Can Overtraining Stunt Growth?

Guest editorial by John Craig

PHOENIX, Arizona, October 10. MOST parents want the best for their children, both academically and athletically. And, many parents push their children, both in school and on the playing field. It is widely acknowledged that too much pushiness can backfire psychologically. Is it possible that it can also backfire physically?

I've noticed over time that the boys in high yardage programs who push themselves the hardest, the ones who rarely miss a practice between the ages of 12 and 15, often end up abnormally short, around 5' 6" or 5' 7". For some reason the effect with girls seems less pronounced. I read in the New York Times science section recently that stresses such as malnourishment stunt boys' growth more than girls'. A child who is overtraining is effectively malnourished since so much protein and calories must go towards just recovering from workouts.

A 15 year old boy once told me that his doctor told him that he was in the middle of his growth spurt, but that he wasn't growing it because he was expending so much energy in the pool. He ended up 5' 7". A child between the ages of 12 and 16, the prime growing years, who is constantly working out to the point of exhaustion, needs all his physical resources to merely recover from his workouts. It would stand to reason that in such cases growth might take a back seat.

Kids who do doubles are hit with a double whammy. They often miss valuable sleep time by getting up as early as 4:30 a.m. to reach a 5:30 a.m. practice. If they're up late doing homework, say until 11 p.m., that means only five and a half hours of sleep, and sleep is the only time that the body grows.

Another effect of overtraining I've noticed is that a lot of boys who swim, especially those who do reach normal height, end up abnormally skinny. When you're constantly tearing your muscle down and don't give your body a chance to recover, it's hard to end up muscular.

Every coach wants to have a champion upon whom he can build his reputation. And everybody in swimming has heard stories of the incredibly long, tough, downright heroic sets that great distance swimmers – like Erik Vendt — have done. So some coaches assume that if they have their swimmers do similar sets, they too will produce champions.

The problem is that different people have different metabolisms. The ones who end up as champions are usually the one with the naturally strongest constitutions. Their stomachs, kidneys, liver, heart, and lungs just naturally produce more energy than most peoples'. And, just as importantly, they often have more natural testosterone in their systems than others, so their bodies naturally tend to put on more muscle. (Some cheat by using steroids, but that's another matter.) Most children are just not naturally cut out to be champions. And when they try too hard, with too little recovery time, their bodies pay a price.

The vast majority of serious swimmers I've met seem like nice kids. This is part of the problem. When a high yardage coach pressures them to show up to more workouts, and swim harder during those workouts, they do what well-brought-up youngsters do: they defer to the elder in the position of authority, assuming he knows best.

The situation bears a resemblance to Charles Dickens' England, where young children were made to get up early to work in the factories for 11 hours a day; they often did not grow tall either. The difference is that those children were just being exploited, whereas the parents and coaches who push their children athletically want the best for them. The end result, however, is similar.

Ironically, being tall is obviously a major advantage in swimming. You almost never see a short swimmer at the Olympics, except occasionally in the distance freestyles or breaststrokes, and you'll see many tall ones. I'm guessing that most of these swimmers were not doing doubles before the age of 16. I read once that Ian Thorpe only swam twice a week until the age of 11. I've also read that Gary Hall Jr. quit swimming between the ages of 12 and 15. I've heard that John Naber didn't even start swimming competitively until the age of 14. These stories may be apocryphal; I don't know. I wasn't there, so I can't attest to them. But it's hard to believe that a kid going more than 8,000 yards a day between the ages of, say, 13 and 16, will grow up to be six and a half feet tall. There may be exceptions, but that's probably what they are, exceptions.

The real tragedy of this situation, of course, is not that the boys don't reach their full potential athletically. After all, a sport is just a sport. It's that these boys have to go through the rest of their lives short. There have been countless studies showing how height helps in various ways in our society, whether in terms of the amount of money you're paid or the way other people perceive you or the range of potential mates available.

It's not just the coaches who are responsible for this, though any coach who constantly works his charges to the bone without sufficient recovery time certainly bears a large responsibility. I've seen parents shuttle their kids from a practice in one sport to another in a different sport without even feeding them in between. These parents think that they're producing little supermen this way, but they're doing the exact opposite. Some of the cases I've seen where the children do two sports in one season result in the smallest children of all. (One crucial factor is, of course, nutrition. Children who train very hard are frequently operating on a nutritional deficit, and must be fed constantly and well.)

Most sports don't seem to stunt growth. It's only the ones which require extremely high energy output, like swimming, or extremely long practice sessions, like gymnastics, which seem to have this effect. A baseball player can do a number of wind sprints, toss the ball for a while, and do drills without having any effect on his growth. In fact, a little exercise is probably good for growth, as it stimulates the body's circulatory system, which in turn stimulates the other systems. Swimming done in moderation is actually one of the safest sports, as there are no impact injuries (water is a very forgiving medium).

Some people were never destined to be giants, even with all the sleep and rest in the world. And there is of course no way of proving how much growth was lost due to overtraining in the case of any individual child. For that, you'd need to have two monozygotic (identical) twins, and have one go 10,000 yards a day in double sessions while the other one went 4000 yards in one afternoon session. Such an experiment sounds cruel and inhumane. But in fact it's being carried out unwittingly daily by all sorts of ambitious coaches and parents.

The solution to this problem would simply be to be careful not to overtrain kids who are still in their growth phase. It's near impossible to be a champion swimmer if you haven't grown up swimming. But it's also near impossible if you do so much that your growth ends up stunted. It's a fine line to tread, but I think it's one that more coaches and parents should be aware of.

I'd be curious to hear if anyone else has noticed the same phenomenon.

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