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Running before she can walk…

Why do we have running or sustained running lessons in schools? To improve students’ fitness? Their endurance? To give them the knowledge of how to lead a physically active life? Yet, when it’s the time of year for the running unit, how many students bring a note? How many disengage? And how many are unable to complete the course? This blog asks us to consider the individual needs of students and explore how we might focus on the content of endurance units in different ways.

 

Volume 2.15 (Blog 110):

Cloes, M., Hody, S., Jidovtseff, B., Etienne, A-M., & Mouon, A. (2014)  In K.M. Armour (ed.) Pedagogical cases in physical education and youth sport (pp. 198-210). London: Routledge.

 

Laura

As a late developing girl of normal height Laura, 15, has recently been told by her family physician that she had a BMI of 28. She knew she was overweight and while she would ‘like’ to do something about it she prefers longer in bed and junk food to the breakfast and healthy meals that her family insist on. Her father certainly makes a big fuss about a ‘good breakfast’ but sleeping longer often wins.

At school she is well-integrated and has good relationships with the boys and girls alike. Laura’s work places her in the satisfactory category (well according to her teachers anyway) and she has never encountered any problems. While her weight isn’t a big issue she would like to lose some weight. That said, she has little interest in physical activity and sport and prefers to read a book or chat on Facebook.

Laura’s school is located in the centre of a large city and as a publically funded school offers no vocational or technical courses. The students come from mainly middle to high socio-economic backgrounds and the school is traditional in its focus on cognitive (e.g. attainment in the core subjects of Maths, English, and Science) rather than the personal development of its students.

Due to the size of the school (1200+) there are ten PE teachers and classes are taught in single sex groups by teachers of the same sex. Laura’s class could be described as predominantly inactive. Out of the 26 girls only three play competitive sports and only two engage in active leisure. Their teacher is new. She is young (in comparison to the others) and unlike her predecessors is interested in the all-round development of individuals rather than just sports performance.

The girls get two PE lessons a week – one of 100 minutes and one of 50 minutes. The focus of the 100-minute lesson is on improving endurance and is one of the key aims of the school’s curriculum and takes place outside; normally in the form of running. The girls, however, dislike getting sweaty and while showers are provided most girls avoid them. While some lessons occur in the autumn others take place later in the year when it can be cold and wet. The girls are not motivated to go outside and often use medical certificates or notes from parents to avoid participation.

It is only two weeks into the school year but Laura has experienced drops in blood pressure in the early morning. This is a new problem and her teacher is concerned about what to do and how to manage it safely. From Laura’s perspective engaging in PE might make the problem worse especially when she feels out of breath when she exercises at any intensity.

 

The Pedagogical Case

Cloes and colleagues explore Laura’s case from three perspectives: physiology, fitness training and psychological before they offer an overview and some ideas from a pedagogical perspective.

Physiologically Laura is considered overweight and, as such, is carrying higher levels of body fat than is considered healthy. While it would be easy to take a simple energy in and energy out equation and apply it to Laura’s case, Cloes and colleagues suggest a more complex view is needed. They suggest that “there are three mechanisms that contribute to daily energy expenditure, and these act in different proportions depending on the individual”: basal metabolism rate, diet-induced thermogenesis and the energy cost of physical activity. That said, while weight is influenced by “numerous biological, genetic and social-environmental factors” Laura’s free time activities point towards issues (such as lack of physical activity and poor diet) that could be addressed.

Laura’s drops in blood pressure (hypertension) could be explained in a number of ways. One explanation might be that it is caused by gravity-induced blood pooling in the lower extremities and that the dizziness is caused by sudden shifts in body position. Another might be fatigue, which might have occurred when Laura shifted her sleeping habits from summer holiday to school time patterns. An alternative might be low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) caused by an overnight blood sugar dip that isn’t ‘addressed’ at breakfast time. While skipping breakfast is seen by many as a mechanism to be thinner it “can actually make weight control more difficult”. Research shows that breakfast skippers tend to eat more food at the next meal than is usual.

