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Aerobic Capacity and Training Ability

Aerobic capacity refers to a child’s ability to sustain a certain level of aerobic activity for a certain length of time. An aerobic activity is one that requires oxygen exchange in the blood to a greater degree than other activities, such as running versus strength training. Being able to sustain aerobic activity for longer periods of time depends on the body’s ability to transport oxygen to the tissues and muscles of the body and then use it efficiently once it gets there. In the scientific world, our aerobic capacity can be measured and is called VO2 max.

In a broken nutshell, VO2 max is the maximum level of the body’s ability to effectively take up oxygen, transport it, and use it for sustained exercise energy.

Normally, in adults, this ability to use oxygen can be improved with training and exercise. Improvements can be made with as little as 15 to 20 minutes of exercise 3 times a week. If you exercise more, your aerobic capacity can continue to improve to a certain point before it levels off. The interesting point about children is that even when recommendations for adult exercise are used, only small improvements (approximately 5%–10%) in aerobic capacity are seen until your child reaches puberty. Additional improvements can result simply from their ability to do the movements more easily, more efficiently, and with more motivation.

On the other hand, some youngsters do not show any improvement with the amount of training that often leads to predictable gains in adults. Don’t despair! Once your active youngster goes through puberty, aerobic capacity can blossom. So let me reemphasize—training kids as adults does not necessarily lead to adult results and can often lead to adult injuries. Training kids as kids within their bodies’ boundaries can lead to their best potential results. Another important concept is that your child may genetically have a better ability for aerobic activity, but she still has to have the motor development and motivation to use it for a positive effect on ability and the sports experience.

Acceptable levels of training will accomplish many good results and allow your child to progress nicely when the appropriate levels of development have been reached. I feel you tapping me on my shoulder.

Yes, there are kids whose development is so progressed that they can train as adults even when they are young, and I have seen many of them. Think about teenagers in the Olympics, for example. It was very exciting for me to be one of the Olympic doctors and see some teenagers produce stellar performances. I realized that they had been able to train at significant levels even at younger ages because their bodies had matured earlier and were ready to handle such training, and also because of genetic influences. The timing of puberty obviously has a profound effect on gaining aerobic improvement, among other things. Sports readiness such as this will be significantly different among youngsters of the same age. Some will be ready a lot earlier than others because they develop and reach puberty more quickly. In some cases, their motor development is already capable of responding to the early maturation of aerobic development, as was the case with those young Olympians. In other cases, youngsters go through puberty early, but still need their motor skills to catch up with their new and improved aerobic abilities. Each athlete is different.

Some improve at an early age; some improve much later. Some improve a lot; some barely improve at all. How far and in what direction these improvements occur still depend on the genetic makeup of your child and where along the genetic spectrum she lies—anywhere from pure strength and power sports, to medium strength and aerobic sports, to very aerobic sports and anywhere in between.

The general concepts still apply—until puberty, there is a limited ability to improve aerobic capacity just by training alone. Once puberty is reached, improvements in your child’s ability to use oxygen occur rapidly and progressive gains can be made. Although it appears that there is a certain unseen upper limit to improve aerobic capacity before puberty, this does not reduce or lessen the need to train aerobically.

This is a very important distinction. There is strong evidence that young athletes with a good foundational base of aerobic exercise can have even better improvements in aerobic ability once they reach puberty than those who start aerobic training at a later age. For example, a swimmer or runner who has already had some years of moderate training before her growth spurt has a better aerobic base from which to improve once puberty arrives. Kids who train in aerobic sports also better their performance because of improved technique and efficiency of movement, advancing skill level, maturing coordination, and growing motivation.

Understanding the place of aerobic development in the bigger picture is important in the younger years to take the focus away from competition, time or speed qualifications, and excessive training schedules. This understanding allows your child to focus instead on having fun, improving technique, learning different sports skills, and developing a strong base level of aerobic conditioning.

Hopefully this is clear. Read my lips—there is no need for elaborate, excessive, and exhaustive training programs for children and pre-pubertal athletes. This does not suit their needs or interests.

Parents, coaches, and kids who are not informed about this process may be the victims of discouragement when children do not get significantly faster as their level of training increases. Unfortunately, in those circumstances, increased training continues to be enforced with the thought that more is better and necessary to get the desired effect. When these training loads increase beyond a certain point, young bodies and minds start to break down. On the other hand, when training is kept at the right level and combined with positive reinforcement, support, emphasis on technique, opportunities for participation, new skill trials, and a focus on having fun, young bodies and minds can develop and accomplish their maximum potential ability more successfully.

What’s the “right” level of aerobic training, you ask? Every child will be different because of stage of development and chemical makeup. The important thing is to pay attention to your child’s development. If puberty has not started to show signs of its debut, maintaining moderate aerobic training loads is adequate. Your athlete can still improve by perfecting technique, consistent training, and maintaining good nutrition. When the chemical bonanza of puberty arrives, then ta-da! At that point, increased aerobic training will have much more potential to add to motor skills and enhance ability if there has been enough patience in you, your child, and the coach to avoid the temptation to over-increase training.