Study shows why teenagers are off the pace

Published: 14 August 2015 at 09:31

Dr Dan Gordon

New Anglia Ruskin research finds that young athletes are unable to regulate effort

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New research shows that young sportsmen and women will always have difficulty competing with elite adults in events such as swimming and endurance athletics, regardless of how talented they are, because they are unable to pace themselves.

Academics from Anglia Ruskin University carried out the new study, published in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, which found that teenage swimmers are unable to regulate their effort.

The research involved 15 teenage swimmers, from a club in King’s Lynn, who all swim around 30,000m every week and are members of a regional training group.

The swimmers took part in 7×200m incremental step tests in a 25m pool. Based on their personal best times, they were set times for each of the seven 200m splits, gradually increasing in speed.

The teenagers began by swimming faster than their set time (by an average of 5.6 seconds), but then fell behind towards the end of the trial, swimming an average of 4.6 seconds slower by the seventh stage.

And they didn’t learn from the first trial, with the differences between predicted times and recorded times increasing during the second 7×200m trial.

Dr Dan Gordon, Principal Lecturer in Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University, said:

“Our study shows that even a group of well-trained and relatively experienced teenage swimmers were unable to regulate their effort and therefore couldn’t pace themselves correctly.

“The participants worked too hard and swam faster than their predicted pace during the initial stages, and then swam too slowly as a consequence of reaching anaerobic capacity too early.

“This is because pacing cannot be taught and is instead based on someone’s cognitive development and their own experience, such as repeated exposure to the sensations of pain and fatigue associated with that exercise.

“For example, an elite 5,000m runner such as Mo Farah will have covered that distance thousands of times either in training or in competition, and so he knows exactly how he should be feeling on each lap.

“Therefore alternative methods should be used to assist young athletes with their training. Coaches could use techniques such as audible signals, such as those used in ‘bleep tests’, or install underwater pacing lights to help swimmers with their pacing.”