Young athletes who focus exclusively on running during their formative years may be setting themselves up for potential problems in the future. New research from Indiana University shows college runners who previously played sports that required multi-directional running like basketball and soccer had better bone health and were less likely to suffer stress fractures than athletes who specialized in running alone or who may have only participated in non-impact sports like swimming or cycling.
IU researchers wanted to know if there was a connection between the activities competitive runners did while growing up and their likelihood of suffering an injury later in life and published their findings in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
They examined female cross country runners at the Division I and Division II level. Through the use of high-resolution imaging, scientists were able to determine the relative strength of bones in the shin and foot of runners, as those are the areas where stress fractures commonly occur.
That’s when they found runners who participated in multi-directional sports while growing up had better bone density and strength. As a result, those researchers are suggesting young athletes get a broad base of experience in multi-directional sports before deciding to specialize in running as a way to build stronger bones and reduce the likelihood of experiencing a stress-related injury later in life.
"Our data shows that playing multidirectional sports when younger versus specializing in one sport, such as running, decreased a person's bone injury risk by developing a bigger, stronger skeleton," said Stuart Warden, associate dean for research and Chancellor's Professor in the IU School of Health and Human Sciences at IUPUI. "There is a common misperception that kids need to specialize in a single sport to succeed at higher levels. However, recent data indicate that athletes who specialize at a young age are at a greater risk of an overuse injury and are less likely to progress to higher levels of competition."
Warden said bone mass, the measure of how much bone a person has, is a determining factor for how strong their bones are and how healthy their skeletal structure will be during their life. He and his team found collegiate runners who participated in multi-directional sports while growing up had 10-to-20 percent greater bone strength than those who ran exclusively.
"Our research shows that the runners who played multidirectional sports when younger had stronger bones as collegiate athletes, which puts them at less risk for bone stress injuries including stress fractures," Warden said. "We want to ensure people have better, stronger bones as they grow, become adolescents and go through life. Specializing in one sport at too young of an age means they are more likely to get injured and not make it at the collegiate and professional levels."
Warden suggested parents, coaches and trainers not push young athletes to specialize in one sport too early in life. He recommends no specialization until at least a child’s freshman year of high school.