According to a new study by researchers at Indiana University, young athletes who participate in multidirectional sports -- instead of specializing in a unidirectional sport like running -- can build stronger bones that may be at less risk for bone injuries as adults.
Published in the American College of Sports Medicine's Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the study examined Division I and II female cross-country runners, who often experience bone stress injuries like stress fractures.
The researchers found that athletes who ran and participated in sports that require movement in many directions -- such as basketball or soccer -- when they were younger had better bone structure and strength than those who ran, swam or cycled.
As a result, the study's findings support recommendations that athletes delay specialization in running and play multi-directional sports when they're younger to build a more robust skeleton -- and potentially prevent bone stress injuries.
Stuart Warden, a physical therapy professor at IUPUI, says there is a common misperception that kids need to specialize in a single sport to succeed at higher levels. However, he says 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 says that historically, researchers have examined bone mass, or how much bone a person has, to determine how healthy their skeleton will be through life. But in previous studies, he and his colleagues found that as a person ages, both mass and size are equally important.
In the current study, the researchers used high-resolution imaging to assess the shin bone near the ankle and bones in the feet, where bone stress injuries frequently occur in runners. They found that the athletes who participated in both running and multidirectional sports when younger had 10 to 20 percent greater bone strength than athletes who solely ran.
Warden says anyone who oversees a junior athlete or team -- whether that be parents, coaches or trainers -- should think twice about pushing these athletes to specialize in one area too early. To allow for proper growth and development to occur, he recommends young athletes not specialize until at least their freshman year of high school. For athletes who already play multidirectional sports, he said it is important that they take time off for rest and recovery during the year, which can improve both bone strength and performance.