Training Young Athletes: 3 Changing Views
Foam Rolling, aerobic training, and ice: In terms of training young athletes, conventional wisdom says one thing, but does the evidence really support it?
We all know that the profession of training and coaching is a constantly evolving process of learning and adapting. Heck, that is what training itself is all about: staying ahead of adaptation to make continued progress.
Four years ago when Ryan and I opened our gym, I thought we were ahead of the game by being early adopters of concepts like foam rolling and interval training above steady state cardio for training young athletes. It seemed like as science and training advanced, we were going to be on the forefront of the best training possible.
As things like foam rolling and anaerobic training have come to the mainstream, there has been a considerable amount of backlash on those subjects, and contrarians have speak up to let us know that we are wrong.
Specifically, three subjects have come under much debate recently: foam rolling, anaerobic training, and even icing. In this post, I hope to tie together the research and illuminate why and when to continue—or stop—using these techniques when training young athletes.
Training Young Athletes: Foam Rolling
Some articles/blog posts over the past few years have challenged a notion I believe to be fundamental to youth atheltic training: foam rollers are good for you. The argument against foam rolling generally comes from one of two standpoints:
1) Foam Rolling causes pain, which is bad for you.
2) Foam rolling decreases the neurological activity, which can cause decreases in performance. (1)
Each argument basically comes back to the idea that when there is some pain, the body guards against it and subsequently decreases performance.
My counter to the first argument is to not roll it if it causes that much pain. Seriously, if the pain is so great then maybe we need to get more qualified and exact means to work out the adhesions in the muscle (manual therapy anyone?) There is likely going to be some discomfort, but if discomfort were a big deterrent to what I do, I likely wouldn’t get out of bed on days after I squat.
For the second argument, it is necessary to look at the protocol in which the researchers used foam rolling. In this oft-cited study, foam rolling was done IMMEDIATELY prior to jumping activities. I don’t think that is how anyone that I know actually applies the techniques of foam rolling. Likely you are rolling, then going through a dynamic warm-up, and then getting into activity. By this point, any pain that was caused – and the subsequent neurological inhibition – has dissipated, and the effects of foam rolling are totally positive.
My verdict: Use foam rolling. If it causes a ton of pain, get someone qualified to look at the underlying issues.
Training Young Athletes: Aerobic Training
One of the best books that I have read in the last two years is Ultimate MMA Conditioning by Joel Jameison. It is an amazing work and a primer for physiology that could be used in college classrooms. From this book, the idea was brought to the forefront that lots of athletes train too much in the anaerobic energy system and not enough in the aerobic system. Jameison gives a lot of novel and cool methods to train the aerobic system but also goes into length discussing cardiac output, which basically looks like steady state cardio (there are many ways to do this, but the most basic CO approach was steady state).
Like I said before, I think we were on the forefront of training ideas and theory and we were prescribing primarily anaerobic conditioning for all of our athletes. Was I wrong?
Well, only a little bit wrong. Some athletes do in fact need some more aerobic training, but the vast majority that are already involved in sports are coached by coaches who train them just like they were trained: with long, steady-state cardio. For those athletes, we do not need more cardiac output; we need interval training. A good test would be to have those athletes test their resting heart rate; if it is above 60 BPM, then it is likely that they need improved cardiac output.
The second point that was a big aha moment for me was brought up by Mike Boyle. He mentioned that if we keep a good pace in the warm-up, speed, and plyo work, we will likely be achieving the kind of heart rate that we need to develop cardiac output and will most likely be in that zone for an effective amount of time.
My verdict: Some athletes might actually need more aerobic training, but those that do might be able to get it through maintaining a good pace in their strength training.
Although, as a gym, we do not deal with the acute effects of injury very often (hopefully not at all), I am asked about this topic a lot from my athletes, so I think it is important to mention the debate that has surrounded icing recently.
In a post on MobilityWOD.com, the use of ice was discouraged as it was said to actually inhibit the healing process (2). The basic conclusion of the research cited was that icing inhibits the lymphatic tissues that would normally help in the healing process.
This sparked my brain and made me think about whether telling an athlete to ice after an injury was OK when asked. My research on Google Scholar showed that even though icing is generally accepted, not much research exists regarding its efficacy. It also revealed that there are about a million different ways in which the use of ice is prescribed.
The authors of the research of this article suggested that ice over prolonged periods was a bad thing, but the question begs to be asked: How long is too long? This isn’t clear.
One conclusion that can be drawn from the research is that icing/ice baths after intense workouts is actually a good thing. It inhibits the body from perceiving soreness the next day and can speed recovery.
My verdict: The jury is out on this one. While there isn’t much conclusive evidence in either direction, icing after a rough workout can be a good thing. If you like ice after injuries, by all means keep using it.
At some point all theories and ideas will, or at least should be, put to the test.
Keep learning the best (and avoiding the worst) ways for training young athletes, and keep working towards being a better coach.
For a complete resource on training young athletes and to become the ‘go-to’ expert in your area make sure that you become a certified IYCA Youth Fitness Specialist Level 1 Coach. In the YFS 1 Certification you will learn how to work with athletes and youth of all ages to improve their lives and their performance.
1) Fama, Brian J. and Bueti, David R., “The Acute Effect Of Self-Myofascial Release On Lower Extremity Plyometric Performance” (2011). Theses and Dissertations. Paper 2.
2) “Is Ice Right? Does Cryotherapy Improve Outcome for Acute Soft Tissue Injury?” JEM, 2008; Feb. 25; 65–68