High school athlete asks, 'Coaches push workouts, limit rest. How does that affect my body?'

Hello Coach Steve,

I just read your article “When should kids specialize in a sport? Five tips to help you find the right moment” and I found it very interesting; as a student athlete myself it gave me a lot to think about.

My sport, the same as Ms. Vitas', is rowing, but the difference is I’m a freshman in high school. My coaches really stress morning workouts, supplementary workouts and limited rest time. I’m curious what you think about constant stress on the body and its effects on someone young like myself?

Thank you


Ask yourself these 4 questions, and follow your intuition

Dear Marley,

Thank you for asking this important question, which tugs at all athletes, regardless of their sport. To help answer it, I reached back out to Sophia Vitas, the Team USA rower you mentioned and I quoted in my column about the importance of playing multiple sports at younger ages. I also touched base with a pediatrician (Denise Scott) and a primary care sports medicine physician (Gregory Walker).

Drawing from their perspectives, as well as my own and those of other medical experts and athletes I've met over the years, here are some questions you can ask yourself to figure out if you are putting too much strain on yourself:

1. Are you listening to your body?

Let's get two issues out of the way:

  • First of all, if you are rowing (or engaging in the rowing motion) more than eight months out of the year, find another sport to do for the other four months to reduce wear and tear on your rowing muscles. This is a direct recommendation for young athletes like yourself from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA), and it applies to any sport.

  • Secondly, does anything physically hurt? I’m talking about a sharp or stabbing pain that doesn’t go away. If that is the case, immediately consult a physician or orthopedist (or both).

Now ask yourself if you're constantly fatigued. Exercise should energize and rejuvenate you after you rest, not tire you out.

As a general guideline, do not train more hours per week than your age in years. (That would be 14 for a typical high school freshman like yourself.) The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the NATA also recommend taking two days off from physical activity per week to rest.

Even 14 hours of pure rowing (or performing the rote motions of any sport) per week can be detrimental to a young athlete, especially if you are in the middle of a growth spurt.

“I had a huge growth spurt (in) 8th/9th grade, so adequate rest was definitely my friend,” Vitas wrote in an email. “Trying to out-grind my body when it’s telling me to rest has never done me any good in the long run.”

"Trying to out-grind my body when it’s telling me to rest has never done me any good in the long run,” says Sophia Vitas, a U.S. national team rower who didn’t get serious about the sport until college.
"Trying to out-grind my body when it’s telling me to rest has never done me any good in the long run,” says Sophia Vitas, a U.S. national team rower who didn’t get serious about the sport until college.

According to Scott, a pediatrician and pediatric endocrinologist who also answers questions about children’s health issues for JustAnswer.com, a growth spurt contributes to the skeleton growing faster than the body’s supporting structures. During growth spurts, she says, muscles and ligaments become tight and more susceptible to injury.

This tightening issue can be compounded by injuries related to growth plates, which are at the end of long bones where growth occurs. The stress of athletics during growth spurts and on growth plates, Scott says, can lead to difficulty in healing and even potential uneven growth of extremities.

“Overuse injuries stem from preventing enough time between activities for rest and healing, especially when one sustains the same movements repetitively,” Scott says. “I have known numerous teens who sustained sports injuries requiring surgery, putting them out for an entire season.

“The rest periods are crucial. This is when muscle rebuilds itself, and for an adolescent experiencing a growth spurt, additional rest is vital.”

2. Are you cross training?

Scott has spoken with her kids’ coaches about the importance of training to work different muscle groups while allowing others to rest. For example, a cross country team can swim laps one day or bike another rather than run every time the team trains.

As a former rower, I know the sport involves a lot of off-water training, such as weightlifting, jogging and running stairs to maximize your strength and endurance. These cross-training activities should be factored into your 14-hour maximum of activity per week.

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However, as important as diversity of movement is to training, you have to factor in the level at which you are training. If all of your training is at a high rate of intensity, you are risking physical as well as mental burnout.

Walker, a primary care sports medicine physician at Children’s Hospital Colorado, suggests that decreased intensity workouts might benefit your aerobic and musculoskeletal health.

Walker cites Matt Fitzgerald's book “80/20 running,” which talks about how elite runners spend only 20% of their time training at their peak levels of intensity. At the other times, they train at a much more sustainable level (i.e. running slow enough to have a conversation with your teammates while you are doing it). In rowing terms, think easy, steady-state rows on the water vs. 2,000-meter sprints in races or the ergometer (rowing machine).

These so-called Zone 2 workouts prepare our bodies for the high-intensity ones without putting a huge burden on the body for recovery. You can think of this 80/20 concept, Walker says, in terms of a five-day week, in which you take Wednesday and Sunday off.

“Monday, Thursday and Friday would be ‘easy days’ where the focus is on more aerobic work,” he says. “Tuesday could be a threshold day and Saturday would be longer workout with majority of time spent in Zone 2.”

3. What's your goal?

Let’s back up for a moment. Maybe you don’t want to be an elite-level endurance athlete just yet. (You're 14 so that is perfectly normal.) Maybe you just want to compete against other kids alongside your friends as part of your overall high school experience.

“When I was her age, I was definitely not taking sports that seriously,” Vitas told me.

You know the story of Vitas from my column on sports specialization. She played a variety of sports in high school but didn’t develop a true passion or intensity for one until she walked on as a rower at the University of Wisconsin. She’s now 30 and has reached an Olympic level at that sport.“I know rowing is a good way to get a college scholarship,” Vitas said in October. “But from my experience at UW, I saw a lot of the recruited athletes who had started rowing in middle school, in high school didn’t have a very successful collegiate career, whereas the walk-ons — there’s six or seven Badgers right now in the national team rotation who were walk-ons — so I think that kind of speaks volumes to starting young vs. starting later.”

If you are burned out with rowing, you could participate in other sports, even recreationally, and come back to rowing later. It may not hurt your progress at all.

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We know from research that only about 7% of high school athletes play a varsity sport in college. However, rowing is unique in that you can walk on to college crews, even with no experience. (The experience you have already will only help you.)

I walked on to my college crew with no prior experience as a freshman in college, when my post-pubescent body was prepared for the physical and mental rigors of it.

4. Have you talked to your coach?

When I was a collegiate rower in the mid-1990s, we didn’t question our coaches' training demands. We simply met them. We don't live in a world of oppressive coaching anymore. We know more about the physical toll (not to mention the mental one) excessive athletic activity can bear on young bodies, which are still developing emotionally and physically.

Your teammates are likely feeling the same stress as you. Tell them how you're feeling, then approach your coaches as a group. Share your concerns about wear and tear. If your coaches are looking out for you, they will listen, and even adjust.

Rowing, as you know, is about the positive vibes you feel from throwing your effort into it. Wins come as that effort, and teamwork, is realized.

As you know, too, rowing has always been more of a "feel" sport than one about winning. Think of those good rows where everyone has sway and cadence and the eight-person boat seems to glide across the water. Once you achieve that feeling, it almost doesn’t matter if you win or lose the race.

All sports can work the same way. Trying your best, and working as a team, are best achieved when everyone is pulling in the same direction, including your coaches.

Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. His column is posted weekly. For his past columns, click here.

Got a question for Coach Steve you want answered in a column? Email him at sborelli@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: High school athlete asks how workouts, limited rest affect young body