Physical fitness is one of the determinants of athletic performance and endurance is seen as representing “the most valuable factor”. However, while for athletes endurance means maintaining the highest possible level of performance for “normal citizens” endurance helps to sustain physical activity at low to medium intensity in daily life.

Endurance has been strongly linked to the aerobic resources of the body and this means both aerobic power and capacity need to be consider. Aerobic power training aims to improve VO2max and is linked to MAV (maximal aerobic velocity) i.e. “the running speed at which aerobic energy production is at its maximum”. This underlies a person’s potential to perform. Research suggests that young people are better equipped to recover from performing exercise at high aerobic power than long duration/low intensity exercise. Consequently, Cloes and colleagues suggest, “with young people, aerobic training should first focus on intermittent exercises and interval training rather than long duration endurance training that should, instead, be introduced progressively during adolescence”.

Cloes and colleagues suggest that schools and teachers should encourage activities that involve more than 2/3rds of the body’s muscles, involve intensity levels that challenge the energy systems, focus on aerobic power, are individualised, and which are all maintained throughout the school year. For Laura and her friends this should involve a mix of activities that can break up the training monotony and maintain motivation and they should be staged activities that gradually (with an increased load of no more than 10%) allow her to meet progressive targets.

Psychologically, adolescence is characterised by change. Teenagers can either adopt healthy behaviours or unhealthy behaviours or choose a place on that continuum. In Laura’s case she is ambivalent towards physical activity and healthy eating and neither seem to be a priority in her life. It is important therefore that her teacher (with the help of other professionals if needed) tries to understand what factors or triggers contribute to this ambivalence. When she considers leading a healthy lifestyle what triggers, cognitions, emotions, behaviours and consequences does she experience? 

A similar approach could be taken with her drop in blood pressure, as this would allow her to start to anticipate such an event and gain a sense of control. Similarly by understanding the anxiety she experiences when she links her interest in being slimmer with a possible bout of exercise and the risk of feeling faint, Laura could begin to change her learned behaviour. By analysing her perceptions about practice, physical activity, being healthy and being slim (not the same thing) Laura can find her own solutions and take ownership of her own health-related behaviours.

It seems, pedagogically, that the approach of Laura’s physical education teachers (and I would suggests my own and many others’ approach) to endurance has been inappropriate. Repeated absenteeism and non-participation in endurance lessons suggest that we need to develop more pedagogically appropriate approaches to this important component of health and physical fitness. Sustained, same pace, running is often seen as the activity associated with endurance and yet it seems consistently unpopular. Cloes and colleagues suggest that students need to learn (though clear improvements and by demonstrating adaptability to different environments), gain pleasure, and increased self-esteem if they are to improve their endurance and engagement.

To do this Laura’s teachers need to “improve, diversity, and update their lessons”. They need to see learning as developmental and not assume that everyone can run. By introducing and informing students about the aims of the unit and inviting them to be involved in the informed selection of activities students will feel connected to their learning. By helping them to understand the steps to running -  i.e. recovery and brisk walking - students can practice these techniques and understand the physical loads they might experience (and hopefully improve) in the unit. By encouraging the students to be physically active 2-3 times a week the sole emphasis is taken away from the lesson and physical acticity becomes something young people do out of school. Regular self-assessment, individualised programmes and an end of unit target (say an organised 5 KM run/walk) might all contribute to helping students to see that they run to be fit.

It seems obvious that endurance in schools needs to be taught and that running shouldn’t always be the default tool to measure and teach endurance. We need to start with the basics and help students to develop. After all we wouldn’t expect children to understand advanced algebra so why do we expect them to understand how (or be able to) run for sustained period.  .  If you are thinking about making some changes I would recommend Vicky Goodyear’s VLOG on sustained running as a great starting point. 

What’s next? As part of this blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.

 

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear for her work behind the scene as copy editor. Her help certainly forms a vital part of the production of this blog, and in getting out on time and in a semblance of coherence. However it is important to note that any mistakes that remain are mine.

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