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Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) Principles for Ironkids Triathlon: Part 4

The Learn to Train and Training to Train stages are the most important stages of athletic preparation.  During these stages, we make or break an athlete!

-Canadian Sport for Life

The final LTAD stage in the Ironkids age block is the “Train to Train”, or a second Sampling phase.  For boys, the biological age range is 12-16; for girls it is 11-15.  During this phase, vigilant tracking of physical growth is paramount.  Windows of opportunity change during this period with rapid changes in growth.  The key metric here is Peak Height Velocity (PHV), which is the period in which height changes most rapidly.  Although PHV is most relevant during this stage, height measurements should be part of a regular routine in the previous stages.

After PHV hits, kids become aerobic sponges.  Higher volume aerobic training may take place after PHV, but coaches and parents must remain vigilant about controlling musculoskeletal stress (aka, sensible run mileage; soft surface training).  Because PHV will occur at different rates for every kid, it is important that coaches individualize training for each kid based on each kid’s state of development.  Obviously certain concessions are needed to accommodate facilities and other logistics, but simply throwing a bunch of kids with similar birth certificate into a big ol’ group to do the same training for months at a time just ain’t gonna cut it.  (If I were a parent of kids this age paying good money for coaching, I’d certainly demand something more enlightened…)  

PHV also offers benchmarks for strength development.  Although the raw strength demands of multisport are relatively low compared to explosive sports, do recognize that strong need not mean big and slow.  As with the first “Speed” window of opportunity in the FUNdamentals stage, the “Strength” window of opportunity during this stage offers a way to build a strength foundation with minimal sacrifice to aerobic metabolism.  Kids need not (and should not) spend hours lifting heavy weights to build strength in this stage.  If a kid participated in gymnastics at a younger age, strength can build upon that base.  With all aspects of development, each stage should flow smoothly into the next. 

The exact strength windows of opportunity for boys and girls differ.  For boys, the window occurs 12-18 months after PHV.  Girls have two windows: the first is immediately after PHV, while the second occurs at the onset of menarche.  Some might question the value of ANY strength training at this age, but if nothing else the introduction of sound principles will help protect kids for the rigors strength training at the collegiate level.  Strength also allows for a more effective expression of speed.  Think of strength as a speed enabler.  Young kids may move their bodies fast, but sometimes have a hard time controlling speed without the development of a strength base.

Another critical aspect of this stage is the training-to-competition ratio.  Canadian Sport for Life recommends a ratio of 60:40 in favor of training.  Too much competition deprives kids the opportunity to hone the skills and physical capabilities needed to support more advanced development.  Competition is vital not as an end in itself but rather as a chance to refine and experiment with tactics, mental rehearsal, warmups, cooldowns, and other nuances. 

The story of Canadian hockey is enlightening on this topic.  In recent years, officials in Canada (and the United States as well) have lamented the European dominance over skill positions in the National Hockey League.  European developmental hockey, in contrast to North American hockey, was long focused on skills development and artistry rather than winning youth league championships.  Says one Canadian coach:

Canadian children play in an environment that stresses winning over developing skills. Coaches, desperate for victory, use only their best players in key games. They teach defense and intimidation rather than offence and creativity. Children as young as 6 participate in twice as many games as practices. They fall well short of the 3-to-1 practice-to-game ratio recommended Hockey Canada. In the old days, Canadian children learned fundamentals on rinks and ponds away from organized hockey. But in today's game-oriented system, there is no place for unstructured activity, and the practice time children receive is inadequate

See, http://www.dphockey.com/articles/articlelaura16.htm

“Because it’s there” is often the best justification given by coaches and officials for stacking a season full of competitions.  Closing roads and finding pool space is often much harder than finding court space, field space, or even rink space, so problem of over-competing in endurance sports isn’t quite as rampant as in team sports.  Nevertheless, to the extent that budding youth triathletes partake in other competitive activities, it is important that kids have adequate practice time to properly develop both physically and mentally.

Summary

Ironkids remains wildly popular at the younger ages, but participation rates drop as kids enter high school.  As noted in part one, financial pragmatism drives many out of the sport.  The time demands of high school track/cross county and higher level swimming also play a role, although a full commitment to one of those sports may be desirable in some cases.  However, if we are to attract and retain talented youth triathletes in the sport beyond the Ironkids years, it is imperative that we take an organized approach to overall development that looks beyond the short term gain of age group success.  While formal LTAD research continues to evolve, synthesis of the current research combined with years of field observation can help refine best practices to maximize the potential of young triathletes and extend their career lifespan.   

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