Sprint speed is the ability of the human musculoskeletal system to support the linear body displacement until the achievement of maximum speed (30). This ability is significantly affected by the efficient energy transfer from the hip to the ankle joint and by other factors such as the optimization of the stride length and frequency (26), muscle morphology and architecture (3,24), neuromuscular coordination (11), training (19,20,21), and age (5,17,13).
The effect of age on sprint during growth has not been extensively studied. Unlike other skills, such as strength (2,4) and jump (6), there is no information in the literature regarding the annual sprint speed development in a wide range of age during the growth period of children and adolescents in both genders. It has been reported that age positively affects sprint speed, and boys of all ages ran faster than girls, especially after childhood (1,5). However, there are some limitations in these studies. The age range examined in these studies was limited and lacking of a uniform coverage of childhood and puberty. Furthermore, the examined distances that have been evaluated were either 50-m long (1) or, in case of shorter distances (30 m), the starting method was flying start (5). Nonetheless, sprint is divided into 3 phases (8,9)-namely, the initial acceleration phase (up to 10 m), the intermediate phase (from 10 m to the speed maximization), and the speed maximization phase. There are no reports for distances shorter than 30 m. This is of particular interest because factors such as training have a different impact on each sprint phase (8,9,11,19,21,25) because of the differences in the neuromuscular, kinetic, and dynamic requirements of the movement in each phase. Furthermore, it is established that time of speed maximization depends on age, gender, and performance level (8,9,21,22). Considering this, it is apparent that there is a lack of data concerning the sprint performance, particularly in shorter that 30-m distances, in a wide age span during the growth period in boys and girls.
For the aforementioned reasons, the aim of the present study was to answer the following questions: (a) How does speed improve at the early phases of sprint during the childhood and adolescence in boys and girls? (b) What is the chronological age that boys and girls reach a plateau in sprint speed improvement? (c) What is the age that boys and girls differ significantly from each other? Part of this study has been published elsewhere (17).
Experimental Approach to the Problem
This study was designed to investigate the effect of age and gender on speed in the early sprint phases during childhood and adolescence. For this reason participants of both sexes ranging from 7 to 18 years of age were evaluated in the 30-m dash and their speed was evaluated at 10, 20, and 30 m during the race using photocells. To eliminate any effect of training, untrained individuals participated. Furthermore, to investigate the progress of the sprint speed annual improvement and the age that a plateau is achieved, data were normalized to the mean of the older age group (18 years old).
The sample consisted of 360 boy and girl pupils with a chronological age between 7 and 18 years. The sample was collected from a local private school. For each age and gender group (12 × 2 = 16 groups), 15 pupils were randomly chosen among the available pupils that fulfilled the criteria described later. Both pupils and their parents were informed about the experimental procedures, and both of them submitted written consent for the participation to this research. All procedures were conducted according to the research rules of the local university. None of the subjects participated systematically in any exercise programs. Systematic participation in exercise was considered when someone was trained twice a week for at least 10 months a year during the past year. Overweight pupils, having body fat more than 25% of the total body mass (36), likely could affect our data. For this reason we selected only participants with body fat less than 20% of their total body mass. The ages and anthropometric characteristics are presented in Table 1.
The pupils' parents completed a questionnaire to ensure that the participants did not receive any type of medication and were free from any pathology. They were also asked to follow their normal diet for 3 days before the test, not to consume any caffeine or alcohol, and to have sufficient rest and sleep at least 1 day before the test.
Estimation of the Body Fat Mass
The estimation of the non-fat body mass was held by means of calipers (model 01127 A; Lafayette Instruments, Loughborough, United Kingdom). The measurement of the estimation of the muscular non-fat body mass was performed 2 to 3 days before the day the sprint speed was measured. The allocation of body fat was estimated according to Slaughter et al (31).
Estimation of Sprint Speed
Sprint speed was measured by means of electronic timer as previously reported (20). Four pairs of Tag Heuer (Germany) photocells were used with 10-m distance between each pair. Each one was based on a special tripod and approximately at the height of the pupil's chest because he or she runs past between them during the measurement.
Each participant's height and weight were recorded before the testing procedure. To avoid any injuries the pupils initially underwent a warm-up program that included the following: jogging for 10 minutes, warming-up exercises mainly for the lower limbs, 4 × 30-m running at submaximum intensity, and 2 maximal sprints of 30 m with a 5-minute interval. An adequate interval of 5 minutes was given before the final evaluation consisted of 4 maximal sprints with a 3-minute interval between them.
