Young athletes who train intensively in one sport increase their risk of stress fractures and other overuse injuries, according to new research presented on April 19 at the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.
The research was presented by Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, a sports medicine physician at Loyola University in Chicago. She and her team studied more than 1,200 athletes between the ages of 8 and 18 years old who were seen for sports physicals or treatment for sports injuries between 2010 and 2013. Researchers tracked the health of participants for three years.
The results supported preliminary findings suggesting that specialization in a single sport increases the risk of overall injury, even after controlling for an athlete’s age and hours per week of sports activity. Young athletes who spent more hours per week on one sport than their age (such as a 9-year-old playing 10 hours of soccer), were 70 percent more likely to have a serious overuse injury than other injuries. Of the 859 total injuries reported, 564 were overuse injuries such as stress fractures in the back or damage to elbow ligaments.
The study supports the advice of most youth running coaches and sports medicine professionals who say that young athletes should take part in a broad spectrum of activities. Participating in a variety of sports and unstructured play helps build overall strength, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness that can become a solid base if a young athlete decides to become specialized later on.
Jayanthi suggests the following guidelines for staying injury-free.
• Young people should not spend more hours playing sports per week than their age.
• Athletes should not spend more than twice as much time playing organized sports as they spend at the gym or in unorganized play.
• Young people should not specialize in one sport before late adolescence.
• Off seasons should be respected so that young people do not play competitive sports year round.
• Athletes should take a rest day each week.