovery jog between. ALL of these intervals should be practiced with a shorter than normal stride length and a higher than normal cadence.
Begin with 5 and work up to 10 intervals. When you get to 10, drop back down to 5 and increase either the speed or the distance of the intervals. Again, always working slow to fast. This workout should take no longer than 30 minutes.
Most coaches have a tendency to have kids go out hard and fast. Slow warm-ups are not the norm. This slower warm-up process should also be applied to workouts during the week, with the first workout being the most relaxed, building strength and intensity over time.
At least 2-3 times a week run 2-3 miles at a comfortable pace… but faster than an easy jog pace. This workout should take no more than 30 min. start to finish.
Always include some amount of agility training where lateral movement is emphasized, and where they lead with their center, not with their legs. This should include weaving, dodging, quick change of direction in short sets of intervals made up of generally forward motion interrupted by sideways and backwards motion. A great exercise is to have the kid spell their name (print or cursive) with their footpath (led by their center) as they run across the field.
It goes without saying that all field athletes should be trained to lead with their upper body, not their legs, while running, whether it's forward, sideways or backwards. Focusing on moving from your center and not from your legs is one of the best ways to ensure stability during running. And, instability is a big cause of many running injuries.
Speed, balance, support and aerobic capacity are all skills that any kid can gain. But the best part about teaching them to be prepared in this way is that it sets them up to perform better, which in turn makes them feel more confident in their sport. And, best of all, an approach like this can help them build a lifelong habit of healthy, injury-free training.