The pupils ran in alphabetical order with their own shoes and wearing comfortable clothing (T-shirt and short pants). Each pupil performed 4 trials and was encouraged by the examiner to perform at his or her best. To avoid subjects decelerating before the last photocell (30 m), the 40-m distance was set as the finish line. The best attempt was chosen for further statistical analysis. The start was performed from a standing position after an audio signal given by 1 of the examiners. The measurements took place between 12:00 and 2:00 pm and the outside temperature was 25 to 30°C.
Data were analyzed using a 2-way analysis of variance: factors, age (7-18 years) and gender (male, female). The distances 0 to 10, 10 to 20, 20 to 30, and 0 to 30 m were selected for evaluation.
For the exact tracing of differences among the averages, the Tukey test was applied. For the tracing of differences between the 2 genders, an independent measurement t-test was applied separately for each age group. In all measurements, the statistical significance was accepted at level p < 0.05.
To study the annual percentage of sprint speed development, the performance achieved at the age of 18 years was considered as equal to 100%. This score was also considered as criterion for the within-group performance increase. Therefore, final speed development was considered at the age where the relevant value was significantly different from that found in the 18-year-old participants.
Differences Among Age Groups
The statistical analysis showed that age had a significant effect on sprint performance (p < 0.05). All differences among age groups in both genders and all sprint phases are presented in Table 2.
At the 0 to 10 m phase, boys and girls with age difference greater than 2 years had significant differences in sprint speed. Within shorter age differences, girls tended to have greater difference than boys, indicating a more rapid increase in girls. Very similar results were observed at the 10 to 20-m distance. However, girls older than 13 years did not differ significantly from their schoolmates who were 2 years older, suggesting the presence of a plateau. Concerning the last 10 m and the overall 30-m sprint performance, significant differences in boys with age difference more than 2 years were observed. However, this was not the case in females older than 11 years at the distance 20 to 30 m or for the ones older than 12 years at the distance 0 to 30 m.
The post hoc analysis revealed significant differences comparing the 18-year-old boys with the 15-year-old or younger age groups of the same gender in all measured distances (p < 0.05). The 18-year-old girls differ significantly in sprint speed from the 13-year-old or younger at the distance 0 to 10 m and 10 to 20 m and from the 12-year-old or younger at the distance 20 to 30 m and 0 to 30 m.
Differences Among Genders
Because all the intermediate phases showed similar tendencies, only the results for the distances of 0 to 10 m and 0 to 30 m are presented.
The 0 to 10-m Phase
With respect to the first 10 m, both boys and girls had similar sprint speed at the age of 7 years (3.81 ± 0.21 and 3.79 ± 0.19 m/sec−1, respectively) and both sexes showed a gradual significant improvement (F(11,168) = 244.3, p < 0.001). Boys run on average faster than girls (F(1,168) = 76.6, p < 0.001). However, the boys had a more rapid improvement after the 16th year of age, and this difference reached the level of significance. As a result of this differentiation during the last 3 years, the 18-year-old boys run with 5.94 ± 0.14 m/sec−1 and the girls of the respective age run with 5.42 ± 0.15 m/sec−1 (Figure 1).
When the sprint speed was expressed as percentage of the average speed achieved in the 18-year-old children, the girls had significantly higher values than boys (F(1,168) = 91.64, p < 0.001). Furthermore, girls reached a plateau after the 16th year of age, whereas boys had a linear trend from the 17th to the 18th year of age (Figure 2).
The 0 to 30-m Phase
A very similar trend with that observed at the 0 to 10-meter phase was also followed at the entire 30-m sprint. Both genders had a gradual increase in sprint speed (factor age: F(11,168) = 178.2, p < 0.001), and the boys had generally better performance than girls (factor gender: F(1,168) = 121.8, p < 0.001). A closer look at Figure 3 shows that boys had a close to linear progress in increasing their sprint speed, whereas girls tended to reach a plateau after the age of 16 years. The difference between boys and girls was significant in the 16-year-old subjects and increased at most in the oldest group examined (7.01 ± 0.19 and 5.99 ± 0.16 m/sec−1 for boys and girls, respectively).
As shown in Figure 4, girls had greater sprint speed than boys when expressed as percentage of the performance achieved at 18 years of age. The difference was significant for the ages 7 to 16 years (p < 0.05). This differentiation was more obvious than the performance at 0 to 10 m. At the age of 7 years, boys had 58.8 ± 3.7% of the sprint speed of the 18-year-old boys, whereas the respective value of the girls was 67.9 ± 3.7%. Visually inspecting the graph, it could be stated that girls are in general 2 to 3 years ahead of boys in reaching their average sprint speed at the age of 18 years.
