One the most common questions a coach will ask us here at AD is “how can my athletes get fitter”? It’s a great question. Fitness is a popular attribute for athletes as it’s easily applicable to sport. I’ll use a football example to show you what I mean. As per the rules of the game and depending on an athlete’s age, he’ll be required to play two halves of between 30 and 45 minutes. The fitter he is, the harder he’ll be capable of going for longer. And we know that a fitter player will complete more high-intensiy running during a game as well as have the capacity to recover much better when he gets tired. All of this equates to a better performance on the park.

The major components in fitness training is intensity and duration and traditionally there are two ways to manipulate these variables to achieve improvement. Either you can run (or bike, swim etc) at a slower pace for a longer time (e.g. a 40 minute run around the block), or you can go harder for shorter amounts of time – commonly known as interval training. In most team sports environments interval training is more popular. Why? Because it more closely resembles the game and, for time-restricted coaches, fitness can be improved a lot quicker.

athlete development 20140622-72Think back to when you were a kid playing rubgy, football, netball or the like. When it came to fitness, you were most likely out running laps (long and slow), or doing shuttles (hard and fast with short periods of rest between efforts). Some things don’t change much. In most team sports’ fitness practices going on today it’ll be the same, with the aim  of going as hard as they can to get fitter. And you know what? Provided a good amount of effort is given, it works. The human body is an amazing thing. If you stress it sufficiently, it will respond by adapting bigger and better.

However, here’s the concern. There are two types of stress that a young athlete puts on their body during a fitness session. The first is a metabolic. This is stress on the heart and lungs when they’re working hard. If they’re puffing a little, or a lot, they’ll be getting a cardiovascular stimulus, and will get fitter with time. Given they’re recovering adaquately between sessions (a very important, but often overlooked factor) this stress is good for them. The second is bio-mechanical. This is the stress placed on the bones, ligaments and muscles with every step, acceleration, and change of direction, involved in running (or playing the game for that matter). It is this stress that is not understood at all well in youth sport, and is causing problems. This is less about fitness, and much more about quality of movement, of which strength is a major part.

Check out this video. It’s an example of a young female performing two different activities. Firstly, running – the core movement in every fitness session. And secondly, a single leg hop.

Now take another look.

Consider how these activities relate. You’re right. Every step taken while running is in effect a single leg hop. What do you think about the quality of movement during her hop? Right again. Not good.

In slow motion you will see that on every landing her knee collapses in and her hip drops. This puts a large amount of stress through the knee joint and the lower back – two hugely common areas of injury for youth athlete. A ‘good’ hop would see a knee aligned with the hip and ankle and a core that is nice and stable on each landing.

By now you’ve probably already come to the conclusion I’m about to make. Movement matters. A lot. There are thousands of steps taken in a typical fitness session. If every one of those steps is poor in quality it will lead to the athlete breaking down. Sooner or later the stress will add up to the point of an injury raring its ugly head. Almost guaranteed.

So what is fitness? It’s not just about intensity and duration. It’s not just about going as hard as you can for as long as you can. It’s about stability. It’s about strength. But most importantly, it’s understanding that youth athletes must move well before they should be loaded up with the high bio-mechanical stress of high-intensity fitness training.