by Dennis P. Devito, M.D.
Question: My 10-year-old son says he wants to join daddy on the tandem for his first century. He has done 20 miles before and still wants to play on the playground and go swimming. I wish I had his energy. What kind of training can I expect out of him, and is it hard on or bad for a youngster to be training for such a ride. He also had me show him the correct way to lift free weights. Should a 10-year-old be working out like this? – J. Cassill
Dr. Dennis Devito Responds: I wish I had his energy as well and admire his early start as a cyclist. I think a 20-mile ride by itself is impressive. Naturally, a 100-mile ride as a soloist would be too much for a pre-adolescent rider; however, I have heard and read about children aged 7-12 years doing longer rides on a tandem.
Still, I would urge caution about stepping up from 20 miles to 100 in one shot. It’s hard for an adult to understand the extent of the possible tedium and boredom for a 10-year-old on the back of a tandem for what may be a 7- or 8-hour ride.
The biggest challenge is probably figuring out a way to keep your young stoker happy and interested over long distances. Perhaps a DVD player attached to the handlebars would work. Seriously, attaching the route GPS or cycle computer to his handlebar gives him something to do. Some people recommend assigning the stoker other chores like identifying landmarks and calling out the vital turns in order to prevent boredom. (That may or may not be too advanced for a 10-year-old.)
Even if you’re able to set him up with something to help maintain his interest level during the ride, it’s probably a good idea to build up to a full century by starting with something shorter — at most, a metric century (100 km, or 62 miles).
Finally, I would assume that you’re able to get the proper fitting for your son on the tandem so that all the typical areas of a bike fit are dialed in specifically for his young size. Not doing so could be harmful to his developing body; specifically, one would be concerned about an overuse injury at the knee or hip.
With regard to strength training, there is some useful scientific data to support the concept of weight training in pre-adolescent males, given the proper expectations. A pre-adolescent male, without the benefit of testosterone, is not going to build muscle size or bulk through a weight program; therefore, many trainers don’t recommend aggressive lifting until age 14.
However, young athletes can improve strength with weights through a mechanism of muscle recruitment. Repetitive strained motions, as in lifting weights, stimulate the nerve-muscle system to coordinate and recruit more muscle fibers over time to perform — the result is increased strength.
It is important that someone this young starts using a light weight with high repetitions (15-20 reps) to allow his tendon-bone interface get used to the strain, and this is accomplished over 6-8 weeks, no more often than 3 days a week (twice per week is adequate). Then, the general rule after that is to lift no heavier a weight than can be put through a cycle of 10-12 reps.
Power lifting, per se, should be avoided since it is more likely to cause injury than to build strength. Proper technique is imperative, especially if the amount of weight is increased, and expectations should be appropriate for age. Of course, intervals of rest are equally important, especially if some bike riding is factored into the training schedule.
Staying within these guidelines, along with a healthy diet, should help with the accomplishment of this extraordinary project, while protecting this young cyclist’s musculoskeletal system. Perhaps a shorter trial ride on the tandem, as suggested, will let you know the feasibility of this adventure and would even leave a little time for a swim in the pool or a romp in the park at the end of the day.
Dennis P. Devito, M.D., is an orthopedic surgeon at Children’s Orthopedics of Atlanta and is an avid road cyclist. His practice is focused on children and young athletes, especially those with spinal conditions. An avid cyclist from a running background, he spent 15 years intensely competing as an amateur triathlete and was a multi-time member of the USA World Long Course Triathlon Team.