How much is too much? Overtraining in young triathletes

Every week (in fact, it’s not a stretch to say every day) I receive emails in my inbox that read a little something like this –

“Hi Michelle,  my daughter/son has recently taken up triathlon training, and I am little concerned. How can they balance it all? Is it too much? Do they need to be training every day? How do I balance the three sports? I would love your advice or for you to have a look at their schedule and see what you think.”

While I would love to sit down individually with everyone and go through their timetable with a fine-tooth comb,I’m sure you can appreciate that is not possible.

What I can do is write this article, which will hopefully allow parents to consider their child’s weekly triathlon training choices with some guidance.

Following are my top nine considerations for scheduling your child/teenagers weekly triathlon training timetable and deciphering if it is too much or not.

1. Everyone Is different
The ‘comparison game’ is a concept even adults grapple with. The number of adults I coach who spend excessive energy worrying that their training program has them running four times a week, but, oh my goodness, their friend is doing five! Are four sessions really enough? #panicstations

Please do not compare your child to another child. We are all so different in our physiological makeup, stage of growth, training age (more about that later) and training adaptability. Plus, we all have very different life circumstances and other commitments we must balance.

Instead, focus on how your child is coping with their current training load, rather than attending extra sessions because someone else is, or restricting sessions because another child is finding it too much.

Try to set a good example for your children. Your children can easily buy into the ‘more is better’ mentality from an early age and worry that they will fall behind in training if a friend is doing more training sessions than they are.

Another consideration is your child’s stage of development, and training safely through growth spurts and puberty. For further information, and to read a blog we’ve published on this topic – ‘How to Train Young Athletes Safely’, visit www.hemleys.com.au.

2. The concept of training/athletic age
Your child’s athletic age is how many years they have been participating and training in a certain sport. For example, ‘Swimmer 1’ is a 15-year-old child who has been involved with a swimming club for 2-3 years and has gradually built up to four sessions per week. A jump to five or six sessions per week is not a massive step for ‘Swimmer 1’, and we can assume that after a certain period of adaption, ‘Swimmer 1’ will be able to train at this higher volume safely.

‘Swimmer 2’ comes to swimming from a land-based team sport as a 15-year-old. They would be wise to cautiously approach their training with a gradual build in volume (length of session), frequency (how many time per week) and intensity (how hard they work). As they have a younger ‘swimming athletic age’ than ‘Swimmer 1’, they should not be expected to handle the same volume of training – a focus on technique development before we add big sessions is a must.

Note: Insert any sport you like, into the example above, and you will notice that kids come to triathlon from various backgrounds in their mid-teens.

3. All training is not created equal
When people email me examples of their child’s training week, the examples are typically very general, such as – ‘Monday – Swimming, Tuesday – Cycling’ etc. However, not all training is created equal and will have different energy demands on your child.

For example, is the run training session a hard-physical workout or is it mainly drills and technique work? Have a look at the physical needs of each session, assess how much it takes out of your child and how well they recover.

As a general rule, high-impact physical training and weight-bearing activity (running) should be separated by at least a day (depending on training age, stage of growth and individual circumstances as discussed elsewhere in this article), and limited to 2-3 sessions a week.

Aerobic training, developing cardiovascular fitness, especially when it is a weight supported activity like swimming or cycling, is generally safe to do 5-6 times a week. In fact, there is a large body of research which supports the concept that developing your aerobic fitness in childhood has a huge impact on your lifelong cardiovascular fitness and health as an adult.

 

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4. It takes time to adapt
It is true for any age, that when you start a new physical activity or increase your body’s level of training, you can pull up sore and tired. However, unless you are showing signs of an injury developing, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should
stop completely.

It takes time for your body to adapt to the new energy and physical demands you are asking of it. I have seen so many children come to a morning swim training session once, then never come again because they ‘were just too tired’.

