Research show that there are no great advantages to be gained from beginning your running career earlier than others. We have about 20 years to run well and about 10 of those years to be at the top of our game and those years start to tick away once we start to train seriously. The athletes winning 10k's and marathons in their 40's aren't the athletes that were winning in college. They're usually people that started running later in life. Dr. Tim Noakes (who has recently turned everything we thought we knew about exercise science upside down) uses this information to make the argument that since we peak when we're about 28 years of age, that we should start training seriously until we're 18. I think that this reasoning might make sense for athletes who know they have the genetic potential to run professionally after college. For most of us though, by the time we're 28, we're too busy with our families and careers to be that focused on running. Assuming that a runner has the potential to run in college, I believe that it makes more sense to try and peak them at around 23. That would mean that the "serious" training begins at 13.
I put "Serious" in parenthesis, because that's not really what I mean. I want to teach the kids I work with to work hard, be diligent and dedicated, etc, from the beginning. It can be a little bit emotional for me when I see a young athlete with strong desire and works ethic. If they're willing to put in the time, then I want them to get the maximum benefit from their work. So I need to put in my time to make sure that they're doing things right and not doing things that are counterproductive. You'll hear some people dismiss as being too "intense". They're kids. They should just be having fun. To them I say, that it's not intense, it's about being smart. I would also argue that the kids will have more "fun" if they can see their progress and feel good about what they're achieving. Go to a ski hill and you'll see a lot of kids having fun. But who's having more fun, the kids that have had lessons and are learning good technique, or the kids snow plowing down the mountain?
I also believe that when talk about beginning the 10 years of "serious" training, we're really talking about the years of running higher mileage. Building aerobic capacity is the easy part as a coach. For the most part your runners just need to put in their time. The development of speed on the other hand takes a lot longer. Those who argue for high mileage in kids usually point to the Kenyans and pin their success to all the running they do as kids and not to their genetic superiority.
So what can we accomplish by starting kids when they're younger? My first goal is to establish a healthy life style and help instill kids with a strong work ethic. While there are plenty of other sports kids can learn (and I encourage as many as possible), I think it's important that everyone learns to run. Running isn't my top choice fore my daily workout. I'd much rather be skiing, climbing, or on my mountain bike, but when I'm crunched for time I throw on a pair or running shoes. It's the quickest cheapest most convenient thing we can do to stay healthy and in shape. I encourage as much cross training as possible in my young athletes to build muscle balance and develop over all athleticism. I especially want my girls to have some other options should they loose their running bodies as they get older. I hope that the discipline and dedication that they've gained from running will be able to transfer over to another sport.
There are other benefits to beginning early, things we can develop without starting the clock on our "best 10 years." One is to take advantage of the attitudes of younger athletes. I use to coach older kids and never would have guessed that I'd find more fulfillment in coaching young novices over more mature athletes. It's easy to get kids excited about just about anything when they're young. They're much easier to motivate. In my experience if work ethic and good habits aren't established early, the kids tend to be whiney, lazy, and less coachable when they get older. Once kids get into MS and HS, it's also difficult to get them to pace/race intelligently. I would say the majority aren't willing to give racing smart a chance until they get to college. I've found that I can avoid this problem by starting young and teaching smart race tactics before there's really pressure to win. Those who grow up doing time trials and competing at J.O. and all comers meets will have a lot more confidence and race experience than their peers.
A few years ago I believed in concentrating more on mileage than speed. My primary reasoning was the development of the energy systems (Aerobic being fully developed by 12 years of age and the anaerobic not being fully developed until 18). However, I've slowly done a 180. The reasons for m change in philosophy:
1 - I've heard Patrick Shane quoted from USATF coaching certification classes saying that he wouldn't let anyone race over 400 meters until they're 16, because the research shows that if kids don't develop good speed by then, they won't ever get it. Now, I don't believe there's really any harm from running races over 400, but I do believe there are there are benefits to be gained. However, I do focus the majority of our workouts more towards racing a 400 or shorter.
2 - The Tim Noakes research quoted above. I don't believe that speed training will necessarily start the clock on our limited running careers
3 - Speed and athleticism takes longer to develop. Aerobic capacity rises and falls easily.
One other point to consider is the need to prepare athletes for the next level. I would say and average expectation for collegiate runners would be around 50 miles a week for freshman girls and 70 for freshman boys. I've seen too many runners who do well in HS on 30 miles a week go on to college and drop out the first year because they're expected double their mileage over night. I've heard some of their HS coaches blame the college coaches. I blame the HS coach for not preparing their runners. While I've heard of HS teams right here in Idaho that have their Freshman hitting 50-60 miles a week and getting good results (along with a lot of injuries), I think a more reasonable expectation would be 30. I believe in holding back on mileage for as long as possible, but still doing enough to prepare for the next level. Here's my basic timeline for an above average to above average runner. An elite runner may do a little more, and of course a new and less gifted runners should do less:
Beginners: run 3-4 days a week, take one day off, and x-train the other days working up to 15-18 miles a week with a 45 minute long run by 6th grade
7th Grade: 20 miles a week with a 60 minute Long Run
8th Grade: 25 miles a week with a 70 minute Long Run
Freshman: 30 miles a week with an 80 minute Long Run slowly working towards the Senior load
Senior: 40-45 per week for girls and 50-60 for boys. Long Runs up to 2 hours.
With this in mind, I believe in
With new runners, we take the first couple years to focus on general training. We give them several opportunities to race everything from 40 to 3000 meters. We then compare their PR's from each event to time comparison charts in order to determine the make-up if their muscle fiber type and what events they'll have the most success. I always encourage aerobic running for reasons of lifestyle. However, it's also important to remember that a lot of slow miles can have a negative effect. It can result in loss of speed.
Long to short approach to each season, but a short to long approach to life.