The Truth About Puberty And Running - Part 2

Just this week, I read an article about Megan Goethels, a stellar University of Washington runner who has battled eating disorders, depression and many health issues during her collegiate career. It only reinforced the importance of this two-part series topic series. If you did not read part 1, I encourage you to check it out here.

 During part 1, I discussed how puberty changes can be particularly difficult for female runners. As a natural consequence of growth, boys increase in muscle mass through puberty, whereas girls increase in fat mass and in muscle mass to a lesser extent. With less lean body mass and wider hips resulting in altered biomechanics, running action in young female runners can be substantially affected. As a result, it’s very common to see young female runners peak as early as 10 years old, and then go through a substantial period of no improvement, or a decline, in running performance. The physical and emotional ramifications of such changes can be difficult to manage.

However, there is hope. This week I want to look at what runners, coaches and parents can do to help athletes adapt during this phase. So let’s start…

Don’t just “run harder”

                Rule #1 – You cannot fight puberty! Body growth and sexual development will happen, whether we like it or not. Unfortunately, too often runners and coaches take the mindset “more is better”. Female runners may try to add more miles and harder workouts, or try to lose more weight, or maybe worse. This is a formula for disaster. Research shows this can lead to severe eating disorders, impaired physical development, osteoporosis, depression and more. It took Megan Goethels nearly two years and a team of healthcare professionals to reverse the physical problems overtraining and eating disorders caused.

              From my experience, this is where coaches must be aware of how their athletes are doing. Florida State Coach Karen Harvey has some incredible insight for coaches on asking their runners the tough questions and having difficult conversations. Runners need someone else to help them realize what they cannot see themselves. The first response cannot be, “you need to try harder.” If you sense a runner struggling, the knee jerk reaction should be to stop, not go faster.

Focus on lower-intensity running

                During low to medium intensity and longer duration exercise, our body prefers using fats as fuel source, as opposed to utilizing carbohydrates during higher intensity, shorter duration exercise. Lower-intensity runs are an excellent tool to help young runners offset some weight gain, while also limiting injuries. This DOES NOT mean double the mileage, just at a slower pace and it also DOES NOT mean run until you return to your previous body weight. Refer back to rule #1 – you cannot fight puberty. But lower-intensity runs can, with other steps, soften the transition and help the runner begin to get accustomed to body shape changes.

                From my experience, this exercise also allows the runner to forget about times and competition and start to actually “enjoy” running again. Psychologically, this may be most important. Ultimately, the goal is to make life-long, healthy runners, who enjoy the activity long after fast times and trophies are important or obtainable.

Focus on nutrition

                The truth is, the best time to start good nutritional habits is when we are young. Unfortunately, the average American teenager diet is known to be low in fruits, vegetables and other complex carbohydrates and it is not uncommon to find deficiencies in Vitamins A, E and K, folic acid (Vitamin B9), iron and zinc (Story, 1992). Even calcium, fairly abundant in the average diet, has been shown to be deficient in over 50% of girls aged 9 to 13 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1996).

                I’ll be writing an article about this in the coming weeks, but let’s look at some basic nutritional changes:

                                Eliminate soft drinks and fast food (is this surprising!). These are very high in saturated fats and sugars that lack any helpful nutrients, and may have adverse health consequences over the long run.

                                Like meat? Try fish and liver. Some of the best sources of essential protein and vitamins are liver and fish (i.e. shellfish and salmon). Liver is arguably the most nutrient food around and fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, an antioxidant and helpful in preventing some diseases.

                                Vegetables… the greener the better. These vegetables are great sources of Vitamin A, C, E, K and half of the B Vitamins. Now, I’m not say to “go vegan”, although I believe there are great help benefits and many runners I work with are moving in this direction. Plus, vegetables are an excellent, non-meat source of iron. Some great examples are broccoli, spinach and kale.

                                Increase protein intake to 1.5 g of protein per kg of body weight. The RDA and most research recommends 0.8 g of protein per kg of body weight. However, this need increases in endurance athletes (Schmalz, K., 1993; Petrie, H.J., Stover, F.A., & Horswill, C.A. (2004). Many protein sources are also high in saturated fat, so read labels first.

If possible, have athlete’s iron/ferritin levels tested.

                Iron is essential for blood hemoglobin function and the blood’s ability to transport oxygen. Ferritin is a protein that binds with iron and is essential for its function. Low iron and ferritin levels are associated with anemia, a decreased red blood cell and hemoglobin count. In young female runners, anemia can be associated with disordered eating, menstrual dysfunction and excessive water loss. This information can give runners and coaches valuable feedback on their health status during training.

                I realize this may be financially limiting for some, though many coaches and schools have made this mandatory. In our laboratory here at Palm Beach Atlantic University, we hope to provide some basic, in-season testing like this to youth runners and teams for free within the year. Consult your physician or healthcare professional for more information.

Hip flexor, strengthening

    With puberty changes and growth spurts, Hip flexor and rotator muscle strength usually does not keep up. For young female runners, strengthening these muscles can help to improve biomechanics and prevent injuries like iliotibial-band syndrome and patellar tendonitis. Take a look at this recent Runner’s World article for some examples of exercises. Keep in mind, with girls still beginning puberty, muscle strength will increase slowly. Focus on technique and putting a consistent exercise routine in place.

In conclusion, this period of adjustment can take up to two years or more. Patience and encouragement from the coach and parents during this time will be of most benefit to the young woman.

Next Week: What is the best way to breathe while running?

Dr. Matthew Mitchell's Bio:

Matthew currently lives in Wellington, Florida and teaches Physiology, Biomechanics and Nutrition at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He completed his graduate studies at the University of Florida, Wake Forest University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. While completing his doctoral work at the University of Florida, he served as Assistant Women’s Soccer Coach. During his tenure, the team won three SEC championship and one NCAA Championship in 1998. Matthew is an avid runner and currently coaches elite youth runners in Florida.