The findings of the present study indicate that the age uniformly affected the examined running phases during the 30-m sprint and, in all ages, the boys performed on average better than girls. For the boys, a plateau in performance appeared after the age of 15, whereas the respective age for girls was 12 to 13 years. Significant differences between genders were observed after the age of 15 years.
A parallel speed improvement during sprinting for both genders at growing age has been reported previously (1,5). Although these studies have similar structure with the present one, direct comparisons are difficult because they deviate methodologically. More specifically, in 1 of the aforementioned studies, a 15-m flying start has been previously used (5) and hence the performance in 30 m is affected by the speed-up ability, which is not the case in the present study. In another study, only the distance of 50 m was evaluated (1).
The speed improvement during childhood and adolescence, proved in the present study, is linked with several factors. Body height is considered a factor that affects speed indirectly through the stride length increase (11), which in parallel with a stride frequency increase contributes to an improvement in sprint speed during childhood and adolescence (26). It has been reported that the stride length increases as a result of parallel power and strength augmentation (18), whereas the increase in stride frequency is attributed to neuronal factors (26,27). The impact of strength (35) and power (20) on speed has also been reported by recent studies. Other factors that could interpret the gradual improvement of sprint speed during childhood and adolescence are the maturation of the neuronal system (30), the improved coordination between agonist and antagonist muscles (12), the increase in efficiency (running economy) (28), and the potential transformation from slow- to fast-type motor units (34).
An interesting finding of the present study is that the significant development of speed is evident every 2-3 years. This can be interpreted based on the fact that strength significantly increases every second year (2). At the first 10 m the average difference between genders was evident even from the age of 7. However, the difference was more obvious and reached the significance level after the age of 15 in all examined distances. This happens probably as a result of the impact of adolescence. It is well-established that after adolescence strength continues to increase in men but tends to be stabilized in women as a result of the effect of hormones (4). Another factor that can possibly explain these differences between men and women is that in women genu valgum is more prominent after puberty, possibly affecting movement coordination (16). Additionally, despite the differences reported in tendon viscoelastic properties between men and women during adolescence (23), which could also affect sprint speed, this issue still remains unresolved. The results of the present study concerning the comparison between men and women can be indirectly supported by findings related to other complex skills, such as throw (15) and jump (6) in which gender differences were also observed after puberty.
The aforementioned results have also been confirmed by the percentage of annual performance development, where it is more evident that girls approached the performance of 18-year-old pupils earlier than boys. Another interesting point of this study is that when comparing the annual development of strength with that of speed, it seems that speed is improved earlier than isometric and isokinetic strength. More specifically, at the age of 12 years strength of either boys or girls does not exceed 40 to 50% of the strength recorded at the age of 18 years (2,4). As shown in the present study, the respective value for sprint speed is around 75%. This can be explained by the fact that because sprint is a multijoint movement it is affected by several factors (10,29) and especially by the interlimb coordination and technique. Additionally, children's daily activities often involve short-burst tasks (13), which could be another factor favoring speed more than strength improvement.
It is well-known that there are differences in the kinematic, kinetic, and muscle activation properties between the acceleration and the rest of the sprint phases (11). To the best of our knowledge there are no reports studying the development of these sprint parameters. The only study found pertains to the antagonist activity during running changes during developmental period (12). To what extent antagonist activity affects the agonist drive of the muscles of the same joint during sprint has not been studied yet. Based on the data of this study, it is not possible to explain the rather uniform development of the examined sprint phases. However, it has been reported that the acceleration phase in sprint is affected by concentric force development and power (32,33), whereas the rest sprint phases also are affected by lower-limb stiffness (7). In addition, power, strength (18), and stiffness (14) are improved throughout childhood and adolescence, likely causing the uniform improvement of the selected sprint phases.
The presented findings indicate that age and gender are factors that affect the 30-m sprint speed during childhood and adolescence. Boys run faster than girls in all sprint phases, especially after the age of 15 years. Significant speed improvement is expected every second year, and girls reach a plateau in performance 2 to 3 years earlier than boys.
These results provide useful information related to the sprint performance in sedentary children and pubescent children. Knowing the rate of speed development at each sprint phase could be beneficial for coaches and specialists in the area of physical education. More specifically, such normative databases may constitute a rough guideline for the physical education teacher to evaluate the current status and progress of the students in the motor skill of sprint.
Furthermore, the track and field coach (or trainer of other sports involving sprints) can evaluate whether the small progress in sprint speed is merely a result of the training program or is a natural age-related improvement of the young boys and girls.
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