If the new training regime is something your child really wants to start doing, then build the training gradually and allow four weeks to see if it is still affecting them as much – it is amazing how quickly young people adapt! Sometimes you just need to stick with something for a period, rather than giving up at the first sign of discomfort.

5. Consider balance with school sport and other commitments
All schools are different and will have various sporting requirements that need to be balanced with your child’s triathlon training. For example, APS [Associated Public Schools] schools have Saturday morning sport, plus quite a rigorous in-school training regime 2-4 times a week, while other schools might only have a general Physical Education class once a week.

Consider your child’s whole schedule. If they are doing cross country training three times a week at school this term, do they really need to attend triathlon run training as well? Or would they be better off resting that evening?

Also, think about non-sporting activities and where they fit into the scheme of things. Playing a musical instrument, household chores and tutoring still take energy, even if they are not considered ‘training’. How do they all fit together at the end of the day, and where do your priorities sit? Are you sacrificing one for another?

As you can see, you need to look at the week as a whole rather than just needing to fit in ‘x’ amount of training sessions.

 

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6. Time for quality sleep, eating and downtime
Teenagers can have a reputation of sleeping late/all day and the fact of the matter is, it is not laziness. It takes a huge amount of energy when the body is growing, and this is the simple explanation of why they need to sleep and eat so much! When you add in increased activity, quality food and sleep become even more important. Make sure they get the sleep and fuel to support how much activity they are doing adequately.

It’s also important to allow downtime – a time for doing something completely different to enable them to switch off mentally. Every spare second does not need to be pre-scheduled with a training session. A balanced athlete equals a happy athlete, which equals a fast athlete.

7. Is it their choice to train so much?
Is it the child’s choice to train so much or the parents? Or in some cases, is it the coach’s choice?

The more the triathlete has buy-in into the amount of training they are doing, the greater chance you have of them staying active as an adult. Ask the kids how much training and sport they wish to do and take this into consideration.

Of course, you have the final say as a parent, and you have every right to ‘make’ them commit to activity 2-3 times a week as part of an active lifestyle.

There is, however, a difference between setting standards for the amount of activity you wish your child to do for health reasons, and forcing them to
train excessively.

8. Warning signs of over-training
The warning signs for over-training are the same at any age, and yes, if you are seeing excessive amounts of the warning signs below, your child is potentially doing too much and may need to scale back their training:

  • Increased incidence of illness and injury
  • Depressed state, loss of motivation
  • Interrupted/poor quality sleep/constant tiredness
  • Irritability/Mood swings
  • Decreased ability to perform
  • Falling behind in other activities

9. Are you seeing warning signs of obsessive behaviour?
People who become top triathletes are often committed, highly focussed, ready to go that extra mile in search of results, motivated by numbers/data and like to control their environment. Similar characteristics can be shown in people who develop serious mental health, addiction and eating disorder issues. Hence, at times our sport can be a breeding ground for manifesting unhealthy and obsessive behaviours. It is important to keep an eye on anything going ‘too far’ and speak to your child’s coach, and/or an appropriately trained health professional if you are concerned. The quicker you can intervene any potential issues, the better.

Conclusion
Nobody knows your child better than you.Take the time at the start of each triathlon season to sit down and discuss what they want to do and how they are going to fit everything in.

Use the principles within this article to guide the schedule, monitor how they cope and make changes/seek referrals where necessary.

Good luck and remember it is a good thing if your child wants to do triathlon. However, it’s a sport they can do well into their adult years – they don’t need to be devoting their whole life to the sport at 15. We are in this for the long haul!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Hemley

Michelle is a passionate triathlete, coach and nine times Ironman finisher. With a professional background in Physical Education, Exercise Physiology and Sport Development, her speciality is working with junior triathletes. Her ‘Swim, Ride, Run FUN’ program’s have seen over 250 youngsters participate in triathlon in the last three years in the Geelong/ Surf Coast area’. For more information on what Michelle and the team at Henley's has to offer, head to www.hemleys.com.au.
Facebook: @Hemleys
Twitter: @hemleys1

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