By PCG Elite Coach David Tonello
Designing the optimal training plan for a Junior bike racer over the winter can be far more difficult than it is for an adult. Well that isn’t a surprise because generally it is harder to design a training plan for a Junior no matter what time of year it is, especially with regards to intensity.
The first consideration is to assess both the emotional and physical maturity of the Junior. While it may be obvious that there will be a huge difference between a 10-year-old and a 17-year-old, there can also be a significant range of physical and emotional maturity between kids of the same age. To further complicate matters, the Junior may be advanced in one area, but not in the other.
I am using the term emotional maturity to discuss the ability of the Junior to understand the need for training at the higher intensity levels. Do they see the benefit of training in those zones? Do they have the motivation and self-discipline to do the work? Do they have the maturity to understand and believe that training at that effort level is worth the discomfort? Many of the answers to those questions will depend not only on the Junior’s physical age, but on experience in past competition. Often, newer racers have a notion that they are naturally gifted and don’t need to train to be successful, while the experienced racer has learned that even the gifted must train hard to succeed. That is why I can usually incorporate more high-intensity work into the training of the more experienced Junior.
Winter seems to be much longer to a teenager than it does to a middle-aged athlete. The Junior often thinks that there is plenty of time before hard training really needs to start, whereas the adult knows that they will be racing again quite soon, and later will be too late to start serious training.
The importance of physical maturity is normally more obvious. The more physically more mature Junior can withstand more high intensity training. It is very important to keep the problem of overuse injuries in mind while coaching a Junior. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons reports an increase of overuse injuries in children, and that in most cases, those injuries are associated with sports-related activities. Osgood-Schlatter Disease, an inflammation of the growth plate at the upper end of the tibia, is not uncommon in Junior cyclists during the adolescent growth spurt.
What? Those complications aren’t enough to make you want to pull out your hair? Let’s add in the Junior’s other activities! On one hand, you may have a Junior who is participating in several other sports. The kid who isn’t playing soccer, or some other team sport, during the off-season is rare, while those in colder climates may be participating in a winter sport such as cross-country skiing. The coach needs to know what the Junior is doing for training for those sports too!
Cycling events for Juniors are normally much shorter than they are for adults. Often, adults try to have the Junior train as they would for adult events, and that often results in training that may over-emphasize distance and under-emphasize intensity.
Just as a coach should do for any athlete, the coach needs to make a complete assessment of the athlete’s physical condition (including strengths and limiters), and the needs of the Junior’s important completive events in addition to the factors already discussed.
Generally, I find getting the Junior athlete to actually complete the higher intensity work is the most challenging part. They usually find it harder to do those high intensity workouts on their own. While an adult may possess the motivation to complete the workouts on their own, the Junior with that sort of drive isn’t as common. I tend to have more success if the Junior can do the workout with an adult (especially a fit parent).
A phenomenon that makes me chuckle is that Juniors seem to have technical difficulties with their power meters and heart rate monitors more frequently than adults. Could it be that these kids who grew up with high tech devices purposely have malfunctions to prevent the coach from getting data that would show they slacked off on that workout?
The good news is that kids seem to have less trouble with the very short high intensity intervals needed to work VO2, anaerobic capacity, and critical power, than they do with the longer, if lower, intensity intervals used to train functional threshold power. I try to find methods to get in the longer FTP workouts, but using things such as prescribed cadence changes, or other methods of keeping the workout from being boring.
Finally, perhaps the most important difference in coaching a Junior is the need to keep it fun!
David Tonello is a PCG Elite Coach in Los Alamos, California