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Tween Running Phenoms Pose an Interesting Dilemma – That All of Us Have to Answer [New Research on Workout Frequency]

Posted Feb 14 2013 1:01am


Katylynn and Heather Welsch

Little hands clamped tightly over ears, wee shoulders hunched forward, tiny body taut with anticipation: the pose that Katylynn, 12, and Heather, 10, Welsch were striking made me grin because it’s very familiar to me. It’s the one Jelly Bean, 3, makes every time a public toilet gets flushed (and heaven help us if it’s an automatic flusher, red-lasered-eyed toilet demons of the unhygienic mist!). The only difference is that Katylynn and Heather were anticipating a gun shot signalling the start of a 13-mile trail race and not a whoosh so loud it may or may not disembowel a toddler.

Katylynn and Heather are the newest – and tiniest – running stars as they not only compete in adult races but win them. So far they’ve both run over 100 endurance races, mainly half- and full- marathon distance trail runs at an average pace of 6:23/mile, stacked back-to-back nearly every weekend.  And they’re not even teenagers yet; Katylynn ran her first marathon at age 10 and actually won a national women’s title a year later. Their success, however, has set off a storm of controversy about how hard we should push gifted children but also what exactly is the right frequency of workouts for best health. As I watched the video on NBC (you’ll have to click through I couldn’t find a way to embed it), the girl athlete part of me was ridiculously proud of these two kids. But the mom part of me? Cringed. Does a child who is still so frightened by the starting gun that she has to hold her ears really belong in an adult race? Even if she can keep pace?

In the past children have been controversial in races because most adult racers see them like mice underfoot – darting, unpredictable, no sense of body space and too slow. But the Welsch sisters don’t have any of those issues. In fact, it seems like the biggest problem the grownups have is that they’re getting smoked by a fifth grader.

“I really don’t like it when they say the bad words,” Heather explains to reporter Kate Snow. “Do they say them to you?” Snow asks. Heather nods. “Because you’re passing them?” Another nod. “I get mad too when people pass me,” Heather sighs, “but I don’t curse!” This little conversation encapsulated for me the poignancy of having such young girls doing such an adult activity. They don’t get the adult competitive nature. And I’m guessing they don’t get the beer at the end of the St. Patrick’s day runs either.

So why are they doing this then? Especially when Heather has to cry to push herself through some of the runs? (Although she does say that for her it’s just a coping strategy, not evidence that she’s sad or overworked.)

Well let’s start with their dad, Rodney Welsch. Rodney is the one who signs them up, drives them and coaches them through all these races (although he’s not a professional running coach) and he thinks they ought to be trying harder. Of Katylynn he says, “In my opinion she’s not doing anything. I wish she would do more. She could become a really great runner but that’s going to take a lot more effort.”

One racing expert shot back, “We only see the successes, we don’t see the casualties. We only see the Tiger Woods. We don’t see the ones that dropped out, got hurt.”

My mom friends were pretty evenly split on the issue and all of them made some really good points.

Jeni, also a mom of 2 young girls, says,

“It’s something they love and it’s something they have a natural gift for.  As a parent, I always am looking out to see if my kids show natural ability for anything because I want to nurture and cultivate that! Their dream is to run in the Olympics and you don’t begin training for the Olympics four years before you want to compete, you start training when you’re like 5. Look at [gold medal gymnast] Gabby Douglas. I guarantee people didn’t agree with her mom sending her out of state to train and allowing her to train for 3-4 hours a day. I’m just saying, those girls obviously have natural ability and a desire to do it and a desire to be the best. So they should cultivate that passion and drive in them.”

Lindsey, soon-to-be mom, agreed but took a different tack, saying,

“We all had something we did in excess as a kid- I lived, breathed  and drank Theater.  Of course it wasn’t a physical sport, but it was a constant thing in my life and I signed up for every show, competition or opportunity I could. It’s good to have a hobby, and even 12 year-olds can be passionate about something.”

Trista, mom of four, countered,

“I just don’t see the point in pushing them so hard so early. Isn’t a kids race still a race? Why not just do the kids races and totally dominate? The races might not be as long, but that might not be such a bad thing. They’re 10 and 12…they have time to develop and grow. Time to get faster and gain even more endurance. I just think they should compete in developmentally appropriate races. When I hear Kaytlynn say she’s not proud of completing that race in 2 hours and 2 minutes, it breaks my heart. Any 12 year old should be proud of that, even if it’s not a personal best.”

