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Teenage Track Athletes


I need advice in making a sport specific workout for a 13-year-old female athlete running a 200, 400, 800 and 4 X 400. She wants to get better at track and possibly drop some body fat (currently at 28 percent).


Thank you for the question, although it pains me greatly to hear your dilemma. The first issue I want to get out in the open is that of having a 13-year-old female lifting weights. There has been recent research by Fleck and Kraemer regarding adolescence and weight training. It basically states that the old thought that weight training will cause a stunt in growth in children is a fallacy. With that said, in almost all cases, I still do not believe in weight training at that age. You also stated that she had a body fat of 28 percent. It is possible that she is having difficulty controlling her own body weight, so why do we want to add load to it?

One fundamental problem with adolescence today is their lack of competency in their bio-motor abilities. These bio-motor abilities are: flexibility, balance, strength, coordination, endurance and power. At any rate, I feel it would be in your client's best interest to focus on her natural abilities first before you attempt any type of weight training program. Let us start from the beginning.

Before writing any program, one should start with a baseline of assessments. When you go to the doctor with a problem, hopefully he/she gives you a thorough assessment or diagnoses before prescribing a cure. In personal training, we never diagnose, but we do assess the client before we can get a good idea of how to give them the right exercises. Unless you are an Exercise Therapist, you should not prescribe exercise; instead, you should design a program. There are simple assessments you can create for each of the abilities to judge how well your client does. For example, a great overall flexibility assessment could be the overhead squat (see the article titled Overhead Squat by Lenny Parracino). Have your client put her hands above her head and try to squat down as close to the ground as she can without lifting her heels or hurting herself. A 13 year old, without orthopedic issues, should be able to keep good form in the squat with her knees tracking over her toes, her heels firmly planted on the ground and her spine in relative neutral and be able to basically sit her butt on the back of her lower legs. If she cannot perform this assessment competently without issues, then flexibility would be something I would focus on in her training.

You need to go over assessments for each bio-motor ability and then implement the findings in your program. You also need to assess the position of the body when she needs to execute those abilities. For example, the track runner will be in a position of standing when she needs to produce force to run. The trick is to get more efficient at each bio-motor ability in the position of choice.

The next assessment could be balance. When we break down the running motion, we will see that over two thirds of the time spent running is on one foot. Can your client stand on one foot with good balance effectively? The next step is to then match up the speed and load profile of the sport with that of the training. What I mean is that in running, you aren’t just standing there and lifting your leg; you are hopping on each leg and having to stabilize the force and momentum of the entire body landing on one leg after completing its flight phase of the running step. A good exercise that you may want to integrate would be the multi planar hop and hold.

Let us skip to the strength portion of the program. Will she ever be running with someone else on her back? If not, maybe she doesn’t need to focus on trying to produce more force than her own body weight right now. It is my guess that she doesn’t have any problems with producing force but with trying to be able to control the force she can already produce. In other words, she should focus on the eccentric contractions, especially in her lower body. If we match up the profile of sprinting again with our clients’ profile we will see that sprinting has a lot to do with reducing the force you have produced on one foot with concentric contractions, with the eccentric contractions when landing on the one foot of the other leg. Our bodies have mechanisms like governors on a car. They regulate how much force the body will produce at any given time. Since your body’s first thought is self- preservation, it will not allow you to produce more force than it thinks it can handle. The biggest travesty in training right now is thinking that all you need to do is concentrate on force production (concentric contractions) rather than focusing on force reduction (eccentric contractions). The reality is that most people can produce more force right now than there bodies can safely handle. This is especially important when training the youth.

In summary, I would like to advise you to reconsider the weight training for now. Try to focus on each bio-motor ability for two to four weeks or until you see a marked improvement. Pick four to five exercises that focus on one ability and then have one exercise that focuses on each of the other abilities. Also, don’t be afraid to do an exercise that challenges more than one ability at the same time. For example, the single leg squat touchdown. One could argue that it focuses on strength of the lower body and balance at the same time. In short, practice with your client games like hopscotch, jump rope, hula hoop, pull-ups, push ups, carioca, burpies, shuffling, skipping, balancing on one leg and climbing ropes. Let her develop her natural abilities before relegating her to a life in the gym.

When she finally gets into the gym don’t forget about her bio-motor ability profile and the position in which she is in when doing her sport: standing! Here are some guidelines. When your client can climb a 15 foot rope without her legs, do 10 pull-ups with her bodyweight, squat all the way to the ground in perfect form and be able to do 15 single leg squats slowly in good form on each leg, she may be ready to use fixed plane traditional weight training equipment in the gym and only then for a short period of time. Until that day comes, be creative and help cultivate her own natural bio-motor abilities using her body weight.

Her 28 percent body fat is going to be eating related. It sounds like she is getting more than enough exercise. Here are four tips to help her or anyone else with their eating. Eat five or six small meals each day instead of any one large meal. Drink plenty of good clean water instead of soda or juice. Consume plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables instead of simple sugar, and watch her fat intake. Try to keep fat consumption around 30 percent of the total calorie intake. Please don’t have a 13 year old on a calorie restricted fad diet and start her on a road of unhappiness and eating disorders. The best thing you can do for her is focus on enhancing bio-motor abilities, a healthy eating strategy and most importantly having a whole lot of FUN!