How many races is safe for a middle distance high school athlete to run in track meets? I am a 14 year-old freshman running mid-distance races. I also ran in middle school so I've been running for several years. Before this season, I was used to only racing once weekly. Now, my coaches want to put me in multiple events each week to help with team points. On average, they want me to race twice weekly and in three events each time including the 4x800m relay, 4x1600 and individual 800m, 1600m and 3200m. So I am running about seven to nine races a week. How many races per week are safe for me to run? I'm worried that I'm racing too much but I'm afraid to tell my coaches.
As a physician, I am always looking for a study -- the double-blind randomized controlled trial -- that proves what works and what doesn't work. Unfortunately in the world of track and field and many other areas, significant studies on over-training do not exist because they would violate human ethics among other reasons. Although, there is significant anecdotal evidence and countless stories of athletes who over-raced and over-trained and cut their career years short. If we are familiar enough with the sport, we have all heard of an athlete who is no longer competing and burnt out by their senior year of high school and college but appeared to be on top of their game in the past.
But, let's say that there were studies which showed there was no significant risk of injury, growth and development in puberty for young athletes, especially females, who race and train far more than their peers. This only addresses the physical toll on the body. What we see with life experience more often is the emotional toll that over-training and over-racing does to a young athlete over time.
Racing in an anaerobic zone is hard and takes a little out of you each time. Significant recovery is needed in between races to repair the body. It's not the same as speed training. And just because you can doesn't mean you should. The potential for over-racing and over-training is enormous and requires diligent planning to allow the athlete to improve without falling victim to loss of confidence or pleasure, and injury or fatigue.
The amount of miles that a middle distance runner should train and race has been a huge debate amongst coaches. Not all runners are the same. Some runners have success running less often and some maintain high performance even running and racing higher miles. So what's a good guideline? A top performance (qualifying meet) once per week with two distance races is usually the maximum. A distance runner may occasionally need to triple races in order to help their team win an important competition, but this can take a great deal out of the athlete for future competitions. If the goal is for a distance runner to have a long and successful running career after high school, then tripling should certainly be kept to a minimum.
Quality vs Quantity: If you are racing in excess of two to three races per week, your quality will begin to suffer and the psychological toll will be even more significant. Rest and repair of the athlete body is just as important as racing.
Each person is different. The answer lies in what is best for the athlete with a team approach involving the coaches and parents. And most important is to use good, sound judgment on what training and racing is best for a long, successful career in running through high school, college and beyond. When have concerns, speak to your coach. If he or she has your best interest in mind, your concerns will be welcomed and addressed. After talking to your coach, If you still feel that you are not being heard, speak with your parents or a trusted adult.
As a mother of track athletes and a physician, this subject is close to my heart. I'd love to hear what you think.
Dr. J's Disclaimer: While I am a licensed medical doctor in the state of Florida, the information presented in this website is for the purpose of information only. Yes, I am a doctor, but I am not your doctor and we have not established a patient-doctor relationship (although I'm so glad you are reading the information in my posts!). Conclusions drawn from the information in this website are entirely your own, created from your own perception, knowledge, and understanding. Actions that you decide to take based on those conclusions are done by your own judgment and of your own accord. Nothing read on this site should be relied upon to replace or overrule a licensed health care professional's judgment or clinical diagnosis
Dr. Johnson is a local physician, ultramarathoner, yoga teacher, mother of two high school runners and an all-around adventure-seeker.