Maybe it’s the risk-averse chicken in me but I think that as parents it’s our job to set reasonable limits. Obviously what’s “reasonable” varies from kid to kid and situation to situation – that ambivalence shows in the news story – but in my (uneducated opinion) these parents are taking an awful risk with kids so young. If they truly want them to be Olympic athletes, which is an awesome goal and sounds like it’s within their reach, then they should get educated on how top runners and coaches train. Again I’m no expert but I’ve interviewed a lot of them and I don’t think any top coach would allow their athlete to train like that. The most current research on how to build speed and endurance has athletes running less mileage and instead focusing on running economy, technique and intensity. You don’t see Kara Goucher running back-to-back races every single weekend. (Okay, and also: how expensive and time consuming is all this?!)

The human body is a wonderful machine but it is not a perpetual motion machine – it wears out. Just because the girls don’t have stress fractures yet doesn’t mean they don’t have other potential health issues (says the girl who is not a doctor). My first concern was for their growth plates – running is a high impact sport and the girls could be permanently stunting their growth which will not only make them short but can delay development and lead to arthritis later in life. There’s also the strong possibility of delayed puberty which, while it sounds awesome, comes with other issues. Not to mention the mental toll of performing at such a high level. True, many elite kid athletes are pushed in a similar manner but it’s also true that many kid stars implode. Kids desperately want to please their parents and will do almost anything to get their love and attention, even if that means putting themselves in peril.

I don’t personally know this family. I also don’t know how the tape was edited or other circumstances that would change my view but in general I think that parents need to help kids draw appropriate boundaries. Encourage their love of running. Get them a good coach who knows his running theory. Find a way for them to cross train so they don’t overuse those muscles. And teach them the life skills about risk assessment, time management and a long-term perspective. Kids aren’t born with that, it’s up to us to teach them. Just because a kid wants to do something doesn’t mean you let them – even if it’s a good thing. I’d hate to see their athletic potential squandered because the adults in their life didn’t have the good sense to rein them when necessary. Just my two cents as someone who has no first-hand knowledge of the situation at all but likes to opine on other people’s lives.

But whether or not you think the tweens are running too much or too little, this idea of how much exercise is “just right” is one that each person has to answer for themselves. And new research   published this month in Exercise & Science in Sports & Medicine  says that when it comes to optimal health the answer may by less than we think.

After following three groups of carefully supervised women for four months the researchers discovered that the ones that had the best biophysical balance was the group that only worked out four days a week doing two days of weight lifting and two days of cardio. That wasn’t the only interesting finding, however, as researchers found that physically the women only working out twice a week showed the same strength and endurance gains as those working out four and six times a week. (Huge thanks to Katie of Cookies and Crafts for tipping me off to this study!)

The scientists explain,

“[After 4 months] The women exercising four times per week were now expending far more energy, over all, than the women in either of the other two groups. They were burning about 225 additional calories each day, beyond what they expended while exercising, compared to their calorie burning at the start of the experiment.

The twice-a-week exercisers also were using more energy each day than they had been at first, burning almost 100 calories more daily, in addition to the calories used during workouts.

But the women who had been assigned to exercise six times per week were now expending considerably less daily energy than they had been at the experiment’s start, the equivalent of almost 200 fewer calories each day, even though they were exercising so assiduously.”

I found that particularly interesting because while I’ve been a 6-workout-a-week girl (if not more, in the past) for years now, over the past few months I’ve found myself dropping down to five. First, let’s take a moment to appreciate how far I’ve come with conquering my compulsive over-exercising (thank you, thank you) that dropping a workout only incited minor guilt. But I think that this shows that when I really listen to my body, it’s telling me it wants another rest day. And after reading this research I wonder if it might be right?

In the end I think that all of us (well the adults anyhow) need to find what workout frequency works the best for our health and our lives and that may vary a lot from person to person. But I think the takeaway message is that if all you want to do is 3-4 days a week (or even 2) then you don’t have to feel guilty about it or worry that you’re not getting health benefits. And, of course, the group that fared the poorest in the study was the control group who did no exercise. Anything is better than nothing and when it comes to your health, a little bit goes a long way!

What’s your opinion on the Welsch sisters? Anyone here a child prodigy that can speak to this? How much do you like to workout and does that equal how much you actually do exercise?

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