Junior Development: Windows of Opportunity

In this blog, we hope to educate coaches, parents and children on the often tricky question: When is the optimal time for your child to develop the different aspects of their running to ensure they can reach their full potential? We will highlight some important principles for optimal development in children to ensure they firstly enjoy their running and secondly put themselves in a position to keep beating their best!

Trackstars

Kids must enjoy their running to ensure they stay in the sport long enough to achieve their best

Talent is a word often thrown around to describe kids who demonstrate an increased competence on a particular set of skills. Talent can be defined as a genetically determined potential that is unstable and strongly dependent on a permanently changing environment. Talent can therefore only be developed with training that is long term, systematic, and target (goal) orientated. Your training, plus your genetic make up and your environment ultimately determines your development. As all parents and coaches would be aware, you can’t control all the environmental factors that a junior runner comes into! We obviously can’t control the genetics, but we can control the training! So how do we best proceed?

A “Window of Opportunity” refers to the ability for a child to experience periods of accelerated adaptation to a particular group of physiological stimuli. These can be summarised as below:

 

  • Skills
    • Males = 9-12y
    • Females = 8-11y
  • Stamina (Endurance)
    • Males = 13-15y
    • Females = 11-13y
  • Speed
    • Males = 13-15y
    • Females = 12-14y
  • Strength
    • Males = 17-19y
    • Females = 12-15y

 

We can see that there is a clash of two opposing physiological stimuli in speed and stamina. The window of opportunity for runners to experience accelerated development in these respective areas occurs at a similar time. So here we have a trade off, where the development of one will often lead to a reduced potential in the other. This is not to say that both cannot be developed at the same time (they can) just that they won’t develop to the same potential if one is prioritised.

Hills

Incorporating hill training is a great method of developing both strength and endurance in young runners

As a parent or coach, being guided by what the child enjoys and show’s promise at is always a great indicator as to what may be prioritised in this time. If a child does not enjoy the activity and doesn’t see objective gains in their performance, it is often difficult to have them stay with the sport long enough to achieve their athletic potential.

Taking endurance based running as an example, if a child were to maximise their individual performance ceiling, data from endurance based US Olympic athletes would indicate the following:

  • Males = 9.4y starting age with a 14.6y time to reach their top performance
  • Female = 9.3y starting age with a 13y time to reach their top performance

This is a long time! So how can you assist a junior to stay in the sport for this period? Simply by always putting the runner first. This means the growth and development of the child dictates the training. This should be the driving force behind developing long term potential and not the other way around.

Further data from the IAAF, suggests the following timeline of optimal child development.

  • 7-8y of age is considered the optimal period to develop the fundamental movement skills of running, jumping and throwing
  • Deliberate practice (goal orientated training sessions) should begin to exponentially rise from the ages of 15-16y. Prior to this, the aim should be to develop a well-rounded athlete that can then tap into their “reserve potential”
  • Juniors who specialise early (<12y) spent less time at an international level and retired earlier, relative to those who specialised later (>15y).

Further to this, they also recommend a ceiling on training frequency for junior athletes to ensure optimal development as below:

  • 10y = 2 x per week
  • 11-12y = 2-3 x per week
  • 13-14y = 3-4 x per week
  • 15y = 4 x per week
  • 16-17y = 5 x per week
  • 18y = 6 x per week
  • 19y = 7 x per week

So the take home advice? Don’t specialise early (<12y) but aim to make the most of each physiological variable within it’s own window of opportunity! A nice quote that sums up the mindset towards optimal development of a junior runner comes from Abraham Lincoln, “If you have 8 hours to chop down a tree, spend the first 6 sharpening the axe”.

After combining Rugby @ Athletics in High School, late event specialisation (800m) lead to a World Junior team and US College scholarship for Jordan Makins

After combining Rugby & Athletics in High School, late event specialisation (800m) lead to a World Junior team and US College scholarship for Jordan Makins

The Front Runner training model aims to provide age specific training and coaching services to ensure optimal development for anyone who loves running! From children to adults, we have a solution for you. To find out more, check out our training pages below!

  • Track Stars
    • 7-9y + 10-12y – HERE
  • Track Club
  • Run Club
    • 18 + recreational & advanced – HERE

Running Regards,

Team Front Runner

Busso

*If you wish to know more about this topic, or anything to do with your running training, please get in touch with our expert coaching team who are ready to assist you towards your next running goal! Please email coach@frontrunnersports.com.au or see our website: www.frontrunnersports.com.au