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Long-term athlete development (LTAD)

Sean Fyfe explains why sports therapists need to understand this crucial approach

Long-term athlete development (LTAD) refers to a framework that can guide the safe and effective training and development of junior athletes. As this framework approach is being adopted the world over, it is becoming essential that sports injury practitioners who work with junior athletes should understand and be able to work within the LTAD concept.


LTAD is based on research that identifies ‘critical periods’, or ‘windows of trainability’, in the life of a young person during which the effects of training can be maximised. This has led to the notion that young people should be exposed to specific types of training during periods of rapid growth and that the training type should change with the pattern of growth(1).

From these analyses, a practical framework has been drawn up which sporting organisations and coaches can use to guide their training regimes for promising young athletes.

The five developmental stages of the LTAD framework (shown on the diagram) are as follows:

Stage 1: Fundamental

This stage is all about developing fundamental movement abilities and physical skills. Attainment of the following skills should be achieved through fun participation in as many different sports as possible:

* ABCS – agility, balance, coordination, speed

*RJT – running, jumping, throwing

*CKS – catching, kicking, striking

Stage 2: Sport skills

Children will learn higher level skills and technique relating to a specific sport. This stage is crucial if a child is to reach their genetic potential. If you look at the diagram, Stage 2 coincides with the window of peak skill acquisition. Competition should be introduced during this stage, but it is essential that it is not overemphasised; the focus should remain on developing all the specific skills and technique.

Stage 3: Training to train

The junior athlete should undergo a sharp increase in the volume of their training, but not necessarily the intensity. This increase will help educate children on the commitment demanded of them in professional sport. The beginning of the second speed window and the aerobic window, matched with the type of sport, will determine the type of training. It is at this stage, also, that tactics and mental preparation are introduced, along with the athlete’s first experience of periodisation for competition.

Stage 4: Training to compete

This is where the athlete’s training becomes individualised, alongside attention to their specific strengths and weaknesses. Periodisation will be programmed in more regularly throughout the year. Training volume will remain roughly constant but the athlete will be introduced to higher intensity work. Stage 4 coincides with the strength and aerobic windows, so training needs to reflect this.

Stage 5: Training to win

As you can see on the diagram, the beginning of Stage 5 is when the windows of trainability close (although for males the strength window remains open for another year). This is when the goal of development finishes and performance enhancement begins. The goal now is to maximise the athlete’s physical, technical, tactical and mental abilities.

In two children of the same age, there can be up to four years’ difference in physical maturity. In other words, chronological age can be quite different to biological age. So a generic time-frame of human development is unrealistic. This is where the athlete’s support team will need to monitor peak height velocity (PHV) and use it to devise an optimal and individualised training programme. The relevant ages of the speed/agility(2), strength and aerobic windows of trainability need to be modified according to the individual’s PHV.

For example, you can see that the speed/agility(2) window opens at the onset of PHV. The athlete’s height should be measured regularly and mapped on a graph so that the rate of change in height can be monitored. A female’s PHV is approx 9cm/yr, ranging from 5.4 to 11.2cm/yr; males grow at an average 10.3cm/yr, ranging from 5.8 to 13.1cm/yr.

Theory vs practice

When you look at the diagram and the relevant ages, and then switch on the TV and watch the gymnastics or diving, it seems all out of kilter. This is where early and late sport specialisation comes in. Early sport specialisation refers to those sports where the athlete’s peak competitive years occur much earlier, such as gymnastics. Training regimes will need to reflect this.

For example, emphasis on performance in competition only occurs at the ‘Train to win’ stage, which begins at 16 years in females and 17 in males. In gymnastics, however, because of the different body types required for elite female gymnasts, the ‘Training to win’ stage must occur much earlier. So, by the time many female gymnasts are performing at their peak, they haven’t fully utilised all their windows of trainability.

The LTAD framework must therefore be modified according to the nature of the sport. At the other end of the scale, Australian rules football is a sport to which athletes can adapt very late. There are numerous stories of basketballers or gaelic football players having been identified by Australian rules football clubs as having unique and relevant physical attributes, and these athletes have made successful transitions.

Key principles of LTAD

1. Sports injury professionals are integral

For a child to develop into an elite athlete, the gold standard is to undertake 10,000 hours of training during 10 years, which equates to three hours a day of dedicated practice. Eventual success in performance relies on the quality of training, plus the introduction of the right type of training at the right time. The involvement of the sports injury professional is important for two reasons:

*To make sure strategies for injury prevention and effective injury management are in place. This will allow an athlete’s body to maximise the work done in the windows of trainability as well as handle the overall volume of training required. The athlete needs not only to be able to cope physically with the 10,000 development hours, but to be physically prepared for the subsequent years of professional competition.

*Developmental training must be done on a strong foundation of core stability. This will lead to training with optimum posture, muscle balance and muscle function and hence increased quality. Sports injury professionals, along with strength and conditioning coaches, should be experts in this field, and should take responsibility for assessing and training the athlete appropriately in this area.

2. Teamwork is essential

Communication among the athlete’s support network is critical. For the team’s work and communication to be effective, all members must share an agreed approach to the development of the athlete. The coach will only trust the support therapists if the latter understand what the coach is trying to achieve with his or her athletes at different ages. This means understanding the LTAD framework.

3. A unified approach underpins healthy development

The LTAD framework is being adopted as the basis for junior development by sports governing bodies around the world. Organisations such as the national institutes of sport disseminate educational materials to sporting organisations lower down the hierarchy, such as clubs or private training academies, to guide and assist their training programmes.

This material is produced by teams of experts. Any sports injury practitioner working for an academy, national institute or sport governing body may be asked to be involved in this educative process, which is another key reason for having sound knowledge of the LTAD framework within which they are working. By the same token, any support professional who aspires to such a post would do well to gain a similar understanding of LTAD.


1. Gordon R A Shorter Guide to Long Term Athlete Development fileurl/0,11040,4716-137912-155128-38041- 0-file,00.pdf

2. Reid M, Quinn A, Crespo M (2003) ITF Strength and Conditioning for Tennis, The International Tennis Federation

Further reading

Balyi Dr I, Long Term Athlete Development, East Midlands Coaching Conference, Loughborough, UK, November 29, 2003. evelopment/OSL/PICS/lab0301.pdf