LTAD: The Train to Train stage

This is the second of several articles that examines the various stages of the LTAD model. The Learn to Train stage was covered in a previous article.

The Train to Train stage of the long-term athlete development model (LTAD) builds on the previous foundational stages and starts to establish physical, psychological, and sport specific habits that will aid the athlete in later stages. Remember the LTAD model is a giant periodization scheme and each stage is designed as both a continuation of previous stages and preparation for later ones. Canadian Sport for Life, originators of the LTAD concept, tags this stage as "building the engine."

The primary growth milestone that takes place during Train to Train is the adolescent growth spurt. In development lingo this is called peak height velocity (PHV) and it represents the fastest rate of growth aside from that which takes place during the first year of life. Knowing when this period is taking place offers coaches and trainers unique opportunities to take advantage of accelerated periods of improvement for aerobic capacity and strength development.

The other primary focus of this stage is the training itself. One of the problems that face young athletes is that they are sometimes faced with too many competitive opportunities backed up by too little training. Train to Train focuses on limiting competition so that a solid foundation of training can be established. This is not training for a specific competition but rather training for its own sake.

As I noted in Athletic training for youngsters, the entire LTAD model is a periodization plan. Train to Train is part of that periodization and it comes immediately before the Train to Compete stage. So, although competition occurs during every stage of development it isn't really emphasized until other preparation phases have taken place.

Characteristics of Train to Train

Athletes are aged 12 to 16 years (girls are a little younger). After the previous Learn to Train stage the emphasis shifts to developing the athlete's physical performance capacity.

Accelerated periods of development for aerobic capacity and strength occur during this stage.

  • Peak height velocity (PHV) signals an accelerated period of aerobic development lasting anywhere from 12 to 18 months. While aerobic training should be taking place during all development stages, during PHV the training effect is significantly greater than at any other time before or after this stage. The trick is knowing when PHV is occurring so that training can be adjusted to take advantage of it. Regular measurements by coaches, clubs, or parents can easily identify when PHV begins.
  • The second accelerated period for speed development occurs during this stage. Remember that the first occurred during the fundamentals stage and affected the central nervous system and had little to do with training. This second period deals with the athlete's actual ability to generate speed in a trainable way.
  • Finally a sensitive period for developing strength occurs immediately following PHV for girls and about 18 months after PHV for boys.

Comprehensive training -- physical, tactical, social, and psychological -- prepares the athlete for the upcoming stages of Train to Compete and Train to Win. It might be helpful to conceptualize the Train to Train stage as the last of the fundamental preparatory stages, which is followed by what we typically consider 'sport participation' in the Train to Compete stage and later.

This component includes developing the know how for athletes to take responsibility for personal aspects of athletic performance such as nutrition, proper hydration, psychological training techniques. In short, athletes are learning habits and routines that will serve them well throughout their athletic participation.

Preparation centers on training. Although there will be competition involved in all stages of the LTAD the Train to Train stage emphasis in on training. The competition to training ratio is about 40/60.

The Train to Train stage is often the stage we think of when we think of athlete development. The image that many people have, including coaches, is of this stage. It's important to realize however that the activities that take place during this stage are different from those that came before and that will come after. As noted in previous articles the same, but less training methodology is inappropriate for younger athletes.

Criticism of the LTAD model

I believe the LTAD model is the best athlete development scheme currently in existence. However, it does have critics. The main criticism of LTAD is that there are no longitudinal studies that show the validity of claims of sensitive training periods or accelerated periods of development.

This is true. LTAD, however, is a relatively new concept that was fully described in 2004. It is too early to expect longitudinal studies to have been completed that prove or disprove the concepts that form the framework of the model.

But, and here's the thing, the main value of LTAD is not the exact details that form the model but rather the concept of periodization that informs teaching and training of young athletes as they move from beginners to experienced athletes. If coaches can be educated that the development of future athletes is a specific process and not some kind of survival of the fittest contest then the LTAD provides a sound framework within which youngsters can have enjoyable and productive sport experiences.