Endurance sports need fewer competitions, for the health of both school budgets and athletes.

The Maine Principals’ Association has been at some pains recently to save money on high school sports. Most solutions centered on shortening seasons, to save transportation costs.

For endurance sports, like running and Nordic skiing, there’s a better idea: Cut competitions (and bus trips) to one per week, instead of two, and either keep seasons the same length, or let the Nordic season continue through the Eastern High School Championships in March.

This solution would save money and save kids, as the current schedule of two races per week (for either running or skiing) flies in the face of the elementary developmental physiology and applied training science. By any evaluation, it is doing sports wrong.

First, restrictions on summer coaching virtually guarantee youngsters arrive at school in the fall only moderately fit, at best. They then compete almost immediately; with two races a week, their training consists solely of racing and recovery. No time exists for real training, a minimum of which should be six weeks, though eight to 12 is more the rule.

This amount of time is optimal for an athlete’s physiology to respond to the patient-training stimuli that brings about gradual structural development of young bodies, and is the foundation of long-term performance improvement.

Without this, during the teenage years when the rate of aerobic development is steepest, kids finish high school with unforgivably little gain in performance potential.

We grant the necessary time to horses for training, even as we deny it to kids. We would do well to listen to Tom Ivers in “The Fit Racehorse.”

“Without background mileage,” he writes, “the quick-prepped thoroughbred quickly leaves the structural remodeling of his body behind and his muscles quickly adapt for speed, setting up the possibilities for a multitude of injuries due to lack of structural development. He gets fast, but the wheels fall off. “

Physiologists from the Institute of Applied Training Science in Germany confirm this. In a study, “Weak Points in Endurance Training from the Perspective of Performance Physiology,” Georg Neumann and Annaliese Berbalk state: “Endurance with too high intensity sessions … leads to premature optimization of performance – but at too low a level. The spaces of time necessary for adaptation cannot be shortened!”

Scientists and coaches from Russia and even the former East Germany also express these views. Indeed, these views have been the worldwide consensus since the 1970s.

I have observed widespread application of what’s called aerobic-anaerobic mixed training in high school cross-country runs, usually over quarter- or half-mile distances. These are intense mixes of aerobic-anaerobic loading. Unsurprisingly, kids improve their performance for five or six weeks, then their performance flattens or declines, or they get sick.

Added to the problem is kids don’t adapt to such anaerobic-loading because, until age 17 or 18, they lack adult levels of the enzyme phosphofructokinase, the catalysing link in anaerobic metabolism. High-intensity intervals, like bundled short sprints, have no positive physiological effect. They do not stimulate, only shock. The recovery period does not bring about adaptation, but only repair.

Too much intense training and racing and time spent on the bus wastes time kids could be training productively. Competition is not training and educated coaches worldwide should put the priority, particularly with teenagers, on training. Well-trained kids from Europe do not race as much as American kids. A European Women’s Junior Champion from Finland raced 25-30 races a year, of varying distances. A Maine athlete I know raced 40 times and participated in six field competitions. Even with adequate preparation, one race a week is plenty – and even that is questionable for freshmen and sophomores.

Density of endurance sports schedules makes intelligent, informed training impossible. It uses up kids, without helping them grow as athletes and assures that in all but rare cases, their athletic careers will end with high school.

This is well-known by people who understand these sports, and is the primary reason kids who wish to excel in endurance sports leave their high school programs, so to preserve their health and development potential. They refuse to be killed off by the athletic bureaucracy whose mission it is to assure them a healthy, educating sports environment.

It is a simple solution for saving money and kids. Leave buses in the garage half the time. And perhaps use the savings to educate coaches, athletic directors, and members of the MPA.

Richard Taylor of Bethel was director of Gould Academy’s Nordic skiing program from 1987 to 2006, a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic Nordic team and coach of the U.S. National Nordic team from 1975 to 1991. He’s the author of “No Pain, No Gain? How Athletes, Parents and Coaches Can Re-Shape American Sports Culture.”


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